Taxpayers Alliance’s cooked up research..

I see Chris Hope, my old mucker on the Telegraph, has got a hold of the latest broadside from the Taxpayer’s Alliance on government spending. Interestingly he repeats the TPA’s claims that Stratagem, the Northern Ireland company public affairs company who helped us put together last year’s Slugger Awards, was paid a whopping £900,000 by Scottish Enterprise.

Only they weren’t. It seems the TPA in its eager campaign to rid us of the government funding of lobbyists (as opposed to funding by lobbyists) mistook the local company Stratagem for another quite separate events company in Scotland.

And it wasn’t the only mistake they’ve made. And Chris is not the only one to carry the TPA’s misinformation

Adds: It raises number of questions. But the one I’d like an answer to is how did a pressure group (ie private lobbyists) get to be treated as a respectable, peer reviewed research institute by a whole swathe of the British press corps.

Fairly embarrassing when the group did not bother to check the veracity of the information. It’s understood that the TPA is now blaming Scottish Enterprise for their mistake.

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  • Slugger,

    We asked Scottish Enterprise – using the Freedom of Information Act, which should mean the answers are taken very seriously – for the amount paid to Stratagem. They answered that question by giving us the amount paid to Strategem. That was clearly a mistake on the part of their Freedom of Information officer that we are working to correct.

    We did check the information with Scottish Enterprise, which is clearly the place to check as they were the source, and they confirmed the figure and told us that the spend was for a series of events with businesses, which is the kind of thing many actual lobbyists do arrange.

    Don’t let your relationship with Stratagem cloud your judgement about the TPA’s work. This error is regrettable but wasn’t ours and doesn’t undermine the credibility of our broader report which we think hits at a very important topic.

    Best,
    Matt Sinclair
    TPA Research Director

  • Mick,

    On the media and institutions like this, journalists in the big papers are now so over-worked/lazy/subject to time pressures with the internet etc that they wouldn’t know how to check a fact if it punched them on the nose, or spilt their drink, or stole their cocaine.

  • Mick Fealty

    Thanks, again, for the reply Matt… For those interested, here’s the bulk of my reply to the same post over at CIF:

    I appreciate your civil reply. I will try not to let my declared interest with Stratagem (sponsors of the Slugger Awards) cloud my judgement any more than you would let your (undeclared) interests cloud yours. 🙂

    I understand from the Herald article how you got the information, but it was TPA who published it as an accurate account. I see that Scottish Enterprise are pushing you back on the Demos and the Fleishman Hillard accounts too.

    So to the argument itself, apart from ropey research practices, the flaw is your focus on the ‘amount’. The amount is not shocking. It is identified and avoidable waste that’s shocking.

    There is not the least hint what this might be in your report. Instead you give the distinct impressing of targeting rival lobbyists (and I suspect, in more than one case, missing completely)…

    As Andrew Haldenby has rightly argued there needs to be a surgical approach to cuts in government spending. In the past drastic cuts under Major only feed a demand for the kind of splurge in spending we’ve seen under Brown’s government.

    Having been a commercial researcher in the past, I understand there is a proper place for ‘quick and dirty’. But even quick and dirty has minimal standards. You have to take the hit when YOU get it wrong.

    You can read the relevant thread here: http://url.ie/263b

  • Tom

    I think any pretence at bipartisanship is pretty easy to see through:

    From the first para of today’s press release:

    “The new TaxPayers’ Alliance report Taxpayer funded lobbying and political campaigning reveals the extent of taxpayer funded lobbying and political campaigning in the UK. The Conservatives have pledged to stop public bodies spending taxpayers’ money on lobbying, and this report reveals for the first time that over £38 million a year is spent by Government on lobbying and political campaigning.”

    The media are climbing into bed with the TPA cos they are positioning ahead of the next general election. The bias is just as clear.

  • Mick,

    In answer to your question:

    “..how did a pressure group (ie private lobbyists) get to be treated as a respectable, peer reviewed research institute by a whole swathe of the British press corps?”

    You might want to read “Flat Earth News” by Nick Davies:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Flat-Earth-News-Award-winning-Distortion/dp/0701181451

    I suspect you probably already know all that this book covers though and your question is largely rhetorical 😉

  • Mick Fealty

    Even so it is shocking they allowed themselves get suckered on this one. The messy data points to some pretty messy thinking in the research design. Or maybe that’s just easy to say, once you see the flaw in the data.

    Despite Davies’s damnation of UK journalism, there are still standards to get past. If the likes of Fleishman Hillard came to the desk with this kind of research, I’d like to think the editor would give it a long hard sniff before touching it.

    Or am I just being too naive?

  • Mick,

    I’m not sure what you’re accussing us of getting wrong.

    This wasn’t remotely quick and dirty research. It’s just that there was a regrettable error in one item of the, official, source material. We checked with the source and tried to get as much detail as they would give us. Unfortunately, they just repeated their error. We published the information we had, as we had no reason to think it was innacurrate, but did note that the Freedom of Information process isn’t perfect and is subject to the FOI officers sending us the right information.

    Scottish Enterprise aren’t pushing back on Fleishman Hillard or Demos’s accounts, no one has suggested our report is in any way innaccurate in those two cases. They’re just saying that they believe the payments are justified and in the interests of taxpayers.

    Best,
    Matt

  • Mick Fealty

    Hi Matt. Welcome back!!

    Here’s what you got fantastically wrong:

    “The new TaxPayers’ Alliance report Taxpayer funded lobbying and political campaigning reveals the extent of taxpayer funded lobbying and political campaigning in the UK.

    In none of the Scottish cases does this apply. You have clearly been identifying companies that have lobbying as their core competence, and then taking the money spent on them by government and calling that ‘lobbying’. That gives us a series of lump sum payments but you clearly have no idea upon what services it might have been spent.

    In which case your research gives you no authority to claim what you claim in the first sentence of the introductory blog post.

    The Stratagem case is the one that points up to the rest of us the flaw in the primary claim of this ‘research’. I accept it may not have been quick, but the data is certainly dirty.

    BTW, I honestly would not have written about this if were not also an important public interest angle to this story.

    But Scottish Enterprise is now coming out and saying they paid those companies for something other than lobbying too. As it happens, if I were counselling government on where to make forced cuts I might be telling them SE should be the first for the chop, so I’m not backing them against you either.

    Does make it clearer?

  • tc

    I got the impression that the TPA’s view was that any government spending by a non-Tory government was a waste?

  • Dec

    Have the TPA published a retraction on the erroneous research yet or is that down to Scottish Enterprise too?

  • A bunch of Tory-linked ideologues with a bias against public spending of any sort. I wouldn’t waste my time reading their reports but it’s a pity the press seem to treat them as an objective source.

  • The Spectator

    Mick

    “But the one I’d like an answer to is how did a pressure group (ie private lobbyists) get to be treated as a respectable, peer reviewed research institute by a whole swathe of the British press corps”

    …. Asked and Answered ….

    From the Taxpayers’ Alliance website :

    Andrew Allum is the non-executive and unpaid Chairman of the TaxPayers’ Alliance…Andrew led the student Conservative groups both in Imperial College and across London and sat on the national committee of the student wing of the party.

    Matthew Elliott, Chief Executive. Whilst at the LSE, Matthew was involved with the LSE Hayek Society and worked for the European Foundation – Britain’s leading Eurorealist think-tank.

    After graduation, Matthew worked for a number of MPs and MEPs in the House of Commons and the European Parliament. In November 2007, Matthew was presented with the Conservative Way Forward ‘One of Us’ award by William Hague.

    Florence Heath is one of the Co-Founders of the TaxPayers’ Alliance. Together with Matthew and Andrew, she set up the organisation in the run-up to its launch in 2004. Florence led the student Conservative association at Imperial College for two years as well as the Europe-wide European Young Conservatives, and served on the committees of the local Conservative associations, Conservative Friends of Gibraltar and the cross-party Youth for a Free Europe.

    Matthew Sinclair studied economics and economic history at the London School of Economics at undergraduate and Master’s level.

    He was also actively involved in student politics, arguing the case for economic liberalism in a highly anti-capitalist environment.

    Mike Denham is a former Treasury economist. Mike … has a Masters in Economics from the LSE.

    Ben Farrugia was born in 1984, in London. A highly commended dissertation on the relationship between European Union enlargement and integration helped Ben to obtain a first class degree, and a place at the London School of Economics.

    Dr Lee Rotherham is a veteran from behind the stage scenery of European Union politics. After researching for the “Westminster Group of Eight” Eurorebels, he advised three successive Shadow Foreign Secretaries This expertise led to his appointment as ‘Chief of Staff’ to the Rt Hon David Heathcoat-Amory MP and a central role behind delegates opposing the European Constitution.

    (Ed’s note : He’s also in the Bruges group, far as I can tell)

    ….

    All of these people are entirely excellent individuals, their views entirely reasonable – but would it not be more honest to call them the Eurosceptic Conservative LES and Imperial Alumni Organisation that they clearly are?

  • @Mick

    Demos have clearly been paid to write a pretty standard think tank report and F-H to do standard political consultancy communication work, it’s just that it happens to be aimed at an international audience. Our report is full of examples of how the money is being used politically and, in the case of political campaigns, supporting them in their non-political activities frees their resources to use however they like.

    Matt

  • The Spectator,

    You’re attacking the TPA’s scandalous recruitment of staff who went to a good university? Shocking. 🙂

    Matt

  • Mick Fealty

    That’s fair enough as a journalistic report Matt, but the claims for the research don’t stack up the way you claimed on the front page of the TPA blog.

  • Mick Fealty

    The Spec,

    Matt’s an entirely excellent individual, but I am afraid this piece of research does not live up to his good name.

  • tc

    “You’re attacking the TPA’s scandalous recruitment of staff who went to a good university?”

    Very funny. Playing “the game” like a “pro”. Just wait til next year huh? Taxpayers don’t seem to really matter other than as a handy mechanism to push for a bigger role in the presumed next Conservative government.

    To most insiders this is known, so the press know, so as ever the media are just going with the flow, however murky, and full of ****, that may be.

  • Davros

    Susie Squire from TPA is purdy

  • Tim Indated

    Have all these clever and informed people been attracted to Slugger by the Liberal Conspiracy link or were they here lurking all the time?

    submit word = college! How does this work?

  • The Spectator

    Matthew Sinclair (Matthew)

    “You’re attacking the TPA’s scandalous recruitment of staff who went to a good university? Shocking. 🙂

    Well, you would say that, as the saying goes 😉

    I’m certainly not attacking LSE or Imperial, fine schools both – indeed, I almost went to Imperial as it happens, before financial reality enforced some paraochialsim on my own part. So it’s not ‘class envy’!

    I’m merely noting that for a group who’s very name suggests a coalition of disparate interests (after all, we are all taxpayers), the group is in fact, not a little incestuous, if not self-selecting.

    And, Matthew, is it not disingenuous to talk about ‘hiring staff’ – when the very founders are all like minded, similarly politically experienced, alumni?

    That’s not a matter of hiring policy (nobody ‘hired’ the founders but the founders!), that’s about the clear founding doctrines and dogmas of the organisation – which are somewhat difficult to square with the idea of a ‘independent’ ‘peer reviewed research institute’.

    Look, honestly, good luck to you Matthew, I have no problem with the group’s views at all – some I share, some I don’t – I just think there is something …well … a little dishonest, about the way the organisation presents itself. Hardly an original sin, I grant ye, but there you are.

    It is, undeniably, in effect a eurosceptic Conservative Postgraduate Association in all but name – and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it makes claims of independent research value difficult to swallow – and the problem Mick noted is a clear symptom of that.

    For the record, I’d be happy to ‘Fisk’ the Joseph Rowntree Foundation for the other side as and when required…

  • willis

    Mick

    It raises number of questions. But the one I’d like an answer to is how did a pressure group (ie private lobbyists) get to be treated as a respectable, peer reviewed research institute by a whole swathe of the British press corps.

    So they get taken seriously by the Torygraph, Mail and Times perhaps?

    If the BBC, Indy and Gruniad took them seriously then maybe………

  • I think the TPA are doing a fine job. Have they a branch in NI? It’s hard to see from up here.

  • There’s a detailed alternative take on The (non?)Taxpayers Alliance here:
    http://www.taxpayersalliance.org/

    They call themselves Taxpayers, but they won’t say who funds them. If they were prepared to apply a fraction of the transparency to their own structures that they demand from others, we may then be in a position to start working out whether most of their contributors actually pay tax in the UK or not.

    Their research is routinely shoddy, they’re a front for a very very right-wing bloggertarian faction within the Tory party and they rely on the fact that a substantial number of journalists will run with pretty well any juicy-sounding story as long as it’s backed up by ‘research.’

    The interesting thing is that – once you’ve worked out what they are against, you can kinda deduce what they are in favour of. Their libertarian position posits an underlying assumption that tax for the purpose of public spending is somehow ‘theft’. All of this in a year when we’ve seen possibly the most audacious raid of public finance – a raid that our grandchildren will be paying for – by monopolistic capitalists.

    I have a statement that I’ve been urging them to sign for some time, but unfortunately, they’re not interested.

    It’s here: http://nevertrustahippy.blogspot.com/2008/09/declaraton-draft-1.html

  • That’s because it was a very silly post, Paulie.

  • Well, I’d be happy if the TPA were to ignore my silly post and just tell everyone if they are actually an alliance of people who pay any tax or whether they are, in reality, the most hypocritical, dishonest and cynical pressure group operating anywhere on these islands.

    If you call yourself the ‘Taxpayers Alliance’ it’s kinda incumbent on you to demonstrate that you were set up and funded by …. er … taxpayers. And paying the VAT on the odd Mars Bar isn’t a high enough bar either….

  • Matt appears to have tactically withdrawn from this and several other threads he was fighting manfully on.

    There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting low or flat taxes. Nor highlighting waste. In fact, if they had found evidence of what they had claimed they had, they would quite rightly be lauded for civic minded whistleblowing.

    Dressing up what is no more than a polemical argument and claiming your have numbers which you clearly don’t is disreputable.

    I’ve not had occasion to look at the TPA’s research claims in the past. But if this is an example of what they normally put out, I’m not sure I understand why they have the ear of Fleet Street to the extent they clearly have.

    Can I add, that I think it would be nuts for David Cameron to follow the advice in this report. It makes sense for him to invest in right wing think tanks (none seem to have even been included in this ‘report’).

    But he’d be taking a hell of a leap to rely on the policy expertise inside the FCO for instance. Not least with a whole tranche of multilateral agreements coming up. The US would never go solo. Why should the UK?

  • Mick,

    I’ve responded to your later post, as it seemed that was where you wanted to move the debate (and on Comment is Free). I’m not going to continue this indefinitely though, as you appear to have lost all perspective and I’m not sure it is possible for me to get anywhere when you’ve made your mind up to such an extent.

    At this stage, all I can really do is sound patronising, ask you to take a deep breath and read our report again with a clear head. All of the issues you have brought up are discussed in the report and Scottish Enterprise’s error in no way undermines the rest of the report, which discussed the issues you’ve brought up and chose careful criteria in order to address that.

    Best,
    Matt

  • pith

    Hopefully the press will be a little more sceptical about using information from the TPA after this debacle. Up until now you would think the TPA was some sort of worthy charity on a par with Save the Children or whatever.

    As for, “This expertise led to his appointment as ‘Chief of Staff’ to the Rt Hon David Heathcoat-Amory MP”. What the…?

  • willis

    Matt

    I realise this may seem a very silly question, but did SE spell the word with an e or an a?