A Council of Despair

Depending on your point of view, the Taxpayer’s Alliance are either a doughty set of campaigners, determined to hold back the excesses of an overweening, spendthrift state, or a bunch of permanently outraged libertarians who hate the public sector.

I lean toward the latter perspective. These are people who think that it would be cheaper for councils to allow livestock to roam wild across public land than have grounds maintenance staff. They want care homes to stop having carers on duty at night. They want the absolute minimum health and safety staff available. What could possibly go wrong? No matter what the subject, the TPA Knows Best and feels qualified to tell other people that they could do things more cheaply.

Unless you live in a cave and eat squirrels, you’re a taxpayer. We all pay VAT on most of our purchases. If you have a job, you pay income tax and national insurance. If you drive a car, you pay vehicle excise duty and fuel duty. If you have a television, you pay the license fee. Retired people pay tax, benefit claimants pay tax, children pay tax, dead people pay tax. Everybody in the UK is a taxpayer, and so the Taxpayer’s Alliance is either a meaningless concept or a disingenuous one.

Each of the TPA’s successive Chief Executives has carried out the organisation’s most important function, which is to issue template expressions of outrage to be used in the last quarter of local newspaper stories about the state buying or doing things. The TPA chief is always convinced that shocked taxpayers will be shocked in these times of austerity to discover that the organisation in question is carrying out its statutory responsibility to collect taxes, paying its electricity bills, paying its staff instead of instituting cuts, or erm, instituting cuts (haven’t they heard of McDonalds?).

However, the latest statements made by the current TPA chief executive, Jonathan Isaby, are not just knee-jerk, they are misleading. The Sunday Sun newspaper in the North East announced the results of a “probe” (translation: an FOI request) revealing that Councils in the area are making ‘sizeable chunks of cash’ (translation: a gnat’s fart percentage of their total budget that they probably don’t want) from the sale of the electoral roll. The story itself is misleading, drawing a distinction between the obligation to “make some data available to bodies such as credit agencies” and the sale of the roll for other purposes. This is hogwash. The Representation of the Peoples Act obliges councils to sell the edited portion of the register to anyone, for any reason. They cannot say no, because no purchaser of the edited roll can be refused. It’s possible that the Sun journalist hasn’t done their research properly, but the TPA doesn’t have that excuse. They are a well-funded, well-connected lobby group, and besides, last year, their cousins in Big Brother Watch published a detailed report into the operation of the electoral roll, complaining that citizens are not automatically opted out. I actually agree with BBW about this, but as I noted at the time, the advice they gave people about what to do under the current legal position was useless.

Isaby’s response to the “probe” was as follows:

Most people will be very uncomfortable with the fact that councils are allowed to treat this information about their local residents as an asset to be hawked around for sizeable chunks of cash.

Banning the practice of selling the electoral roll would be a positive step towards reminding councils that they don’t own us and that they should in fact be beholden to their residents, not vice versa.”

This is also hogwash. Councils are not “allowed” to treat the roll as an asset to be hawked around. They are forced by law to sell it. This obligation was introduced without even an opt-out, and then amended to include one only after a successful Human Rights court case by a private citizen (three cheers for Mr Robertson). Councils don’t have any choice in the matter. They don’t need to be reminded that they don’t own citizens – at least not in this context – because they are simply carrying out a statutory responsibility that neither the Blair / Brown administrations or the Coalition have seen fit to change. Isaby’s complaint is with Eric Pickles and his predecessors, and with no-one else. He should be badgering the Department for Communities and Local Government, rather than slurring the councils for doing as they are told.

The Taxpayer’s Alliance has a valid agenda for a lean state with low taxes. I even agree with some of what they say. Local Authority and Health Chief Executives are nearly all overpaid. There is waste in the public sector and some of what the public sector does is unnecessary. I’m also not objective. I’m left-wing. I’ve worked for the public sector in general and councils in particular. As I have said here before, I was proud to work in local government and I would be sorely tempted to do FOI and DP in a council again if the opportunity arose. I like decisions that affect me being made at a level that we ordinary citizens can easily engage with, and vote out if we don’t like it. Volunteering – so beloved of the TPA – looks cheap, but it it isn’t democratic.

But none of that is the point. My complaint is that Isaby is a sophisticated operator who knows exactly what the position is on the electoral roll, and he is putting a false spin on the sale of the data so he can put the boot into local government. This is unfair. If a council really put the effort into touting and selling it (something none of them do in my experience), isn’t this the kind of entrepreneurialism that the TPA should approve of? Surely a state funded by private enterprise is what they want?  The TPA is scathing about the sale of the electoral roll (a relatively minor issue), but I haven’t heard Isaby shouting about a far larger transfer of data by the public sector to the private, demonstrating a definite sense of entitlement and ownership over the records of ordinary citizens. Is this because unpopular, tax-raising councils are an easy target, but he isn’t bold enough to go after NHS England and its care.data programme?

The TPA may claim to be ‘non-partisan’ but they cannot pretend to be apolitical in the light of this.  Isaby’s comments have nothing to do with tax, and everything to do with small ‘p’ politics. If they want to attack councils, they should do so in the open, and not with smears.

UPDATE: 8th  January

As I observed above, the Taxpayers Alliance has a privacy spin-off, Big Brother Watch. Today shows that BBW is similarly willing to put a weird emphasis on events to support an underlying agenda. A police officer and two others are currently on trial, alleged to have stolen hundreds of people’s details for the purposes of making compensation claims. BBW chose to describe this alleged criminal act committed by individuals as ‘Another serious data breach in the public sector‘. ‘Data breach’ is a clumsy, inelegant phrase, often used when ‘security breach’ or ‘incident’ would be more accurate, but everyone knows the context in which it is used. A ‘data breach’ is a loss of data, a theft of insecure data, the kind of thing for which the ICO uses its enforcement powers. ‘Breach’ has a specific meaning in Data Protection terms; it describes what happens when a Data Controller contravenes one of the eight DP principles. The current trial does not concern another data breach in the public sector; it concerns the alleged commission of an offence. Like the TPA, BBW is comprised of intelligent, sophisticated people. A misleading impression is created, and I cannot believe that it is an accident.