Identikit management consultant/Tory adviser/estate agent.
This is Matthew Sinclair, recently appointed by the Prime Minister as Chief Economic Advisor to No.10. In one respect, he seems alarmingly unqualified for the job, since he actually has a degree from the LSE in economics and economic history, and is therefore open to the accusation of being an ‘expert’ (of sorts). This at a time when the Treasury’s own top expert, Permanent Secretary Tom Scholar, had to be removed by the incoming Prime Minister, lest his expertise lead him to cast doubt on her strikingly original policies. But the second part of his degree title will come in handy, since is certain that Truss is going to contribute to economic history, indeed it has already done so.
In other respects, though, his CV is reassuring. He spent six a half years at the imaginatively-named right-wing policy group, the “Taxpayers’ Alliance”, latterly as its chief executive, and also worked for Deloittes and as a lobbyist for various economic interests. For example, he campaigned against renewable energy and green taxes, and in favour of more use of coal.
He may indeed already have contributed to Truss’s policies – albeit very briefly. During her campaign for the Tory leadership, Truss committed herself to ending national pay negotiations for public servants, and replacing it with regional or local pay, in order to drive down pay levels outside London. Some 15 hours later, she was forced to abandon that policy as unacceptable and unworkable. Someone interested in electability had noticed that it hardly seemed compatible with ‘levelling up’. Ending national pay was in fact previously a brilliant idea advocated previously by……Matthew Sinclair. [Truss has already patented her ‘launch and recall’ policy system, and we’re going to see a lot more of these ephemeral policies, with life spans shorter than a mayfly.]
Sinclair’s chief claimed fame is to have been chief executive of the Taxpayers Alliance or TPA. For an outfit so insistent on transparency in public finances, the TPA is quite extraordinarily shy about its own – indeed, about everything about itself. It’s actually a company, founded by the right-wing lobbyist Matthew Elliott and operating out of that battery farm of right wing Tory policy groups, 55 Tufton Steet, home also to the Adam Smith Institute, and for those who find the Adam Smith Institute worryingly left wing, the Institute of Economic Affairs, like minded outfits that work closely together.
There about 32 million taxpayers in this country. How many, you may wonder, are members of the TPA? Wonder on, because that EPA doesn't seem to have anything as definite as membership. Its accounts don't say anything about its income, or where it comes from. On their website, they say they raised £815,000 in 2020. Then: “we have over 3000 supporters who have given us money” - a rather strange phrasing, which seems designed to avoid any clue about over what period this money was collected. Clearly it's over some years, since they say the average donation was £497. In short, they reveal almost nothing about their money and who funds them. And there's nothing about at all about corporate governance, other than the names of the company’s directors. Apparently, it’s just run by a few Tory chums, as they think fit.
Compare and contrast with the Centre Left think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, which names its funders and in broad bands, how much each contributes, and has a named board of trustees, as well as paying members. Secret v open. But why the secrecy? Mm?
So the title,“Taxpayers Alliance”, is utterly bogus. At most, around one hundredth of a percent of them have ever contributed to the TPA - fewer than that, if you assume that those who support the TPA may not pay tax, or not in the UK. And of course, it’s quite absurd, anyway, to think that 32 million taxpayers share a view on anything, even tax. After all, on recent polls consistently showing about twice as many people planning to vote for the Centre Left, as for the Right. And polls show a majority of the population actually favour higher taxes to make good the underfunding of the NHS and social care, after a decade of Tory austerity. And that includes nearly half of Tory voters! (1) (Curiously, given its title, the one area that the Taxpayers Alliance doesn't seem to conduct research into, is what taxpayers actually want or think.)
What the TPA is, really, is just a tiny clique of Tory chums. And what it stands for, really, is a sort of Poujadism (2). Thus: taxes are far too high. They are always too high. They are always unfair. In fact, there's really something deeply wrong about taxation, as such. Why are taxes so high? Because of huge waste in spending public money. And because governments are seized with urge are to do good through public spending, for example protecting the environment or helping the desperately poor or overseas aid. Sometimes they don’t succeed. Better that they do not try. The public sector is incredibly inefficient, feathers its own nest, is full of over-paid incompetents. Foreigners are to be avoided - the founder of the TPA, Matthew Elliott, headed Vote Leave in the Brexit campaign. But not all foreigners – he was a founder member of Conservative Friends of Russia.
The TPA publishes what it calls ‘research’ which tends to target the same issues again and again. People at the top of the public sector are paid far too much. For the TPA, there's something triggering about public officials earning over £100,000, or even worse, earning more than the Prime Minister. It seems to be the one area where these Tories fully suspended their belief in labour markets! Other ‘research’ targets such as public sector sickness rates, union facility time and so on. The TPA also loathe taxation with green objectives, such as the charge for plastic bags, and renewable energy. Sometimes the targets can be combined: for example some devastating research shows that over four years, four government departments spent £209, 552 on cycle to work schemes and cycle racks. Over £10,000 per Department a year. Another shocking revelation: the FCO takes 24 copies of The Times. No wonder taxation is so high!
Only other hand, there are some flagrant examples of waste of public money somehow or other the TPA didn't get round to researching’. For example, Boris Johnsons spending £43 million on the ‘garden bridge’ across the Thames, when he was Mayor of London, through procurement processes later found not to be open, fair or competitive, and for which nothing was ever constructed. Or Chris Grayling letting a ferry contract to a company which owned no ships and had never run ferries, through a procurement process so flawed that Eurotunnel later obtained £33 million in an out of court settlement.
Some scandals involving Tory politicians are criticised, but in somewhat muted tones. Take the 3.6 billion items of personal protective equipment which the Government bought during COVID and which were later found to be unusable, much of it bought through the bizarre ‘VIP route’ open to ministers, their advisers and MPs. In many cases with contracts were let to companies that had never produced PPE, some of them tiny: a Jeweller from Florida gor a £250m contract, £108m went to a tiny pest control company with net assets of £18,000,another £108m went to a modestly sized confectioner in Northern Ireland. This VIP route was later challenged in court, and found to be unlawful. £8.7bn worth had to be written off and much of it is to be burned. But say the TPA, “Before we delve into the NAO’s damaging findings, it's worth congratulating the government on some aspects of their handling of PPE procurement. The government was malleable” [that’s a way of putting it]. “32 billion items of PPE was procured between February and July…. A testament to the UK’s ability to acquire large amounts of PPE in a relatively short period of time. “ Uhuh, and if it was unusable, what is that a testament to? The TPA concede, “The procurement of PPE has allowed the impression of chumocracy to blight the tender process and waste taxpayers’ money.” Just the ‘impression’, note.
The TPA is particularly taciturn when it comes to public money spent on private sector services which are then not delivered. For example Chris Grayling’s insistence on rapid contracting out of probation services, which subsequently led to the complete collapse of the contracts and subsequent costly re-nationalisation of the service, or the contracting out of facilities management in prisons which also led to collapse of the contract and renationalisation, or the contract with G4S for Birmingham prison which also collapsed leading to the public prison service taking over. Likewise the fate of G4S’s contract for securities at the 2012 Olympics, which led the army being brought in. Or the theft by SRRCO and G4S of £200m on tagging contracts by fraudulently misrepresenting their finances to Government (a fraud admitted as such by both companies, but no-one convicted!). Or the endless sage of MoD cock ups; destroyer costing £1bn each which when launched, turn out to have engines that cut out if the sea is warm, so the engines had to be ripped out and replaced at £50m a pop. Or the Ajax armoured vehicle, 5 years later, too much noise and vibration for humans to use them, £3.2bn spent and no likelihood it will ever work.
You get the picture. Bicycle racks for civil servants are an appalling waste, and must be exposed. Millions, or billions, wasted on contracts, some dubious or even unlawful, with suppliers who don’t deliver, well let’s not make too much fuss, eh?
The Taxpayers Alliance is a phony. It doesn’t, and can’t possibly, represent ‘taxpayers’, that huge, amorphous group, most of the adult population of the UK, in fact. It’s not really concerned with waste or value for money. It’s a distraction machine, pressing the buttons of Express readers prejudices.
The kind of contribution Sinclair can make to saving public money is evidenced in his book, “How to cut public spending (and still win an election”(2010). Sadly, not only is it out of print, but there’s not a single second copy to be found anywhere. You know, it's almost as though somebody's been busy buying up all those second hand copies! So for knowledge of its contents, I am dependant on two sources. First, reviews on Amazon. The first by ‘responsible citizen’ gives it top marks: “in essence it is simple - the UK spends more money than we take in tax revenue. This has to stop or we will become bankrupt”. I'm thinking that “responsible citizen” probably didn't get a degree from the LSE. The review by “manager” is even more pithy: “Just a pile of badly-written, poorly-edited rubbish by a bunch or swivel-eyed right-wing buffoons”.
The other information about the book is a recent ‘Guardian’ article. According to this, Sinclair’s big ideas included freezing state pensions, which I am sure will enable Truss to win handsomely in 2024. Also cutting what is called ‘non frontline’ staff from the NHS and schools. This would include staff dealing with buildings, and the ever-hated ‘ managers’. I mean who would ever think that the biggest organisation in Europe, and one of the most complicated, would need something as superfluous as ‘managers’? (3)
The intellectual poverty of this man, his tired, worn and unfeasible ideas for saving money, perfectly illustrate the bankruptcy of this brand of Poujadist Toryism.
If you really want to save big money, I can do a lot better than that. (I’m hireable through Deloites at $20,000 a day).
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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