Friday, October 29, 2010

The significance of the benefits cuts controversy for the rest of the public sector

The kerfuffle over the changes to Child Benefit and Housing Benefit must raise doubts over how viable the path set out by the Spending Review will be. Both sets of “reforms” may not survive coming into contact with the real world. There are serious practical problems with their implementation. The numbers involved are significant – as always the losers from any change are very vocal but in this case there are no apparent winners; in the case of the Housing Benefit caps the media will be able to show emotionally charged footage of families and pensioners being evicted. (For a fascinating look at the numbers involved, the Data Blog of the Guardian has an interesting analysis.)

This is only the start. Hardly any media coverage has been devoted to the changes to Council Tax Benefit. From April 2013, CTB will be replaced with grants to councils who will be able to set their own local criteria for payments. The central government funding is being reduced by 10% - saving £0.5bn a year by 2014/15. Tom Clark on the Guardian has pointed to echoes of the Poll Tax.

In last week's Public Finance Ian Mulheirn of the Social Market Foundation set out how the difficulties of implementing reform will blunt the blade of George Osborne's axe.

In addition to the political challenges of cuts, there is the inevitable uncertainty surrounding the macro-economy.

So might the Spending Review be jettisoned? Probably not given the political priority given to deficit reduction. (Interestingly there is speculation about another Spending Review in 2012 and then a pre-election one in 2014. Nevertheless these are more likely to see only a tilt on the tiller.)

If deficit reduction is here to stay but some of the welfare savings are not tenable – what takes the strain? The Spending Review gave several spending departments more generous departmental expenditure limits than expected as a result of headroom created by “welfare reform”.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Good and bad news about the college sector and its financial health

The fog may be clearing after last week's Spending Review - or at least being displaced by new fog.

This week’s Times Education Supplement suggested that the £500 savings on Education Maintenance Allowances would be recycled into 16-18 funding. However, it raised doubts over whether this would be sufficient to fully fund the increase in the participation age aka “the school-leaving age”. The former Department for Children, Schools and Families estimated the cost would be £774 million, while the education economist Professor Alison Wolf has estimated that the figure might be £1.5 billion.

The TES article reported that George Osborne had promised that the 16-18 budget would increase in real terms although it would be spread over greater numbers of students.

Yesterday’s Financial Times had more depressing news for general FE colleges. It highlighted government estimates that deep cuts would lead to three-quarters of FE colleges becoming “financially inadequate”. The government now hopes that plans for increased fees – with more student support via loans – will ease the pain. The proposed framework parallels the Browne proposals for higher education and builds on the report by Christopher Banks which proposed greater co-payment in further education.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Deciphering the Spending Review for sixth form colleges

The Spending Review is somewhat challenging to interpret in some areas. Yesterday’s Financial Times editiorial accused George Osborne of “obfuscation” and said that “what should have been a sober presentation was cheapened by political spin”. I am not going judge on that - partly because I am more concerned and somewhat perplexed by what the SR means for sixth form colleges.

There was no mention of 16-18 funding in the SR speech. But it was in the SR report. The Department for Education (DFE) press release states:

As we move towards full participation by 2015 we will secure reduction in individual unit costs

What does that mean exactly? It clearly implies increased numbers will mean lower funding rates. But will those rates be lower in real terms or – more worryingly – in cash terms?

How big is the overall 16-18 pie? I guess it may shrink by something like the 12% real reduction for non-schools DFE spend. It may be a little less as DFE and quango administration costs are being reduced by a third and Educational Maintenance Allowances are being replaced by a scheme costing 90% less.

If the pie is shrinking in real terms by perhaps one-tenth and then it is spread over a larger number of learners, are funding rates likely to fall by about one-fifth in real terms?

There is also the issue of who gets the 16-18 pie. Will general FE colleges get more as their offer may be more attractive and appropriate to many of those currently not in education and training? These colleges will certainly be very keen for funding given the severe cuts in the FE budget.

It certainly seems like many sixth form colleges will be facing a hard times, if not as bleak as general FE colleges. It will be reminiscent – but perhaps much worse – than the efficiency gains required of colleges during the 1990s.

The Spending Review and public sector pensions

In all the media coverage of the Spending Review there has been little on the extra 3% of pension contributions implied that public sector workers will have to bear.

I did a highly unscientific piece of research. By putting the words SPENDING REVIEW PUBLIC SECTOR PENSION into Google News Search I got 834 results, whereas SPENDING REVIEW got 23051. Does that mean that less than 4% of news articles do not mention the new 3% “pensions levy”? Perhaps. I found one mention in yesterday’s 10 page Spending Review special in the Financial Times. It is perhaps inevitable that the media coverage should focus on the broad macroeconomic impact and the implications for public services and those who rely on them.

The pension levy is not a surprise. In Ireland they have had introduced one as part of the austerity programme. (Their levy rates go from 5% to 9.6%.) Lord Hutton’s interim report on public sector pensions passed the issue of employee contributions over to George Osborne rather than deferring it to his final report on structure and entitlements.

Nevertheless, the pension levy is significant. It will ease a small part of the frontline impact of the real spending cuts being applied across the public sector outside schools, overseas aid and (arguably) the NHS.

The impact will be felt by public sector workers – many of whom face a two year pay freeze.

How will the trade unions respond? The UNISON press release on “For CSR read Cuts Strange Recovery” omitted all mention of the pension levy. Maybe the public services union realises that public sector pensions is not an issue that will win hearts and minds. Perhaps UNISON did not spot the rather unclear references in the speech and report.

I think this issue will gain profile in the Spring when the government acts on the Hutton Report. By then the imminent local government pension scheme valuations may have pushed public sector pensions further up the news agenda.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Axe Wednesday – what it means

Today promises to be interesting, to say the least. The Independent has branded it as Axe Wednesday. According to Mike Smithson on it will determine the outcome of the next election.

In today’s Financial Times, Andrew Adonis - former Labour minister and now director of the Institute of Government – warns:

The downsizing unveiled this week represents one of the biggest challenges faced by British government since the second world war. Without fundamental changes on these lines, it will simply be about cuts not improvement.

The government’s plans involve the biggest cuts since the Geddes Axe of the early 1920s.

The National Institute for Economic and Social Research believes that the government’s plans for public spending cuts are unachievable. It suggests that the government will end up raising taxes by 2% of national income – more than £30 billion a year – close to the 2015 election. This echoes earlier skepticism from the Social Market Foundation.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Prophecy and the Spending Review

I was intrigued to see a firm advertising for a “Prophet Modeler”. Apparently Prophet is a liability forecasting system. Nevertheless, at this time there is a need for foresight.

While double-dip fears seem to have receded, no one can tell what a huge fiscal retrenchment (significant public spending cuts and maybe a step change in pension contributions for public sector workers) will do to consumer confidence. The optimists promise a "choppy recovery".

These concerns plus the practical issues with cutting spending and contracts in the short-term explain speculation about some re-profiling (aka delay) in the fiscal squeeze. Likewise, Chris Huhne's suggestion of Plan B from within the Cabinet.

Looking for a silver lining, the ferocity on fiscal policy is likely to be offset on the monetary policy. (While the bankers to a college that I work with love to send me terrifying articles from the Daily Telegraph warning of 8% base rates, I suspect that base rates will say low for a couple more years. Of course they can only go in one direction but I am less worried about interest rate risk than six months ago. There are plenty of other things to worry about and highlight on the risk register.)

I will be interested to see the Office for Budget Responsibility's forecast next week - the first under its new chair, the respected former head of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Robert Chote. It may be overshadowed by the cuts but it will give some clues to the whole economy impact.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Post-16 alphabet soup – who survives and how?

Maybe I was naive but I thought we might learn today something of the new regulatory landscape in post-16 education. However, today's quango hit list merely notes on the Young People’s Learning Agency:

Under Consideration - Subject to education structural reforms

I thought that the Skills Funding Agency and Higher Education Funding Council might merge. It was in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. But according to the Times Education Supplement this is now unlikely. Vince Cable has changed his mind. On today’s list HEFC survives as a quango.

So maybe the YPLA and the SFA may merge? The SFA was not mentioned on today’s list as it is an Executive Agency rather than a quango.

TSA (and other quangos) - fate announced

It was not a very well-kept secret after being leaked in Inside Housing. But the Cabinet Office list is out (pdf available) and it officially announces the Tenant Services Authority is being scaled back and absorbed into the Homes and Communities Agency.

The list says:

No longer an NDPB - Abolish body. Regulatory functions passed to Homes and Communities Agency. Independent economic regulation safeguarded. Consumer regulation slimmed down

While a focus on financial viability and governance is welcome, there will need to be adequate safeguards for residents.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Internal audit in a new world for local authorities

Today I attended CATs - Cipfa’s Audit Training in the Midlands – as someone who more than dabbles in internal audit and sits on an audit committee. The session started with a overview of internal audit and governance by Robin Pritchard, Professor of Internal Audit at Birmingham City University. Professor Robin stressed the importance of stakeholders in governance and hence for internal audit.

As over 90% of the audience at CATs were local authority internal auditors it struck me how they were about to face a tsunami of change. A couple of the speakers touched on cuts and “transformation” in local government. What was not mentioned was the likelihood of new models of local government.

In Lambeth there is the John Lewis Council – a Labour council seeking to become a “co-operative council” by hiving-off functions to mutual organisations and community ownership. Then there are the easyCouncil models with Conservative councils adopting the budget airlines as a template.

Recently there was Suffolk County Council which is developing a vision of an “enabling council” with many activities (and almost all staff) divested. This clearly chimes with the Big Society rhetoric of central government.

In all of this there are new models of local government with a scaled back core and a series of out-sourcing relationships going far beyond past and partial contracting out. Of course thrown into the mix are shared service centres and even shared management teams.

So where are internal audit in all this? Does it shrink? And just look at contract compliance and performance? I suspect that will not be enough.

If governance and internal audit is as much about stakeholders as Professor Robin says, internal audit has a key role. It will need new approaches and skills – probably more training and seminars too.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Free schools – numbers, expectations and reality

Today there is bad news for the free schools movement and its highest profile exponent, Michael Gove.

The Financial Times warns that the first wave of free schools might consist of only eight schools or fewer. An assessment by Department for Education officials says that the “majority” of the 16 proposals for free schools that have been approved to open in September 2011 are “likely” to miss five of the 14 deadlines that officials believe must be met.

There appear to be issues with the appointment of Principals by the December deadline and having in place fit-for-purpose buildings in time. There are also uncertainties over transport-related planning requirements.

This revolution – like so many in history – may have raised expectations that it will struggle to deliver.