Wednesday, 15 December 2010

It's the Brand That Matters...

Another one from Cllr 'Trembling' Trimble.

He's authorised a contract with 'Large Creative Ltd' to do the branding for Nottingham's leisure centres. Not sure what that actually involves but it sounds less important than, say, not cutting a couple of youth worker posts or improving the actual facilities.

Sneakily, the decision doesn't say how much is being actually spent but a supporting document does say that it is above the EU lower limit for tenders, which is £156,442 for the life of the contract and elsewhere it says that the contract is to run for three years. This means that it will average at least £52k per year.

NCC's financial rules state that at least three tenders must be INVITED for contracts of this size, although not necessarily received. However, following the Harold Tinworth saga the Overview and Scrutiny Committee made a recommendation that every effort should be made to OBTAIN three tenders. Obviously such major changes only happen slowly...

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Those Proposed Terms and Conditions in Full

Have been sent a copy of the recent NCC Bulletin telling staff about proposed changes to their terms and conditions.

The main change to what I wrote before is that the bit about reducing hours for over 55s is to be voluntary and, in fact, appears to be available for all. Certainly less incendiary than the original rumour that crept out.

The bits about reducing time on the redeployment register, cuts to redundancy pay and the removal of sick pay for the first three days of sickness are all present and correct. Extra stuff includes the introduction of staff car parking charges, a two-year pay freeze and the "removal of Senior Leadership Management Group Competency based pay", whatever that means, presumably some kind of performance related pay for senior managers. Can't see that one being missed, the chances of NCC senior managers ever getting any performance related pay seems remote to me. Guffaw.

I'd hazard a guess that the sick pay thing is one of those sacrificial negotiating items, designed to use up unions' resolve and allow them to claim victory when it's not pursued. I imagine there'll be a bit of stick over those car parking charges mind, NCC staff are very possessive of their car user rights and as far as I know, despite the fact that there genuinely are posts which require car use, NCC doesn't pay essential car user allowance like they did back in the old days.

So there will be battles I'm sure, Can't help thinking that the savings achieved will be more than offset by the time spent in negotiations, lost productivity from stress and staff leaving etc.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Shit. My Wheelie Bin's Gone.

You know what's most embarrassing about writing this? It's essentially a campaigning blogpost on an issue that the Lib Dems picked up on over 18 months ago. Look out for me proposing increased tuition fees sometime mid 2012*...

It's also largely motivated by self interest but I'm not at all embarrassed by that. After all, what's writing a blog for apart from pushing your own selfish agenda at the expense of all others?

Anyway, as you can see, I've had my wheelie bin stolen. Not the first time it happened either, nor for that matter is it the first act of what I have to refer to as 'anti-social behaviour' (dread phrase) I've been subjected to.

The problem is you get charged for replacements now you see and I can't find an authoritative statement of what the charges are. After some squirrelling around I found that it was introduced in the 2009 council budget (see page 72 of this document) and you get the first one for free but I still can't find out how much the charge is or if there are any concessions.

However, what I did notice was that the measure was/is only expected to raise about £8,000 a year which wouldn't keep the thriftiest of chickens in light snacks for any length of time so it looks a bit mean spirited, in a kind of 'because we can' kind of way. That seems to be the only justification for it by the way, well, that and 'everyone else is doing it'. Policy via the school playground in other words.

But then I remembered another issue which was also 'debated' at the same full council meeting, special allowances for Executive Assistants. I wrote about it at the time, when I was still a bit new at this blogging game. You see the Independent Remuneration Committee recommended that special allowances for EAs should be £2710 pa, whereas JoCo decided that they should get £5579 and as you know, what JoCo decides, NCC votes for. With three EAs (it used to four but Hassan Ahmed was promoted to full portfolio status) that costs an extra £8607 per year. About the same amount as those bloody wheelie bin charges are expected to fetch in other words.

So, when I'm sent a bill for my shiny new wheelie bin I shall reflect on the fact that I am helping to keep former 'high class' (self defined) escort and serial email ignorer Cat Arnold off the streets and stocked up with biros. And never sleep again cos I'll guard the bugger with my life.

Update - been told that as I'm on Income Support there will be no charge so you can stop feeling sorry for me now. Still thinking of setting up a network of machine gun nests around it when it arrives though.

*Should note here that actually local Lib Dems are still against increasing tuition fees, in case the guilt tips one of them over the edge.

Mayor Collins to be a Reality

OMG.

The Post is reporting an announcement from Communities Secretary Eric 'Pieface' Pickles that Nottingham WILL have a referendum as to whether to have an elected mayor, despite JoCo's 'recommendation' that we don't. This was sort of expected and the publication of the 'Localism Bill' has confirmed it.

I wonder if the Extraordinary General Meeting were told in time?

As if that's not bad enough JoCo will be made a 'Shadow Mayor' (more of a night mayor surely? Badum tish!) next summer to get us used to the idea before the referendum is held in 2012. I'm sure that JoCo is just as unhappy as I am because he's said in the past that elected mayors are a stupid idea. He may not be unhappy about being an unelected one however, even if only for a temporary period.

Of course, this temporary appointment does rely on him remaining as leader after the local elections next May and that, in turn, relies on him being re-elected as one of the councillors of St Anns.

People of St Anns, you know what to do...

For more on some of the measures in the Localism Bill see Alanadale's take on it.

And from the Dept of Communities and Local Govt.

Update - council funding settlements now released (MSExcel file). Nottingham faces overall cut of 8.44%. Ouch.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Rumours of Shocking Cuts to Staff Terms and Conditions at NCC

I mentioned before that the Appointments and Conditions of Service Committee met last week with all discussion items hidden under a veil of secrecy. After all you don't want to be embarrassed by the ridiculous spend on consultants when you're discussing redundancies and cuts to terms and conditions for permanent staff, benevolently titled "Managing the Impact on Colleagues of the Financial Challenges Facing the Council".

I've heard some rumours about what the latest cuts to staff terms will be as agreed at the meeting. I should stress that I can't verify the accuracy of this but the person I heard it from does know what s/he's talking about.

Apparently then, the following changes are afoot -

Big reductions to redundancy payments
No longer being paid for first three days off sick
Reducing time on redeployment from 3 to 6 months
and most bizzarrely, forcing over 55s to reduce their hours

The first three changes come straight from Daily Mail land and, as such, will probably face limited criticism in the media. Apart from complaining that the 'gold plated' pensions are still in place of course. But the last one is barmy and is certain to face legal challenge under age discrimination rules if it really does go ahead.

I really do wonder if NCC's 'equalities and diversity' advisers even have the beginnings of a clue. After all there was their appalling abuse of Equality Impact Assessments as a weapon against CERN and only last week there was the introduction of age discrimination into the sports and leisure concessions scheme.

It will be interesting if there is any suggestion of cuts to senior management pay and perks, after all we've been reassured that 'we're all in this together' by the PM and who are NCC to go against that? This has added resonance because it looks like the cost cutting measure to get rid of the Director of Adult Services has been effectively reversed, meaning the loss of those savings.

Still, I'm sure we can guess how that will go eh?

Audit Committee Fooled Again

I was largely right in my last post about the latest shit tsunami that the Housing Benefits service is embroiled in. Essentially, the Audit Committee fell for it again.

Dear old Lisa Black who, lets remember, has no special difficulty with misleading an employment tribunal on oath and so could probably lie to the Audit Committee in her sleep, seems to have got the excuses in early.

She claimed that a review of the single persons' discounts for Council Tax had been a 'focus for the service' which supposedly 'highlighted 3000 cases' for the Housing Benefits visiting service and raised £900k. Let's have a look at that in more detail.

First of all, while both Council Tax and Benefits are on her patch they are two separate things and will have different teams, although I suspect that the visiting staff will be shared because, for the most part Council Tax doesn't really need visits carried out apart from one-off projects like this. But, once the visiting officer has done the visit and collected the required information, it will be passed to Council Tax staff and not bother the Housing Benefits workstream any more. And I'm sure that a significant number of those visits could be combined with benefits visits that would be happening anyway. So, although it might have been a big chunk of work for Council Tax staff I can't see how it would have affected the benefits side of her empire very much, beyond the visiting staff.

Except it didn't cause a big chunk of extra work for Council Tax staff because the job was outsourced. And the decision to do so contained a justification to use outside consultants along the lines that doing it in-house would be too onerous and costly. But Lisa doesn't bother mentioning all that, she preferred to leave members with the impression that the lack of quality control in Housing Benefits was a mere aberration which was caused by this huge onerous one off project, even though the 'experienced staff' mentioned by Internal Audit who 'despite training' still messed up the overpayments process wouldn't have been involved.

And if you fancy a full house in 'Management Bollockspeak Bingo' get a load of this sentence -

"...the amount of training had increased significantly and targeted training was being identified through continued training needs analysis, quality assurance checks and support requests..."

I mean it's just rhubarb isn't it?

And when one councillor (it's not recorded who) did ask a slightly tricky question about how much subsidy could be reclaimed for overpayments either the minute taker fell asleep or Black sold him a bully, saying that the subsidy was 40%. In fact the situation is a bit more complicated as I described in my last piece on the subject -

Essentially, it seems that if errors in benefit assessments caused by the council itself (as opposed to claimants) are below a certain level (approx £616k) NCC still gets full subsidy on it. If it's between a certain range (£616k - £693k) only 40% of subsidy is paid and above that latter figure they get none. In other words there's a pretty strong incentive to keep council caused errors down, which makes sense.

Other types of error are
treated differently (see para 400 onwards), for example, error caused by claimants always attracts a 40% subsidy. Errors which are the fault of the DWP or HMRC are fully reimbursed.

So it depends on the cause of the error and, in the case of overpayments caused by the council itself, on the amount of overpayment identified. This in turn means that there is a subsidy advantage in identifying council caused overpayments as something else once the amount gets too high. Like I say, it was never explicitly stated by Internal Audit that this was deliberately being done, just that the process was 'shortcut'.

Now, a member of the Audit Committee who was doing her/his job properly, and once armed with the facts about varying subsidy levels, might want to be reassured that such a thing definitely was not going on and might ask a question about it. But having been told that the subsidy rate is the same, no matter what, they'd have no cause to probe any further.

Same old...

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Cuts to Sports and Leisure Discounts - Confusion Reigns

Cllr Trimble has delivered a portfolio holder decision to reduce the range of concessions available for use of the City's sports and leisure facilities. Unfortunately, it's a case study of what happens if you don't get someone who knows what they're talking about in to help.

According to the decision and its accompanying report the following city residents could get a 50% discount under the old scheme-

Over 60 or under 16
In receipt of Jobseekers Allowance
in receipt of Working Tax Credit, Housing Benefit or Council Tax Benefit
In receipt of Income Support
In receipt of 'disability allowance'

Already this differs to what is said on the website because that includes students and also includes Disability Living Allowance, Severe Disablement Allowance (an obsolete benefit almost entirely phased out) and Incapacity Benefit. There is actually no such benefit as 'disability allowance' and Incapacity Benefit is being phased out in favour of Employment Support Allowance, which isn't mentioned.  The website also makes clear that only the Income Based version of JSA counts and not the National Insurance based version which isn't means tested. So it's already a bit mixed up.

The proposed new rules, which council officials will no doubt be told MUST be followed strictly and to the letter in these 'difficult times', say the following city residents are entitled to concessions -

Those who have reached pension age or aged under 17
In receipt of Jobseekers Allowance
In receipt of 'disability allowance' or 'registered disabled' depending on which part of the decision you look at

Now as we've already said, 'disability allowance' doesn't exist so we have no way of knowing whether this includes people getting DLA, Incapacity Benefit, Employment Support Allowance or whatever. And there's no such thing as being 'registered disabled' anymore. Just to make things even more confusing there is also a benefit called Disablement Benefit in the Industrial Injuries scheme, is that included too? This might sound pedantic but you wait until you try and get your concessionary pass and they won't give it to you because you're on ESA. And if the policy intention is in fact to exclude ESA or other illness/disability related benefits then there is a real possibility of a disability discrimination case.

Also, the decision doesn't specify whether all JSA claimants are entitled to concessions. I suspect that the intention is that only Income Based claimants are like the previous scheme, I only hope that someone decides to make that clear. Otherwise, while you're stood there fuming because the council officer won't accept that your ESA is the same as a 'disability allowance', the millionaire's wife who has just been made redundant will be waltzing past you for her half price go in the sauna.

Interestingly they have appended an Equality Impact Assessment to the decision. It says that there is absolutely no gender discrimination in the new concessionary scheme, clearly failing to realise that men and women still retire at different ages for the time being. Therefore tying the concessions scheme to reaching pension age will be potentially discriminatory for the next 8 years.

What's more, the decision may not be constitutional. According to NCC's constitution (see p22), a decision is a 'key decision' if it will cost more than £500k in revenue and/or will affect two or more wards in the city. I put and/or because the constitution doesn't specify which it is. If it's 'or' then this change will be a key decision and should only be made by the executive board. If it's 'and' then, presumably, as long as the effect of the decision is restricted to a single ward there's no financial limit to a portfolio decision. To be honest this lack of clarity pops up fairly regularly and I suspect it suits certain people to look the other way.

I'd always presumed that it was an either/or situation i.e. if either the financial limit or the two or more wards condition applied then it was a key decision. If that's right then this change to the concessions scheme should have been put before the Executive Board.

So, all in all, this one's a bit of a dog's dinner. We sort of know that there are cuts but we have no real idea who is to be affected. Really the decision should be subject to call-in to get it clarified but I doubt anybody will bother. After all, what's a bit of sex and potential disability discrimination among friends?

Monday, 6 December 2010

Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy Moment

Remember that bit at the beginning of H2G2 when the planning officer is explaining to Arthur Dent where the planning notice for the demolition of his house was displayed? I think NCC has just done something similar.

NCC is to hold an extraordinary meeting to decide which new form of 'executive governance' the council is to take next year.

Under provisions contained in an Act of Parliament from 2007 all councils have to adopt a new form of government, choosing from two options, the 'elected mayor' or 'strong leader and cabinet' models. They are not allowed to keep the status quo.

As JoCo is on record as being against elected mayors it's no surprise that he has 'recommended' that NCC adopts the strong leader and cabinet option. This is similar to the current arrangements except that the leader is elected for a four year term. Clearly he isn't confident of getting the whole city to vote for him.

They could have held a referendum to decide but they decided that we weren't interested. However you may be surprised to hear that they did hold a consultation exercise on the matter. This lasted for barely three weeks and the consultation document was posted at Loxley House and in the 'council government and democracy' pages on the website. Not much more 'public' than the planning department in Douglas Adam's finest.

As the only people who actually go into Loxley house are the people that work there and I'm probably the only person who ever reads that section of the website it's not surprising that nobody responded to the consultation. Not one. The pathetically short consultation period can't have helped. Despite this Information Governance still managed to be out of time in its response to a FoIA request on the matter.

I didn't respond myself for the simple reason that I honestly couldn't decide on which was the least worst of the two scenarios. However I actually do think that the report makes a fair point in that the recommended option causes least disruption and change which, considering it could all be upended by the forthcoming Localism Bill, seems sensible.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

One Nottingham and Freedom of Information

As you will be aware from my last post on the matter One Nottingham now claims to be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

I have submitted my complaint about this to the Information Commissioner and broadly my case is that ON is simply a part of NCC and thus is covered by the FoIA.

Following a comment on the above post and my reply explaining my understanding of ON's legal stature I thought I'd post up the grounds of my case and, well here they are -

"The respondent is refusing to provide details of the tender process for a decision it made to award funding to an organisation called Nottingham Equal. It has only provided copies of meeting minutes that vaguely discussed the project but I was hoping to receive details of why NE was awarded funding which would only be in the tender discussion documents, which the respondent has refused to provide. They do not appear to have made any attempt to carry out a public interest assessment.

The respondent is now claiming to be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act seeking, presumably, to rely on a claim that 'One Nottingham' is a separate autonomous organisation. This claim is not credible for the following reasons -

1. One Nottingham is an unincorporated body with Nottingham City Coucil as the accountable body (see http://bit.ly/fuW6UV).

2. All ON workers are NCC employees and its Chief Executive reports directly to the Chief Exec of NCC in NCC's senior management structure (see http://bit.ly/gN2D8E).

3. ON's own funding guidance states that it's documents would be subject to the FoIA (see Tender Panel Guidance Notes attached).

4. ON's website is a subsection of NCC's website.

5. The funding decision purportedly made by ON had to be ratified by a separate decision by NCC (see http://bit.ly/eWyPNF) .

With the above in mind my view is that the ON Board is merely an advisory committee for decisions that are ultimately those of NCC. As such those decisions are subject to the FoIA."

Of course that will give NCC's legal team a bit of a head start (and make no mistake, it will be them who are onto this unless ON decides to waste some public money on a lawyer who knows what they are talking about) but I don't mind that. I'll leave the 'rabbit out of the hat' thing to them.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Council to Debate Motion Asking Government to Reconsider Tuition Fees Increase

This doesn't happen often but I am absolutely behind something that NCC plans to do.

Cllr David Mellen, who is the portfolio holder for education, is to propose a motion at the next full council meeting on  13 December requesting that the government 'review and change' their policies to avoid 'leading to a wasted generation in Nottingham and the UK'.

Ok it's a bit wishy washy but it's a start. Would perhaps carry more weight if the motion called on the Leader of the Opposition to commit to reversing the cuts if Labour are elected next time and sent a message of support to the students currently occupying the University Great Hall.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

One Nottingham Battens Down the FoI Hatches

Just had this email back from One Nottingham -

"We have been advised that One Nottingham is not covered by the Freedom of Information Act.

We will not release to you the minutes from the tender panel that you requested.


As previously mentioned the decison to award Nottingham Equal the contract was following the approved tender process that One Nottingham has followed for many years and this was explained in my email of the 2nd November."


Ok, at least we know where we all stand. When I get a minute I'll start the process rolling to see if they're right.

One thing this proves beyond any doubt however. One Nottingham is little more than a front to hide dirty linen behind.

How Councils Work Pt 94 etc

The minutes of the last Development Control Committee meeting are out!

This fascinating document details all the latest planning and enforcement decisions the council makes, apart from the boring routine ones of course.

What's interesting in this one is the declarations of interest* at the start. Cllrs Clark (who is also the portfolio holder for neighbourhood regeneration), Gibson, James, Munir and Wood, five of the eleven councillors present at the meeting, all declared the following interest -

"...a personal interest in agenda item 4(c), 15-16 Long Row, (minute 84), as James Mellors of the applicant company was personally known to him and he had accepted hospitality from the applicant in the past..."

and yet this didn't preclude them from speaking or voting because, under the code of conduct, it's not counted as prejudicial.

Mellors has applied to turn the old Midland Bank on Long Row into a Bingo Hall. It's not without objections, mainly based on it being a 'primary shopping frontage' and a suspicion that the bingo will be ancillary to it's intended main moneyspinner, fruit machines. I have absolutely no idea of the merits of these objections but I mention them to show the application wasn't without controversy and yet the committee meeting is packed with the applicant's mates. Four councillors didn't attend, I'm not sure whether that indicates a normal attendance rate.

It probably won't surprise you that the application was approved then. I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that.

Ok, so there's nothing unconstitutional about this but does anybody think it's a coincidence that five ruling party members of the planning committee, including an executive member, have been targeted by a large local business for a bit of the old winin' 'n' dinin'? Do these councillors stop and think that it might look a bit dodgy to accept these invitations? You know, for the look of the thing at least?

*Mind you, at least they declared the interests, unlike some *cough* Hassan Ahmed *cough* I could mention, small mercies at least.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Two Years of Blogging About Conniving Incompetent Twats Pt 2

Right! Now where had we got to? Ah yes...

June 2010

Lib Dem councillor Alex Foster attempted to get a resolution at council calling on Portfolio Holder for Adult Services and Health to lobby the blood doner service to allow gay and bisexual men to be allowed to give blood, which they are currently banned from doing so. Despite this the resolution was amended to remove any reference to gay men, with said Portfolio Holder apparently heard to say "I have gay friends, but..." Enlightened times. Serious criticism from the Audit Commission over NCC's subsidy claims for housing benefit and its administration of the Bridge Estate charity came to light and JoCo and his mates' continued appropriation of Notts Police Authority upsets a few more people.

July 2010

We find out that NCC's website is woefully unfit for purpose for those who want to conduct business with the council online, putting NCC in breach of an, admittedly obscure, EU Directive, we point and laugh at Comms Chief Stephen Barker getting his priority driven prioritisations, erm, prioritised and the world of politics is upended when the Labour Group torpedos a Tory motion to help rehabillitate offenders. Collins gets quite undone over the Parliament St sex shop attempting to renew its license while Cllr Cat Arnold outs herself as a former high class (self defined) escort, causing schoolboy sniggers over the fact that she is the 'executive assistant for leisure' and setting a wonderful example for the city's schoolchildren. On the plus side, it probably helped to sell her book which came out at the same time (currently available for £6 off at Amazon, if you're interested).

August 2010

A slightly quieter month this one. NCC's planning section decrees that one type of solar panel is 'in character' with an Edwardian conservation area but another type isn't, Harold Tinworth is formally awarded a contract to do the work that he's been doing for the last four years, after a scrupulously fair and open tender exercise obviously, and NCC puts the kibosh on this year's East Midlands Vegan Festival by refusig to allow use of the Council House on spurious 'wear and tear' grounds.

September 2010

That decision to award Tinworth the contract was subjected to 'call-in. We went beyond the call of duty and went to observe the meeting which was as dull as you'd expect and just as much of a blatant cover up. After having initially lied about not employing consultants to sort out the lifts maintenance problems NCC suddenly remembered that in fact, yes they had done after all. Michael Williams bids a tearful farewell, inadvertently exposing the complete lack of thought in NCC's senior management restructure last year and we are heartened by an apparent outbreak of good practice at One Nottingham. I did say apparent...

October 2010

The Post reveals the shocking misuse of confidentiality in local government rules when Harold Tinworth's offer to provide political advice at public expense to Labour councillors is exposed following the call-in meeting, Cllr Mick Newton gains my respect by outing himself as a mental health problem sufferer (next month - he loses it again), NCC's reasons for not allowing the East Midlands vegan Festival to be held at the Council house start to unravel and we have some fun chatting to some councillors for Local democracy Week. We end the month with the Information Governance team clamming up because there's some information that NCC wants to keep secret but they're not sure if the law allows them to do so.

November 2010

The Standards Committee stretches credibility beyond the call of duty by ruling that JoCo has no case to answer over his misleading the call-in sub-committee over the selling price of Radford Unity Complex. We get hold of pretty good evidence that oh yes he bloody does have a case to answer and demand a review of their decision. Don't hold your breath. Just show there's no hard feelings we give JoCo valuable advice as to how he could still make it to MIPIM despite NCC's lack of enthusiasm to fund it any more. In 'that took longer than I expected' news, Nottingham Equal is given an amount of funding suspiciously similar to the amount taken from CEHRNN earlier in the year and NCC admits that CEHRNN would have been a competitor for such funding streams had they not been sabotaged. My local councillors disappoint, but don't surprise, me again by steadfastly ignoring my emails and One Nottingham destroys our illusions that they might actually be jolly good chaps by deciding not to cough up about how Nottingham Equal got their money and by installing JoCo's mate as Chief Exec without so much as expecting him to apply or attend an interview.

So, that's my second year of blogging. Obviously I wrote about a few more things than the lowlights above, partly due to lack of energy and partly because I don't get to find out about everything. Readers can help with the latter of course, we are always looking ou for disgruntled NCC, One Nottingham or even voluntary sector employees with information to share. Check my prfile for an email link.

Will we last for a third year? Will NCC's secret agents* 'take us out' or will we simply lose the will to live? Tune in regularly to find out.

*It's alright, I don't really think that NCC has secret agents.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Two Years of Blogging About Conniving Incompetent Twats Pt 1

Yes folks the NCCLols blog has been going for two years now. I like to feel we've found our feet and, unlike the first year, I haven't had that tribunal hanging over my head.

So pull up a chair, grab a small sherry and imagine part one of this annual review being a bit like one of those 'talking heads' shows on Channel 4, if only we had some money and media expertise...

December 09

We were a bit demob happy after the tribunal finished but then we got a weak and inept sort of legal threat over being a bit sweary and insulting. I politely wrote back and suggested that they may want to reconsider bringing the matter up ever again.

January 2010

Fairly quiet start to the year, just seemed to be the usual ineptitude to write about along with a few more tribunal issues. We helped promote the campaigns against the closure of the Viccy Baths (eventually unsuccessful) and the attempt to rip off some of Stonebridge Farm's land, which went a bit better.

February 2010

Moving into February there was more of the same. JoCo got a bee in his bonnet about legal (i.e. with permission) graffiti before announcing that he would be heading down to MIPIM on his bike this year. It's all about him isn't it?

March 2010

Things hotted up in March with a number of big issues starting, some of which are still rattling on today. We had Hassan Ahmed's rather shameless attempt to shut down the Council for Equalities and Human Rights Nottm and Notts, the decision for which so far remains secret, and JoCo was accused of having a personal mentor, due to £110k being passed to Harold Tinworth for no discoverable reason so that was the best guess that anyone could come up with. These two issues have occupied a lot of space around here...On a lighter note we were featured in the Nottingham Post, for being belligerent sweary gits.

April 2010

Never let it be said that NCCLols is all work and no play, we started the month off with our first ever April Fool and a hearty chuckle we had with it too by George. Less fun was being completely ignored by nearly all of my elected representatives when I tried to spur them into action over the CEHRNN funding issue. JoCo starts making his presence felt at Notts Police Authority as well as sticking his oar in just about everywhere else. We'll hear more of this later...

May 2010

Despite being briefly distracted by the General Election, the rest of May happened. It was a month for crooks as Brian Grocock was made Lord Mayor and Hassan Ahmed claimed he'd been 'completely exonerated' by Standards for England when in fact he had been found to have failed to register a number of interests. These included Nottingham Equal which turned out to benefit hugely from his earlier decision to rip off CEHRNN of its funding. And we had the first signs of things not all being well in the world of lift maintenance.

Well, that's me pooped for now, look out for part 2 tomorrow or, alternatively, at some other completely different time, we'll see.

Not In the Public Interest? Or Just Plain Embarrassing?

We appear to have another example of an NCC committee getting a bit mixed up over the difference between keeping something from the public because it's in the public interest and doing so because it's politically embarrassing.

This time it's the Appointments and Conditions of Service Committee who are meeting next month to discuss a report on how to reduce expenditure on temporary and agency staff and the (probably deceptively) benign sounding 'managing the impact on colleagues of the financial challenges affecting the council'.

These are the only two issues on the agenda and they are both due to be discussed in secret yet, bizarrely, the standard info for spectators is added at the bottom of the agenda -

"CITIZENS ATTENDING MEETINGS ARE ASKED TO ARRIVE AT LEAST FIFTEEN MINUTES BEFORE THE START OF THE MEETING TO BE ISSUED WITH VISITOR BADGES"

Might have been an idea to add that there really isn't any point because you're not going to see anything.

NCC has been criticised before about its spend on consultants and temporary staff, mostly on here but also by UNISON. And before you say they're not the same thing we do seem to find consultants being drafted in as temporary or 'interim' managers, sometimes using consultants who in turn employ other consultants. So it's likely that a discussion of their use will result in embarrassing disclosures. On the other hand, the agenda item is being described as as 'approach and phase 1 report' so it seems unlikely that it will involve discussing PricewaterhouseCoopers' most intimate business secrets and the few confidential financial matters that do creep in could easily be banished to an exempt appendix. But no, NCC makes the lot secret and my bet is that, if challenged, they would indeed justify it on there being financial matters involved. It's just coincidence that the embarrassing stuff also gets kept under wraps you understand. No really.

Of course this is nothing new, the call-in sub-committee tried to hide the fact that Harold Tinworth was planning to provide political advice at taxpayers' expense and Hassan Ahmed and Graham Chapman made the decision to end CEHRNN's funding in secret and since then Ahmed's downright duplicitous behaviour and conflict of interest in making the decision has come to light.

NCC Comms Chief Gets a Bit Upset

It seems that NCC's Director of Communications is back in the social media scene, this time blogging under his own name rather than hiding behind his 'Bulcote Cowby' moniker.

He seems to have got a bit hot under the collar (warning - there are asterisks) about an investigation about local authority mismanagement. Not the most neutral writing on the subject I'd agree, some of it does descend into Daily Mail reader porn but there are valid points in there and in some cases they seem to have been a bit kind. However, it seems to have hit one of Stephen's sensitive spots for some reason.

In an effort to play nicely I added a comment. I put quite a bit of thought into it so I was most upset to find that it is still 'awaiting moderation'. So here it is -


"Let me help with the link then people can see what you’re on about

http://thebureauinvestigates.com/

Unfortunately some of the criticisms are valid. I take your point about not dropping employees as soon as they go off sick but high levels of sick leave can be symptomatic of a wider malaise such as workplace bullying. NCC got off very lightly with my constructive unfair dismissal damages, pity they spent around £20k on legal representation and an estimated £10k on staff time for senior managers who fancied a few days out of the office to go along and watch.

As for the junkets, some of these might well be considered unnecessary. Certain local civic dignitaries popping over to USA to investigate theme parks springs to mind, if it has to be done at all what’s wrong with Eurodisney? £40 on Squeasyjet and you’re laughing. And don’t get me started on MIPIM.

Oh alright then, there is absolutely no justification for anybody from NCC having attended MIPIM ever. The interviews with porky businessmen telling wonderful tales of parties, rubbing shoulders with a Lord, and, oh yes I got a couple of leads in Coventry and Derby. As for flogging the Guildhall, nobody needed to go to the Riviera to clinch that deal. Notice how the private sector has suddenly lost interest now NCC doesn’t want to throw and cash at it any more?

As for redundancy, again, councils can’t be criticised for complying with the law but high levels of redundancy can signify poor recruitment and retention issues and bad planning and, annoyingly, we have to accept that public employees advantageous redundancy terms compared to the private sector are a matter for public interest. The issues around early termination settlements is moot though and there can be no excuse for a council like NCC getting through 3 Chief Executives simply because of the Leader’s personality problems. The common man/woman in the street also wonder why it is that if they’re not up to the job they just get sacked with no pay off, yet top brass seem to do very well out of it. 

On the other hand, sometimes employers including councils do have to dismiss staff on performance grounds but councils’ HR services are uniformly so poor that they can end up creating an unfair dismissal case when there was no chance of one before. Nobody at NCC HR even understands their own policies and tend to interpret them as what they would like them to mean rather than what they say. Mind you they’re so badly written that’s not surprising.

Then of course there is the matter of pay offs as part of a compromise agreement due to the workplace bullying. All I can say on that is don’t bully your staff and force them to resign, eh Stephen?
Where the report shoots itself in the foot is quoting criticism from a consultant “who has advised the government and councils on efficiency and remuneration” criticising waste. Huge irony and a pity he doesn’t mention the untold sums wasted on consultants (who sometimes do little more than find another consultant and charge for two profit margins).

So I agree some of the criticism is unfair but councils could help by not providing ammunition. Sadly their usual response is to waste huge amounts of cash on control freak PR to try and paper over the cracks and pointless glossy Pravdas delivered to your door."

What a pity Stephen can't control the whole media and blogosphere so easily eh?

Friday, 26 November 2010

It's That Radford Unity Complex Again

The 'drip drip' of information coming in on this continues.

I've managed to get sight of some of the emails that were exchanged between Nottingham Studios' representatives and NCC when negotiations started to turn sour. You may recall that NS were somewhat unhappy about having to allow some of the community groups to stay on in the building for an indeterminate period. NS were quibbling over the rent that NCC were going to pay on the groups' behalf.

One of the emails I've seen was from somebody called David Smith at NCC and it includes an extraordinary admission which I don't think has seen the light of day before, here's an extract -

"You will be aware that we have to address a Local Government Ombudsman case regarding the disposal of this building. The payment of a rental sum for accommodation within the property to a new owner will be viewed upon as most extraordinary, when the new owner is purchasing the property for an amount which falls well below the figure which the Council would expect to obtain, were the property sold in the open market, partcularly [sic] when an offer for the property has already been received at a figure close to the £350,000 at which it has been valued."

So NCC had received an alternative much greater offer for the building yet were still pushing for a sale to NS for a much lower figure, completion of which would have cost them even more for renting half of it back. The use of the word 'already' suggests to me that this higher offer predates the one from NS, which the council proactively invited. You can see why Mr Smith was worried.

As far as I know this fact of the alternative offer was never put before the call-in sub-committee. It would surely have put the handling of the sale in a different light if it had. It's still very much open to question how much JoCo knew about all this. At call-in it was said that he wrote to the tenants at RUC on 29 December 2009 to tell them that the building was to be sold, some weeks before he made the official decision.

In addition, one of the emails from NS' rep says -

"1. Last autumn the Studios group was invited by NCC to consider the purchase of Radford Unity Complex at a price of 150k. NCC indicated a valuation of 300k for the property but there was acknowledegment of significant potential remedial building work."

All this makes the Standards Committee's Assessment Sub-Committee's claim that the only thing Collins knew about the matter was what was in the report appended to his decision seem all the more extraordinary and unlikely. I've pointed this out to them in my request for a review of their decision not to investigate Collins' conduct at call-in.

I've been told separately that one of the groups based at the complex, who are affiliated to a national organisation, had made an offer for the building and I'm attempting to confirm whether that is the case and whether it was the same one that David Smith was referring to.

But essentially, it is clear that, even before the serious incompetence set in with legal services' failure to give the tenants proper notice, NCC was already nearly £200k down. For some reason, it seems that somebody high up really wanted the building to go to Nottingham Studios. I have no idea why but maybe there's a clue as to the who in one of the emails from David Hill, Nottingham Studios' agent on 19 March 2009-

"My understanding is that the Leader is very keen to see this sale go through and the resulting project to support artists.

I assume that any response to our final position will be endorsed by him."

Thursday, 25 November 2010

No, We Always Do It This Way, Honest

FINALLY got a response to one of my outstanding FoIA enquiries. They'd failed to provide a response within the statutory time limit so I asked for a review. The time limit for that is up today and, lo and behold, it appears. As such they took the absolute maximum amount of time without the involvement of the Information Commissioner.

Still, they take the opportunity to reassure me that -

"...we are currently carrying out a thorough review of all our office procedures to minimise the possibility of any future delays." 

That looks familiar. Let's have a quick look at a reply to an older query from June 2009 that had also been delayed -

"Please be assured we are currently carrying out a thorough review of all our office procedures to minimise the possibility of any future delays."

That's quite a long review! I imagine that no stone has been left unturned in finding a solution to these delays and that 'reports' and 'action plans' are being wielded as we speak.

Anyway, to the substance. I was trying to find out the current employment status of One Nottingham's Chief Exec, Nigel Cooke. He'd been described as 'acting' for a while which seemed odd. It may also be relevant that he is a very old mate of Jon Collins, erstwhile Chair of ON.

It turns out that Mr Cooke is now the permanently appointed Chief Exec but he didn't have to apply for the job or be interviewed. He was 'slotted in' to the job in June this year. It is, however, entirely above board -

"The restructuring procedures, agreed with the Trade Unions, involve comparing the job description of the post holder, whose substantive post has been deleted (in this case, Head of Service, One Nottingham) with that of the new post (Head of One Nottingham).

There was found to be a match of 66% or more and therefore the person at risk was eligible to be redeployed into the new post. No other at risk people were found to have 66% or more match and therefore no ring fence interviews for the new post were held."


You see? That's how they always do it.

It's worth a bit more of a look though. I did have some involvement in considerations of redeployment issues at NCC when I worked there.

First thing is you are comparing the posts rather than any individual postholder's skills so you're not supposed to include any task included in any 'acting up' capacity. It's also worth mentioning that Cooke's previous job was Head of Service and this post reported to the Chief Executive. In other words they are saying that there was a 66% overlap between two senior management posts, one of whom reported to the other.

If that really was the case then that was some serious top heavy management. The only other explanation would be that the redeployment process was rigged and, despite the fact that I'm sure JoCo wants to see his old mate do well and also to ensure that he leaves a friendly face at the top of ON when he departs the chair, I have absolutely no reason to believe that to be the case.

Last little fact of note. The salary is of the range £57,288 to £66,762. That's quite a bit less than the new Director of the Crime and Drugs Partnership (Alan Given's replacement) who I am reliably informed started on £89k.

Addendum; in case you think this all sounds a bit conspiracy theory you might want to bear in mind that Collins is onto his fourth Chief Exec at NCC with well documented rows with Michael Frater who then went on to uncover corruption and mismanagement at Surrey County Council. Shortly after Collins assumed the chair of Notts Police Authority the Chief Exec was hoofed out and it's widely rumoured that his current favourite Alan Given is being lined up for the job. And of course the arrival of Collins as chair of One Nottingham and the departure of previous Chief Exec Andrew Balchin occurred suspiciously close together with Cooke 'acting up' to the role pretty much straight away. Coincidence? Yeah right.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Keep the Public Informed...When It Suits You

The Post has two major bad news stories today. One about NCC cutting over 200 places in homelessness hostels, the other about the government deciding not to fund the PFI scheme to do up the Meadows.

Only one of these stories made it to the council's homepage, can you guess which one it is?

Monday, 22 November 2010

Shameless Cover Up

Kevin from One Nottingham has been back in touch, thought I'd heard the last from him. Here's what he had to say about my request for a copy of the tender meeting minutes and other documents -

"We have taken the decison not to supply the information you requested, in our considered opinion, release of this information would damage the commercial interests of Nottingam City Council, One Nottingham and the parties involved in the tendering process.

I would refer you to my email dated 2nd November 2010."


NCCLols translation service; "We're not giving you the info because that would let the cat out of the bag about the dodgy backroom deals we've pulled." 

Looks like it might be time to put plan B into operation. 

Notts SOS Demo

I attended the Notts SOS demo yesterday, was heartening to see such a good turnout.







I have to say that I always feel slightly ambivalent at these events listening to hypocritical bullshit from Nottm City Unison about how Tories only look after themselves and the like. This from an organisation whose branch chairman Gary Ward lied to help one of their stewards stitch me up.

Still bad apples and all that and I retain my strong belief in the Trades Union movement as a whole. It's only that which has so far prevented me from writing the full story of Nottm City Unison's part in my problems with NCC. Still mulling that one over...

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Lack of Engagement Woes...Again

Unfortunately I have to report that my initial optimism at One Nottingham's response to my request for a copy of the decision to award Nottingham Equal funding appears to be misplaced.

As I said before, ON's PR chap Kevin Bartlett provided me with copies of board minutes but said that the decision to pick NE was made by a tender panel, a detail not mentioned in the NCC decision to provide match funding. That just mentioned a lack of other potential organisations.

I have written back to Mr Bartlett, twice, asking him for a copy of the tender decision and meeting minutes as their guidance says that this should normally be provided under the Freedom of Information Act and Kevin did say he would deal with my request under FoIA principles. Not a peep back from him sadly and he sounded so friendly at the outset.

What have they got to hide?

The next tactic I think is to test just how independent ON is from NCC by putting in a FoIA request to NCC itself. NCC's financial regulations state that contracts over £50k must have three bidders. The financial regs can be dispensed with if a justification can be provided but according to Kevin that didn't happen. We'll see what they say.

In other clamming up news, after encouraging all and sundry to write to their councillors about discretionary housing payments I made a point of doing so myself. Ten days ago I wrote to my own local councillors, Cat Arnold, Rob Lee and Mick Newton, the three party leaders and relevant portfolio holders Graham Chapman (resources), Eunice Campbell (adult services) and David Liversidge (housing).

Wanna know how many replies I've had? One, from Lib Dem leader Gary Long who said he would support DHPs being sent for scrutiny. Hats off to him at least. Nothing from anybody else, not even my own councillors which is an absolute disgrace. I've never had a reply from any of my local councillors apart from one from Mick Newton and that was when he was off sick.

These wasters are a disgrace to democracy. How can they complain about people not voting or otherwise engaging in political life when they steadfastly ignore people who do? How often do politicians howl in condemnation when people dare to take matters into their own hands and riot or stage other forms of direct action? We hear them mewling and puking that we should effect change by democratic means but ignore us when we do. It's not a party political thing, they're all part of the same disease, although we do have a particular problem with councillors being little more than vote fodder at the beck and call of the leadership in Nottingham. The last thing that elected representatives of that calibre want is for people to take an interest in what they're doing.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Another Day, Another Report on Housing Benefit Incompetence

Next week's Audit Committee meeting will have another opportunity to enjoy what is becoming a regular ritual; the presentation of yet another report detailing what a bunch of fuck-ups the housing benefits service is. I say fuck-ups but there is the hint of something more sinister going on, more on that in a bit.

This latest installment consists of NCC's Internal Audit services latest report on the housing benefits service which it seems they now do annually. I wrote about the 2009 edition before. The 2010 version was prepared in February of this year but we only get to see it if it's one of the sample of Internal Audit reports that are put before the Audit Committee. As such it was done at the same time as the report from the Audit Commission that tore HB a new one and resulted in the possibility of them having to pay a £2m subsidy overclaim back to central government. As far as I know that's still under dispute.

So what did this latest report say? Well they picked up on the total lack of quality control that the Audit Commission was so scathing about. This included a lack of checks on claims processed by external firm Mouchel which is just asking for trouble. As a reminder, Mouchel got over £266k of our money in 2008/9 for who knows how much worth of benefit claims processed. I'd want to keep a close eye on that myself.

A very interesting piece of detail concerns the reporting of different types of overpayments. Essentially, it seems that if errors in benefit assessments caused by the council itself (as opposed to claimants) are below a certain level (approx £616k) NCC still gets full subsidy on it. If it's between a certain range (£616k - £693k) only 40% of subsidy is paid and above that latter figure they get none. In other words there's a pretty strong incentive to keep council caused errors down, which makes sense.

Other types of error are treated differently (see para 400 onwards), for example, error caused by claimants always attracts a 40% subsidy. Errors which are the fault of the DWP or HMRC are fully reimbursed.

Now, this wasn't mentioned in the Audit Commission report but it seems that NCC is prone to incorrect classification of overpayments, occurring in 25% of a sample checked by Internal Audit. From the report -

"For 2008-9 we claimed £0.5m LA Error but would receive no subsidy if the figure exceeded £0.7m...

...Failure to follow proper procedures results in incorrect subsidy classification – we understand that, despite training, experienced staff continue to shortcut such a procedure. Our testing of 20 overpayments showed 25% where failure to follow procedure led to overpayment classification errors. Overpayment classification has not been checked since Jun 08."

It's not explicitly stated but by reading between the lines you get the feeling that the results of incorrect classification only go one way i.e. to reduce local authority error and retaining the subsidy. This would not be inconsistent with the Audit Commission's conclusion that a major overpayment of subsidy had occurred.

And the slightly tart statement about 'experienced staff' who 'despite training' tend to 'shortcut' the classification procedures. Which results in lower rates of overpayments caused by local authority error. And more subsidy...

Hmmm. Like I said, it's not explicitly stated.

Anyway, as I've said before, Internal Audit would have to march on the Audit Committee wearing rainbow striped lederhosen carrying a 30ft banner saying 'Housing Benefits Staff Are Wrongly Classifying Overpayments So We Get More Subsidy' before it would even raise an eyebrow. I predict a total lack of concern along with a side order of vague promises including 'action plans*' and 'targeted training' etc next Friday.

*If you ever have the misfortune to work at NCC you will soon notice that they love 'action plans'. Generally speaking, in NCC's usage of the phrase it means close to the exact opposite of what it says resulting in very little action and the absence of anything resembling a plan. At NCC, 'action plans' and 'reports' have become the end in itself, instead of the means to an end.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Freedom of Information Round-Up

The latest installment in what I'm sure I'm obliged to call an occasional series on NCC's contempt for the Freedom of Information Act.

We have the following cases outstanding and significantly delayed -

Request about area based grants. Submitted on 28 September and no response so it is over two weeks out of time. Internal review requested.

Question about One Nottingham's recruitment process for its Chief Exec. Submitted on 25 September, completely ignored bar an initial acknowledgement although they didn't bother acknowledging my review request. Approx 3 weeks out of time.

Requests for copies of portfolio holder decisions withheld 'in the public interest'. Two cases here and they are both absolute shockers in the deliberate and cynical use of BS legal arguments and delaying tactics. The first one was submitted on 18 August and got an (expected) refusal pretty quickly. I requested a review which they initially refused to carry out at all which is unprecedented and indefensible. Since then there has been a mixture of delaying tactics including a promise to provide a response on 1 November which never materialised. In other words they told a bare faced lie. It's now with the Information Commissioner.

The second portfolio decisions case is similar except they didn't bother with the refusals but went straight to the delaying tactics. It's now been outstanding since 2 September but, because of the delaying tactics, including an undelivered promise to provide a response by 28 October, I didn't get a review request until then.

Not to mention Stephanie Pearson's desperate attempts to imply to the Information Commissioner that there is something untoward in my requests for information (it's called campaigning luv).

So lies, delaying tactics, stonewalling and false implications of impropriety. All of these cases have something in common; the answers are likely to be embarrassing. Does it get any more cynical than this?

Christmas Fayre Exposes the Lie Behind Refusal to Host East Midlands Vegan Festival

You may be aware from previous witterings on here and elsewhere that the East Midlands Vegan Festival is not going ahead this year due to NCC refusing to allow the use of the Council House due claimed problems with 'wear and tear'.

It already seemed likely that this over-protectiveness was being selectively applied and I have to say that this (entirely worthy) event reinforces that. A Christmas Fayre open for 10 hours with 50 stalls and a champagne bar is likely to cause as much, or more, wear and tear than the vegan festival shutting at 6pm where everyone is meticulously counted in and out.

Again, please don't get the impression that I'm in any way against the Council House being used for a Christmas Fayre in aid of Nottingham Hospice, like the Deaf Awareness Day I think it's exactly the sort of use that our historic municipal buildings can be used for and I hope that NH got use of the building at a reduced rate or for free. It's just that I think that EMVF is an appropriate use too and this clearly exposes the lie of the 'wear and tear' excuse.

Anyway, apologies to Nottingham Hospice for the overly negative introduction. Their Christmas Fayre is on 6 December 12 noon to 10pm in the Grand Ballroom at the Council House and entry is free.

The Continuing Adventures of Councillor Hassan Ahmed

Councillor Hassan Ahmed does keep us busy here at NCCLols.

You will be aware of his difficulties in remembering who he worked for and which charities he was trustee of and the understanding and sympathetic attitude he received on this from Standards for England, something that shocked even the supremely supine Standards Committee at NCC.

Well, I've managed to get a bit more information about that in the form of the (heavily redacted) full report on the case against him from Standards for England. I am still trying to get as much of the redaction removed via the Information Commissioner but I'm not over hopeful. And it's more than I got from an identical request to NCC who refused to provide anything.

This document provides more insight into the thought processes behind SfE's decision making, I'll quote a few examples, see if you can spot a pattern emerging -

"...At the same meeting, the executive agreed to fund Nottingham Training and Enterprises Ltd [one of Ahmed's interests] for £50,000 per annum over three years. At the time of the council executive's decision, Councillor Ahmed was not a member of the executive. He did not attend the meeting or take part in the decision..." 

"...Forest Fields Advice and Neighbourhood Centre [another interest] received a grant of £3,092 during 2008-2009. The decision to approve funding to this organisation predated Councillor Ahmed's appointment as portfolio holder. I have seen no evidence that Councillor Ahmed was involved in the decision making process in relation to funding the Advice and Neighbourhood Centre..."

"...Nottingham Training and Enterprises Ltd and FEBA [both Ahmed Interests] also submitted bids to the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). Bids for ERDF monies were decided by the East Midlands Development Agency (EMDA). The city council participates in a commissioning group, which assesses preliminary applications...At the time of Nottingham Training and Enterprises Ltd's ERDF bid in 2008, the group was chaired by Councillor Graham Chapman, the deputy leader of the council...

...FEBA was awarded two ERDF grants in July 2009 of £179,810 and £230,468...That decision predated Councillor Ahmed's appointment as portfolio holder..."

There seems to be quite a lot of reliance on the fact that Ahmed had not been appointed to the Executive at the time funding decisions were made. But he was Graham Chapman's Executive Assistant. Who jointly made the decision to cut CEHRNN's funding with him.

Then there's this -

"...I do not consider that Councillor Ahmed was required to declare an interest in Central Education and Training Ltd at the time he met with an officer from EMDA, as this was not a meeting of the council. At that time, no application had been made for ERDF funding..."

WTF? I can only assume that slipped through the redaction process because there's no mention of this meeting anywhere else. But essentially, SfE sees nothing dodgy in the fact that Ahmed was meeting EMDA officers when he was a director of two organisations that had not been declared on his register of interests, shortly before those organisations submitted funding bids to EMDA. Because it wasn't a City Council Meeting. Words fail me.

Anyway, it seems like Ahmed's forgetfulness in keeping his regulators up to date extends to Companies House and the Charity Commission. On 28 October this year he resigned as a director for 'Voice East Midlands' and yet the Commission don't seem to be aware as he is still listed as a trustee. Needless to say his NCC register of interests is yet to be updated. He also seems to have a habit of notifying Companies House about changes in his details with regard to one company but not with others; for example, in October 2008 he updates his address details for First Enterprise Business Agency, a local small business advice agency of which he is chair* but there is no corresponding notification for Nottingham Regeneration Ltd or Voice East Midlands. In April 2009 he does update address details for VEM but to a different address to the one notified earlier to FEBA. Again, no corresponding notification to FEBA nor to NRL, although he does deign to inform the latter that he is usually resident in the UK.

Let's hope that he advises FEBA's clients to act more appropriately.

*Or at least that's what he says in his annual report but I'm not sure what is real any more.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Take Action Over Discretionary Housing Payments

I have been writing about Discretionary Housing Payments almost from the start of this blog. I have occasionally written to councillors about them and have generally been fairly unimpressed with their responses, especially when taking into account the lack of real results from their interventions.

And of course I am just a lone sweary blogger with a chip on his shoulder so they can afford to ignore me. But the local election is on next May and if people wrote to their councillors to raise their concerns about the lack of action over DHPs and their concern about the post benefit cuts future they might take a bit of notice.

So I have drawn up a little toolkit below should you feel inclined to write to your local councillors on the subject and here it is -

List of local city councillors including contact details

Suggested standard letter - you are encouraged to adapt it to your own style and preferences

Link to table of DHP stats in case you wanted to include it

Full history of DHP articles on the blog

Shorter history if you're in a hurry

Shelter information on DHPs

Shelter information on proposed Housing Benefit cuts

Remember, with the cuts to Housing Benefit more people will be relying on Discretionary Housing Payments in order to be able to afford their rent. If NCC's system isn't improved from its current basket case status then a horrible situation will be a whole lot worse.

Our local representatives don't seem to know this. Please tell them.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

More Emails From La Dewinton - But No Apology

I mentioned before that Cllr Dewinton had responded to my email to tell me that she had forwarded it to the 'Director for Strategic Finance'. Still waiting for my apology though, despite a reminder.

However I did just receive a further somewhat bizarre email from her forwarding a response from an unnamed person at Housing Benefits (it's just a guess but I bet it's the same person who has previously lied their way through an internal HR investigation and to an employment tribunal).

Here's the quote from the Housing Benefits bod -


“In terms of DHP Mr P has had as much detail and information as is available and there is nothing further to add to previous responses provided, both in terms of the communication with Councillor Dewinton and the Freedom of Information requests that have been responded to. Therefore, I do not propose a subsequent response on the matter.”

Cllr Dewinton is silent as to whether she considers this to be an adequate comment on the matter.

Frankly this representative of the Housing Benefits service appears to be under an illusion that I give a shit what they think. I don't. And I wasn't looking for any further information either, I've already demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that discretionary housing payments have been persistently and comprehensively mismanaged. Rather than explain things further to me what I want now is for housing benefit managers to explain themselves to elected members and for there to be a serious and effective action plan to be put in place to get DHPs working properly.

DHPs will be the only means of mitigating the quite terrifying housing benefit cuts that we are facing. It is also a means of bringing central government money into the locality and that's not to be sniffed at these days. So there is an economic development case for action as well as a social justice one.

A small light at the end of the tunnel; Cllr Dewinton has passed the matter to be considered for scrutiny. There is therefore a small hope that the matter will go before the Overview and Scrutiny Committee which may at least drive some improvement. I won't be holding my breath though.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Nobody Mention Dobbie the House Elf...

I think it's about time we had one of our occasional 'separated at birth' japes...


Here we have a control freak politician...and Vlad Putin. And they do share a penchant for being rufty tufty outdoorsy types.

It's only satire...

More NCC Incompetence on Freedom of Information - Or Stonewalling?

NCC is proper taking the piss on a couple of my Freedom of Info cases, in particular this one.

I requested information about a bunch of portfolio holder decisions because there was a slew of them that were claimed to be 'exempt' from publication under Schedule 12A of the Local Government Act 1972. I've been suspicious for a while that NCC is abusing this provision in order to hide things which would be politically embarrassing as opposed to being genuinely against the public interest to publish. The outrageous attempt to cover up the attempt to commission political advice paid for from public funds is an example of this.

Uncharacteristically quickly, albeit unsurprisingly, I received a response refusing my request. I therefore requested a review, so far, so routine.

Then it got a bit weird because Information Governance wrote back saying that they would not be 'actioning' my request. This was a flagrant breach of the Freedom of Information Act and I wrote back saying that I was treating their response as a refusal of my review, at which point they wrote back, grudgingly agreeing to provide a response.

The issue resolves around the interaction between the Freedom of Information Act and the myriad other bits of legislation designed to keep us in the dark. The FoIA has a number of exemptions, some of which involve a 'public interest' test, some of which are absolute. One, under s.44 says that if publication is prevented by other legislation then it is absolutely exempted under FoIA, the idea being to prevent two bits of law conflicting.

The Information Commissioner has previously ruled on whether s.44 FoIA applies when Sch 12 LGA has previously applied and has decided that it doesn't, saying -

"50. The public authority has argued that schedule 12A of the Local Government Act 1972 operates as a statutory bar to disclosure and therefore the exemption at section 44 of the Act is engaged.
Schedule 12A sets out categories of information considered to be “exempt information” – i.e. information that is exempt from the duty to disclose under the Local Government Acts. It has been
replaced by Schedule 12A of the Local Government (Access to Information) (variation) Order 2006 (SI 2006/88).

51. It is the Commissioner’s belief that schedule 12A operates only
to exempt information from being disclosed for the purpose of the formal decision-making process and other local government
proceedings. The Commissioner does not accept that information which is exempt under those provisions for those specific purposes is necessarily exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of
Information Act. When a request to which the Freedom of Information Act applies is received, the relevance of any exemptions under that Act must be considered as at the time the request is received.

52. Accordingly, it is the Commissioner’s view that schedule 12A
does not operate as a statutory prohibition to disclosure under the Act and therefore the exemption at section 44 of the Act does not
apply in this instance."


In other words Sch 12A doesn't automatically trigger an exemption under s.44 but it is still possible that one of the other exemptions may apply and a public authority is obliged to consider the request under those terms.


Anyway, it all went quiet for a bit and I wrote again to check they were still intending to respond and they said that they would do so by 27 October. This date passed, another reminder from me and a promise that yes, a response will now be provided by 1 November. It will not surprise you to hear that I am still waiting so I have sent it off to the Information Commissioner.

In the meantime I received a final response on another case which turned on a similar point and gives a clue as to their thinking. They said -

"Firstly, it is the current position of this Authority that Schedule 12A can provide a prohibition on disclosure and that as a result, section 44 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 may be engaged as the Schedule 12A prohibition, if remaining relevant, could act as a prohibition under another enactment. Further, and as has been previously stated to you, section 44 of this Act is absolute and no test of public interest is required in order to apply this exemption and withhold the information, although it is accepted that in the case of Schedule 12A applications, the Schedule 12A must be re-assessed to see if it is still relevant, and in making this re-assessment a public interest test has to be applied."

Rather looks to me that they have (deliberately?) misinterpreted the Information Commissioner's ruling. They think that all they have to do is to have another think about the public interest element of their original Sch 12A decision and, if they consider it to apply, s.44 of the FoIA is automatically invoked which provides an absolute exemption. I think that the Information Commissioner is saying that Sch 12A doesn't provide a bar to publication and FoIA refusals must be based around the exemptions specifically set out in that Act.

If you're still with me you're probably wondering what's the difference, you're still not getting the information?

Well, I'm betting that NCC will be arguing that only they have the right to decide whether information is exempt from publication under Sch 12A LGA and that an absolute exemption is triggered under s.44 FoIA, meaning the Information Commissioner has no right to intervene. Ergo, no external scrutiny of how they decide which information they decide to keep secret and no external scrutiny of their idea of a public interest test.

If, on the other hand the alternative interpretation holds the Information Commissioner will have the opportunity to assess whether a current FoIA exemption applies, including considering a public interest test. This holds out the possibility of ending what I suspect is a practice of abusing the provisions in the LGA to hide politically embarrassing information.

The unnecessary delays and initial attempt to persuade me that they didn't even have to carry out an internal review suggests a desperation to keep the matter out of the hands of the Information Commissioner. This may give an indication of their optimism that their argument will sway the day.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Response From Cllr Dewinton Regarding DHPs Following Our 'Chat'

Following my online 'chat' with some councillors last month Cllr Dewinton has sent me a briefing on Discretionary Housing Payments, presumably to back up her claim that I was 'under an illusion' that NCC may not be doing all it can.

If you want to read it and see whether she has succeeded you can download a copy here.

I have responded to Cllr Dewinton's briefing as follows -

(update - Cllr D has forwarded my email to the Director for Strategic Finance who will apparently send me a response)

"Dear Cllr Dewinton,

Thank you for sending me the briefing, I have some comments to offer.


Firstly, the response looks very similar to a response I received last April via Cllr Trimble, with a few additions


http://ncclols.blogspot.com/2009/04/councillor-response-to-dhp-email.html


I did a critique of this at the time


http://ncclols.blogspot.com/2009/04/huff-and-puff.html


There also appears to be additions similar to the responses I have received via the Freedom of information Act


http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/details_of_discretionary_housing#incoming-120779


It is not very clear what the 'working group' has actually done beyond hold two informal meetings for which no minutes were taken. I am particularly concerned that no attempt seems to have been made to draw up local decision making guidance to ensure consistency, priorities and fair budgeting throughout the year. National guidance from the DWP is no substitute for this because what happens in Nottingham is not necessarily the same as what happens in Newham or Newport.


I draw your attention to the table of expenditure contained in your briefing. This demonstrates that central government funding for DHPs has dropped year on year almost from the beginning. A case of unfair treatment of local government by central? Not really. If an authority underspends its allocation of funding then the allocation next year is dropped


http://www.dwp.gov.uk/docs/s1-2009.pdf


and as it is plain to see NCC has underspent consistently until 2009/10.


I have an extended version of the table that you were provided with, drawn from FoIA responses, which includes the total numbers of applications and the success rates for each year


http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_TQ03WGKxnYo/THL4G1KR0FI/AAAAAAAAANY/ZfwT8r4eogs/s1600/DHP+Table+2010.jpg


You can see that, apart from two years which included 2001/2 which wasn't actually a full year, the majority of applications have been refused. And yet NCC was not even spending its full central grant never mind the maximum total spend it was allowed. You can see that the number of applications reached its high point in 2005/6 then dropped each year until recovering somewhat in 2009/10 which, coincidentally I'm sure, was when I started making some noise about the matter. The number of applications is sill less than in 2005/6 but I do acknowledge that some work has been done here and hopefully this direction will continue. However, these figures don't say much for historic take-up activities, especially considering the high profile 'We're On Your Side' campaign which was launched in response to the recession. And evictions due to rent arrears were reported to have increased by 42% at the end of 2008


http://www.thisisnottingham.co.uk/news/Evictions-soar-Nottingham/article-562797-detail/article.html


and you have to wonder how many of those could have been prevented by more payments of DHPs. I calculated that, if the central allocation for DHPs had increased at the same level of inflation each year instead of decreasing an extra £500,000 would have been payable.


The Task and Finish Panel on Debt Collection was told of low success rates in DHP applications and underspends in Sep 2006 yet no effective action appears to have been taken, despite numerous promises made


http://open.nottinghamcity.gov.uk/comm/download3.asp?dltype=inline&filename=24255/Hsgbenefit.doc


This appears to be a pattern of promises unfulfilled. The fact that the central funding was exceeded in 2009/10 is as much, if not more, to do with the year on year decreases in funding caused by underspends.


To conclude, you accused me of being 'under an illusion' about Nottingham City Council when forming my views. The above demonstrates that my views are informed by evidence and expert knowledge. I will not claim that my conclusions are beyond challenge but the bar is set high enough to expect any challenge to be a detailed, reasoned and evidenced one, rather than unfounded accusations of delusion. I would be grateful if you could reply to acknowledge that fact and to apologise for your earlier slur. In addition I believe there is a strong case for the Overview and Scrutiny Committee taking a detailed look at DHPs considering the increased importance they will have following the government's horrifying cuts to mainstream HB, in order to ensure that NCC's system is as robust as it can be. It is looking as though Nottingham will be among the worst affected in the East Midlands.


http://open.nottinghamcity.gov.uk/comm/download3.asp?dltype=inline&filename=24255/Hsgbenefit.doc


I look forward to hearing back from you."


We'll see if anything comes back.