Sunday, 6 March 2011

BSOGged down

I should be getting ready for this year’s BSOG audit right now. But I’m not!

I’ve worked out that I have either been directly involved in preparing, or responsible for the BSOG claim for whichever company I’ve been in residence at, for each of the last twenty years. Apart from anything else, this makes me feel positively old! It is also one of the less inspiring accolades of which one can boast.

For those who are mystified by the initials BSOG, it is code for fuel duty rebate. Bus companies are allowed to reclaim a portion of the tax they pay on fuel for running local bus services, but given the huge sums of public money involved, it is both inevitable and right that the claim has to be carefully constructed to comply with detailed rules.

For most of those twenty years this rebate has been known as Fuel Duty Rebate. This explained clearly and concisely exactly what it was, which is presumably why it had to be renamed. A few short years ago the government of the day decided that it would be much better for all to be concerned if it were to be renamed Bus Service Operators’ Grant, even though nothing else about it changed.

Conspiracy theorists at the time suggested that the renaming was the first step along the road to abolition, on the basis that abolishing something called Bus Service Operators’ Grant was unlikely to find its way on to the public radar as being something worthy of sympathy. This theory didn’t really wash with me, as I couldn’t really see why abolishing something called Fuel Duty Rebate would be any more likely to cause the public to rush out on to the streets in our support – in fact possibly quite the opposite!

However, there have been numerous reviews and theories and discussions and debates throughout my twenty years in the industry, predicting the demise of the grant and speculating as to how it may be replaced. Much of the discussion has centred around the possibility of a “per passenger” incentive payment, although opponents have argued that this would work in favour or urban services to the detriment of rural services (and then other critics have questioned whether that would be such a bad thing, and so on…)

The upshot of it all, for the moment at least, is that nothing much is changing – for the moment at least. My own view is that this is probably because the alternatives all have so many flaws and loopholes that this particular area of public expenditure is firmly in the “too difficult” box. The government has said it will cut the rate of BSOG (currently 43p per litre) by 20% in April 2012, but given the scathing cuts to many parts of the public purse, this is arguably at the less radical end of possible outcomes!

The absence of any change means that I can look forward to a few more years of BSOG claims at least!

My first involvement was at my first ever bus industry posting, Buffalo Travel in Bedfordshire, which I joined at the tender age of eighteen in July 1991. After a few weeks of inputting the numbers from several years’ backlog of Setright waybills into a spreadsheet on one of several green screen Apricot 286 PCs in the office, I was deemed to know what I was doing with computers and before long I was doing scheduling, rota preparation (including the infamous occasion when I caused more than 50% of the drivers to resign within 24 hours), ticket machine programming and publicity, among many other tasks.

My boss at the time was the Commercial Manager, Chris Day. I learned huge amounts from him, most of it good, and to this day he remains one of the greatest influences on my career. He went off to run Red Rose Travel in Aylesbury and I haven’t spoken to him for years but he is right up there among the best of them for me.

However, my arrival suited him down to the ground because I was the ideal recipient of all the tasks he didn’t really fancy. This suited me as well because I wanted to learn, and all I had to do in exchange was toddle off to the local supermarket in his car at lunchtime and buy his sandwich and Belgian Bun!

I suspect the Fuel Duty Rebate claim had been and gone for 1991, so my first involvement was probably with the 1992 claim. It has followed my round every year since. In one of my Buffalo years, I even ended up doing the number work for Mott’s Travel’s claim, so I must have been doing something right. Of course as I graduated to more illustrious jobs in bigger companies, there were people within my team to do the actual legwork, but it was always under my auspices. Once Velvet was up and running I had to get used to doing it all again myself!

The process was the same then as it is now. Before the start of each claim year you submit an estimate predicting how many kilometres you expect to run, and the Department for Transport work out a payment based on this, divide it into four and send you money on account every three months.

After the claim year finishes, you work out how many kilometres you actually did run, then the DfT reconciles this with what it has paid you on account and depending on the result either pays you a bit more or asks for some money back!

The claim process is actually quite simple, but very intricate and involves lots and lots of detailed calculations and record-keeping.

I adore the spreadsheet work – I have an unhealthy fascination with spreadsheets – so that part of the process is no problem. However, what surprises many people is that despite my normal chaotic lack of organisation with paperwork, my BSOG files and records are always in pristine condition! To some extent it’s the fact that you have to have your claim auditted by proper accountants, to some extent it must just be professional pride, but for whatever reason my BSOG claims are always spot on!

Every year of Velvet’s existence, the audit has taken less than half a day, because the accountant has found everything to be in order.

In our first year, the DfT sent their inspector in – they reserve the right to check up on anyone’s records at any time – and as a new operator they wanted to fire a shot across our bows as well as offering any help we may need understanding the process. I was told to expect a two day visit, but he was gone within three hours and then wrote to us confirming that everything was as it should be.

This year’s audit visit is on Thursday, and as usual at this stage I’m feeling a bit behind the pace. However, it’s Sunday evening and that’s the only time I don’t have any buses on the road so I’m inclined to relax a bit. I know the work will all get done over the next couple of days, so after writing about it instead of doing it, I’m off to the pub for a bit!

I can’t find any pictures that help to illustrate a story about BSOG, so here’s a picture of a giraffe instead!

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