Let’s talk about scroungers, gentlemen

The lineup on BBC Question Time tonight was Digby Jones, Alan Duncan, Emma Boon, Phil Redmond, Sadiq Khan.

Digby Jones was revealed in 2010 as “the most expensive member of the House of Lords in the West Midlands”

An analysis of his expenses claims shows that Lord Jones of Birmingham charged taxpayers £574.12 in allowances – for every day he attended Parliament. … The latest expenses figures show that Lord Jones claimed £24,687 for the period between April 2008 and March 2009, and attended the House of Lords 43 times, costing taxpayers £574.12 per appearance. (Birmingham Post, 18th February 2010)

“Digby, Lord Jones of Birmingham” was being paid a Ministerial salary of £108,253 per year between June 2007 and October 2008.

Jones read Law at University College London in the 1970s, paid for by the British taxpayer, and worked for twenty years at Edge Ellison, according to the biography on his website more in a business capacity than as a lawyer. For six years he was Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) between 1st January 2000 and 30th June 2006 and was knighted in 2005. His knighthood has not yet been withdrawn. CBI describes itself as the UK’s “premier business lobbying organisation” – fixing politicians for industry from its offices in Beijing, Brussels, New Delhi and Washington DC.

There’s also iSoft….

For six years Jones was a non-executive director and then advisor for the NHS IT contractor iSoft (between 2000 and 2006). A memorandum (by Ian Griffiths and Simon Bowers, The Guardian) submitted to the Commons Select Committee on Public Accounts in April 2007 with regard to some major irregularities in iSoft’s annual audit, notes that although Digby Jones, when a non-executive director at iSoft, had attended the audit committee and had instructed iSoft’s lawyers to inform the Guardian in the course of their investigation that

“He [Sir Digby Jones] is satisfied that there was no confusion over the matter internally, but there was an error in preparation of the draft minutes”

it turned out that a £30 million shortfall, attributed to a drafting error, was no such:

In October 2006 iSoft conceded the original minutes seen by The Guardian were entirely accurate. Director of communications John White repeatedly confirmed to us that changes had been made to the relevant passage, but that they did not amount to a correction.

iSoft has used controversial accounting procedures to book revenues before being paid on subsequent occasions. In 2005 the company booked a cash advance from the Department of Health of £58 million, helping it to meeting City expectations. Earlier this year, a similar upfront government cash amount was paid to the company—though it was not as much as iSoft had been banking on.

Sir Digby was also called upon to assist iSoft executives to resolve a serious accounting problem relating to a bad debt. On 31 October 2002, iSoft signed a licensing agreement with Gleneagles Healthcare, a Philippines company, which agreed to pay about £2 million for the right to distribute iSoft products in the region. The deal was never announced publicly even though the one-off payment to iSoft represented more than 50% of the company’s net profits for the half-yearly to 31 October 2002.

Digby Jones said in defense of his comments:

“There is a limit to what a non-executive can know… They have to rely on what advisers tell them and what the executive team tells them. It is important that people understand this.”

He was not prosecuted.

In 2009 Iain Martin at the Daily Telegraph was calling for Digby Jones to be fired:

It is not just that he appears the walking personification of the spirit of big business at its corporatist worst; it’s the pomposity of his know-all demeanour, the bluff “say what I like, like what I bloody well say” media appearances where he is usually presented as “the voice of business” and the way he just makes one cringe.

Incidentally, if you wonder why a free marketeer such as me should be healthily wary of the CBI then you haven’t been paying attention since the Second World War. Some good people in the CBI are free marketeers but not all of them are and the distinction is crucial. It is possible to be a capitalist and be in favour of big business in concert with big government fixing things to their mutual advantage. That is what is happening in this country now and it is called corporatism.

This can operate happily, for those doing the fixing if not for the rest of us, with quite severe restrictions on free markets, state ownership and interference. But it crowds out innovation, stitches up consumers and is the enemy of genuine wealth creation. Those who advocate this approach usually do so cleverly, by borrowing the language of the free market and competition. British banking is right now providing a text book example of the process in operation for future economic historians to study.

Alan Duncan impressed me on Question Time tonight: he sounded intelligent, polite, and compassionate. Of course this was in contrast to Emma Boon, David Dimbleby, and Digby Jones – neither Sadiq Khan nor Phil Redmond seemed to get much chance to talk. It might seem icing on the cake after Digby Jones to go into detail over Duncan’s expenses claims for his garden.

Alan Duncan said in August 2009, after the expenses were leaked and some controls were being instituted:

“No-one who has done anything in the outside world, or is capable of doing such a thing, will ever come into this place ever again, the way we are going. Basically, it’s being nationalised, you have to live on rations and are treated like ****. I spend my money on my garden and claim a tiny fraction on what is proper. And I could claim the whole bloody lot, but I don’t.”

And he still comes across as nicer than Digby, Lord Bloody Expensive Jones of Birmingham.

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Filed under Benefits, In The Media, Poverty

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