Child benefit: not a right

Today, Angela Epstein has been advertising her handsome household income and complaining about a change in tax law that takes effect on Monday.

Currently, the eldest child triggers a single child benefit payment for all parents of £20.30 per week, each subsequent child attracting £13.40 per week. So a one-child family will take home £1,055.60 per annum, going up to £1,752.40 for two kids.

As of Monday, households with children in which at least one guardian earns a gross income in excess of £50,000 will have their child benefit reduced linearly, until that income hits £60,000 at which point the payment will fall to zero.

There are countless discussions and tirades about whether the mechanism for the cap is right. For example, an equal-earning couple with a gross income of £98,000 would keep their entire benefit, while a family with a lone working parent earning £60,000 will lose it all. But that doesn’t seem to be Angela’s primary argument for her perceived entitlement to receive child benefit.

Angela’s primary argument seems to be this: Why should kids be discriminated against because their parents earn handsomely? She likens it to schooling and health services.

But here’s the fundamental issue with her argument. Child benefit is a benefit paid to the parent for having a child. It is not a direct benefit to the child. Indeed when enrolling for ours in 2007, I was told that I couldn’t have the money paid into my daughter’s account directly because it was not in the recipient’s name. So instead I set up an awkward direct debit to hive the equivalent amount of money off into her account.

Health services, schooling and the like are benefits—albeit non-financial—for the children themselves.

In principle, I have no issues with the new legislation. It is in essence a tax against high earners. But actually, it brings those that are parents back in line with childless high earners.

As an aside, why HMRC/DWP cannot tie their tax records together and automatically stop the payments for any couples affected by the legislation I have no idea. (That’s not true. I have all too good an idea. It’s all about CID and CIS. But that’s not important right now.) Instead, HMRC will continue to pay the benefit to parents who don’t actively opt out, and then claim it back under the self assessment. Luckily, this particular benefit is administered by HMRC, not DWP. Otherwise, all hell would break loose.

RIP Directgov

Just under nine years ago, I started work on a project that to this day stands out from the crowd. That project was the delivery of Directgov.

Previously, we had completed the arduous task of building a new website delivery system for government, from soup to nuts. Both the front-end and the back-end were highly bespoke, the vision being a single content repository and delivery mechanism for all UK government content. Its name was DotP.

Traction was slow. Without a mandate, we relied on selling the concept to other government departments, and had some success. First, ukonline.gov.uk was ported from its unwieldy and expensive HTML platform provided by BT Syntegra. I then project managed the migration of dh.gov.uk to the new platform. (More specifically, it involved the replacement of doh.gov.uk with dh.gov.uk, a stroke of genius that made the migration that bit simpler and the branding that bit clearer. But that’s another story.)

A couple of other small websites came to join the party before the concept of Directgov was introduced.

As I remember, the project kicked off in November 2003. We enlisted offshore support to allow us to hit some very aggressive content entry deadlines. We implemented a radical (and in my opinion confusing) information architecture at the behest of the business. And we went live in January 2004. As project manager, I gave a written status update on 25 December 2003, and a verbal one to Andrew Pinder, the e-Envoy, on Boxing Day. Yet again, we delivered on time.

The hard launch followed in May 2004, and on 9 July I left the Cabinet Office to venture to New York for new experiences. I looked back on the project very fondly. I even cried during my leaving speech, such was the importance of the project, and more importantly the team, to me personally. (It was probably also influenced by me being a rather emotional person. But that aside…)

In mid-2006, we headed back to London to start our next chapter. While I remembered Directgov, it wasn’t at the forefront of my mind – until we hit London. It was on the back of buses, on billboards, and even had a TV campaign. Its URL and its distinctive orange branding adorned every government website, and it was a big deal. A very big deal. It had much, much greater prominence than its UK online predecessor had enjoyed.

The DotP platform was retired 40 days shy of its fourth birthday, on 14 March 2007, upon DH’s migration to Stellent. (Directgov moved off the platform two months prior to this.) Directgov the website will be retired tonight, making way for www.gov.uk, the new government offering.

I wish its successor well. A good number of my good friends are involved in the project, and I wish it every success: for them, for its audience (of 15 million visitors per month), and as the next instalment in the story of the single point of entry for government. Directgov has had a very good life, and I am proud to this day to have played a key role in its inception.

Clint Eastwood: separating the embarrassment from the facts

I just watched the speech that Clint Eastwood made at the RNC yesterday.

Yes it was embarrassing. Deeply embarrassing. To everyone save the 20,000 people at the Times Forum in Tampa. But if we leave that aside for one moment, let’s analyse the substance of his speech. Don’t worry, I won’t be long. There was only one section that contained anything barely resembling a fact.

There’s 23 million unemployed people in this country. Now that is something to cry for, because that is a disgrace, a national disgrace, and this administration hasn’t done enough to cure that.

Post-war, the US unemployment rate was at its highest (10.8%) in November/December 1982, 22 months into President Reagan’s Republican administration.

Other recent local highs occurred in June 1992 (7.8%, six months from the end of George H. W. Bush’s Republican presidency) and June 2003 (6.3%, two and a half years into his Republican son’s first term).

Obama inherited an unemployment rate of 7.8% in January 2009. This peaked at 10.0% that November, and is now hovering around the 8.3% rate.

So while Clint’s first sentence is accurate, the context thereafter is bullshit.

One other snippet of note:

I never thought it was a good idea for attorneys to be president anyway. I think attorneys are so busy, always taught to argue and weigh everything and weigh both sides.

No further questions, your honour.

Huddle in government

By December 2010, efforts on the government’s “G-Cloud” programme had come to little. Thousands of hours’ effort from both government and suppliers (the latter at their own cost) had been spent chasing an ill-defined goal. Proofs of concept were developed to prove ill-conceived or unconceived concepts. Data was asked of departments with little idea what it might be used for, either by the collectors or the providers.

But this was OK. Because failure can only be achieved if the goal is defined. Without a goal, no one can measure your progress towards it.

I was a part of that programme, and my voiced concerns fell on deaf ears. So I went slightly renegade, with the support of my employers. And fought hard for something that I believed in, something that might be of use to government.

And one of my last pieces of work when working as a consultant to government was to negotiate and implement the first pan-government cloud agreement, which went live in March 2011.

My goal was to agree and implement a common and enforceable set of terms and conditions (and costs) to which government departments must sign up to use the services of a cloud provider that was already beginning to be widely used across government: Huddle.

No public body would be able to sign up to using the service (or indeed renew their existing contract) without agreeing to the terms and paying the costs on the ratecard. And Huddle would not be able to enter into an agreement with a public body that strayed away from these terms or costs (either up or down).

Organisations would still need to go through due diligence and the necessary processes to ensure that the product was chosen in a legal and fair manner. But the expensive negotiation process undertaken by each department in blissful ignorance of the same process occurring elsewhere on Whitehall would be gone.

The result was endorsed by Buying Solutions, the predecessor of the Government Procurement Service, on 31 March 2011, and represented the first such agreement: a centralised cloud solution with predefined terms and conditions with commercial endorsement from government.

Fifteen months on, this is where we are. Proud times indeed.

Why gay marriage should not be open to consultation

Once in a while, an issue comes along that is so fundamental to humans’ rights that consultation should not be deemed necessary.

The abolition of slavery. Women having the vote. Non-white people having the vote. Interracial marriage.

And now, gay marriage.

The only people who were against any of the above were those people whose rights would not be affected by the change. White people opposed the abolition of slavery and the introduction of the non-white vote. Men opposed women’s having the vote. Those with no intention of marrying someone of a different race opposed interracial marriage. And straight people oppose gay marriage. (Not the entirety of each of the groups, I hasten to add.)

Consulting the nation on whether gay people should be allowed the same rights as straight people will yield a mixed response. Gay people will, by and large, support the notion. And there will be division among straight people. Some will support it; others will be against it; and many, I expect, will be indifferent, perhaps itself a sign of support.

In my view, the changes should be introduced without consulting the British people. This issue is so fundamental to human rights that its outcome should not be allowed to be influenced by the British public, whose opinions on such issues have proved to be dangerous in the past.

Government finances should be reported in GBP per household

With immediate effect, all government expenditure and savings should be quoted in GBP per British household. With 23.54 million households in the UK, all financial amounts should simply be divided by this figure for reporting purposes.

Today’s news:

Suddenly, the news becomes more accessible, more intelligible, more relevant and more open to meaningful discourse.

www.gov.uk: My initial views

I took a squizz at www.gov.uk the other day. Below are my very high-level views.

Search

It looks like the search engine is pretty intelligent, more so than any I’ve seen outside Google. But stray far beyond the topics you’re invited to search on and it struggles. I’m not sure whether this is because the search engine isn’t that good after all, or whether it’s because the content just isn’t there yet.

A search for unemployment gives residential training for disabled adults as its first result, out of a total of only seven results, most of which are irrelevant.

Their “Related Topics” module on the right seems quite relevant to the articles, for what it’s worth.

Navigation

Jesus. It’s phenomenally flat. Maybe the idea of a tree structure is out of the window now. If so, they’ve embraced this concept. I have no idea where I am in the site. Maybe if I’m only there to look for a specific thing each time, this doesn’t matter. But to me it’s disconcerting.

Content

It’s dumbed down. I thought that Directgov was aimed at the right level: non-complex content in relatively bite-sized chunks. This is a lot more bullet-y and assumes very little of the reader. Maybe it appeals to the masses. It doesn’t appeal to me.

As I say, it’s high-level. But these are my findings nonetheless. Controversial?

Britain is not a Christian country

I’ve never understood the concept of a country being aligned to a religion. The UK is a Christian country, for example. To me, it’s as intrinsically wrong as saying Britain is a white country.

I understand what is meant. The meaning, I think, is to embrace certain values that Christianity claims to uphold. And I’m all for that. There are certain values that Britain should strive for and that should help to define its political outlook. Fairness, honesty, equality for all, education as a right, freedom of speech etc. etc.

But why is there a need to put these values under the banner of a religion? Surely by doing so, any concept of equality goes out of the window.

If Britain labelled itself as a white country while “embracing” people of other ethnicities, that would, rightly, be considered wrong. But that is how Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists in Britain etc. must feel at being told that Britain is a Christian country.

So Cameron, embody some values and preach them from the rooftops. But please, please don’t label them with a religion.

When politicians get it wrong

I’ll be honest. I don’t profess to understand the intricacies (nor indeed the extricacies) of the debt crisis. Nor do I know what is the best course of action to address the more recent crisis that has beset the euro. And nor do I know whether the amendments to the Lisbon Treaty that were proposed on Friday were attractive to the UK, or whether we are better off having walked away from the negotiating table, as Cameron did.

What I do know is that politicians are bullish. And what I do know is that once they choose a course of action, it is rare that they later decide that this course of action was foolish. Heaven forbid they might do a U-turn.

Because in politics, being wrong is a weakness. And admitting you’re wrong is an even bigger weakness. Much better to plough on with an ill-judged policy than to stop, rethink and take a different path. Taking the latter approach will yield cries of incompetence from the opposition and might see your career take a turn for the worse at the next Cabinet reshuffle.

Sometimes, this latter course of action is taken but is hidden. Cameron and Osborne recently performed a U-turn on the economic recovery programme, deciding to pump £50bn into the construction industry, after severe austerity measures, in a bid to stem the economic downturn. Not a U-turn, of course, merely another facet of a complex economic reform programme.

I can’t help but feeling that Cameron has been too hasty in his decision not to join the other 26 members of the European Union in signing up to changes in the terms of the Lisbon Treaty. Ten hours is simply insufficient time to make a decision so intrinsic to the future identity and economic outlook of the UK.

Yet ten hours is how long it took. And at the end of those ten hours, a decision had been made. The UK would leave the rest of Europe to it. If Cameron had any doubts about the wisdom of this decision, they certainly didn’t show, as he defended himself to the hilt in subsequent press conferences and in today’s Prime Minister’s Questions.

But what if there were glints of regret in his mind? My view is that Cameron would have taken the same course of action, as would many other politicians in his position having made the initial decision.

The political consequences of a U-turn, or even a request to continue discussing the matter with Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy, are considered too great for this to be a viable option. Yet the possible economic impact on the UK of not entertaining this notion is far greater.

I wish politicians were able to admit their failings and misjudgments more readily. But the political system and its rich history is designed to slam those who deliberate, cogitate, and certainly those who rethink. And that’s such a shame.

A short analysis of £48.8bn of government contracts

My friend Alan today pointed me to this page on data.gov.uk. It gives an estimated pipeline of the big tenders that are expected to take place within this Parliament, including those over £5m in value. (There are actually 12 tenders included valued under that amount.)

Of the 208 initiatives, 203 have a maximal contract value, the average being £240m. This is heavily skewed by DWP’s facilities management contract (a maximal value of a cool £9.542bn) and HMRC’s Aspire contract for ICT provision (a mere £8.5bn). Both of these are being let in 2017. Yikes! (The next largest is the provision by the Home Office of Tetra radio services to police forces across the country,at £3.8bn.) From this albeit top-heavy sample, the top 0.5% of projects (one) make up 20% of the revenue.

The lowest value tender on the list is for DH’s website services: £1.4m. Although you can pick up courier services for the Government Procurement Service itself for £2m.

If you take the three biggest projects out of the mix, then we have the following headlines:

I will let you draw your own conclusions.

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