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How Javascript and cookies can compromise your security and privacy on the web.

The main thing about a computer, the thing that really defines it and makes it a computer, is that it's programmable. Not programmable in the limited sense that it will remember which TV programs to record while you're out, but in the true sense of programmable – your computer is constantly following a list of instructions, and it will absolutely follow them.

This is the great strength of true computers. Unfortunately, in the modern interconnected world, it is sometimes their great weakness.

Javascript

The internet , as you know, is made up of websites and webpages. The pages you browse to are displayed on your screen by a web browser, such as Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome or Safari. Generally speaking, the information sent to your browser from the web is quite simple – it's just text and pictures, and some simple instructions* on where to put them. That's basic HTML, the language the web is written in. Basic HTML can't do calculations, it can't run computer games in your browser, it can't really command your computer to do something in the way a programming language can. It just tells your browser what text and pictures to display, and where to put them, and nothing much more than that.

The nice thing about this way of doing things is that it's relatively safe from a security point of view*. If your web browser can only display things or play sounds, then it's not so likely that information sent from the internet can take over your computer.

As the internet evolved, it quickly became desirable to add a bit more cleverness to the way web pages worked. It's impossible to run a shopping or banking website without a program being run somewhere to keep track of things and provide the 'brains' needed for dynamic content. It's at this point that programming languages have to be used, because basic HTML can't do that sort of thing. So the web very quickly evolved to make use of programming languages.

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What do you mean it's been six months? I just rested my eyes on Reddit for five minutes...

Regular readers will notice I haven't written anything for a while. I've been a bit busy. With things... and stuff.

As a result, I haven't had time to write for the website or do the sort of research I like to do before I write anything. I've only had time to watch the news now and again, and a smattering of the BBC's political programmes - perhaps 5-10 hours per week of news and political analysis at most. So, from this blissful position of dangerous ignorance of what's really going on in the world, and without further ado, it's catch-up time!

UK News

Everyone's talking about the upcoming police elections! Full details are available in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet somewhere in a disused lavatory near you. Have fun battling to the polling station to vote on something you haven't heard much about on a freezing cold and dark evening in November.

In other words, you don't need to participate in democracy. This isn't the news you're looking for. Move along.

Economic News

The governments of the UK and EU continue to stand on the economic brakes, whilst making puzzled shrugging motions that seem to indicate, "It's bizarre, I just can't understand why our economy isn't going faster. Maybe if we continue to enact policies that damage market confidence? Nope, that didn't work. How about if we force banks to hold more capital and thus reduce lending? Weird, we seem to be going even slower now. What's that burning smell?"

Meanwhile, the US economy seems a bit odd to me. I freely admit I haven't looked into it in any great detail, but it seems vaguely gravity-defying compared to the UK's. Could it have something to do with all those Middle East economies whose currency exchange rates somehow magically stay fixed against the dollar?

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The orange car has deployed a 16-valve engine configuration for this occasion that we've come to expect from their manufacturers - large pistons in a V8 configuration. The huge cubic capacity of this engine, combined with the symmetrically balanced layout of the pistons helps to give that amazing engine note and low-down torque that we're all so familiar with. In a radical move, they've opted for a suspension technology they're calling "leaf-spring", which they tell me completely removes the need for dampeners.

The grey car, on the other hand, has deployed an incredible 5-speed synchromeshed transmission system. Drivers have told me that the gear change is short-throw and very positive. Perhaps less exciting was their decision to stick with a familiar braking technology - drum brakes, rather than disc brakes. Sources close to the manufacturer claim this will definitely pay off in terms of higher speeds.

The blue car's manufacturers have been stressing the benefits of achieving a better power-to-weight ratio, and have managed to lighten their car by building the body of the vehicle out of plastic. They have also fitted the front and rear with a downforce-reducing technology they are calling "inverse spoilers". The manufacturers say this will significantly reduce the amount of weight on the road and "you'll see some serious performances at speeds over 80MPH".

And that brings my commentary on this event to an end.


Imagine if that was the radio commentary on a car race, and that the entire commentary for the duration of the race was like that.

This is the problem I have with a lot of economics journalism - and quite a few other types of journalism, too. The above 'commentary' may be interesting for people who know about cars (and the jokes might amuse), but surely even the biggest petrol head wants an occasional update on who's winning and which car is the fastest (or corners best, or even which is least likely to kill the driver). I'm not claiming that any of this is a brilliant metaphor for the current economic situation, of course.

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You cannot use the Twitter website without having JavaScript enabled on your web browser. Please re-enable JavaScript and refresh this page.

This is the misleading message that Twitter will sometimes show you if you attempt to read a Twitter feed using a browser with Javascript disabled.

To work around the problem, simply add a question mark, followed by any other character, to the end of the web address. Two question marks will work just fine. For example, if the URL for the blocked twitter feed in question is:


http://twitter.com/therealjoebloggs
then changing the address to this:
http://twitter.com/therealjoebloggs??
will bring up the front page feed without having to enable Javascript.

The strange thing about this Javascript problem is that it seems to happen at random - one day a particular feed will work fine without Javascript, the next it suddenly throws up this barrier. In the interests of getting to the bottom of what causes this, I (shudder) created a Twitter account and spent half an hour playing with all the settings trying to cause the public feed to display the Javascript error message. None of the standard Twitter settings appear to be able to cause the error.* This suggests that it's either being caused by a third-party add-on to Twitter that some of the celeb accounts I've been monitoring (purely research purposes, of course) are switching on and off at random, or this is something that Twitter itself is causing to happen centrally.

If it's the latter, then it's just further evidence of how Twitter (along with other companies) appears to be determined to screw up the basic principle of internet content being universally accessible in its pursuit of money. They recently accused Google of unfairly promoting their own social network in its search results at the expense of other networks such as Twitter and Facebook. That's a bit cheeky considering Facebook's (quite successful) attempts to create a walled internet, and Twitter's attempt to do something similar by presenting an unstable interface to the internet and then effectively sealing off their links to all but the unscrupulous via 'nofollow' links and third-party URL- shorteners.

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Sifting and ranking millions of websites into a top 50 or so is difficult, obviously. (I say 50, because people probably rarely dig further than a few pages).

Most of the time, Google's algorithm works amazingly well considering the scale of the challenge, especially considering that spammers are constantly trying to take advantage of it.

But I think there might be room for improvement.

Google definitely seems to rely at least partly on the popularity of a site (as measured in click-throughs) to rank it. This is clearly open to all sorts of abuse, hence I think ranking should be more about the merit of the text rather than the number of clicks.

Popularity is all well and good, but just look at some of the things that are popular. I'm not being snobby about this - I can enjoy I'm a Celeb as much as the next person, but it would be a bit annoying if I had to craft a fiendishly complex search term or scroll down 1,000 results before I could watch Newsnight.

A choice of algorithms would help to fix this problem. One could search by popularity, another by subject or level of language used, and so on. I think it would be a good idea if there was a learning algorithm that was manually adjusted by actual people moving things up and down the rankings - experts in their field, perhaps, though obviously there'd be issues of staffing and bias to address. A textual meritocracy approach might also enable blogs to be ranked more fairly alongside traditional websites - at the moment, although they do appear in normal search results, they seem to be somewhat ghetto-ised into a specific blog search option.

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Facebook and Twitter are currently moving vast swathes of text, information and human interaction out of the reach of search engines. Of course, I'm not a Zuckerberg-style anti-privacy zealot, far from it. People should always be able to communicate conveniently and privately with their friends via computers. That's what email and instant messaging is for.

But where would we be if every little question asked and answered vanished into the depths of Zuckerberg's private network? What if, one day, you wanted to look up that strange error message your computer was giving you (or, to take a more life-and-death example, imagine you needed to know how to cook a haggis) and the only results that came back in Google were those spam sites that are increasingly clogging up the internet - because no-one was talking on forums or contributing to public comments any more?

No doubt there's also a lot of text stored in Facebook that is of no value whatsoever, and the internet would be a poorer place for having it, but that's the job of search engines - sorting the wheat from the chaff.

Not only is text vanishing from the internet, but so is information about that text. If hyperlinks to interesting content are increasingly shared via non-searchable social networks, then search engines will be increasingly starved of information used to determine what is popular or useful. Facebook delivers a double blow to the internet - not only is it siphoning off content, it may also be making search engines less able to sort the information they already have.

It's not just Facebook. Many websites are increasingly making use of facilities that can't be seen or used without enabling Javascript. This is annoying for people like myself who value their online security and therefore use NoScript, but it creates a much greater problem. For example, look at the comment facility on this very website, provided by IntenseDebate. It's convenient for me to use because I didn't have to write the comments system myself and all the processing is stored and handled by IntenseDebate's servers, elsewhere. But because it uses Javascript, it can't easily be indexed by Google, nor any search engine for that matter. The comments left on this website do not appear in any search engine.

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A Guide to Security and Privacy for Windows XP Home Edition

A complete set of instructions for installing and configuring Windows XP for maximum security and privacy.

This article may also be useful for other versions of Windows, it's difficult to say - Windows XP is the only version of Windows that I run. Why? Because it's a good, solid version that still has a few years left in it (support for Windows XP ends April 2014) and it has quite modest demands in terms of how modern and fast a computer it requires. The less your computer is being overrun by Windows' demands, the more of its resources are available to the actual programs you want to run. That's why, if you look at the minimum hardware requirements for computer games, software developers tend to specify more memory and processor power for Vista and Windows 7 than they do for Windows XP. In many ways, it pays to stay with the oldest version of Windows that Microsoft still supports that also meets your requirements.

Follow this advice at your own risk, and remember that with today's delightfully complex operating systems, there is no such thing as a completely hack-proof, internet-connected computer. No, not even a Linux or Apple Mac PC. I've tried to make this article as understandable as possible, though you will need some familiarity with various IT concepts. In an attempt to offset this, I'll try to provide helpful links to explain things where I can. Be sure to read and understand the entire article before attempting to follow the steps.

The Quick Version / Checklist / Table of Contents

Get a clean copy of Windows
Download all relevant security patches and service packs
Install Windows - Formatting, partitioning and other considerations
Install Windows - Initial network settings
Install Windows - Setting usernames
Install all Security Updates
Disable unnecessary services
Disable remote assistance and switch on DEP
Disable Autorun
Finish network settings and install firewall
Set up and Secure the user accounts
Disable hidden file extensions
Secure BIOS
Remove unwanted software / List of default Windows processes running on a minimal system
Connect to the internet and run Windows Update
Secure Web Browser
Configure Email
General security and privacy hints and tips
Advanced Security Issues
The Problem of asking an operating system to check itself and the bigger picture
List of useful free software


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Cars are increasingly being fitted with GPS screens, trip computers wired into the engine management computers and on-board entertainment systems that can display TV, play MP3s, and even connect to the internet.

All great stuff, but computer security can be really complicated, so I hope car manufacturers' software engineering is more rigorous than that often found in the home computing sphere.

It's fine if all these systems are separate from each other, but convenience, interoperability and efficiency suggests that all of these systems will get knitted together into one in-car IT system. Once this happens, a vulnerability in one system could open the doors to exploitation of all the other systems. For example, a music CD burned with some encoded malware might be able to instruct the engine's fuel injection system to shut down, disabling the engine. In my opinion, engineering and diagnostic functions should never be accessible via a method that could be potentially invisible to the car owner. The possibilities for a car equipped with mobile internet connectivity could be horrifyingly endless.

I like in-car gadgets, but I hope the car industry has learned from the mistakes of other sectors and are keeping their various systems completely separate, or at least keeping the security and engine management systems apart from everything but immobilisers and diagnostics.

I'll be surprised and impressed if we don't hear of cars being hacked within the next few years.

From the standpoint of someone who makes some effort to keep up with the very fast-moving world of IT (sometimes needlessly fast, in my opinion), car manufacturers often seem very slow to innovate. Maybe this is as a result of being cautious of new technologies and extensive testing and engineering.

Progress is generally a good thing. Few people today would want a car that had to be started with a crank handle because it lacked a starter motor. Similarly, most people would not want to be without an engine management computer, as the computer can generally adjust the fuel/air mixture better than a human operating a manual choke, and manage a number of other engine parameters better than the old mechanical methods that were used.

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More Info on the Raspberry Pi Linux PC

Since my last article on the amazing Raspberry Pi miniature computer, the Raspberry Pi team have been extremely busy.

The specifications as reported in my original article have now changed, and there are now two different models planned.

Both models are equipped with a 700Mhz ARM11 processor. I did some rough calculations around the time of the Raspberry's announcement and decided the processing power would probably be roughly equivalent to a Pentium III running at about 600Mhz. Delvings into the Raspberry Pi website suggest it might be closer to a PII or PIII@250Mhz. However it should be noted that it's very difficult to fairly compare the performance of different processors against each other in an easy way. The proof of the Raspberry Pi will, of course, be in the real-world feel of how it performs - something we might discover by the end of November, which is the earliest mentioned launch for their initial 10,000 unit production run.

Both models are based on a Broadcom BCM2835 board, with a surprisingly powerful on-board OpenGL ES 2.0-capable VideoCore IV graphics processor (my rough guess is that it's somewhat better than an old Nvidia GeForce 2).


The Raspberry Pi running Quake 3
.

This means that the RasPi will probably be capable of running all my favourite Linux games.

The graphics card will share the memory available to the system, and the amount of RAM it reserves (and removes from the memory available to the system) will be variable and can be customised depending on need.

All versions of the Pi will come with a full-sized SD memory card slot. This will provide a solid-state hard drive and swap memory facility. It could also be used like a video game cartridge slot, since the graphics chip will boot whatever Operating System (OS) it finds on the card.

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Lessons from History - Part 1: Economic Depression in 1930s America

While looking for a book to read, I found one of my old History textbooks. Having read the section on the great depression of the 1930s, I thought I'd share it. Hopefully the original publisher's and author's drive to educate will outweigh any temptation to enforce copyright, should they stumble upon this page.

It's interesting to compare the current economic slump to what was written about the 1930s'. There are a number of common elements, but many of the locations, players and types of debt and speculation have changed somewhat.

Extract from Mastering Modern World History, Second Edition, by Norman Lowe, published by Macmillan - pages 111 to 113. The numbering and use of bold and italic type are from the original text.

(a) What caused the great depression?

(i) American industrialists, encouraged by high profits and aided by increased mechanisation, were producing too many goods for the home market to absorb. (in the same way as American farmers). This was not apparent in the early 1920s, but as the 1930s approached unsold stocks of goods began to build up, and manufacturers produced less; since fewer workers were required, men were laid off; and as there was no unemployment benefit, these men and their families bought less. And so the vicious circle continued.

(ii) There was a maldistribution of income, which means that the enormous profits made by industrialists were not being shared evenly among the workers. The average wage for industrial workers rose by about 8 per cent between 1923 and 1929 but during the same period industrial profits increased by 72 per cent. An 8 per cent increase in wages meant that there was not enough buying power in the hands of the general public to sustain the boom: they could manage to absorb production for a time with the help of credit but by 1929 they were fast approaching the limit. Unfortunately manufacturers, usually in the form of the super-corporation, were not prepared to reduce prices or to increase wages substantially, and so the glut of consumer goods built up. This refusal by the manufacturers to compromise was shortsighted to say the least; at the beginning of 1929 there were still millions of Americans who had no radio, no electric washer and no car because they could not afford them. If employers had been content with rather less profit there is no reason why the boom could not have continued for several more years while its benefits were more widely shared. Even so, a slump was still not inevitable provided the Americans could export their surplus products.

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It's a long-standing argument, and no doubt there's a lot of truth in it. Local businesses seem to manage to stick around, but it must be difficult to compete with the power and resources of the supermarket giants.

Supermarkets succeed for various reasons, but the most important one is that most people prefer to shop in a supermarket rather than trail round the local shops. I like the idea of supporting local business, but supermarkets are more convenient, usually have a better range and thanks to their massive buying power, they're often cheaper.

The solution seems obvious - become a supermarket.

No one market trader or local shop owner could do it alone, of course, but if they got together and pooled their resources perhaps they could rent or buy a town centre location or a big plot of land out of town and make their own supermarket.

So why isn't it happening all the time?

I really don't know. I can think of various reasons, but I'm not sure any of them are correct. It actually does happen to some extent (most of the major retailers started out as market traders or small businesses), but not as much as I might expect. Near me, there's a nice little indoor market. If all of those people got together, they'd have the basis of a proper mass retail business. I suppose an indoor market is already almost a supermarket, but it would be better if it worked more like a proper supermarket, with shopping trolleys and a place to pay at the end, after the shopper had gathered everything they wanted.

That indoor market space could act as the start of a business conveyor belt: The existing businesses move up to being a proper supermarket, and the space gets filled with a new generation of market traders, who eventually save up enough money to go on to make the next supermarket.

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People often think that the most powerful people in the country are politicians.

They make the laws that rule us all. Despite their power, they are elected by us, the people and we can throw them out of office every five years. There are more than 60 million of us in this country. If most of us want something, a politician hoping to be elected will probably promise it. If the government oversteps the line, there are potentially 60 million people to scare the living bejeezus out of them by violently smashing through their police lines and then queuing politely for their turn to sit around peacefully in Fortnum and Masons.

So, perhaps it is us, the people, who are most powerful. But how would people have protested against the Iraq War if they didn't know it was happening? In the most part, we got that information from the news industry. If they hadn't reported it, or if they'd reported only the pro-war arguments and none of the anti-war arguments, then how many would have turned up to that protest?

This is the bluntest of tools the news industry has at its disposal. They have other, more subtly sharp ones, all the more effective for being less noticeable.

It would have been difficult for the media to suppress the flaws in the stated arguments for the Iraq war, because they were quite obvious and so a lot of people would have noticed them and passed them on by word of mouth or the internet.

But not all flaws in arguments are so obvious, and some things do go unreported.

Recently, the press ran several days of coverage on the issues surrounding equality - equal pay, equal opportunities, and so on. Between their news pieces, editorials and comments they covered almost every aspect of the issues. Except, in all the excitement, they somehow neglected to mention that the government was running a public consultation on exceptions to the age discrimination laws (or if they did, it wasn't very prominent - I didn't see it and I was actively looking for it). This consultation was published on the government's Central Office of Information website, which I'm guessing journalists must check regularly for government press releases. Or perhaps they rely on press releases via email, I don't know. There are now less than 10 days left on this consultation.

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I don't like Twitter. Here's why.

The 140 character limit encourages the use of URL-shortening services such as Bitly.

The problem with such services is firstly, that you can't see what website you're being redirected to - it could be the BBC, or Goatse, or a site infested with malware and viruses. There's no way of knowing - hovering over the link tells you nothing, unlike normal links.

Secondly, the way the URL-shortening service works means that anyone who clicks a shortened link is briefly passed through the shortening services' webservers, meaning they can track everything you click. At best, they'll keep that data to themselves. A slightly worse scenario might be that they make that tracking data public. Just like Bitly does.

The worst case scenario is they use a combination of tracking data, cookies and information gathered from other sources, such as advertising, to build a profile of the people you know or follow on Twitter and what things interest you, and then sell that data to the highest bidder.

It would have taken 9 tweets to explain this simple point. That's another thing I don't like about Twitter.

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Perhaps in this internet age it would be more accurate to say, "those who fail to learn from history are doomed to misquote people and then attribute the quote to the wrong source".

Try a Google search for the bits of the quote you feel sure about and see what I mean.

Having spent a few years carefully reading and sifting the news available online, I have come to the conclusion that critical thinking is a vital skill that everyone needs. I sometimes see comments on news websites calling for it to be taught in schools. It's a long time since I was in school, so I don't know what's being taught these days, but I was taught critical thinking skills at school - in history lessons, for example.

All the required elements were there - think about the source of the information, and what ulterior motives they might have. Look at the way information is presented - what's being pushed to the front as important, and what is being omitted? Did the source have access to all the facts? What was the social background to the source?

In maths we were taught to examine statistics and recognise the tricks used to misrepresent data. In history, we even studied Goebbels - repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth. In English we saw how language can be used to persuade and beguile, though at the time I didn't even begin to suspect just how deep that particular rabbit hole went.

In general, my learning experience was a good one: I was lucky to have good teachers and the teaching methods employed in the late eighties and early nineties seemed to really suit my particular psychology. I found most lessons quite interesting, which always helps. But my point here is about what wasn't taught, and what went unsaid. All those valuable critical thinking skills I learned turned out to be useless to me, for the simple fact that no-one ever taught me (as far as I remember) that they needed to be applied to everything, all the time. Not just against history.

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David Braben, the programmer famous for the classic Elite and Elite II: Frontier games, is heading up a charitable foundation that aims to provide a £15 Linux PC the size of a memory stick, whilst providing today's schoolchildren with access to the sort of flexible computing experience that was more common in the past.

The Raspberry Pi is (according to the provisional specification) based on the ARM11 700Mhz processor. It's to be loaded with 128MB of memory, a USB2.0 connector and a composite/HDMI video output. This means it can use a TV as a display, while the USB connector allows cheap and standard accessories to be plugged in, including mice and keyboards (and much more). It will also have a SD/MMC/SDIO memory slot and a 'general purpose' interface. The operating system will be Ubuntu, and software will include Iceweasel (a re-branded version of the popular Firefox web browser), Koffice (similar to Microsoft Office) and the Python programming language. Braben says he hopes the Raspberry will be ready within the next 12 months.

128MB might sound like a very small amount of memory for a modern operating system, so after reading about Raspberry Pi I tried installing the latest version of Debian Linux (Ubuntu is based on Debian) on an old 128MB machine*. After removing some of the unneeded software components, it was actually perfectly usable, if a bit slow at times. These are only the provisional specifications, though, and I expect Raspberry Pi will strip down the software down more carefully than I did. Also, I was using KDE4 as my desktop manager (which is roughly equivalent to Vista/Windows 7 in terms of fancy graphics and polish), whilst Ubuntu's default desktop environment is probably a little lighter on the processor and memory.

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In addition to the usual tricks used in Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), there's an aspect of the way Google ranks pages that seems to get little attention, yet if it's true then it opens a potentially serious weakness in Google's rankings, and possibly in their entire business. I suspect that this flaw, if not corrected, might forever place them at the mercy of social networks of one sort or another.

Google is the world's favourite search engine. In theory that means getting a website displayed on or near the front page could make a huge difference to the amount of traffic it receives, and that makes page ranking worth money. The internet, as they say, is serious business.

Naturally, that leads to people studying the way Google works and then adjusting their websites to fit the pattern. Thus, the SEO industry was born.

I've learned a fair bit about SEO over the years, though I don't deliberately optimise this site for rankings. I just designed it in such a way that it would have a fair chance, nothing more.

SEO is complicated, but the important parts of it are pretty well known - have good content and acquire incoming links. There's all sorts of technical bits and pieces too, but this isn't meant to be a technical article so I won't go into all that.

Supposedly, one of the ways that Google judges the quality of a webpage is by how many people do a search and then click on that website.

That seems sensible, but it opens Google's rankings to being gamed. It would be easy to make a page look more popular than it really is. Friends of a website owner could repeatedly do searches and click the link, making it rise up the rankings. Even worse, companies could recruit hundreds of people across the country or the world and have them click links for their clients. It would be very difficult for Google to figure out which clicks were genuine. Worse still, a well-designed botnet could do the same thing, with the owners of the compromised machines having no idea that their machine was quietly doing SEO on behalf of a hacker.

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Poor Nick Clegg.

Before the election he was perhaps the most popular man in politics - even other politicians were clambering over each other to agree with him. Or so the press would have us believe, anyway. Actually, while some newspapers were singing his praises, others were mocking him. Arguably the latter sections of the press were those that might be seen as part of the establishment, and their mockery acted as reverse-psychology support for his anti-establishment positioning. I may be over-thinking that, but probably not.

I'd guess Clegg's support came from two main groups. Firstly, political tacticians who probably wanted to see Labour removed from power, but didn't trust the Conservatives to rule by themselves and thus wanted a coalition government. The second group of supporters were probably a little less politically astute and supported him because of the policies he said he wanted to bring in.

Many of Clegg's policies were extremely populist, but perhaps rather unrealistic. The biggest clue was probably his opposition to Trident. On the face of it, it might sound like a brilliant idea - the US are our allies and they have plenty of nukes, let them take up any slack while we save money. Or, you could take the compelling view that nuclear weapons are just downright evil and wrong, and we should set a good example to the world by reducing our ability to project death across the globe in the hope that others will see the light and be nice to us.

It would be nice if the latter argument was true. If the world's dictators were sane, kind and reasonable, and democratic states were made up of voters who were well-informed and logical, then it might just work. The evidence of history and current affairs suggests this is not the case. Even if I'm wrong about this, there are probably deep-rooted political reasons why it doesn't matter one way or the other.

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In the recent budget, the government once again put up prices on tobacco and alcohol - just like every government always does. Rolling tobacco in particular took a heavy hit, going up about 50p on a 25g bag, or £1 on a 50g bag.

The details weren't announced in the budget speech, but were buried in the budget document. The alcohol increases weren't really mentioned either, they were also hidden away. Those changes don't take effect until October, and came about as a result of changes made in 2008.

The government is also steering towards forcing cigarette manufacturers to put their products in plain packaging, suggesting that this will somehow reduce the appeal of perhaps the most addictive substance in the world.

In my experience cigarette manufacturers, like many other companies, follow predictable patterns with their products. Every now and then, a new product will arrive which is packaged similarly to some other similar product, but is cheaper. The similar branding gives a clue to the customer that the new, cheaper brand X is similar to Brand Y, allowing customers to switch. Once hooked, the company slowly increases the price over the years that follow. Eventually the profit margin becomes so great that there is room in the market for a similarly-branded but cheaper competitor to steal their customers away, and the cycle begins again.

Quite often, the 'competition' is actually between different products made by the same company, as the tobacco industry is heavily monopolised - most products are made by either Imperial Tobacco or British American Tobacco, in much the same way that a lot of household cleaning products are made by either Unilever or Reckitt. Despite this, there is some competition.

Plain packaging may reduce this competition, by making it difficult for competing products to advertise themselves as being similar to a more expensive alternative. Customers may find themselves locked in to a particular brand, at which point the manufacturer may feel free to crank up their profit margins safe in the knowledge that their customers won't know where else to turn to get a better deal.

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Robert Peston muses on the latest developments in the Murdoch phone hacking scandal.

The interesting thing about this scandal is that it very much looks like a case of the stupid being caught and the more deviously clever getting away, as is so often the case.

From what I've read, it appears that (most of?) the phone 'hacks' have consisted of celebs having their mobile phone voice mail accessed by the press because they didn't bother to change the default PIN on their voice mail service.

Mobile phone providers generally provide a service whereby if you ring a mobile number and get put through to voice mail (for example by not answering the phone), then you can not only leave a message but also listen to recorded messages if you know the PIN. Not changing the default PIN is rather like leaving your front door unlocked. Yes, the mobile phone companies should do more to make customers change the default number. Yes, it's unethical and perhaps downright criminal for anyone to take advantage of someone who doesn't know what they're doing. Yes, it's foolish to not read the manual and secure your voice mail.

My reason for highlighting the stupidity of the celebs for not changing their PINs is not to ridicule them (who hasn't made a mistake of this sort, at some point?) but to point out that the simplicity of this so-called-hack means it is easy to do, and also easy to track down and catch. The unsaid reverse of this, is that there are probably much more sophisticated hacks currently undetected and unreported.

On a 'social engineering' level, it would be somewhat surprising if there wasn't some bribery or blackmail going on within the lower-paid sections of major communications companies, such as Virgin or BT. As communication hubs for telephone and internet, they'd be obvious and valuable targets, and the people who work there who have access to the recordings, logs and traffic probably aren't paid enough for all of them to resist bribery, nor sufficiently vetted to resist blackmail. If that sounds far-fetched, then perhaps you didn't read the news stories quite recently about phone banking call centre staff giving up information about their clients for money in their lunch breaks, as reported in the press. I'll add a link if I can find it again.*

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Lord Hutton Publishes Final Public Sector Pensions Report

Lord Hutton of Furness' report on recommendations for the future of public sector pensions was published today.

The full text of the Hutton Report, running to 215 pages, can be found here.

As was widely predicted, Lord Hutton has recommended a Career Average Revalued Earnings (CARE) scheme to replace the current final salary schemes.

Both The Guardian and The Independent report that public sector unions are threatening large scale strike action over the pensions reforms.

Lord Hutton's main recommendations are as follows (taken directly from the report):

Recommendation 1: The Government should make clear its assessment of the role of public service pension schemes. Based on its framework of principles, the Commission believes that the primary purpose is to ensure adequate levels of retirement income for public service pensioners.

Recommendation 2: Pensions will continue to be an important element of remuneration. The Commission recommends that public service employers take greater account of public service pensions when constructing remuneration packages and designing workforce strategies. The Government should make clear in its remits for pay review bodies that they should consider how public service pensions affect total reward when making pay recommendations.

Recommendation 3: The Government should ensure that public service schemes, along with a full state pension, deliver at least adequate levels of income (as defined by the Turner Commission benchmark replacement rates) for scheme members who work full careers in public service. Employers should seek to maximise participation in the schemes where this is appropriate. Adequate incomes and good participation rates are particularly important below median income levels.

Recommendation 4: The Government must honour in full the pension promises that have been accrued by scheme members: their accrued rights. In doing so, the Commission recommends maintaining the final salary link for past service for current members.

Recommendation 5: As soon as practical, members of the current defined benefit public service pension schemes should be moved to the new schemes for future service, but the Government should continue to provide a form of defined benefit pension as the core design.

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How to Get a Job in the Public Sector

Council recruitment is at an all time low right now, but these tips apply to a wide range of public sector organisations and other areas that tend to be influenced by the public sector's methods, such as universities and charities. Just bear in mind that the latter examples are free to be a bit more individual in the way they work.

Of course, all the usual advice for job hunting applies, there's plenty of good tips on recruitment websites and similar: Do some research on the place you're applying to. Do try to guess what questions will be asked and plan some answers. Don't put your feet on the table during the interview. Do write your application form in blue or black ink. Don't use crayon or your own blood. That sort of thing.

Public sector recruitment follows rules and a formula that is supposed to make recruitment fair and open to anyone who has the skills to do the job, no matter where those skills were learned. For example, if you've done something as a hobby or as part of school work then in theory that's just as good as skills picked up in a proper job.

Thanks to this system, if you have the right skills and you follow the formula on the application process, you should be almost guaranteed to get an interview.

The Application Form

Forget CVs. The public sector never accepts CVs, they judge everything on how you fill in the application form. If you send a CV, they will ignore it. Most of the application form will be quite easy to understand - just follow the instructions. Most of it is simple personal details and the previous work history and education history sections are basically just in a familiar CV format anyway. The part where you really need to pay attention is the big blank boxes they leave for 'Any other information', or 'Information in support of your application', or similar. Sometimes these sections are split between a few different sections, such as 'Outside interests and hobbies relevant to the application' and 'Relevant work experience'.

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Eric Pickles Strives for More Council Transparency - Nottingham City Council Resists

The government has published a code of recommended practice for local authorities on data transparency, and has opened a consultation on the proposed measures. The consultation is open to anyone and ends on 14th March. Responses can be given by email, post or online on their forums. See the above link for details.

The government has already asked that councils provide details of all spending over £500, and many councils have already complied - you can see the results here.

There are still a number of councils dragging their feet, such as Nottingham City Council. * This new code of practice strengthens the government's position in requiring the data from local authorities, as it is being issued as an official code of practice under Part 2 of the Local Government, Land and Planning Act.

The proposed data requirements are as follows:

  • All expenditure over £500, with grants and payments under contract to the voluntary and social enterprise sector clearly itemised and listed.
  • All senior council staff are to have their salaries published, along with job descriptions, responsibilities, budgets and numbers of staff. Senior staff are defined as anyone earning more than £58,200, which is the starting wage for a senior civil servant [Note: a 'senior' council worker wage is usually much lower than this, at around £40,000.] Staff can opt-out of having their names published.
  • An organisational chart of the staff structure of the local authority.
  • Councillor allowances and expenses.
  • Copies of contracts and tenders to businesses and to the voluntary community and social enterprise sector.
  • Policies, performance, audits and key indicators on the authorities fiscal and financial position.
  • Data of democratic running of the local authority including the constitution, election results, committee minutes, decision-making process and records of decisions.
The proposed code of practice also states that local authorities should create an inventory of all the data they hold, and sets out a number of basic (but useful) technical requirements, such as requiring that the data be published in CSV format (Comma Separated Variable - a data format readable by a very wide range of applications, including the ever-popular MS Excel).

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Tony Blair's been in the news a lot recently thanks to his second appearance at the Chilcot Inquiry into the handling of the Iraq War.

There's been various news stories suggesting (again) that Blair had made up his mind to go to war long before the government 'officially' decided to go to war. He also stands accused (again) of running an almost presidential style of government, and not properly consulting his cabinet.

I've recently been reading The Blair Years - Extracts from The Alastair Campbell Diaries, published in 2007.

What does Mr Blair's long-time spin doctor and loyal supporter have to say about it all?

Strangely, his book pretty much confirms it all, though admittedly it's somewhat open to interpretation - he certainly never explicitly says Blair made up his mind about Iraq beforehand (it would be strange if he did, all things considered), though he's fairly clear that Blair called the shots and cabinet consultation was very limited.

On the latter point, Campbell tends to look at everything through a prism of what is "professional", and presents a very black-and-white view of either working for the good of the party, staying "on-message" and toeing the line, or working against it. Cabinet members who spoke out, or spoke their mind, are regularly described in very derogatory terms, and Blair is said to have spoken in much the same way. Many of the female cabinet members in particular are derided for their lack of what Blair and Campbell see as 'professionalism', and even the popular Redcar MP Mo Mowlam is blasted, and her importance in the Northern Ireland negotiations is talked down compared to her own, more detailed description of events in her book, Momentum.

Campbell's description of the final cabinet meeting to discuss Iraq essentially describes the cabinet being railroaded into agreeing what had already been decided.

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A Detailed Summary of the Localism Bill

The coalition government published its Localism Bill on 13th December 2010. This legislation weighs in at 184 pages for the Bill and 247 pages for its schedules and is designed to implement many of the government's policies that have already been set out, including laying the legal foundations of the Government's "Big Society" vision. It's wide-ranging, covering all sorts of issues of interest to local government.

The Bill received its second reading on 17 January 2011, and will go on through three more stages in the House of Commons and five stages in the House of Lords (possibly being changed as it goes) before becoming law. An explanation of the process can be found here. The full text of the Bill can be found here.

The BBC news website has a shorter summary of the Bill here. This summary doesn't include all the measures covered by the BBC, but it concentrates in greater depth on items of particular interest to local government and public power and democracy.

Community Right to Challenge - Public Sector Competition

[Part 4, Chapter 3 of the Bill]. Any voluntary or community group, charity, parish council or two or more council employees are entitled to put forward an "expression of interest" to a council, indicating that they would like to run one of the council's services, or help to run a service.

The council must consider the expression of interest, with particular consideration of the possible social, economic or environmental benefits of accepting the proposal.

If the proposal is accepted, the council must then begin a procurement exercise for that service.

Additional Freedoms for Councils

Councils are to be given a "general power of competence". [Part1, Chapter 1 of the Bill]. They are to be allowed to anything they are not expressly forbidden from doing. This enables a council to do pretty much anything a person can do. In particular, councils can run a business or provide a chargeable service of any kind anywhere in the UK or abroad, for any reason. The income from a service is not allowed to exceed the costs of running the service. This does not alter the rules under part 6 of the Local Government Act 1972, part 1A of the Local Government Act 2000 or any arrangements that "authorise a person to exercise a function of a local authority."

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Notts SOS - Combating the Cuts Meeting

Nottinghamshire-based activist group 'Notts SOS' are holding a public meeting on Saturday 15th January 2011 to share ideas and discuss strategies for resisting local cutbacks.

Formed in September 2010, the group aims to "oppose cuts to services, job losses and cuts in benefits" and "support workers' organisations, service users [and] community groups in fighting cuts in Nottingham City and Nottinghamshire."

The group has so far managed to organise protests and attract national media coverage.

Further details of the meeting can be found at the Notts SOS website.

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The coalition government seems to be very fond of the phrase, "we're all in it together", often pairing it with the Conservatives' Big Society policies. David Cameron has been using it as far back as 2005, in a speech to the Policy Exchange think-tank.

The phrase jumped out at me when I first heard them using it, not because it's the title of a recent High School Musical song, but because it appears so often in the Terry Gilliam film, Brazil. I was pretty sure it had an older, more directly political origin, though, so I did a little research - more on that later.

If you haven't seen Brazil (and it's a great film in my opinion), here's a brief description. The film is set in a nightmarish future (or alternative reality - the technology is futuristic, yet retro - a sort of steam-punk meets 1940's film noir) in which life is controlled by an over-bearingly bureaucratic government, though it also seems to be a police state (suspected terrorists are tortured) with shades of rampant capitalism (torture victims must finance their own interrogation and extended interrogation risks the prisoner's credit rating).

The protagonist, Sam Lowry, has a lowly office job working for the Ministry of Information. He finds himself increasingly on the wrong end of the government's bureaucracy after he tries to correct the outcome of a computer glitch that causes an innocent man, Buttle, to be arrested on charges of terrorism. The actual 'terrorist', Tuttle, (played by Robert de Niro) is classed as a 'terrorist' thanks to being a maverick plumber, who circumvents Central Services' paperwork and drops out of the night sky to fix broken boilers and ducts without proper authorisation.

Propaganda posters are frequently seen in the background of the film, and on at least two occasions the slogan "we're all it together" can be seen (see still from the movie, above). The phrase is given a different slant later, when Tuttle refuses payment for his repair work - "we're all in it together, kid". It's given yet another angle later when he deals with two Central Services plumbers who are wrecking Sam's apartment, but I won't say more than that in case I spoil the pun for those who haven't seen the film.

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Review of Police Pay and Conditions Receives 5,000 Comments in 10 Days

Opened on the 1st October, the "Review of Remuneration and Conditions for Officers and Staff" closes on 29th October, so if you if you want to make any comments on the matter, head on over to the consultation website.

The site invites comments on 7 questions centred around Police pay and performance.

The review is headed by Tom Winsor, a lawyer and former rail regulator employed during the period of dismantling Railtrack and the creation of Network Rail. He is advised by Sir Edward Crew and Richard Disney.

Sir Edward Crew worked as Chief Constable of West Midlands Police between 1993 and 1996 and Chief Constable of Northamtonshire Police between 1993 and 1996. Richard Disney is the Professor of Labour Economics at Nottingham University and a research fellow for the Institute of Fiscal Studies.

The review covers both Police and civilian staff and will report on short term "improvements to the service" in February 2011 and again in June 2011 "on matters of longer-term reform". The review also must take into account the government's policy on pay and pensions, which will be informed by the findings of the two Hutton reports mentioned in earlier postings.

18.02.11 Edit: Tom Winsor's name was originally misspelled as "Tom Windsor", now corrected.

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Mr Marr's quote, above, is referring to bloggers. Presumably he's not counting his esteemed colleagues Robert Peston, Stephanie Flanders, Gavin Hewitt, Rory Cellan-Jones, etc. amongst their numbers.

Speaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, he went on to say, "a lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed, young men sitting in their mother's basements and ranting. They are very angry people."

I suspect this may often be true. I myself am single, balding, live with my parents and at times I'm somewhat annoyed about the chain of events that led to this situation, (partially described here and here).

I feel Mr Marr's comment underlines the problems with mainstream journalism on the internet today. It more-or-less accurately describes the immediate truth of the matter*, but it fails to address or explain the underlying causes or events that led to the situation. There's no attempt at analysis, or to inform and explain to the reader the more important underlying truth behind the present situation. Instead, Mr Marr's comments are reminiscent of the style of certain "Comment Is Free" journalists, in that he has chosen to say something that, while arguably true, is a generalisation specifically designed to grab attention and encourage comment and controversy, rather than to deliver something that truly educates and informs the readership with informed analysis, commentary and debate - the latter being the hallmarks and noble goals of true journalists, in my humble opinion.

It is no exaggeration to say that if it wasn't for the woefully poor national coverage of the effects of the Single Status Agreement on local government throughout 2007 to the present day, then this blog would not exist. The inadequate online coverage the issue has received from mainstream journalism makes me almost angry, though of course I'm not going to rant about it.

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John Hutton Public Sector Pensions Review Publishes Interim Report

The Hutton report on public sector pensions published its first report today [PDF, 176 pages]. The final report is due in time for Budget 2011. The BBC has produced some comprehensive coverage here.

The report recommends that workers' level of contributions to their pensions is increased (except for the armed forces). It also suggests that schemes move away from a final salary (defined benefit) scheme. In their press release reaction to the report, Unison opposed this recommendation. Hutton's report stops short of recommending a clear replacement to final salary and talks of various options to be looked at and possible hybrid schemes, though the career average scheme seems to be favourite.

It's interesting that the report devotes quite a few pages (see section 6.20) to discussing the difficulties associated with transferring pensions from the public sector to the private sector, as would happen in an outsourcing scenario, for example. The report notes that evidence from the private and even voluntary sector suggests that current TUPE (Transfer of Undertakings/Protection of Employment) and 'Fair Deal' regulations hamper the flow of workers from the public to private sector because of the extra risks and costs involved to the private sector.

Lord Hutton seems at pains to dispel the idea that public sector workers receive a 'gold-plated pension', an image emphasised in the media in recent months. He quotes the average public sector pension as being 'modest' at around £7,800, though I suspect this is the average pension across all workers, rather than, say, the average pension of a life-long, full-time worker, which is perhaps the more illuminating measure.

Length of service effect on public sector pension
Lord Hutton does not recommend moving public sector schemes in line with the local government pension and turning them into self-funding models, nor does he advocate the reverse.

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One of the most popular suggestions made to the Government's Spending Challenge website is for the public sector to start using more Open Source software.

This would mean replacing things like Microsoft Word with something like OpenOffice Writer.

For almost every piece of software in common use in the public sector, there is a free alternative. Imagine how much money could be saved by replacing paid-for software with free Open Source alternatives. For every PC in the public sector, about £200 could be saved by replacing Windows with Linux and Office with OpenOffice. Considering how many public sector workers have a PC, and that there are 6 million workers in the public sector, there's some serious savings to be made.

Free, Open Source software is widely used - last time I checked the figures, it was estimated that around half the world's websites run on OSS - including this one. If I used paid-for commercial alternatives, I would be bankrupt by now.

So I guess you'd expect me to be an enthusiastic supporter of Open Source software in the public sector, right? Yes - but with a few small reservations.

First, the 'yes' part of the equation.

I have little doubt that widespread use of Open Source software would bring some massive savings. Additionally, Open Source software often performs better than commercial offerings, and as a result it will usually run much faster on the same, or older hardware. This means that IT departments could keep the same old computers for much longer, reducing upgrade costs for years to come. Local authorities regularly throw away machines far more powerful than the Linux machine I use as a development PC, file server, database server, and all-round workhorse. (It's an 800Mhz Pentium / 384Mb RAM, for the interested).

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University fees and loans have been in the news recently. For what it's worth, I've decided to make my own small contribution to the debate, from a personal angle. Maybe it will help someone.

It's over ten years since I went to university, so some things have probably changed since then. I'm pretty sure it's not getting any cheaper, though.

To get into a particular university course, you need good grades in relevant A-level subjects. In other words I needed to know what my future career was going to be before the age of 14, when I chose what A-levels I took. While I'd learned many interesting things by the age of 14, I don't think I'd learned what I needed to know in order to make that decision. I knew almost nothing about politics and economics. But fear not, because at the time, teachers, careers advisers and parents all seemed to agree that while it was certainly preferable to strike out in a definite career direction, it didn't matter too much - a degree would open doors to a bright future, regardless of the subject.

By the end of my 3 years at university (and it was a generally useful experience and a lot of fun, I should point out), I had over £3,000 of student loan debt. But it wasn't really those loans that did the damage. The real damage was the culture of borrowing it created - of making it normal to accept loans to survive through a 'temporary' period of time, at the end of which it was expected that my shiny new degree would buy me a well-paying job and I would have no problems paying back the debt. Actually, 16 years later, I have never once earned a high enough wage to trigger the 'average wage' test that requires me to start paying back the loan.

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9,000 public sector workers are paid more than the Prime Minister - BBC

According to a detailed article on the BBC News site, more than 9,000 public sector workers earn more than the Prime Minister (£142,500). Monday's BBC Panorama programme focused entirely on this report.

Perhaps less well-noticed is a similar but smaller report recently published by the GMB union (thanks to one of the Fair Pay mailing list members for drawing my attention to it). The union report is focused only on council chief executives, rather than the public sector as a whole. Both lists agree that the Chief Exec of Wandsworth London Borough Council is the highest paid local authority worker, but they disagree on how much he's paid. The BBC say it's £299,925, while the GMB claim a figure of £356,891. Other salaries have similar discrepancies.

The BBC has been fairly clear with its methodology while the GMB's is slightly less clear, but it appears that the BBC is quoting the salary that the individual receives, while the GMB is quoting the figure that the taxpayer pays. In other words, the GMB figures include the 'on-costs' - the money paid by the employer for National Insurance etc. If this is the case, then the BBC's figures more accurately describe what these people are being paid, whilst the GMB's figures more accurately describe how much these workers are costing the country.

Nottingham City Council stands alone in the GMB data in that it couldn't supply its chief exec's salary figures in time for the GMB report, but the BBC's figures appear to include Nottingham's Jane Todd - among various other anonymous highly-paid NCC staff. Assuming Ms Todd is the highest-paid member of the council, then her salary is £214,999. If her salary is scaled down like all the others in the BBC data compared to the GMB data, then the 'real cost' is probably much higher. If it were adjusted to be comparable to the increases shown in the GMB data then she would probably be one of the top-ten highest paid Chief Execs in the country.

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BBC Announces Changes to Workers' Pension Plan

In an attempt to tackle a reported deficit of £2Bn, the BBC has announced "the first major changes by a publicly-funded organisation" to their pension scheme.

The BBC say their proposals include closing the final-salary scheme to new members and restricting pension payouts to 1% per year. They also include an option whereby existing members of the scheme can continue with the revised final salary plan, or switch to a defined contribution scheme.

The proposals are subject to a consultation period, concluding in the autumn.

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Office for Budget Reponsibility Report: Don't Panic, Unless You Have a Public Sector Pension

The new Office for Budget Responsibility has released its pre-budget forcast.

Considering the stern warnings and stoic wartime attitude of David Cameron in the lead-up to the budget, the OBR's report is surprising upbeat, though it's peppered with caveats with regards to unknowns.

The current financial state and immediate projections in the report describe an economy that has already hit the bottom, and now the only way is up.

Interest rates and inflation are predicted to remain similar to now. House prices are expected to rise slightly. Exports are expected to pick up, and overtake imports in the near future. Businesses are thought to have to stopped running down their inventories and will now be re-stocking in anticipation of better times ahead, adding to Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The fall in the value of the pound versus an improving world economy is predicted to help our country's exports and economic growth.

The report notes that consumer spending has dropped and savings have increased, and it predicts that consumers will continue to be cautious for a while, but maybe spending will increase somewhat, adding to the economy. Business profits are increasing while the UK's share of the global market is not. The report suggests that in the near future, businesses may reduce their profit margins in favour of capturing larger markets and increasing volume of trade. The report mentions how in the 1980's recession, as the economy recovered, wages began to rise, helping to fuel inflation. The report doesn't think that will happen this time around. Unemployment is predicted to fall quite sharply over the coming years. Oil prices are predicted to fall. Government income is predicted to fall slightly next year, then recover and grow.

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John Hutton Appointed to Review Public Sector Pensions

John Hutton, former Secretary of State for Defence under Labour, is to head a commission to examine and make recommendations on public sector pensions. The commission will produce an interim report in the autumn, and a final report before the 2011 budget.

In 2008 the council workers' scheme, the Local Government Pension Scheme, underwent an overhaul. It changed the scheme from being a 1/80th contribution to a 1/60th. Those earning more than £18,000 also had to increase their level of contribution. The LGPS is also distinguished by being one of the few schemes that maintains its own funds and pays its retired workers from that fund - most other public sector schemes do not maintain their own fund, and instead retired workers are paid from government funds. Of course, regardless of who holds the funds, all workers with a pension make a contribution, though the percentage contributed by both the employer and employee varies across schemes.

In the last budget, George Osborne announced that all public sector pension payout were to be indexed to the Consumer Price Index measure of inflation. The CPI is based on a 'basket of goods' measure, and does not include house prices.

Reports in the media suggest that workers may face a choice between increased contributions (effectively a pay cut), or reduced payouts.

The list of pensions schemes to be examined by the commission is as follows:

  • Principal Civil Service Pension Scheme
  • Principal Civil Service Pension Scheme (Northern Ireland)
  • Armed Forces Pension Scheme
  • NHS Pension Scheme
  • NHS Superannuation Scheme (Scotland)
  • Health and Personal Social Services Northern Ireland Superannuation Scheme
  • Teachers' Pension Scheme (England and Wales)
  • Scottish Teachers' Superannuation Scheme
  • Northern Ireland Teachers Superannuation Scheme
  • Local Government Pension Scheme (England and Wales)
  • Local Government Pension Scheme (Scotland)
  • Northern Ireland Local Government Pension Scheme
  • Police Pension Scheme
  • Firefighters' Pension Scheme
  • United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority Pension Schemes
  • Judicial Pensions Scheme
  • Department for International Development - Overseas Superannuation Schemes
  • Research Councils' Pension Schemes


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Review of Fair Pay in the Public Sector

The Government has announced that Will Hutton has been appointed head of a review of pay in the public sector.

Will Hutton is an Observer/Guardian columnist and former editor. He is also an executive vice chair of the The Work Foundation.

The review will look into public sector pay, and will "make recommendations on how to ensure that no public sector manager can earn more than twenty times the lowest paid person in the organisation" - a Conservative manifesto pledge. Despite this, Government appears to have hinted recently that there may be some flexibility in this rule.

The review will produce a report in September, and a final report before the 2011 budget. Its scope includes all aspects of public sector pay, providing it does not encroach on the John Hutton Commission on public sector pensions.

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Government Calls for Public Sector Workers' Views on Saving Money

The Coalition is asking for your views on how best to save money in the public sector on their Spending Challenge consultation website.

Up until July 8th, the consulation is open to public sector workers. After that, it's open season as anyone is allowed to have their say. The website promises that all ideas will be looked at by people "at the heart of government", and the best ideas will go forward for further action. They add that they will also "monitor blogs, social networks, forums and wikileaks."

According to the website 20,000 suggestions have been received in 4 days.

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Budget Brings 2 Year Pay Freeze for Public Sector

Public sector workers who earn more than £21,000 are to face a 2-year pay freeze. Those not subject to the pay freeze will receive a £250 per year rise.

Compared to the figures published in the Conservative manifesto, the threshold has been raised £3,000 from £18,000.

VAT is to rise to 20% from the 4th January 2011. There's no change to the list of items that are exempt from VAT (for example, most food).

Tobacco, alcohol and fuel duty remains unchanged for now, though the cost of all of these items will be increased by the VAT rise. George Osborne said Parliament would look into ways of stabilising fuel prices in future, something that had been promised in previous Conservative literature. The Chancellor also spoke of support to councils so that they can deliver the manifesto pledge of a council tax freeze next year.

There had been some talk in the press of the income tax allowance being increased to £10,000, but today the Chancellor announced a £1,000 increase, bringing the amount you can earn before paying tax up to £7,475. George Osborne made reference to the £10,000 figure and said the Coalition would try to "make real steps towards achieving that..." over the next five years. Employers' threshold for National Insurance is to rise from £110 to £131.

Across Government, the Coalition is looking to reduce departmental spending (except in Health and International Development) by an extra 17% over Labour's plans.

Benefits have taken a mix of cuts and increases, with the narrative being a reduction for the better-off, whilst bolstering support at the lower end.

After speculation that Child Benefit might be re-worked, Government has opted for a 3-year freeze. Increases in benefits (apart from pensions) are now to be linked to the (usually lower) measure of inflation, the Consumer Price Index, rather than the Retail Price Index, saving the government a projected £6Bn over the life of the current parliament. From 2013, a new medical assessment will be brought in for recipients of Disability Living Allowance with an aim of saving £11Bn. The family component of Tax credits are now to be reduced for households earning £40,000 or more, a less savage cut than was previously trailed in the press. Child tax credits are to increase by £150 above inflation next year. State pensions are to be relinked to inflation, or 2.5%, whichever is greater.

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Freeze Public Sector Pay Until 2015: Recommendation From Policy Exchange Think Tank

The looming Emergency Budget on the 22nd seems to have got the think-tanks and lobbying groups busy firing out press releases and reports. Yesterday, "centre-right" think-tank, Policy Exchange, published a 104-page report, Controlling Public Spending recommending a 4-year pay freeze for public sector workers - though the recommendation is actually a 'hybrid approach', meaning that the total spend is frozen, but there is an expectation that some of the savings would be made through redundancies or not replacing retiring staff.

Policy Exchange, previously been described by Chancellor George Osborne as a "wellspring of new ideas...", say their proposal would save £26 billion overall.

The report, which seems to be largely based on ONS data, notes that jobs in the public sector are paid more than their equivalents in the private sector (except at the very top end, where the private sector races ahead). They also note how different the sectors are, and how difficult it is fairly compare them. Public sector workers are said to have more time in the job and more qualifications.

The report goes into some detail, but there is little mention of the effect of Single Status on council worker pay, despite its impact. Nonetheless, the report notes some of its effects - for example, that the lowest paid received above-average increases, though there is no particular acknowledgement of the pay reductions that the middle-paid tended to receive in return, nor much illumination of the 'flattening' effect on the spread of wages in the average-to-low section.

The report makes a valid point that paying the same wage for the same job across the country (apart from London) is essentially unfair, as cost of living varies widely. Sadly it describes this in terms of workers in low cost-of-living areas being paid a 'premium', rather than high cost-of-living workers being underpaid. It describes the process by which public sector pay bargaining operates, and while its descriptions and conclusions may be accurate for some areas of the public sector, the description of council pay being set by national pay bargaining seems over-emphasised, considering the effects of Single Status job evaluation and councils' freedom to apply 'market forces' pay supplements to retain staff. Whether this variation has led to a fair wage range based on local cost-of-living is another matter.

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How Does Council Pay Work?

If you've never worked in local government, council pay structures are probably quite confusing. Here's a brief guide to how it all works.

At the core of the local government pay structure is the National Joint Council (NJC) 'pay spine', which is the same all across the country except for London, where a percentage increase is applied for the greater cost of living. The pay spine is the component that is subject to national pay deals negotiated between the unions and the NJC/Local Government Association (LGA) - these are the pay negotiations that get talked about in the press. The pay spine looks something like this:

Point 1: £9,201
Point 2: £9,703
Point 3: £10,111
...

And so on, extending up to 49 points, with the rise in money gradually increasing as the points are ascended. The points above 49 (about £40,000+) are not 'official' NJC points and are not set or negotiated at a national level. Next, councils create 'pay scales', or 'pay grades'. For example, Scale 1, or Scale 5. Scale 1 might encompass spine points 1-4. Scale 2 might be points 5-8. Next, they assign scales to jobs. For example, a cleaner might be scale 1. A clerical assistant might be scale 1-2 (i.e. their scale includes spine points 1-8). Pay grades that span more than one pay scale are sometimes referred to as 'career grades', and there may be criteria that must be met for the worker to progress from one scale to the next.

Here's an example of a spinal point and pay scale chart [Excel spreadsheet] for 2010/2011 from the London Voluntary Service Council.

Upon taking up employment, a council worker will usually start at the bottom of the scale for that job. So in this example, both the cleaner and the clerical assistant will start at point 1. Every year, a council worker's pay rises one spine point, and receives the new wage associated with that spine point. This is usually automatic. On top of that, they receive whatever pay increase was negotiated for that year - the percentage increase is applied at the level of the spinal column structure. Once a worker reaches the top of their scale (e.g. point 4 for the cleaner, and point 8 for the clerical assistant), they no longer progress up the spinal points, and from then on the only wage increase they receive is from the nationally-negotiated settlement.

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1 Billion Pound Cutbacks for Councils

Austerity measures have been announced across Europe.

Here in the UK, local councils are to receive £1Bn in budget cuts, with large city councils showing the biggest drops in funding - but the cuts are designed so that no council receives more than a 2% reduction, so it's all relative.

The measures are part of the government's plan to reduce the gap between government income and spending by £6Bn. The deficit is currently reported to be about £150Bn, so that £6Bn isn't going to make much impact on the figures by itself, though it may cause pain to public sector workers - as the LGA is keen to emphasise. [21/11/17: Link now broken.] They also took the opportunity to stick the boot in on the 'quangos' - "We need nothing less than a transformation of the way the public sector works to deliver savings through a bonfire of bureaucracy, a radical scaling back of the quango state and giving power to the people who know their areas best."

There's been much talk in the press recently about how government spending has got out of control. The official figures also tend not to include PFI deals and bank bailouts. Yet much of the problem is not so much the increase in government spending, as the decrease in government income. The deficit seems to be mainly due to a sudden drop in income in 2008, around the time the banks collapsed and the economy imploded. Given that the UK's major industry at the time was the financial sector in London, this is hardly surprising.

As the economic outlook became more gloomy, people and business spent less, and the government received less income from taxes. Banks too have become more cautious and are lending less. This so-called 'death spiral' of negative feedback was perhaps most starkly obvious when people started queuing up to withdraw their money from Northern Rock, because they feared the bank would collapse - and their actions probably caused it to. An economic recovery will probably require more spending from consumers and businesses to close the gap between government outgoings and income. In the meantime, falling wages and the weakening of the pound makes the UK more attractive to companies outside the EU wanting to grab a European base to avoid the EU import taxes. Companies from India and China have been showing signs of investment and relocation, much as Japanese and Korean firms have in the past.

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Government Releases Spending Data

The raw data from the government's Combined Online Information System (COINS) was released on Friday.

The information can be found here.

COINS records government expenditure and categorises it by various headings, such as government department, project, account or month. The categories are fiendishly difficult to translate into meaningful, real-life things. If you'd like to know exactly how much the previous government spent on ID cards, for example, you'll be disappointed. According to The Guardian, they've cunningly hidden the figures in a general 'identity and passport' category.

To anyone familiar with local government expenditure, the released data may resemble council budget codes and expenditure records.

The data will likely provide some good information on where taxpayer's money has been spent, but it's probably vague, obfuscated and in some cases perhaps misleading.

For example, money might be spent purchasing assets and services in one category, whilst a different department begins monthly payments to the first department against a different spending category to the same department, and a few months later the entire spend against services is mysteriously refunded, and 2 years later the assets are amortised... (see the Olympic funding contribution category for an example of this sort of confusion)

It would take serious time and effort to uncover useful expenditure information from amongst the inter-departmental cost-code juggling and accountancy-speak.

Hopefully future expenditure data releases will be more straightforward - all central government expenditure over £25,000 and all local government expenditure over £500 is to be published online from November.

Links

The Guardian's COINS data query tool

The Open Knowledge Foundation

Notes and Research

The newly published database is difficult to work with and requires access to a high performance database system such as Oracle, MySQL, PostgreSQL, or Microsoft SQL Server - there are over three million records in the files which is more than Microsoft Excel can load and is probably impractical for Microsoft Access.

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Top Paid Civil Servants Revealed

The government has published a list of civil servants who earn more than the Prime Minister (reported as being £142,500 per year). Here is the actual list of 172 civil servants who earn more than the Prime Minister, in CSV format.

The list is comprised only of civil servants who agreed to appear on the list, and there were 11 people who refused. It's pretty clear, though, that this list is very far from complete.

There's not a single council worker on the list, and yet there must be a few that qualify - Kim Ryley, the Chief Exec of Hull City Council, was reported to be earning in excess of £200,000 back in July 2009. That would make him roughly the 7th highest paid civil servant on the list if he were added, placing him ahead of of the likes of Sir David Normington (Permanent Secretary for the Home Office) and Sir Nigel Sheinwald (Ambassador to Washington).

It seems unlikely that Hull is the only council paying out hefty sums for their top brass - and this Guardian article from January 2010 mentions that both Cornwall County Council and Northamptonshire County Council pay their Chief Executives similar wages. The same article quotes a Northamtonshire County Council spokesperson as saying "Our chief executive... earns a little bit more than the prime minister, but, like the BBC, you do have to attract the talent."

The Daily Mail points out that the 172 named officials together earn over £29M per year.

If these 172 officials were all sacked and their wages redistributed to other public sector workers, those lucky workers would all receive a rise of about £5 per year.

Interestingly, as mentioned in a previous posting, the Prime Minister's salary was previously reported as being £132,923 for 2009, plus an MP salary of £64,766 - or £197,689 in total. The current Wikipedia article (and various contemporary news reports) now cite the Prime Minister's salary as being £142,500, a 7% increase on the 2009 figure.

Links

Hull City Council CE Pay
Mark Thompson sparks new BBC row with county council comment
Cabinet Office index [source for 172 high-pay civil servants list]
New Statesmen article on the above
Guardian article on the above
Fair Pay national view

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Conservatives Publish Public Sector Manifesto

Public sector workers to be allowed to form autonomous co-operatives.

On Saturday the Tories set out their manifesto plans for the public sector in a supplemental manifesto document [PDF download] aimed at the public sector.

The document's theme is very much focused on the idea of setting public sector workers free from red tape and targets. There is mention of protecting workers against litigation, encouraging flexible working and performance related pay - "for example, freeing schools to pay teachers more for high achievement, and more payment according to outcomes in hospitals and Sure Start centres..."

Exactly how the level of performance or 'outcomes' will be measured is not clear, and raises the question of whether the Tories are seeking to replace Labour's targets with a new set of targets with money attached. Given the recent stories of organisations massaging statistics or creatively categorising things, there's an obvious danger here. As with much of their 'Big Society' manifesto, the Conservatives' answer to this problem appears to revolve around public involvement - "The public will be the the experts on judging performance, the need for all the centralised targets will end."

Fair pay gets a mention, with public bodies required to pay their highest paid workers no more than 20 times more than their lowest paid. A wage freeze is to be brought in for workers earning more than £18,000, and public sector pensions capped at £50,000 per year. In the main manifesto document, the Conservatives state that any public servant earning more than the Prime Minister will have to have his or her salary signed off by the Treasury. The Prime Minister's salary is currently £132,923, plus an MP's salary of £64,766. [Source]

The most dramatic measure in the manifesto is a pledge to apparently allow public sector workers to escape from their local authority's control and form a public sector co-operative organisation and "bid to run services".

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