£10.9bn of unpaid tax written off by government? Who cares!

The Treasury does not adequately monitor the way it spends public money, according to MPs.

If there was ever an anti-climax, it was the Whole of Government Accounts (WGA). The publication of a report detailing exactly how the government spends its money should, by rights, have set the agenda in a time of deep public spending cuts. After all, it was the first time that Treasury officials, ministers, MPs, or the public were able to look at the total cost of policies over time. But it was not so: published in November last year, a full 20 months after the end of the financial year it covered (2009/10), the report failed to make an impact.

Today, the Public Accounts Committee, a powerful panel of MPs, has published an assessment of why that might be.

On first glance, it is difficult to understand why the report has not had more of an impact. It found:

  • £10.9bn of unpaid tax was written off by government
  • The government is expected to pay £15.7bn to settling outstanding claims for clinical negligence
  • Future commitments under PFI schemes totals £131.5bn -- four times the value of the assets secured through the deals

Most worryingly, today's report notes that the Treasury failed to spot these trends, or to do anything with the data in its possession. Apparently the Treasury "showed surprise" at the £10.9bn of unpaid tax that was written off, and had no knowledge of trends in clinical negligence claims or of plans to reduce the cost to the taxpayer. The report said:

We were surprised to find that the Treasury did not have a grip on trends in some key areas of risk or plans for managing them.

Essentially, the data was assembled, but the Treasury did not do anything with it, such as identifying risks to public funds, or requiring bodies included to show that they are addressing these risks.

Certainly, it was an ambitious project, with 1,500 bodies included. But the information is dated: it covers the last year of the Labour government but was not released until the coalition had been in power for nearly two years. This is more than double the nine months it takes other countries, such as France, the USA and America, to compile such reports. Even more importantly, publicly owned banks and Network Rail were omitted, so it fails to give an accurate picture of public spending. The National Audit Office is damning on this point:

Of particular concern is that the WGA significantly understates the true value of public assets and liabilities by excluding the publicly owned banks, the Bank of England and Network Rail which, in the opinion of the Comptroller and Auditor General, are owned and controlled by government. It also gives limited analysis of spending across the main functions of government, such as defence and education, or on services such as consultancy, which would make the account more useful to the reader.

"Information is power," said David Cameron in July last year. "It lets people hold the powerful to account, giving them the tools they need to take on politicians and bureaucrats." It's a laudable sentiment, but clearly there is a very long way to go before we are close to achieving it. Assembling data is one thing: making use of it quite another.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Four times Owen Smith has made sexist comments

The Labour MP for Pontypridd and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership rival has been accused of misogynist remarks. Again.

2016

Wanting to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”

During a speech at a campaign event, Owen Smith blithely deployed some aggressive imagery about attacking the new Prime Minister. In doing so, he included the tired sexist trope beloved of the right wing press about Theresa May’s shoes – her “kitten heels” have long been a fascination of certain tabloids:

“I’ll be honest with you, it pained me that we didn’t have the strength and the power and the vitality to smash her back on her heels and argue that these our values, these are our people, this is our language that they are seeking to steal.”

When called out on his comments by Sky’s Sophy Ridge, Smith doubled down:

“They love a bit of rhetoric, don’t they? We need a bit more robust rhetoric in our politics, I’m very much in favour of that. You’ll be getting that from me, and I absolutely stand by those comments. It’s rhetoric, of course. I don’t literally want to smash Theresa May back, just to be clear. I’m not advocating violence in any way, shape or form.”

Your mole dug around to see whether this is a common phrase, but all it could find was “set back on one’s heels”, which simply means to be shocked by something. Nothing to do with “smashing”, and anyway, Smith, or somebody on his team, should be aware that invoking May’s “heels” is lazy sexism at best, and calling on your party to “smash” a woman (particularly when you’ve been in trouble for comments about violence against women before – see below) is more than casual misogyny.

Arguing that misogyny in Labour didn’t exist before Jeremy Corbyn

Smith recently told BBC News that the party’s nastier side only appeared nine months ago:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Luckily for Smith, he had never experienced misogyny in his party until the moment it became politically useful to him… Or perhaps, not being the prime target, he simply wasn’t paying enough attention before then?

2015

Telling Leanne Wood she was only invited on TV because of her “gender”

Before a general election TV debate for ITV Wales last year, Smith was caught on camera telling the Plaid Cymru leader that she only appeared on Question Time because she is a woman:

Wood: “Have you ever done Question Time, Owen?”

Smith: “Nope, they keep putting you on instead.”

Wood: “I think with party balance there’d be other people they’d be putting on instead of you, wouldn’t they, rather than me?”

Smith: “I think it helps. I think your gender helps as well.”

Wood: “Yeah.”

2010

Comparing the Lib Dems’ experience of coalition to domestic violence

In a tasteless analogy, Smith wrote this for WalesHome in the first year of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition:

“The Lib Dem dowry of a maybe-referendum on AV [the alternative vote system] will seem neither adequate reward nor sufficient defence when the Tories confess their taste for domestic violence on our schools, hospitals and welfare provision.

“Surely, the Liberals will file for divorce as soon as the bruises start to show through the make-up?”

But never fear! He did eventually issue a non-apology for his offensive comments, with the classic use of “if”:

“I apologise if anyone has been offended by the metaphorical reference in this article, which I will now be editing. The reference was in a phrase describing today's Tory and Liberal cuts to domestic spending on schools and welfare as metaphorical ‘domestic violence’.”

***

A one-off sexist gaffe is bad enough in a wannabe future Labour leader. But your mole sniffs a worrying pattern in this list that suggests Smith doesn’t have a huge amount of respect for women, when it comes to political rhetoric at least. And it won’t do him any electoral favours either – it makes his condemnation of Corbynite nastiness ring rather hollow.

I'm a mole, innit.