The report by Sir Philip Green into Whitehall efficiency is now out* and it makes interesting reading, not least his suggestion that maybe the state shouldn’t be paying for mobile phones for desk-bound junior personnel. (There are 105,000 government mobiles).
One of his discoveries is the lack of reliable central government data. For example, his team was first told that Whitehall spent £2bn a year on travel. The second estimate was £500m. The third was £768m – before the final figure came in at £551m. (This will seem familiar to all political journalists).
Sir Philip has also found big differences in prices paid to suppliers: a box of paper can cost anything from £8 to £73. Laptops vary from £353 to £2,000.
It was worth listening to Today this morning if only to hear Lord Ashdown under siege over the issue of Sir Philip Green and his tax status. The Lib Dem peer was asked about how the government could seriously talk about battling tax avoidance given the recent hiring of the retail tycoon as an efficiency czar: As the interviewer asked:
“If this government was really serious about tax avoidance it would not have employed, would it, Sir Philip Green, who is also accused of avoiding taxes, perfectly legally…but there he is, advising the government on waste. If the Lib Dems really had power in this government he wouldn’t be there would he?”
Ashdown said he would not criticise the appointment. He then rattled off a list of the many changes achieved by the coalition (pupil premium, tax breaks for low-income families, etc). It was as if he didn’t want to discuss the tycoon at all.
But the Lib Dems do seem to be facing both ways on the issue of tax at the moment. Yesterday Danny Alexander announced a new £900m to spend on tackling the issue. But how does this square with hiring Sir Philip?
It turns out that Sir Philip, the government’s new efficiency czar, didn’t like the Today programme asking him uncomfortable questions last week. The retail tycoon was asked, among other things, about the tax status of his wife – who owns Arcadia. (She is resident in Monaco).
In an opinion piece for the Mail on Sunday today Sir Philip explains a little more about how he can advise Whitehall in the coming months. There’s also a little thinly-disguised threat against the BBC: