No taxation without services: can the final third also drop out of Income Tax?

Government plans to make on-line services the default or even mandatory make sense only if  accompanied by rigorous action to ensure we all have Internet access that is fit for purpose. The Victorians understood this. Antony Tollope spend years in trains and on horseback, investigating rural postal services. One result was the Barchester Chronicles. Another result was the Royal Mail contracts that help pull through investment in “high speed” (in some cases higher than today’s speeds) rail services. We need similar “vision” today.

 

I would therefore like to make couple of Swiftian “modest proposals”,. I remind you that Trollope spent several years in Ireland as a postal inspector. The aim is to link the Government’s Broadband and “More for Less” Public Service Delivery strategies 

1) Victorian style, open competition contracts to support a rural “post office” (alias one-stop-shop for all public services) in every community with more than xxx residents and to provide it with a fibre link direct to the G-Cloud.

and, to help concentrate the mind of Treasury on the need to expedite progress,

2) Those more than x miles from a “post office” manned by a human being who will help them gain access to public services, to be exempted from the community charge and/or income tax after 2015.

The “post office” might be based in the school, church, chapel or pub and provide payment and parcel services for those other than Royal Mail. 

The contracts should be local (so that each is below the EU procurement limit with electronic bidding processes used to keep the costs down) because while BT, Virgin, Cable and Wireless or Sky and others should be able to serve most current communities and their “post offices” (including those they already serve) at negligible marginal cost, they have a massive investment task ahead to overcome the current need for bandwidth rationing (alias traffic management) over their current networks. They should not be expected to cross subsidise those they cannot economically serve by making “average csot” bids.

Meanwhile shared community networks (available for use by all-comers as across much of Scandinavia or in countries like Roumania) may well offer more cost effective routines for meeting the needs of those not already served – as well as opening up supposedly “natural monopolies” to competition to provide world class access to content.

More-over the competiton should be open to others besides Royal Mail because the cost of cross-subsidising one-stop-shop services in rural areas and deprived communities, let alone serving the sick and elderly who are in most need of public services, does not fit well with their current national cost-reduction negotiations with Government. 

I did say this was a Swiftian Modest Proposal .

It does, however, has a better chance of delivering “more for less” than some of those allegedfely being considered within Whitehall  

P.S. References to On-line Driving License renewal as a flagship should recognise that its success demonstrates shows that about a 40% of us are content to pay £2.50 extra for the privilege of helping HMG save 80p!  I live barely 50 yards from a Bank and 200 yards from a Post Office. But for the queues in both, it would nearly always take me less time to transact with a human being than it does on-line – thanks to poor response times, bloatware and the need to look up security codes that I have fogotten. The Driving License renewal is one of the few cases where that is not the case.

More-over the story of how the system came to be as it is has lessons for those who are serious about partnership between the public and private sectors to bring about dramatic reductions in cost and improvements in services on all sides. It also illustrates the problems that need to be addressed – including the need to work more closely with the private sector on removing the increased opportunities for widescale automated fraud that are being opened up as public services are moved on-line with little or no attempt to preserve the “physical reality” checks that are an essential part of any serious audit process. These are already said (look at the Fraud Authority analyses) to cost HMG rather more than the savings being predicted.     

 

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Presumably by mistake, a copy of the Trinity College Dublin moderator’s report on Philip’s No taxation without services thesis in pursuit of an MA in political science has been emailed to me and reads as follows.

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Swift would have enjoyed the relegation of the main point to a PS in the thesis. Years of experience demonstrate the security vulnerabilities of cloud computing. That experience is conveniently ignored in the proposal to put all public services on the web.

He would have enjoyed, too, the complete absence of any attempt to make the case for cloud computing. The reader is left to assume that public services today are delivered by people who have no idea what they are doing. All those housing officers. All those social workers. Not a clue. Incompetent all. They will be replaced, thanks to the ineffable bounty of Whitehall, with computers imbued with the wisdom today’s public servants lack.

No mention either of the internal contradictions. The government has a Bill to destroy the National Identity Register. And at the same time the government plots to create a National Identity Register in the clouds, all part of the G-Plan furniture in the Cabinet Office.

Once all those server farms are consolidated, once there is common functionality, what else could be the result? Incontinent data-sharing on a massive scale by government departments all using a “single source of truth”, as one ex-Chairman of O2 and ex-Head of HMRC called it, arise Sir David Blarney.

So Virgo must pass. He must get his MA. But no commendation. And no distinction.

His thesis contains no bodily fluids. Not a single one. And no human flesh-eating. The Dean would hardly have recognised it as a satire.

There is a cast of incomparable grotesques. A cast Virgo wantonly ignores and Swift wouldn't.

Lord Browne of Madingley, the man who invented “more for less”. More profit for less safety. Surely Swift would have had the Mexican Gulf turned into a vast toilet bowl with $20 billion dollars swirling down the pan accompanied by glutinous excretory noises. And the thesis would have been entitled “More or less”.

Ian Watmore for less, the man who failed with transformational government and who then failed with the Football Association, brought back to fail again, less for more, eh what, with the G-Digital Programme.

Martha Lane Fox, the sweet-faced voice of paradox who can say one minute that 10 million people in the UK have never used the web and, next minute, that all public services should be delivered over the web.

The lupine Cabinet Office Minister, Francis Maude, with his hair slicked back and his prominent incisors, the very face of menace, who turns out to be a mere pussy cat in the hands of ...

... the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell. Can you imagine Swift missing the chance to include GOD in his thesis?

No. And therein lies the problem. It is these Lilliputians who have made the modest proposal that would stir the savage indignation in Swift’s breast, not Virgo. They’re better at it. It is they who have admitted that government is beyond them, people are too difficult, the Lilliputians prefer instead to govern electronic identities.

Response from Philip Virgo

Maurice Cowling's comment on my efforts in applying to Peterhouse in 1965 was rather shorter: "Poor Exhibition: difficult to assess because of erratic punctuation and poor spelling" - but I still got the £40 p.a. which was good drinking money (so sorry, contribution towards extra books) back then.

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That was the moderator's report. It is presumably no accident that a fragment of the examiners' report has now been emailed to me.

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... Swift's compatriot, Edmund Burke, whose cause was revived by Maurice Cowling and is promoted today most cogently by Roger Scruton.

Moderator's comments

We appreciate the moderation, if that is the word, performed by our esteemed colleague from Trinity College Dublin. Remember, Swift was mad, Virgo isn't. It may be different at TCD, but we can find nothing in the Statutes of this university requiring us to penalise candidates for not being mad.

The Board is unhesitatingly recommended to award Virgo's tireless charting of the seas where IT meets politics a Distinction.

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