Thursday, 10 April 2014

Where Policies Come From

If, like me, you'd often wondered if NCC's 'anti-social behaviour' agenda is piped in fresh from a certain right-leaning tabloid then I present evidence;
Fyi; Errington is the Director of Community Protection which includes the ASB agenda.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Full Council Meetings to Move?

I'm hearing rumours that full council meetings at the Council House are soon to end and will move round the corner to a venue on Long Row.

The new venue, a former bank now owned by the Mellors Group, will apparently allow a number of new synergies.

I'm told the feeling is that, as James Mellors already spends so much time feeding City Councillors, they might as well move into a spare room in his gaff.

A further development is that the current Housing Benefit and Council Tax Support application system will be integrated with the slot machines downstairs. Head of Service Lisa Black explains;

"Everyone knows we couldn't run a bath so we decided to introduce an element of chance into the claims process to get us off the hook. The idea is that you deposit your claim form into one of the slot machines and the spinning wheels all have a selection of instructions on them, such as 'provide proof of benefit', 'give us a sample of your landlord/lady's underwear' or whatever. We've still got to make them up. Just like we make everything up.

"If you get the same three instructions come up congratulations! You are one of the lucky people whose claims will be administered before you are evicted for rent arrears*."

Asked what will happen to the Council House itself, spokesdroid Frila Pool said;

"Oh we'll flog it to Intu. It's a shopping centre after all. They'll wrap it in fibreglass and paint it pink."

*In actual fact your claim probably won't be processed before you're evicted, you're poor so nobody at the City Council gives a shit what happens to you.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Housing Benefit Fraud

I've taken the piss out of NCC's anti-benefit fraud measures before but with new figures available it's time to have another go.

Again, the report before the Audit Committee is the source of our interest here. On page 8 we are told that, during 2012/3, NCC detected 178 Housing/Council Tax benefit fraud, worth a total of £586,490. Even without any help from a responsible adult, I have worked out that is an average of £3295 per case.

The Midlands and East of England average is 332 cases, totaling £698,296, an average of £2103 per case.

I don't think we can make too much of the lower than average number of cases, that average is clearly elevated by one LA (Birmingham?) with 3500 or so cases. But NCC's higher value per case could be said to imply that frauds are not caught as early, which is not a good thing in fraud detection circles. There are probably other potential explanations as well.

But hello, what have we here? (word document) It's a Freedom of Info request asking about how much NCC spends on anti benefit fraud activities. It says that, in 2012/3 NCC spent £586,000 on such work, the money going on

...cost of the fraud staff in wages and then a percentage of all other costs based on fraud staff as a percentage of total benefits staff. Other costs include such things as IT, accommodation, central charges etc.

That's pretty clear, the question was unambiguous and the explanation of the costs makes it plain that the cost of the activity hasn't been confused with, say the amount of fraud detected...

Because the two figures are rather similar aren't they? It seems an extraordinary coincidence that, for a spend of £560,000 anti-fraud activity you detect fraud worth a total of £560,490.

Unless of course you've been a bit lazy and, rather than come up with a system to estimate the worth of each fraud case you catch and collating the results annually, you simply record as the 'cost' of detected fraud as how much how much was spent on the wages, IT and paperclips of your crack fraud detecting team. And in the FoI response linked, they DID say they didn't have an estimate of the value of fraud committed.

If it wasn't for the fact that NCC's housing benefit service has a long track record of pisspoor management information systems (largely due to having pisspoor management) I would find this explanation impossible to believe.

The alternative of course is that NCC's benefits fraud team saves the council the grand total of less than £500/year. Before anybody says that any saving is worthwhile you must remember that many people are investigated for fraud and found to have done nothing wrong. It is always a stressful, sometimes terrifying experience. I sincerely hope it is the 'crap management information' explanation that turns out to be correct because a saving of £490 is not worth a single person being wrongly accused and investigated.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Nottingham, the Hotbed of Blue Badge Fraud?

It's not just wheelie bins that Nottingham's scammers have got their greedy little eyes on, if the numbers are to be believed, Nottingham is by far and away the region's hotbed for Blue Badge fraud.

A report (pdf, page 12) going to the next Audit Committee meeting gives a number of interesting details of fraud against NCC, one of which is that, in 2012/13, 355 Blue Badge fraud cases were detected. The Midlands and East of England average was 18 cases. In other words, NCC is said to have nearly 20 times the average regional Blue Badge fraud rate.

Sounds legit...

We know that assessments for Blue Badges is carried out by an 'independent' private medical company (as mentioned in this 2011 portfolio decision on the related matter of Mobility Citycard examinations) and they may be carrying out their duties with Atos like aplomb. I also suspect a certain statistical sleight of hand, such as assuming that every Blue Badge renewal found to no longer qualify is put in the fraud pile.

I think local media are planning on looking into it so I'll let them do the work and see if any explanation better than NCC seriously shafting its disabled citizens comes forth.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Return To MIPIM

A while since we've heard of the 'International Property Event' held in Cannes each year. I think NCC have still been sending a couple of people down but due to it becoming increasingly unacceptable for public funds to be spent on what is essentially a party on the Riviera it's been paid for by local businesses.

Happily, all that has now changed and it is now completely acceptable to spend our Council Tax pounds* on such a jolly, as there are now no pressures on local authority spending at all (can you check this please? Ed). No doubt this new state of affairs is nudged along by the private sector deciding they are no longer willing to shell out on JoCo's sparkling wine ration. Even though they're the ones who make the most from it.

So approval has been given to pay £65k 2014. This is to be spent on 'promotional activity' in order to 'raise Nottingham's profile'. All good, solid, tangible stuff.

Just a thought, since NCC has decided that even the worst off among us will have to pay at least 20% of the full Council Tax next year, that £65k is equivalent to about 290 IS/IBJSA/IBESA claimants' band A charges.

Send us a postcard, do.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Local Government Ombudsman Screws Up

Arguably not strictly down to NCC this but it is in connection with an NCC benefits decision so I think it is of interest.

Ask anybody who's had contact with them and they will tell you that the Local Government Ombudsman is a bag of shit. Even within the preposterously restricted boundaries they manage to set themselves for looking into complaints against councils they have a reputation for at best toothlessness and at worst outright bias. A true 'Watchpoodle' if you will.

It also turns out they are capable of being legally incompetent. On one of my random browsing sessions I found this decision on some complaints about Housing Benefit and DHP issues.

As far as the restricted boundaries I mention above are concerned, this paragraph on the DHP aspect sums it up nicely -

"The decision was based on the merits of the case. I am satisfied the Council carried out the correct process in deciding not to award a second DHP. It is not my role to comment on the merits of the decision itself."

Essentially, the Ombudsman is saying that as long as the procedure was followed, the fact that you may have been refused a DHP because of your penchant for wearing loud shirts in built up areas is none of their business. Yeah, you try explaining that too an ordinary Joe/Josie.

However more concerning is how the Ombudsman dealt with a complaint that NCC had wrongly suspended his benefit on two occasions. It kind of relates to those boundaries again -

"I did not investigate the complaint. Mr B complained that Mr B’s housing benefit was suspended on two occasions. He had the right to appeal to the social entitlement appeal tribunal over these decisions. I consider it would have been reasonable for him to exercise that right."

Oh dear. Can I refer m'learned friend to para 5 of the schedule to the Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit (Decisions and Appeals) Regs

"5. No appeal shall lie against a decision under Part III of these Regulations of a relevant authority relating to–

(a) suspension of a payment of benefit or of a reduction;


So, the Ombudsman refused to investigate an aspect of a complaint on the grounds that the complainant had a course of redress that he didn't, in fact, have at his disposal at all. That is a fundamental legal error and is totally unacceptable.

One wonders if this position was argued by NCC or whether the Ombudsman came up with it her/himself. If the former then NCC's HB staff need to have a word with themselves too (no change there) but either way, the Ombudsman's treatment of this complaint is way below standard.

NCC Breaches Code of Practice on Publicity - Again

Ok, so I actually rather liked this breach but I suppose we have to accept sauce for the goose etc.

I did mention briefly that NCC ran its own petition against the bedroom tax earlier this year. I signed it and recommended that you did too. However it disappeared off the website rather suddenly without explanation.

Turns out the petition was referred to the council's auditors and they have now decided that it breached the code of practice for local authority publicity. Presumably it failed the 'objectivity' test.

Despite the fact that I was and am foursquare behind the campaign against the bedroom tax and would support contributions from any quarter, with our objective heads on we have to note that NCC has form on this. It seems that certain sectors of the council have still not quite taken it in that NCC and the Labour Party are not one and the same. It's fine for councillors to shout from the rooftops about the injustice of the bedroom tax and I hope they do but it seems that it's not so fine to use council resources to do so.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Please Fill In Our Survey About What We've Already Told You To Think

This is another post about NCC's attitude to street drinking, although hopefully a bit shorter.

A couple of weeks ago NCC issued a short survey on its website about street drinking. I'm not sure how long it will be up there so I'll be using screengrabs to illustrate my points below.

Here's a shot of the introductory page. As far as I'm aware this is the only route into the survey unless someone sends you a direct link (click for bigness)

And now here's the survey they want you to fill in (again, clicky)

So, question 1 asks you how much of a problem street drinkers are, right after telling you -

"People drinking on the streets can lead to antisocial behaviour and other problems in our communities...

Problems such as littering, noise and public indecency can be made worse by the disorderly conduct of those under the influence of alcohol."

Question 2 asks what problems are connected with street drinking right after... well, you get the idea.

The next questions do ask specifically what issues you've faced in your area in the last 12 months. After ticking lots of boxes what are people going to do when, on thinking about it, their only contact with street drinkers was seeing a bloke walking up the road with a tinny on, otherwise completely minding his own business?

Such a massively leading introduction is as compromising as asking blatantly leading questions in the survey itself. The result is that the results will virtually no credibility at all.

I bet you they still use it to back up the DPPO though.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Open Spaces Everywhere but Not a Spot to Drink

Disclosure; I like a drink. In fact I'm having a drink while writing this now. I went to the 'Robin Hood Beer Festival' and enjoyed heavily hopped strong ales (unfined ones only, I can out beersnob CAMRA). I drink at home, in my garden, in pubs, round friends' houses but I can't honestly remember the last time I drank in an outdoor public place. Of course, the fact that I can't remember it...

So anyway, today I'm writing about Designated Public Places Orders because NCC has embarked on the first steps of establishing one across the entire city and I don't think I like it. There already are small DPPOs in various parts of the city but, to paraphrase Niemoller, when they came for Hyson Green I did nothing. And when they came for me, I thought I'd better write a blogpost.

Oh yes, I should explain what a DPPO is. Broadly speaking, if a local authority thinks that boozy ne'er do wells are making a nuisance of themselves in a particular area, it can make an order making that area as a Designated Public Place. Once it is in place, this gives the police, PCSOs and CPOs the right to order anyone drinking alcohol in the designated area to stop doing so and to hand over any alcohol they might have with them. If you refuse either without 'reasonable excuse', you are guilty of a criminal offence. It's not the actual drinking that matters but the refusing to stop and give it up that lands you in trouble. One last thing to note is that whether a DPPO is made or not, police have separate powers to stop underage drinkers and confiscate their alcohol.

My first thought was that this would hardly be popular with nice middle class voters who like to pop down the Arboretum with a picnic and a crisp Chardonnay. But no, JoCo's introductory report explains that it's not about them -

"Any powers arising from an Order are not intended to disrupt peaceful activities, for example families or groups having a picnic and consuming alcohol in the Proposed Area, but are solely intended for use as a control measure for the consumption of alcohol in public places by those who cause anti-social behaviour..." 

So the rozzers have discretion, they can pick and choose who they march up to and demand surrender of some of their property. That's completely reasonable don't you think? I mean what could possibly go wrong? I'm sure that black people will be treated with EXACTLY the same level of discretion as they receive when our wonderful police execute their stop and search powers for example. As for CPOs...

What's also interesting, and not a little ironic, is that at the same full council meeting a motion praising 'well run' pubs as community assets, lamenting the loss of local pubs, bigging up the beer festival and local breweries and continuing the battle against the sale of 'strong alcohol' and other 'irresponsible drinking' stuff was passed.

Ok, in isolation there really isn't a word in that motion that I would disagree with but, looking at the wider picture, including DPPOs, it gives the impression of a mixed message. It also has a nasty taste of the double standards. I'll come back to this in a sec.

One of the things I slightly object to is this rather romantic notion of the great traditional British boozer. I'm sorry but it's 95% bollocks. A hell of a lot of pubs are simply meat markets, pre-fight gatherings or hopelessly garish theme parks. Let me tell you about one 'local' 'community' pub.

When I first moved into my current address I thought I'd check out the local scenery. Food shopping was the priority but as I walked round the corner, barely 300 yards from my home, I came across a pub. That's handy, I thought, an actual 'local'. On getting a bit closer, for some reason I started thinking that actually, I probably wouldn't be going in that particular pub after all. There was something about it. And I never did.

About 15 months after this a young chap had his brains blown out in the car park. Turns out this particular pub was unofficially under the control of Nottingham's favourite Robin Hoods the Gunns and somebody they didn't like overreacted to a perceived sleight. You'll have read about the consequences. The pub was called the Sporting Chance and is one of those 'neighbourhood pubs' that have closed down. In this case bulldozed and a housing estate built over it.

The point I'm trying to make here is that pubs as drinking venues aren't always great. I know the motion specifies 'well run' pubs but clearly nobody thought the Chance was badly run because it was still trading quite happily until what happened. I know for a fact it wasn't the only pub the Gunns held sway over either.

The other point is that, even after spending the evening in a 'well run' pub, you don't suddenly sober up once you walk out the door. It's not the where that matters, it's the 'how much' and the 'what sort of person are you when drunk'. Drinking in an excellent pub does not guarantee an absence of anti-social behaviour, as anybody making their way through Slab Square late at night will tell you.

As for the 'strong alcohol' objection, most of the beers I drank at the NCC sponsored beer festival were in the range of 6-7% and utterly fantastic they were too. Both Brewdog and newcomer the Ned Ludd sell beers with a strength in excess of 10%. But as these venues are the preferred destinations of the Sherwood 'Laddie Daddies' who have a lot of money to spend in the City Centre presumably none of that matters.

To bring it all back here, my view is that NCC's attitude to alcohol is that there is a right way to do it and an undesirable way. Middle class people sipping a crisp white in the park or lads after football practice quaffing craft ales in an oak beamed saloon is fine. Anything else means trouble. This distinction particularly applies if you dare to drink outside a controlled indoor environment. I believe that we are talking serious sledgehammer and nut territory here.

Is the 'undesirable way' always so bad? Just because you happen to be a group of young people in the park, maybe playing frisbee or something and *horrors* audibly enjoying yourselves, does that justify the CPO marching over and nicking all your booze? Everywhere in the city? Cos I bet that's what will happen. And from the opposite viewpoint, what about the family with the picnic, is normalising drinking in front of young children always ok? Why are they apparently exempt?

I cannot help suspecting that those who fall foul of DPPO orders will be of certain social, maybe racial groups. There appears to be no checks or balances on the police or CPO use of discretion beyond the 'reasonable excuse' proviso, which none of the NCC documents seem to mention. And you will be faced with the option of a fixed penalty notice or going before those noted liberals the Magistrates Court to argue that, although you were just quietly reading a book in the park with a bottle of Strongbow, the fact that you were bothering nobody is a 'reasonable excuse' not to hand over some of your property to the police. If you don't convince them you get an even bigger fine. Best of luck if you do find yourself in this position.

Like I say, sledgehammer and nut, like pretty much all of the 'Anti-Social Behaviour' agenda. This is especially true of the 'whole city' aspect of the plans. Interestingly, the main justification for the citywide thing is -

"Unless the powers are adopted across the whole city, there is a high likelihood the problems experienced will continue and are likely to continue to be pushed from areas covered by a DPPO into neighbouring areas across the City..."

What do you think neighbouring local authorities think about the possibility of displacement of city drinkers to their areas? Presumably they will be 'consulted'.

It's not good enough is it? I'm open to the idea that DPPOs are potentially a good idea in some local areas, mostly temporarily. as one of the tools to deal with a particular problem. But setting one up across the entire city smacks of a more authoritarian agenda, one where NCC cannot be bothered to deal with difficult problems so picks an easy solution off the shelf. They need to stop doing that.