A hell of a lot of waste goes on in public services

How do we stop the carpet-baggers running off with the silver?

It is fashionable, these days, to refer to the state as a commissioner of services rather than a provider. From health to education, maritime rescue to employment services, the state - in the form of local as well as central government - is commissioning the services it once provided.

Inevitably, the people once responsible for managing a service are stepping back from the frontline and learning how to navigate the tendering and procurement processes that are part and parcel of spending taxpayers' money.

But, according to the OECD, “the volume of transaction and the close interaction between public and private sectors create multiple opportunities for private gain and waste at the expense of taxpayers”. Minimising the risk of fraud, corruption and mismanagement of public funds requires “transparency throughout the entire public procurement cycle”: taxpayers and service users are better protected when the public can help public servants hold private providers to account.

So how does the hands-off approach that seems to be commonplace in the UK help make sure public money is delivering public gain?

A survey by the OECD shows the UK is the only country out of 34 major economies that does not allow the public to see information about the selection and evaluation criteria. This means it is difficult to know if the recipient of public money is spending it as agreed. Nor does the UK reveal tender documents and only sometimes will it justify its decisions. And, if contracts are modified after being awarded, there is no policy to reveal this to the public.

At a local level this has the effect of taking power away from the local commissioners who, when they can see money has been spent on failed promises and missed targets, should be demanding delivery or remedy.

Just look, for example, at the myriad organisations that have sprung up to provide employment related services to local authorities. The range of services and the variety of programmes is befuddling and with no possibility of public scrutiny, local authorities are on their own when it comes to trying to hold their private-sector providers to account.

This is not a case of big companies muscling-in. Small, so-called “social enterprises” are involved too. With colourful stories and fresh-faced bravado they sell their services with, it would seem, no hope of delivery.

For the Newhams, Tower Hamlets and Southwarks, for example, this must be deeply frustrating: knowing they have paid out, have received nothing in return and face months of arguing and unaffordable legal bills if they try to recover their money. This is nothing compared to the impact on taxpayers, let alone the people that should have received the support and help that was offered, paid for and never delivered.

Perhaps public services need public scrutiny to help our remaining public servants stop the carpet-baggers from grabbing the silver. At the moment they seem pretty ineffectual but I would argue that it’s not all their fault.

Photograph: Getty Images

Spencer Neal is a reformed publisher who now advises on media and stakeholder relations at Keeble Brown. He writes about the ironies and hypocrisies that crop up in other peoples' businesses. He is also an optimist.

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George Osborne’s plan to spend the tampon tax on women’s charities is simply crass politics

It makes us think that funds from other taxes – the government’s general pot of money not raised by a tax on tampons – is proper money. Men’s money. Money not to be channelled into women-only causes.

It is not a pretty scene. “Guys,” says a male special adviser in George Osborne’s office, as they work late into the night finishing off the Spending Review. “What about, like, women?”

“Hmm,” nods another, finishing off his Byron burger disguised in a McDonald’s bag. “You’re right. We haven’t put any women in it.”

“Maybe we should give some extra money to women’s charities? I think there are some left. How about it, lads?” moots somebody else. Probably a man.

Everyone stops what they’re doing. Someone removes his tie, and solemnly rolls his sleeves up.

“Money? Where from?”

“Obviously not man money! We need that for proper things!” laughs the kind heart who wishes to fund women’s charities. “We’ll get women to pay for it themselves.”

“How? They don’t have any money to spend because of our austerity programme hammering them disproportionately hard!” chorus some Treasury bods in the background.

“Well, they pay for those luxurious little cotton thingies. Theyre always buying those. It’s some kind of monthly tax, I think. We could spend that on them?”

“Brilliant!” cries the Chancellor. And the most ridiculous announcement in this year’s Autumn Statement is born in a wave of high-fives and fitful backroom testosterone.

Yes, to much worshipful braying, Osborne stated with glee and pride in this year’s Autumn Statement that the VAT raised from women’s sanitary products – the “tampon tax” – will be spent on women’s health and support charities:

“There are many great charities that work to support vulnerable women, indeed a point that was raised in Prime Minister’s Questions. And my honourable friend the new member for Colchester has proposed to me a brilliant way to give them more help.

“300,000 people have signed a petition arguing that no VAT should be charged on sanitary products. Now, we already charge the lowest 5 per cent rate allowable under European law, and we’re committed to getting the EU to change its rules.

“Until that happens, I’m going to use the £15m a year raised from the tampon tax to fund women’s health charities and support charities. The first £5m will be distributed to the Eve Appeal, Safe Lives, Women’s Aid and the Haven, and I invite bids from other such good causes.”

It all ended with the Colchester MP and man Will Quince being patted on the back by fellow backbenchers for having such a tidy little idea:

Now, the government can’t help it that there is VAT on women’s sanitary products. Only the EU can change that. And, of course, any money being given to charities for vulnerable women is welcome – especially in light of the financial trouble women’s refuges have been facing due to cuts.

But this idea is crass politics. The way they’ve concocted and framed it is all wrong. It suggests that only money paid by women should support women’s services; if women are suffering, then it’s just the responsibility of female taxpayers. It’s their problem, and they should pay for it.

It also makes us think that funds from other taxes – the government’s general pot of money not raised by a tax on tampons – is proper money. Men’s money. Money not to be channelled into women-only causes. Ironic, as men should probably be picking up the tab for domestic abuse if anyone’s going to.

Of course, the government does spend general money on women’s charities – tampon tax revenue is just an extra boost. But the point is, why didn’t the Chancellor say that? Why didn’t he tell us how much the government is spending on women’s charities? And how it plans to make up for how hard domestic violence refuges have been hit by cuts? Cuts that are part of his austerity programme, by the way.

A neat little channel of a few million pounds from a wildly misjudged tax (tampons are a “luxury item” apparently) to a few women’s charities shouldn’t be championed as a genius idea by the Chancellor and the male MP whose brainchild it is. As the Labour MP Jess Phillips yelled in the chamber: “You’re not paying it, George. I am!”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.