Accountancy & Management: Second-guessing the politicians: Gail Counsell meets Rita Hale, an authority on local government finance with a not-too-serious view of life and a profound antipathy to politics

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The Independent Online
RITA HALE'S telephone has been ringing all morning. Local finance is back in the news, and Ms Hale is much in demand to deliver cogent explanations of the controversial ramifications of Son-of-Poll-Tax.

Small, and frighteningly clever, yet without being remotely intimidating, Ms Hale is a member of an exclusive elite; those who understand local authority taxation.

As the then head of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy's local government division, she was responsible for a series of damning reports on the cost of the poll tax that helped crystallise dissent.

She has since left Cipfa and now runs her own independent consultancy, but her views on the dreaded poll tax replacement, the council tax, are much sought after.

The latest round in the ratepayers' war has seen her opinions anxiously sought after by local authorities, the Government and Opposition alike. As well, of course, as the media. Television and radio find her lucidly simple explanations of the tortuous mechanics of local finance irresistible.

Her verdict on the new tax - though a heavily qualified one - is that it is 'an improvement'. The backdating of property valuations to before recent falls has her support: 'It would have been just as controversial to have valuers second-guessing what future values would be.' But she is deeply unhappy about the failure to tackle the centrist nature of local taxation.

'The worst aspect is the big element of central government spending involved - more than 80 per cent of the total. That makes it very vulnerable to inflation.'

Ministers learnt with the poll tax that giving illustrative figures about likely costs of a new tax was a bad idea. They were made to look duplicitous and foolish when Ms hale produced higher - and far more accurate - figures.

This time they are trying to avoid making the same mistake twice and have so far provided no precise estimates. Ms Hale, likewise, is hard at work trying to repeat her previous success in second-guessing the politicians.

It is a difficult task. As she points out, the council tax is being introduced in a year when the Government is adding and subtracting funds to the system at the same time.

(On one hand the introduction of community care will move some of the liability for looking after the old and sick to local authorities from health authorities but on the other funding for further education and sixth-form colleges will switch to a separate body.)

After working for Cipfa for eight years she left because she wanted to be free to work on the consequences of the 'structural reform' of local government - a topic currently the subject of a committee chaired by Sir John Banham, former head of the Confederation of British Industry.

With many of Cipfa's members personally affected by such reform she felt uncomfortable about working on the topic from the organisation's bosom. 'It's a very threatening topic for many of them,' she observed.

Clearly her work is frequently highly political, yet she is a political agnostic.

'I'm not committed to any of the parties. I've worked in local government finance for 30 years. I'm used to working in a very political environment. It makes you either very committed or very agnostic. I'm the latter. I can see good and bad in all sides.'

That makes participating in elections - something she regards as a constitutional obligation - rather a problem. So frequently she turns up, collects her ballot paper - and then deposits it in the box without filling it in.

Her antipathy to politics clearly runs deep. Although she would have liked to have been involved in the decision-making process, the personal cost would clearly be too great.

The process of becoming a card-carrying member of a political party is one she sees as repugnant. 'It's very rare that politicians only do or say what they actually think is right. It may be the nature of the cabinet system, but I simply couldn't do that.

'Look at the poll tax. Everyone knew that this idea was about as batty as you could get, yet the ministers had to support it right up to the bitter end.'

It is the same for civil servants, she says. 'I've had to sit there and listen to these people saying it would be OK. I don't know a child of three who would have thought that and I don't think I could have done it.'

For someone with a clearly intellectual bent she has a highly unorthodox academic background.

She left school at 17 with nine O-levels, after deciding she did not like the sixth form. 'I found to do the degree I wanted to do, pharmacology, I would have had to do physics rather than maths and I just didn't want to do it. In fact I stuck it a month and then quit.'

Her subsequent entry into the world of number crunching was 'a bit like those vodka ads - I saw an advertisement for a trainee accountant's job and just thought 'I'd really like to do that'.'

At that time there were fewer than a dozen qualified women public sector accountants in the country. Yet she has never felt disadvantaged: 'Indeed, if I think back to my first trainee accountant's job there were nine candidates - the other eight were all boys. Obviously, I wasn't about to start off thinking that they would discriminate against women]

'I think the problems really come if you have children. Childcare facilities in this country are apalling and employers are often very inflexible and unhelpful.'

After qualifying at the age of 21 as a public sector accountant, she joined Dudley Council. There she met her (ex) husband and rose to become assistant director of finance.

She left to join the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, where she spent four years as a permanent secretary responsible for finance. Then came a stint as a consultant with the big accountancy and management consultancy firm Coopers & Lybrand, before in 1984 joining Cipfa.

Now 46 years old, she provides a glowing testimony to the thrills of accountancy. 'There are so many things you can do with it. It's a discipline, a way of thinking, it teaches you about how to find things out.'

Her Georgian home in Islington, London, where her Siamese cats, Peaches and Cream, rule with claws of iron, is precise and elegant; washed pink silk on the walls, thick oriental rugs on the floor. It comes as no surprise that given an alternative career she would have chosen interior design.

Not that she would have preferred that. Local government finance is what she likes best, odd though it may sound as a preference.

'I do find local government fascinating. I like working on things that are changing, on the consequences of change. I like helping people to think things through.'

Other interests include cooking and the theatre - 'providing it's fun - I go for musicals. As you can see.' She gestures to a rack of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers videos.

She recently tried to buy Peaches and Cream That Darn Cat for their birthday, and was desolate when she failed to find a copy of the comedy. 'It's the only film starring a Siamese, you know.' As she pointedly observes: 'I'm not a deeply serious person.'

Thank goodness. Imagine what a deeply serious person who was fascinated by local government finance would be like.

(Photograph omitted)