Friday, 22 September 2017

Hostile Odds

According to The Guardian, the government, in its attempt to create a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants, has recruited the banks into doing immigration checks on 70m current accounts.  That is just slightly more than the population of the UK, and not everyone in the UK actually has a Current Account.  I can only assume this means the government is asking the banks to check the immigration status of literally every current account holder in the UK!

In the process, according to the Guardian story, the “Home Office expects to identify 6,000 visa overstayers, failed asylum seekers, and foreign national offenders.”  The guardian story also informs us that “The accounts of those identified will be closed down or frozen.”

The Guardian story continues “Banks have been told to adopt a default position of telling customers to take up the matter with the Home Office if a mistake has been made, even if they provide a passport or biometric residence permit showing they are lawfully present in Britain…

“The new legislation requires the banks to check the identity of every current account holder against a Home Office supplied database held by an anti-fraud organisation, Cifas.  So it looks like this is going to be an exercise in matching names of current account holders to a list of potential immigration rule violators.  So if someone who is here illegally has opened the bank account with a slightly different spelling of their name, they will be missed and there will be a false negative.  If someone with a perfectly legal right to be here just happens to have the same name as someone who is on this list, there will be a false positive.  That person will find their account frozen and will have to deal with the Home Office in order to unfreeze it – an experience which by all accounts compares favourably with banging one’s head against a wall.

Let’s run the numbers and assume that the Home Office are correct in their estimate that there are 6,000 people here illegally who also have current accounts. Given their recent performance overestimating the number of foreign students who overstay their visa by over 2,000%, that is stretching credulity.  But let’s go with that for the sake of making some estimates and crunching some numbers. 

Let’s consider some scenarios around the success rate.  Some estimates have suggested the Home Office’s error rate could be as high as 10% (see below).   

So we’ll use that as a worst case scenario.  We’ll run the numbers assuming the Home Office accuracy rate is:

  • 90%;
  • 99%;
  • 99.9%; and
  • 99.99%.

Then we can calculate the number of false positives we would expect given this level of accuracy, given that there are 69,994,000 current accounts held by people with every right to be in the UK.  The numbers are in the table below:

Error Rate
No. Of False Positives

In order to cut the number of false positives to be of the same order of magnitude as the number of people they are hoping to catch, the Home Office would need to be 99.99% accurate.  Even then, there are about 1,000 more false positives than the number of overstayers the Home Office expects to catch.  So it would be more likely that someone whose bank account was frozen as a result of this review had a right to be in the UK than not.  Remember this is the same Home Office that was once declared “unfit for purpose” by the minister in charge of it (who was quoting a senior civil servant).  The same Home Office that violated a court order in deporting someone to Afghanistan and may well have been in contempt of court.   The same Home Office that “accidentally” sent letters to over a hundred European citizens exercising their treaty rights living in the UK legally telling them they should pack their bags or face arrest.  To suggest that this Home Office can hit that target level of accuracy is patently absurd.

The next step is to make some assumptions about how quickly civil servants can clear up the confusion that results from false positives and set them right.  We will assume a somewhat optimistic 5 person hours per false positive to clear it all up.  Given some of the stories linked to above, this may be absurdly optimistic.  Remember that is just the time of the civil servants at the Home Office, it is not taking into account the time and effort of the people caught up in this dragnet, neither is it taking into account the time of bank staff.  We will further assume 500 civil servants are dedicated to this task and the cost of civil servant time to the tax payer is £24 per hour as this is the figure used to turn down Freedom of Information requests on the grounds they would cost too much.  On the assumption that these people work 8 hour days and 260 days per year, we can work out how many days and years it would take to clear all the false positives as well.  Those calculations are in the next table:

Person Hours to clear false positives
Hours to clear
Days to clear
Years to clear

Even on the optimistic assumption that the Home Office cuts the proportion of false positives to 10% of what it has been in the past, it would still take around 3 years to process all of the false positives coming out of this exercise.  That is a very long time for some people to be spending in limbo, with no access to their bank accounts, unable to pay the rent, mortgage, unable to pay the gas bill, unable to pay for groceries.  All to try and catch a measly 6,000 or so visa over stayers.

The Home Office might be able to catch a few more illegal immigrants if they expand their search parameters and look for common mis-spellings of the names that are on their list or other variations.  This would reduce the number of false negatives, but it would increase the number of false positives, leaving more innocent people with no means of paying the rent or mortgage or gas bill.

Yes, I’ve had to make a lot of assumptions in making these calculations.  However, at every point, the assumptions I've made are fairly reasonable.  The Home Office could cut the time it takes to clear the number of false positives by dedicating more civil servants to the task.  However this would not cut the total number of hours taken and would not cut the cost of dealing with the backlog, which could run as high as £840m.  Neither would it do much to cut the costs, panic and trauma imposed on thousands, maybe millions of perfectly innocent people.

The numbers work out this way, with so many more false positives than actual illegal immigrants caught because the number of illegal immigrants is just so small (even by the Home Office’s wildly inflated estimates) relative to the size of the UK population as a whole.  Yet the political hysteria surrounding this issue has reached fevered proportions.  The words of Sir Humphrey have never been so apt: “If you’re going to do this damned silly thing, don’t do it in this damned silly way.”

Indeed, these numbers and costs are so dire, that it is amazing to think that anyone could have thought this is a good idea.  Yet this is happening as a result of an Act of Parliament that was passed with full parliamentary scrutiny in both Houses.  Just imagine what these ministers and civil servants would get up to if a law were passed giving them the authority to make their own laws with the full force of an Act of Parliament with no Parliamentary scrutiny whatsoever!

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Is Contracting Out Tantamount to Privatisation?

“Owen Smith wanted to privatise the NHS”.  Expect to hear a lot more statements like this over the coming months.  The basis for this claim as far as I could tell from the interview on the Today programme was that he had in the past supported the idea that the NHS does not provide some relatively routine surgery itself, but contracts out to private firms for common knee and hip operations.  There was no suggestion, even from Mr. Smith’s detractors that patients would have to pay for these operations, rather the money would come from the NHS.  The implicit definition of privatisation here is truly ludicrous.  The involvement of the private sector in almost anything the NHS does is being defined as privatisation.  What follows is a bit of reductio ad absurdum, but very little reductio is required before absurdum is reached.

If purchasing goods and services from private suppliers is to be thought of as privatisation of the NHS, then the NHS has always been private.  There are some things the NHS has always purchased from the market.  The scalpel used by a surgeon performing an operation was not designed and manufactured by the NHS.  The NHS did not even mine the iron ore or smelt the steel itself.  All stages of production of the scalpel from design to the extraction of the necessary raw materials were performed by the private sector.  The NHS simply purchased the scalpel in the market.

Under the definition of “privatisation” used by Mr. Smith’s detractors a truly public NHS would need to have (among other things):

  • Their own iron mines to extract iron ore for which would be turned into steel in NHS steel works for making scalpels and other surgical equipment in NHS factories;
  • Their own brick-making facilities to supply the bricks with which hospitals and doctors’ surgeries are built; and
  • Their own power plants to produce all the electricity used in NHS hospitals and doctors’ surgeries.
Since the NHS has never had its own steel works or power plants it has always been a private sector entity.  This is clearly ludicrous.

The reason I find these cries of privatisation so disagreeable is that they are obscuring the conversation we need to have about the NHS.  The NHS is a wonderful institution.  For a nation to provide healthcare to all its residents free at the point of delivery so that everyone, rich or poor, receives the same high quality healthcare is little short of a modern day miracle.  But it also becomes exceptionally important that this medical care is provided in the most cost effective way possible.  This is obvious to anyone who understands the nature of opportunity cost.  If more money than is strictly necessary is spent on routine knee and hip operations there is less money to spend on e.g. life-saving cancer treatments.

It might be objected that there is a clear line between the frontline provision of healthcare which should be undertaken by the NHS, and the ancillary support to that frontline for which the NHS should be free to contract out.  However this would be a line that would blur quickly.  In many respects, the surgeon’s scalpel is closer to the frontline of healthcare provision than the surgeon herself.  What about pharmacy services? Must Boots be closed down? Moreover even if such a definite line could be drawn, it is unclear why everything on the frontline side of such a line should be provided by the NHS directly with no contracting out.  To insist on this with no reason would seem quite dogmatic.

The NHS needs to think about what activities it is best placed to perform itself and where it can achieve the same or even better results at a lower cost by contracting out to private providers.  The key issues in making that decision should be:

  • Will contracting out actually save money?
  • Are there a sufficient number of potential suppliers that there will be:
o   Competition to supply the service in the first place; and
o   Someone we can switch to if we are unhappy with the services provided by the initial contractor.
  • Do we have the negotiating strength to ensure we get a good deal (clearly this is related to the point above, but there might be other issues too)?
  • Is quality of service easy to measure so as to ensure providers can be held to account?
  • Might any quality of service targets be subject of “gaming” by a private provider?
  • Can the “soft incentives” provided within the NHS do a better job of ensuring quality than any “hard incentives” that might be offered to private providers (e.g. the NHS esprit de corps).

The list above is by no means an exhaustive list, and there may well be numerous other factors to consider.  These are just the first ones that came to mind.  We also need to bear in mind that for various services as medical technology changes and the NHS’s ability to write complex contracts and negotiating strength change, the answer to whether a service is best provided in house or contracted out may well change too over time.  This has two implications:

  • To decide to contract out a service now is not necessarily to say it was wrong to provide it directly in the past.
  • If it now makes sense to contract out, we need to consider whether this will remain the case in the future and whether the NHS might lose the capacity to provide these services in the future as a result of contracting out now.

I don’t yet know whether I think it would be a good idea or a bad idea for the NHS to contract out for the provision of some routine operations.  I do know the criteria I would use to judge whether it would be a good idea, I just haven’t had the time to research and judge which side of these criteria routine operations fall on.  My prior is that I would be rather sceptical as to whether sufficiently reliable performance measures could be found which would be difficult to game so that a private provider can be held to account.  But it is something I could be persuaded about.

What I do know is that this is the conversation we should be having.  I also know that this conversation is obscured by one side simply shouting that the other is seeking to privatise the NHS by stealth and the other side shouting back that they are not.  If we want to continue with an NHS that provides high quality healthcare to all British residents free at the point of delivery, then we have to make sensible informed decisions about that Health service, and what it does itself and where it contracts out.  If you want to see what the impact of sloganeering is on our capacity to make those informed decisions, just look at what happened on 23rd June.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Brexiteers and Risk

Here's a quick post about a story that caught my eye.  Apparently Nigel Farage has placed a £1,000 bet on Britain voting to leave the European Union.  Let's assume that Nigel Farage wants the UK to leave the EU, then this tells us something about the man and his attitude to risk.

Suppose I offered you the following two options.  Option 1: I toss a fair coin, if it comes up Heads, you pay me £10,000; but if it comes up Tails, I pay you £11,000.  Option 2, I just give you £450.  Most people, if they are honest, would probably choose option 2.  But on average, Option 1 is worth £500.  If you are honest with yourself and choose option 2, then you are risk averse.

Economists usually assume that individual agents are risk averse.  In other words we don't like risk, and, where possible, we would pay someone else to take on our risks for us.  That's why there are companies that sell insurance.  Insurance policies pay out sums of money in states of the world where certain events have happened, such as our house being robbed, or our car being damaged in an accident.  In that way, betting markets, which bet on events happening or not happening are actually a lot like insurance policies.

So how would a risk averse individual approach betting on the EU referendum given that they have a preference the result should go one way or the other.  If someone really wants to see the UK vote to leave the EU, they should actually bet on the UK voting to stay in.  That way, they narrow the set of possible outcomes in terms of how happy they are at the result.  Their elation at Britain voting to leave would be a little muted by having lost a bit of money, but their disappointment at Britain voting to stay would be compensated by having won some money.

For die hard proponents of either remain or leave, it may well be the case that even bets of £1,000 don't provide stakes high enough to provide full insurance (ensuring they are just as happy in either event), but they must be able to use betting markets to provide some insurance.

So what does it tell us about an individual if they bet £1,000 on their preferred outcome, thus widening the outcomes and exposing themselves to more risk.  It could be that they perceive the odds are very favourable, and so they take on more risk for what they perceive as a much higher expected level of wealth.  However an individual should be aware of and correct for their own optimism bias.

The other possibility, and this seems somewhat more likely, is that they are not risk averse as most people are believed to be, but risk loving.  They enjoy risk and the shot of adrenaline they get as they wait to see if their horse crosses the line first.  The wider the risk, the greater the adrenaline hit and the more fun it all seems to be!

I'll be the first to admit that people like this can be fun to hang around, but I just have one more question for you: How much of your money are you willing to trust them with?  Because a vote for Brexit is a vote to trust some highly risk loving people with all of our money and all of our futures for generations to come.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

A Brexit Thought Experiment...

Let me introduce Nigel.  Nigel is a very wealthy family man who lives in a very wealthy region of the country.  He is in fact the 5th wealthiest man in the country.  He's rather proud of this and mentions it quite a lot.

One day, Nigel is looking through his monthly expenditures and wondering where he can make some savings.  Although he is very wealthy, this is a prudent thing to be doing.  After all, as his mother always said: “look after the pennies, and the pounds will look after themselves.”  Looking through his expenses, Nigel spots that family membership of his golf club looks a bit high.  He pauses to consider this fact.  He doesn’t actually much like the officials who run the golf club.  They have a habit of being a bit officious and petty in enforcing the club's rules.  Is this club membership really worth the money?

Nigel broaches the idea of resigning their family membership with his wife and children over dinner that evening.  To his utter amazement, they look at him as though he’s gone mad, even after he mentions the amount of money they’d save.

They point out that the club's facilities are brilliant. They go there and have a great time every week.  Furthermore, Nigel uses it very effectively to network with clients and potential clients.  His family point out that the commission he earns on business won at the club more than covers the cost of membership.

Nigel tries to calmly rebut all their points.

Just because they are resigning their membership of the golf club doesn’t mean they’ll lose access to any of its facilities.  They’ll still be able to use the driving range; the 18 hole course; the restaurant and the bar.  So they’ll still get all the networking advantages too.  The weekly family trips aren’t going to stop.

Nigel’s family seem strangely skeptical about this argument.  How will they get access to the facilities if they are not members.  There is the possibility for non members to use the facilities - for a daily fee.  But the daily fee is large enough that, given the number of times in a year they visit the club, they’d be better off just paying the annual membership fee.  Visitors paying the daily fee still have to abide by all the niggling little club rules when they are at the club.

Nigel is absolutely amazed to hear this rebuttal.  Don’t his family realise how business works.  Once he is no longer a member, he’ll be able to negotiate his own special rate.  After all, he’s the 5th wealthiest man in the country, the golf club will want his business, and will bend rules in order to get it.  So he’ll be able to negotiate terms that wouldn’t necessarily be available to others.

His family are still sceptical.  Will they want our business that much they ask?  They might be a bit hesitant to give us special terms, wouldn’t they think it was dangerous to set that kind of a precedent?
At this point Nigel gets frustrated and and a bit angry: "of course they won’t mind about setting the precedent!" he exclaims.  Afterall, we buy a hell of a lot more from them than they buy from us!

At this point, his family look at each other and just say “yes dear”.  They know from bitter experience that it is better not to argue the point when Nigel has become this animated.  Besides this vocal argument is happening inside the club's restaurant, and people are starting to stare.  It is all a bit embarrassing.

If you are reading and are a British citizen and a member of a golf club or tennis club, or even a tiddlywinks club, then I implore you: before 23rd June, try this:  
  • Go to your club, tell them you are resigning your membership, but insist to them that this means you will still have every right to continue using the club’s facilities.   
  • If they put up a fight, try to negotiate your own special rate.   
  • See how far you get…