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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The pain ahead

For those like Plaid Cymru who are in denial about the impact of the recession and debt control measures on the Welsh budget the Wales Audit Office have brought us all down to earth with what seems to be a conservative estimate of how much public spending will have to be cut here.

Gillian Body, the Auditor General for Wales, said the NHS, councils and the police will have to work in "radically different ways" to face cuts of about £1.5bn over the next three years. Her report warned that if organisations do not change, "they will simply run out of money":

In her report Ms Body wrote: "Public services are going to have to deal with major change very soon.

"Our experience suggests that public services tend to change incrementally over time. But if they carry on with business as usual, they will simply run out of money.

"Change will come one way or another. The challenge will be getting those changes right with good planning and timely decision-making."

The report says that as staff costs make up the bulk of most public services' spending, they will need to "identify novel ways of reducing their staffing bills".

These include flexible working, with reduced hours or moving from full-time to part-time work.

The BBC report says that The figure of £1.5bn of cuts over three years is an estimate drawn from Institute for Fiscal Studies forecasts, based on Treasury figures:

The actual figure could be higher if there is a so-called 'double dip' recession delaying recovery or if the UK government opts to pay off the national debt more quickly.

Ms Body said the impact of the funding reduction could be even greater than the figures on real terms cuts suggest, because public sector budgets in Wales have risen by an average of 2.4% above inflation since 2007-08.

She wrote: "There could be a total gap of around £5.5bn between where public services would have gone had they continued with business as usual and where they are likely to end up."

Surely a good start would be in rationalising the present 22 counties into a pattern that creates fewer, more viable, authorities, together with a roll-back of the quango alphabet-soup - for eg. look at what HEFCW and WEFO do, how much they cost, and what they actually achieve?
Accountability for Standards in Public Life and Our Money

The Auditor General for Wales who runs the Welsh Audit Office (WAO) that is the watchdog for spending by the Welsh Assembly Government has just warned of swinging cuts to public services but this does not tell the full story.

Under the Local Government Act 2000, the Welsh Audit Office could intervene on issues of value for money in all public spending for our services. However, the power to intervene and take over a Higher Education Institution, or HEI as Universities are known was removed by the Public Audit (WALES) Act 2004. The WAO has confirmed that unlike local councils the public has no right of complaint whatsoever.

The duty of ensuring value for our money is undertaken by an unaccountable Quango the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales known as HEFCW. It has a statutory duty under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 to ensure standards in higher education.This task is undertaken by the Quality Assurance Agency known as the QAA, which unlike the schools and colleges regulators OFSTED and ESTYN it has no statutory duties or powers. They are simply contractors exempt from the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and accountability to the Public Services Ombudsman.

They are accountable to HEFCW and Higher Education Wales known as HEW, which is an association of Welsh Universities. It is also a schedule 1 registered charity whose primary duty is to its vulnerable beneficiaries namely students. As the QAA cannot investigate any claim of misconduct against HEFCW we believe this an unacceptable conflict of interest that puts vulnerable students at risk.

Student complaints are barred from the courts unless they apply to consumer law. Under the Higher Education Act 2004 the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education known as the OIA replaced the Visitor to act as a judge on student complaints. However, there is growing discontent with the OIA, as it does not make any inquiry into issues of any complexity.

We need our own Welsh OIA that has the power to investigate as well as adjudicate on student complaints. We also need to support students through what is a traumatic complaints process which in some cases has intimidating threats of action being taken against students who are considered to be making malicious accusations!

We have a right to know what went wrong at the University of Wales Lampeter and why nobody was held to account for this financial disaster that cost us many millions of pounds. We also have a right to know why HEFCW deliberately withheld a disturbing report by Haines Watts Corporate Finance on Lampeter, when merger talks were going on with Trinity University College.

If this happened in our schools or hospitals there would be an outcry. So why should they or we in effect pay for this fiasco when those responsible walk off with a fat pension, while staff lose their jobs, students are put at risk, and we the taxpaying serfs are banned from having any right of consultation or complaint.

Jonathan Morgan AM for Cardiff North, who is also Chair of the Public Accounts committee for the National Assembly for Wales is powerless to intervene he said: The Audit (Public Accounts) Committee doesn't initiate inquiries so I am afraid that there is little that I can do with the information you have sent me.

Meanwhile, because of deregulation this financial fiasco carries on with government powerless to intervene.
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