Friday, 30 July 2010

Can Somebody Give the Audit Committee a Slap?

I'm beginning to think that the Audit Committee will believe anything they're told, especially where housing benefits are concerned.

In March 2009 I wrote about how NCC's internal audit service reported various problems, including claims processing accuracy, to the Audit Committee meeting on 13 February 2009. In response the committee said -

"(i) under ‘post payment checks’, Internal Audit had determined that the reasons for basic errors should be investigated and urgently fed back into targeted training to improve accuracy levels;
 

(ii) under ‘processing of new claims’, Internal Audit had determined that the reasons for poor performance should be investigated and urgently fed back into targeted training to improve accuracy levels;
 

In response to (i) and (ii) above, it was reported that both actions had been completed and all staff were now fully trained" 

So. Everything's ok then. It's all tickety-boo.

Moving onto the 18 December 2009 meeting, which I wrote about in January of this year, the committee had an interim progress report from the Audit Commission which was none too complimentary about Housing Benefits and in fact said that accuracy levels were getting worse -

"We found a higher number of errors in the processing of individual claims than in previous years, although the overall effect on the amount of subsidy due to the Council was small. We will be discussing with officers why the number of errors in our samples has increased."

Surely that would worry you following the internal report before the earlier committee? It doesn't seem so, they were mollified with -

"...that quality control errors in individual benefit claims’ processing, highlighted during the audit, were being addressed through joint working between officers and the Audit Commission;
 

attempted fraudulent benefit claims would be identified by application of the City’s Counter Fraud Strategy and the Government’s National Fraud Strategy."

Again, it's all fiiiiine, nothing to worry about, chill man.

Essentially the committee were taken in hook, line and sinker. I wrote about the bombshell that awaited the committee at its 28 May 2010 meeting last month and we've just got the minutes through. To remind you, the Audit Commission informed them at this meeting that NCC's claim for Housing Benefit subsidy was so strewn with errors that they had been overpaid by around £2m. Using the accepted international scale of fuck-ups I think that one deserves 'almighty' status.

And despite the various reassurances given at previous meetings the commission found that errors had increased further and that no quality control activity had been carried out through 2008/9 and 2009/10. This means that at least a similar level of error is expected next year.

This time the committee would have had enough surely? They're going to put their foot down this time right? Wrong.

"the issues raised in the report, around housing and council tax benefits, were not only a City problem, they occurred at most authorities nationally;
 

the City was expecting a £2 million shortfall (from the expected Department for Work and Pensions grant of £133 million) due to the issues mentioned above;

with regard to items such as taxes, the City was putting action plans in place to address the issues raised in the report."


Calling it a shortfall rather than an overpayment probably makes it sound less contentious. And another vague promise of 'action plans' seems to again satisfy the committee that all will be well.

We're beyond hook line and sinker now, we're talking beer-battered and wrapped in newspaper with a sachet of brown sauce to go. I mean what is wrong with these people, are they goldfish? Can they not remember anything from one meeting to the next?

I really don't know how things are supposed to improve if nobody is held to account and proper measures put in place to fix the problem. Issues of accuracy go back years as NCC sacrificed quality for quantity in an effort to get processing times down.

If the government asks for its £2m back that should hopefully be a wake-up call because that will significantly mess up the accounts. But the Audit Committee need a slap quite frankly because they've had warnings of these problems and they did nothing.

You Still Here?

Talking of Collins, has anybody noticed that he shows no sign of resigning as Chair of 'One Nottingham', like he said he would be doing when he was elected Chair of the Police Authority?

District Auditor in 'Mild Rebuke of Council' Uproar

We've been having a look at the somewhat murky status of the various payments made to Mr Harold Tinworth, murky because no-one has ever seemed to have formally agreed the expenditure to pay for his services and there is no formal record of what he actually does.

The District Auditor has now completed an investigation into the matter and, while the total lack of any sanction is hardly going to be much of a disincentive against frittering away £111k of public money with no records kept again in the future, NCC have now been told to formalise the arrangement and to issue a proper tender for the work required that is compliant with NCC's financial regulations. I thought I'd get in quick and ask for a copy of the tender under the Freedom of Info Act.

The reasons why the DA decided not to look further into this matter are somewhat disappointing. She says that her remit is limited to investigating years that haven't yet been subject to full audit. Because of this restriction as far as she is concerned the amount of money at stake is negligible. 'Negligible' in as much as it would have paid for a social worker for the best part of a year that is. Essentially, what is being said here is that if you can keep your skullduggery under wraps for long enough, you have a much better chance of not being investigated.

Of course, we might do well to remind ourselves that the person at the centre of this is the leader of the council Jon Collins. The invoices all said that the work charged for was 'services to the leader' and Collins seemed to be the only person who knew what Tinworth was up to.

This is the second time that a Collins scheme has escaped proper scrutiny. He was at the centre of the Radford Unity Complex debacle which the District Auditor was looking into, before abandoning the investigation when the sale fell through.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Nest of Vipers

Quite a lot of noise and information flying about concerning the mess that seems to be circulating around Cllr Hassan Ahmed, Nottingham Equal and the Council for Equality and Human Rights Nottm and Notts.

Firstly some good news. CEHRNN have managed to get a critical report about them amended, according to the Post. The report, purportedly an 'Equalities Impact Assessment' was a major trigger factor in CEHRNN losing their funding from the council.

Have to say, in my experience as a manager, I've never before seen an EIA used in such a way before. As CEHRNN's entire reason for being is equalities, the EIA became a wholesale review of the organisation's operations which isn't really what they are for.

But I digress. The original report claimed that the Police had been critical of CEHRNN's decision to demonstrate against the EDL, whereas in fact no complaint was ever received from them. As a result a paragraph was changed from this -

"Nonetheless, the general feeling shared by NCC and the Police was that the CEHRNN’s presence and strategy on 5th December 2009 was unhelpful and was contrary to that agreed by the local authority and its partners."

to this

"Nonetheless, the general feeling was that the CEHRNN’s presence and strategy on 5th December 2009 was unhelpful and was contrary to that agreed by the local authority and its partners.

Comes across as a bit begrudging huh? But pretty much all of the weight of the conclusion is lost by the fact that there is no evidence that the police shared it. Yet you'd hardly notice from the rather paltry amendment of the report.

Anyway, as I say, CEHRNN had their funding cut in a decision in which Cllr Ahmed was involved. I've written before that Nottingham Equal might well be a competitor organisation to CEHRNN so there might be a bit of a conflict of interest there. What's more, Nottingham Equal were one of the organisations that Ahmed 'forgot' to mention on his register of members interests, he was in fact a company director. He had added it by the time of the decision on CEHRNN's funding but only because the Post forced him to by blowing the lid on it.

Ahmed has since resigned as a director of NE. And now, with some inside knowledge, Nottgirl writes that NE are to get a significant chunk of funding from the council. The decision has yet to be published but it will be interesting to see if Ahmed's fingerprints are all over it. Perhaps he can be of more use to NE in an informal capacity?

And finally, and again thanks to Nottgirl as following her hint I went and spent a whole pound of my own money on a Companies House document, I've found out a little more about who really is behind Nottingham Equal. The latest return shows that their Chief Executive Officer is none other than Tyron Browne, formerly of Nottingham City Homes dodgy tenancy slam dunk fame. Isn't it reassuring to know that public money is going to such safe hands as these two eh?

Update - well worth reading this by Alan a Dale, which fills in some further gaps in the web of intrigue

Monday, 26 July 2010

The Real Reason For Nottingham's Purple Flag Success

Nottingham was recently awarded Purple Flag status for it's 'night time scene'. Some were a bit surprised by this but all can now be explained -


He really does get everywhere* doesn't he?

*Disclaimer; might not actually be the same JC or maybe a typo? Will report back if turns out to be the latter.

Update - I have amended my views following comment. I now suspect there to be a Secret Society of Jon Collinses. We need to get to the bottom of this...

An Everyday Tale of NCC Councillors Who Used to be High Class Escorts

Obviously stories like this are ten-a-penny but Cllr Cat Arnold has revealed that she used to be a 'high class escort girl'. Yes, back in the day she would be your very own 'Executive Assistant for Leisure' for the evening in return for money.

Cllr Arnold says she hopes we can all be 'grown up' about it. Yeah, I reckon that's gonna happen. Sorry to disappoint.

Mind you if she could just answer my occasional emails she can open council meetings with her famous ping-pong ball trick for all I care.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Beware of the Flowers...

By instinct, I'm normally on the side of the little guy and when the big guy happens to be NCC I feel justified in writing about it here.

So I'd like to tell you about the problems Andersons Florists on King St are having with Traffic Management.

As you can imagine they need to load and unload their stock before carting it about the place for the benefit of those who require flowers and flower related goods. According to their Facebook page they have been doing so from outside their shop since 1981.

Unfortunately, due to the fact that he is situated within the 'Clear Zone' they need a permit from NCC's Traffic Management service, without which they will fall into the clutches of NCC's army of civil enforcement officers.

As a side note, and linking back to an earlier post on NCC's comprehensive failure to comply with the EU Services Directive on providing business friendly info on council websites. I looked for quite a while and I could not find out how to apply for one of these permits. The closest I got was a permit for deliveries etc within residents parking schemes areas. They may be the same thing but you couldn't tell from the website. So you'd have to phone them up and they'd have have to post a form out which inevitably wouldn't turn up so you'd ring up again and...

Some people might suggest that NCC lacks the moral authority to go ordering others around and fining them when they don't comply with the law themselves but I digress. Andersons know how to apply for the required permits, they've been getting them for years but unfortunately their last one ran out at the beginning of July. Boss Brian Skelhorn says that he was told in classic 'computer says no' stylee that his renewal couldn't be processed until a NCC manager came back from holiday. Until then he has been told he can't load up outside the shop and has to use the single shared loading bay at the top of King St. If he doesn't comply he'll get a ticket and with CCTV trained on the street he'll get caught every time.

Andersons were in the news previously when NCC refused to let them allow glaziers to park outside the shop to fix a window. Mr Skelhorn seems to be feeling a bit picked on. You can sort of see why.

I mentioned the council's 'enforcement policy statement' in my last post and there is a whole section on 'proportionality' and the costs to business and individuals of compliance. Doesn't seem to apply here though, can they really not issue a temporary permit until the manager gets back? That would be the proportionate response in this instance.

It also says you'll get a 'courteous' service and Mr Skelhorn has one or two things to say about that on his FB page too.

It all seems like NCC's standard pattern of behaviour as seen before with issues like A-boards and changes to market trading. Too many people within NCC appear to live in an 'iron fist' fantasy world where the great unwashed are there simply to follow dictats. Sorry but that approach isn't proportionate by any means and it's time NCC started following it's own guidelines.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Those Fixed Penalty Notices Again - More Info

We've had a response to our Freedom of Info request regarding the enforcement of fixed penalty notices which I blogged about at the back end of June. It's quite interesting so allow me to tell you about it.

It seems that the only policy in place for deciding which FPNs to enforce is an over arching NCC wide 'Enforcement Policy Statement'. Not that they actually gave me the link mind, the unhelpful buggers just told me it was on the website and left me to find it for myself. At least this time the site's search facility worked.

Anyway, this document is predictably vague and makes lots of soft claims about being courteous and proportionate and the like. As far as I can tell it contains nothing about situations where there aren't enough resources to enforce all cases and which ones are priorities (or perhaps 'priority driven prioritisations' in NCC corporate wankspeak). There's stuff about taking into account the 'history of the party concerned' which might seem to imply that someone who regularly picks tickets up or doesn't pay them would warrant closer attention next time but that's about it. Pretty poor, should do better IMHO.

Onto the numbers then cos they're quite juicy.

I asked about hoe many people had managed to evade enforcement for more than two FPNs due to the six month time limit and apparently there have been eleven since June 2006. Of these two people have managed to avoid enforcement on seven FPNs and this the record so far apparently. Seven! Wonder how they managed to get away with that? It's difficult to see why they don't prosecute if they know who it is, which they clearly do as they've kept track of the numbers. Doesn't seem to be consistent with the bit about taking the person's history into account. Strange.

I think this pretty much confirms my original suspicions that enforcement is pretty random. While I understand the thinking behind having an overall policy FPNs are a bit of a special case due to the numbers involved. As I said before, once you face a situation where not all cases will be enforced you need to decide how to prioritise cases fairly.

If you've been issued with a FPN and paid up you might feel a bit sick about all that.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Gardengate Closed!

Puntastic!

Yes, it's true, the Gardengate case is finally over, NCC have thrown in the towel. It was looking that way following their application to postpone and then going very quiet, then I got a letter Wednesday morning.

But I'd like to share with you the manner in which they graciously withdrew. I could sub-title this bit 'Sometimes It's Hard to Say You're Sorry'...

And so we'll begin. The first reason they gave was that they'd got a date wrong. Good of them to admit that because I hadn't noticed. Essentially the summons said that on 2 October 2009 I had failed to do the works required within the period on the original notice. But 2 October was in fact the last day of that period, therefore I couldn't be said to have failed to comply with the notice until 3 October. I look at it now and it does look pretty dumb. Lesson of the day, always check your dates people.

I'm not convinced that this was fatal to their case however and I can certainly think of an easy way they could have got round it if their hearts were still in it.

Secondly they forgot to mention a piece of legislation. Again, I really do wonder whether that was a deal breaker.

Anyway, now it gets more interesting as the question as to whether officers had been properly delegated powers to issue enforcement proceedings, a key plank of my defence, now arises. NCC say that, for them to argue this point they will need a witness to attend who is on leave on the day of the hearing so they would need an adjournment. I can see how this is offputting for them as they'd only just attended a hearing where they had agreed a new date. The court probably wouldn't be that sympathetic to a further request for an adjournment in those circumstances.

They then make a big point of saying that they don't accept my arguments on the delegated powers issue but more on that later.

Finally they seem to sort of blame their bottling the case on my illness but not before some huffing and puffing about how I could have got somebody else to do the work for me. But still, they graciously inform me that NCC is "willing to allow me a further opportunity" to get the work done and indicate that they'll look at it again towards the end of the year. Thanks to this change of heart (sort of), they therefore plan to offer no evidence against me and the case will be dismissed. Which is nice.

So, what do we think? Well I can't be sure but I honestly suspect that, if they were confidant that they were clear on the delegation of powers issue we wouldn't be looking at the end of the case now. They've known about my disability since before they issued the summons and they've had adequate time to take it into account. I suspect that the other reasons given are pretty minor issues that could have been dealt with quite easily, although I don't really know enough about Magistrates Court procedure to be absolutely sure.

What definitely is clear is that, should they decide that they do want to prosecute me in future they will have to start from scratch with a new notice and, as I don't have any employment tribunals coming up, I'll probably be able to rustle an appeal up this time.

However, let's just imagine a hypothetical situation where they have realised that the required powers to start enforcement proceedings HAVEN'T been properly delegated to officers just as I've argued. Leaving things to the end of the year would give the Development Control Committee enough time to either put the required delegation in place or to make a decision on enforcement action themselves. Should the DCC take either of those courses of action then that would be as clear an admission that powers weren't properly delegated before as it's possible to get, despite all the denials. As I've suggested previously, that might leave a number of NCC officers in sticky legal situations, not to mention NCC itself. Needless to say I'll be watching the comings and goings of the DCC very closely from now on.

But for now this is the first time in two years where I haven't been embroiled in some sort of legal tussle with NCC, with two years of internal wrangling before that and frankly I'm a little tired. We are talking full on career and life fuck-up here. In my honestly held opinion I don't think it's in anybody's interest for me to hear from them ever again about this.

Who knows, I might then get some peace for a while, start getting better and maybe even remember how to look after myself again.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Sex Sex Sex That's All He Thinks About

You will almost certainly by now have read or heard about Cllr Jon Collins and his stance against the Parliament St sex shop.

It's yet another one I missed. As you've probably gathered I do trawl around council committee documents on the NCC website. I saw this mentioned and thought "naah, there won't be a story in that."

So this is a bit of a catch up post. Pretty much everything has been said in this really rather excellent post by Alan-a-Dale, aided and abetted by a nicely crafted comment by Cllr Alex Foster. There's really not much to add.

Well, I suppose we could have a look at the actual report, seeing as I missed it before. Collins' letter is included at the end.

What's interesting is how similar the Interim Corporate Director of Development's comments are to JoCo's grounds for objection. Looks like her job interview for the permanent role starts here. She claims, without a scrap of evidence, that -

"This investment by the public and the private sectors will be put at risk if this sex shop continues to operate."

That's pretty unequivocal and some might say casts negative aspersions on the way the establishment has conducted itself. Collins claims that the shop acts as an 'obstacle to regeneration', again without anything to back it up. He seems to be trying to sort-of-but-not-really link the increased number of closed down premises to the existence of the shop (I honestly thought that was what he was actually claiming on first reading) but gets out of it by accepting that the great and terrible loss of 'Liberty's' was due to fire not public disgust at the way the neighbourhood's gone downhill.

The report says there are no equality and diversity implications to refusing the license. Really? None at all? Well, now that the Tesco 'Value' Strap-On is available* (next to chilled goods seeing as you ask) I suppose lesbians do have alternative provision for those special shopping needs. But frankly I've led a bit of quiet life and I'd need to go get the encyclopedias out if I wanted to expand any further in this area so I think I'll just leave it for now.

Collins says that his objection isn't a moral crusade and, despite the rather pearls-clutching tone of the main report, I'm sure he's sincere on that one. I suspect that this particular sex shop is just unlucky enough to be in the way of one of his grand schemes. If it was a florists we'd be hearing about the dangers of hay fever in a built up area.

Personally I'd close the place down tomorrow, oh yes. A sex shop? In the middle of the city, next to a BUS STOP by George? It ain't right I tell ya. They'll be havin' them ladyboys dancing in the Market Square next and then where...oh.

*It isn't really

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Creative Commons License

Just thought I had better draw attention to the fact that the material on this blog is now licensed under a Creative Commons license.

This won't make any difference to the vast majority of people who might want to re-use my stuff, essentially you have to attribute and link like you always have but I've now made it clear that commercial use is out. I'm pretty much formalising what I always wanted really.

If you're worried, firstly you almost certainly needn't be but do feel free to get in contact if you want to use my stuff and you're not sure what all this means.

Standards Board for England - Huh! Wusses

When I first heard that the Standards Board for England was to be abolished by the ConDems I have to say I was a little perturbed. Who will be there to catch up with dodgy councillors who have been exonerated by their mates I wondered?

That question was sort of answered when SFE considered Cllr Hassan Ahmed's case where, despite being found guilty of comprehensively breaching the members code of conduct, he faced no further sanction because he couldn't possibly expected to know what he was doing. In fact SFE seemed almost apologetic for wasting his time. Ahmed wasted no time in releasing a blatantly false and misleading statement claiming to have been 'exonerated'. Somebody buy him a dictionary.

So, it seemed that SFE saw themselves in the role of chief apologists for dodgy types and their impending demise suddenly didn't seem to be much of a loss.

It seems that SFE's forgiving stance took NCC's Standards Committee by surprise too. At their last meeting they considered the SFE decision in Cllr Ahmed's case and, despite their discussions being behind closed doors seem to have been fairly open as to their wonderment at the findings, saying -

"...but felt that the reasoning which led to the decision that no further action should be taken could have been justified more fully. Not doing so could lead to the perception that a councillor may breach the Code with some impunity, reasoning that no further action may be taken..."

Never thought I'd say this with regard to the SC but nail, head, hit.

However, I was somewhat disturbed by the fact that the SFE appeared to have provided the SC with a confidential report on Ahmed's case, over and above the decision that had been made public. I have written before about the blatant disparity between the levels of confidentiality enjoyed by the great unwashed when faced with the quasi/criminal justice system compared with that of councillors caught with their trousers down. Whatever happened to the need for justice being SEEN to have been done, not just a sanitised version for the masses.

So I'd like to call on the Standards Committee to make this report public in the spirit of justice and openness. In order to chivvy them on a bit I've put in a Freedom of Information request on the matter and, for good measure, I thought I'd send one to SFE too.

As ever, I'll let you know how I get on.

Labour Smacks Down Tory Motion to Help Rehabilitate Offenders. Yes It Really is That Way Round...

Slightly odd news coming through about the last full council meeting via the 'Post'.

In one of those strange surreal moments that politics sometimes throws up at us Tory Group Leader Cllr Andrew Price (and there's someone who looks more like his own reflection in a spoon than he should do) has gone all Ken Clarke on us and proposed a hippy drippy (nay, frankly liberal by George!) motion asking that NCC reserves guaranteed jobs and interviews for ex-offenders. There's some other more mainstream stuff in there like increased use of 'Community Payback' but I reckon Norman Tebbit must be turning in his grave*, whatever happened to hang 'em and flog 'em?

Obviously it wasn't passed. It was, after all, an opposition motion and that will never do. JoCo puffed his chest out and said they couldn't go reserving jobs for bad'uns and ne're-do-wells when the not so hippy-drippy wing of the ConDem party in Whitehall is planning on making the entire public sector redundant.

"All our focus will be on the people we currently employ and don't want to leave us."

he chirruped.

Hmmm. So, Collins believes that the Council's first duty is to keep current employees in work when redundancies are threatened does he? Thinks it's wrong for councils to give disadvantaged groups a bit of a leg-up in the jobs market eh? That needs looking at doesn't it?

First of all let's have a look at NCC's record at re-employing those it makes redundant, with a bit of help from a FoIA response I had lying around (not one of mine, personal details redacted for privacy).

In 2007/8 NCC made 103 people redundant and retired 40 on health grounds. Of those, 56 found their way onto the redeployment register, 35 of whom were found another job. So that's around 24% kept on the books.

Things got a bit grimmer in 2008/9. 168 people made redundant, 45 retired on health grounds and only 30 qualifying for redeployment, 13 of whom were found new jobs. I make that a success rate of about 6%.

This is hardly painting a picture of an organisation striving to keep its workers in jobs and things do appear to be getting worse. Remember, this was well into the economic crisis but before NCC started announcing its own large scale redundancies (although 'announcing' and 'planning' are obviously not the same thing).

Next up let's look at whether JoCo really does believe it's a bad idea to help disadvantaged groups with guaranteed interviews or other help.

Well, if he's being consistent he will want to withdraw NCC support and assistance to groups like PATRA who provide traineeships for people from BME communities. He might also want to have a look at the apprenticeship program which, according to the March 2010 'One Nottingham' minutes (see p4) was providing 16 placements for at least one vulnerable group, erm, ex-offenders. Surely, if JoCo's logic expressed at full Council is to be followed, these traineeships and apprenticeships should first be offered to those NCC employees facing redundancy no?

Of course these schemes will remain supported and rightly so. It remains to be seen what efforts NCC will make to re-employ redundant staff but for the time being the priority seems to be to smack down an opposition motion, even though it isn't very far off what NCC are doing already.

Cllr Price's motion may not have been perfect (not sure about the guaranteed jobs bit personally) but we let an opportunity for cross-party support for measures for rehabilitating offenders slip through our fingers at our peril, the consequences will be there to bite us back long into the future.

*Yeah I know you can still see him walking about and that but I reckon a grave is where he sleeps. He doesn't look like he sees much light anyroad.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

A Random Quote

I'm not really a fan of what Ryanair's Michael O'Leary does but occasionally what he says is quite funny. He came up with my all time favourite word 'bollockology' and I just found this little gem -

“I believe hiring consultants is an abdication by management of their responsibilities. If the consultant is so good at managing change, then why not hire him to run the company and do it himself? Every idiot who gets fired in the industry shows up as a consultant somewhere. I would shoot any consultant who came through my door.” 

Don't know why that seems so appropriate for a blog about Nottingham City Council but there you go...

PS Someone arrived at the blog via searching for 'Sallyanne Johnson Consultant' the other day. That just might prove his point.

That Chocolate Teapot I mentioned? It Just Melted

An update of the post I wrote a few weeks back on one of my Freedom of Information forays.

I was asking about the system where NCC or one of its committees decides to delegate specific powers to an individual officer. Nothing wrong with the basic idea, after all arranging a council or committee meeting is time consuming and it's inefficient to have to do so for every itty bitty little thing.

However it's a process that needs to be applied carefully and appropriately and you need to keep track of it, otherwise you could get any idiot making decisions without anybody knowing about it (stop sniggering at the back...)

Anyway, last time we looked NCC had sent me a register of officers with delegated powers, it's just that it was from 1998. This seemed a bit inadequate to me so I asked for a review.

I have now had a response to that request and it is pretty much as I suspected. That really is the most up to date record that they have. That is really fucking shocking.

There are two things that strike me about this response. The first concerns the manner in which Information Governance has confused the provision of a specific document, an up to date register which they say doesn't exist, with the provision of information. The information that I asked for clearly does exist, no council officer is given 'A' delegated powers unless it is agreed by full council or one of its committees. So details of such officers are contained in the minutes of those committees' meetings. The fact that nobody could be arsed to keep track of them in a central register is neither here nor there.

I did wonder if they would claim that the information existed but that it could only be provided at disproportionate cost. This is the one they initially tried it on with my attempts at getting info about Discretionary Housing Payments. It's a useful way for councils to dodge providing information and usually involves claiming that a search of eleventy thousand documents will be required (in reality usually a few hundred) and that each document will take 45 minutes to examine (in reality about 5. They always say 45 minutes though in order to look like they've thought about it, 'about an hour' sounds just too throwaway). They then tell you that this work will cost you £25/hour to do (in reality it's done by an admin worker on about £8/hour) and present you with an estimate for the total cost which is slightly more than the budget for their entire libraries service.

It's a win/win situation. Either they get out of putting embarrassing information into the public domain or, if you're daft enough to cough up they get a piece of work done that they should have been doing anyway and make a tidy profit to boot.

The second, and most important, aspect is that the full implication of this decision is that NOTTINGHAM CITY COUNCIL HAS ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA WHO IS GOING ABOUT THE PLACE EXERCISING EXECUTIVE POWERS ON ITS BEHALF.

Make no mistake this is profound. Everything that any NCC council officer does in the course of her/his job is done in the name of Nottingham City Council which in corporate terms means the councillors. Delegation of powers cuts to the heart of local government, it couldn't function otherwise and there are very long and detailed documents in the council's constitution which set out how powers must be delegated. With no up-to-date record how do we know that powers have been delegated appropriately and legally?

On a personal level, this will have an impact on my 'Gardengate' case. A significant part of my defence is that the Development Control Committee alone has the power to decide on enforcement actions as determined by the constitution adopted by full council in May 2003. NCC claims that officers involved have delegated authority to do so and have cited a committee decision made prior to the adoption of the new constitution as evidence.

To my mind this development is another nail in their argument's coffin. If we assume, safely in my view, that delegated powers can be removed as well as awarded how can NCC prove that their officers have the relevant delegated powers if no record has been kept of the comings and goings of delegation decisions since 1998?

Death of a Quango in 'Not Government's Fault This Time' Shock

So. Farewell then...
Greater Nottingham Partnership
...

(That's enough poetry. Ed. And if you can leave off the Private Eyeisms for a bit...)

Yes, the 'Post' is today reporting that the Greater Nottingham Partnership is off to the great quangocracy in the sky. This follows the demise of the East Midlands Development Agency, a decision that I also chose to lament in verse.

Regeneration isn't really my thing so I'm in no position to give an opinion as to the usefulness of either of these organisations. Certainly my post on EMDA attracted a comment from one of their fans.

What I do know is that I get quite a few visits from GNP peeps so I'd like to say to those individuals that I'm genuinely sorry about you losing your jobs and hope you find something else soon.

The article in the 'Post' is quite interesting. It carries a number of quotes from people criticising the decision to wield the axe, including one from NCC Deputy Leader Graham Chapman -

"I think we will lose a very helpful lobbying body. It has been very supportive in bringing in business involvement on a whole range of issues, from the station to the A453.

I have sympathy with getting rid of bureaucracy. But this is real stuff that's going to undermine growth."

Then there is a quote from a Diana Gilhespy, EMDA's executive director of regeneration -

"In the case of GNP, we were unable to reach an agreement with Nottingham City Council on how economic development will be delivered in the future within the City. As a result, GNP's board decided at the end of 2009 to wind up its operations by April 2011."

Hello? Unless I'm very much mistaken that seems to be putting the blame fair and square on Nottingham City Council. Strange that Cllr Chapman didn't mention anything about that and instead seemed to imply that it was about reducing bureaucracy.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Corporate WankSpeak Uber Alles

Back in the good old days, when I used to do something useful for a living, I had what I considered to be a healthy distaste, nay hatred, for jargon. I think it stemmed mainly from the fact that, as a welfare rights adviser, I had to translate preposterously complicated rules into a format that the average Joe/Josephine on the street would understand.

Drafting leaflets was particularly difficult because you have limited space, the person you are trying to help has gone away with their leaflet and can't ask you to clarify a point or tell them what DLA stands for. You also have to balance that with the fact that it is quite possible to simplify information to the point that what you are telling them is not just inadequate but has actually reached the point of being wrong.

On moving into management, I instinctively saw no reason to change this approach. After all you are still trying to get a message across to someone about what they need to do or know about. When I was still at Leicester I went to a meeting which was supposed to be a kind of touchy feely departmental show-and-tell thing. Heads of Service (i.e. managers who were at least a grade or two above me) all did presentations and I've never heard so many three and four word acronyms in my life. I sat there wondering if the people talking were aware that half their audience had no idea what they were going on about or perhaps were doing it deliberately because it made them feel clever.

I then studied for a management qualification (Professional Certificate in Management at the Open Uni seeing as you ask. Oh sorry, you didn't) and the course was refreshingly free of jargon. I found this encouraging and resolved to stick with the jargon free approach. As time went on I not only became more certain that the main reason for most people using jargon was not just about making themselves appear clever (in their minds) but to hide the fact that they were often thick as pigshit and had little or no idea what they were talking about.

Anyway, the purpose of this preamble is to try and give you some idea why this report made me so spitting angry and nearly lose the will to live. That and maybe that my leg is still in plaster and the anti-depressants have run out.

To save you some time it's formal title is -

'Communications and Marketing - Efficiency and Ensuring Value for Money - savings Made in Recent Years and the Introduction of a New Budget and Spend Prioritisation Model'. 

It's written by the Director of Communications Stephen Barker, presumably on a rare moment away from posting videos of his staff on the internet. Note the use of the words 'prioritisation' and 'model'; I'm not claiming to be scientific but in my view these words tend to be reliable indicators that you are about to be drowned in bullshit. If you take one thing home with you from this, that's my tip of the day.

That ear-splitting 'arooga' noise you can hear is the 'NCCLols Translation Service' emergency alarm going off so I'd better quickly pass on the results of putting the above through our patented process. Essentially the report's true title is -

'Why it is Only Right and Proper to Take Money Away From Individual Comms Budgets and Give it to Me - I get to Keep My Empire Intact - Everyone Else Can Fuck Off'.

The BS just gets worse. Check this out from para 2.1 -

"It has not proven practicable to achieve a saving of £100k pa via committees becoming paperless during 2009/10 due to a more elongated new technology adoption profile being required."

I'm sorry, "...a more elongated new technology adoption profile..."?

NCCLols translation service -

"I could just have said that it's taken a bit longer to show councillors where the computer 'on' button is but the word 'elongated' gives me a bit of a shudder."

And get these -

"This model can result in bottom up – rather than priority-driven - spend prioritisation..."

"Pulling all Communications & Marketing budgets currently held by service teams...together and under the control of Communications & Marketing...will enable priority-driven prioritisation of communications spend in line with the Council Plan and The Nottingham Plan..."

What the fuck are you talking about with your 'priority driven prioritisations'?* What other kind of 'prioritisations' are there if not 'priority driven'? We don't need to qualify 'arse scratching' with 'arse driven'.

Remember, this is the Director of Communications here, in other words somebody who should be able to string a sentence together. Don't get me wrong, I don't claim to be the greatest communicator in the world, I like to think I do ok given enough time but 'priority driven prioritisation'? Is it just me?

No doubt the councillors on the 'Overview and Scrutiny Committee' will read the report, nod sagely at the need for further elongation of their new technology profiles and ignore the voices screaming in their heads that it's all bollocks. The report will be 'noted' and everyone will go home secure in the feeling of a job well done.

* Just in case anyone is wondering or perhaps thinking that I'm just being a bit thick, what I think Stephen is trying to tell us here is that individual services are setting their own 'prioritisations' which are not necessarily in line with the big grown up corporate priorities - and so aren't properly 'priority-driven'. Essentially, what I'm saying here is that he could have been a bit clearer about that.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Some Notts Police Stop and Search Stats

This isn't really to do with anything NCC but I sent a few tweets out this afternoon about the level of disproportionate stop and search of black and asian people by Notts Police. As I've done the work pulling the figures out I might as well recycle the info here.
  • Notts Police actually have the lowest rates of stop and search in England and Wales, only 5 per 1000 in 08/09 (most recent figures from Ministry of Justice) compared with 24 per 1000 for all E+W. Next lowest is Cheshire with 6 per 1000, then Essex with 7 per 1000
  • BUT in 08/09 you were 7 times more likely to be stopped if you are black than if you are white. You would have been 4.6 more likely to be stopped in 03/04, disproportionality peaked at 8.4 times in 06/07 then dropped to 6.7 times in 07/08
  • Notts had the 3rd highest level of disproportionate stop and search of black people in 06/07 (its worst ranking in the 5 year period considered), this had dropped to 8th by 07/08 (last year Equality and Human Rights Commission had calculated the rankings)
  • Asian people were 1.75 times more likely to be stopped compared with white people in 08/09. The equivalent figure was 1.8 times in 03/04, dropping to its lowest of 1.6 times in 04/05 before peaking at 2.3 times in 06/07. It had dropped to 1.9 times in 07/08
  • Notts had the 6th highest level of disproportionate stop and search of asian people in 06/07 (its worst ranking in the 5 year period considered), this had dropped to 12th in 07/08.
Interesting stuff. I don't know what was so bad about 2006/7 but at least it does look like some effort has gone into reducing the disparity.

You can find the figures in the report 'Stop and think; A critical review of the use of stop and search powers in England and Wales' from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (the stats tables start from p74), with further figures from the 'Statistics on race and the criminal justice system – 2008/09' report from the Ministry of Justice.

Corporate Transport Review Revisited

A few weeks ago I slagged off one of Cllr Jane Urquart's portfolio decisions for being a fucking disgrace and an insult to the interests of local taxpayers.

One of my criticisms was that 'Calamity' Jane couldn't be bothered even to tell us how much she was planning to spend on a consultant, Bill Trattles, who probably got the gig because he's one of her mates*.

A tiny bit more info has snuck out. It is usual at Executive Board meetings for a list of recent portfolio holder decisions to be presented. At the next one the list includes JU's decision of 2 June and we learn that Mr Trattles is due to trouser £50k of your hard earned for doing whatever a 'Corporate Transport Review' involves for however long it's going to take him**.

* If any libel lawyers are reading I think I'm entitled to speculate on that being the reason as JU couldn't be bothered to tell us why he was chosen nor why she decided to dispense with the normal financial regs which are designed to avoid nepotism in procurement and ensure value for money. You tell me, WHAT reputation?

**Cllr Urquart also failed to mention how much actual work Trattles will be doing so we can't work out his daily rate or decide whether we are getting value for money.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

The Ghost of Jeremy Beadle Haunts NCC...

This is just one of those classic local news stories. The plot could easily be (and for all I know may have been) the plot of an Ealing Comedy or, perhaps more likely, the basis of the late Mr Beadle's jolly japes.

Essentially, for no good reason that anybody can see, NCC popped down to Clifton and erected a couple of concrete bollards smack in the middle of a resident's drive. They then of course had to sheepishly return and take them away again.

I laughed out loud when I read it but, as the resident points out, money has been wasted here and you really have to wonder at what sort of jobsworth can put up a concrete bollard in the middle of somebody's drive without stopping and thinking "...hang about..." halfway through.

The sad thing about this though is that, because it's a nice, simple, funny story everybody will remember it and it will be the talk of Clifton for many years to come. Someone might even lose their job over it and, if so, I doubt they'd see a lot of sympathy.

Yet a senior manager making decisions that could potentially cost the council £4m plus, when there were clearly identifiable reasons why those decisions were reckless at best, I wonder what might happen to them? Would anybody remember that one? Or care?

So, if there are any readers who are in a position to find out, please do let me know if Lisa Black does face any action over her decision to ignore longstanding accuracy issues in Housing Benefit processing, including the abandoning of quality control in order to train workers in 1970s era manufacturing philosophies.

I would be happy to publicise what happens. With appropriate discretion for the bean spiller of course.

Friday, 9 July 2010

NCC Website Techies in "Bollocks to EU Directive" Shocker

Nottingham City Council has signaled a big 'up yours Delors*' to the EU Services Directive according to a survey of council websites by Socitm, the 'membership association for all ICT professionals working in Local Authorities and the Public and Third Sectors and suppliers to those sectors'.

The Directive, which has been in force in the UK via regulations since 28 December 2009, requires local authorities (and other public bodies) to make it easier for businesses to find out about their responsibilities to trade legally across Europe. The UK regulations require that anybody wanting to provide certain services should be able to find out about and apply for the various regulatory requirements online and Socitm looked at council websites to see how well they complied. It's fascinating stuff believe me.

Now, to put the rest of this post into context, I think it's fair to first point out that, according to Socitm's survey, very few councils did at all well.

But of course, this is 'Nottingham City Council LOLS' so we want to see how well NCC did, point and stare, then LOL at it.

Let's start with the overall assessment**. The survey asks how well NCC is responding to the aims of the Directive and possible answers are 0 - no info found, 1 - poor, 2 - satisfactory and 3 - very good.

The good news is that at least NCC didn't score 0 and believe me several councils did, astonishingly. NCC scored 1 - poor. Mind you, the assessor went on to flesh this rating out with the following comment-

"I saw no sign of the Directive being implemented."

Hmm, that's probably '1' that is pretty close to '0' then.

Specific areas they looked at included the process for applying to erect scaffolding close to a road, information that would be helpful to building contractors but which Socitm could find nothing about on NCC's website. They did better with information about registering a new food business with 5 positives out of 9 and scored 3 out of 7 for info provided on the admittedly somewhat esoteric process requirements for erecting cooling towers.

One area that caught my eye was the registering of Houses of Multiple Occupation, partly because at the last full council meeting there was a public question about areas being 'blighted' by HMOs and 'Councillor Clarke' (presumably actually Cllr Alan Clark who is portfolio holder for neighbourhood regeneration) appeared to claim some credit for NCC for lobbying for increased regulation of HMO 'change of use' planning applications.

Cllr Clark may therefore want to ponder the fact that NCC only scored 2 positives out of a possible 14 for information about how to register an HMO. In addition it was rated as '1 - poor' for ease of finding the information and '0 - not found' in a rating of the provision of service information. The assessor clarified this with -

"The information provided is more about what an HMO is, rather than how to register."

You're not going to persuade landlords to comply with regulatory requirements by making it hard to find out about them are you?

So another resounding success for the NCC communications team here. Let's remember, this isn't a simple matter of best practice, we are talking here about a legal requirement. Perhaps Stephen Barker and chums could spend more of their £1.8m marketing and comms budget on complying with the law rather than producing glossy magazines.

*For the benefit of younger readers, this was a famous Sun headline in 1990 which has since become a symbol of gung ho anti EU sentiment, often with comic or ironic intent.

**In order to see the full report and the tables etc you need to register with Socitm so unfortunately I can't link to them. I'll leave it up to you whether you want to take my word for all the detail.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Gardengate Case Put Back Shock

Do you see what I did there?

You know, me being prosecuted for having a scruffy garden, and everything has to have '-gate' after it? Admit it, you wish you'd written it.

Anyway, NCC's pathetic and discriminatory* revenge case** against me has been put back from tomorrow to the middle of August, on their application.

This is the second time they have applied for an adjournment, the first time was because they said they wanted to investigate whether I was disabled, then notoriously came back to the renewed hearing claiming that I wasn't because I hadn't got a social worker.

I have no idea why they asked for this second postponement. It may have something to do with my submitting evidence and legal arguments which presumably foxed them. After all, NCC's legal services clearly know nothing about employment, tenancy or disability discrimination law so it would be no surprise to find out that they know nothing about town and country planning law either. I'll update this if I get any clue as to their reasons.

One of my arguments is that the officers who have been pursuing and prosecuting me don't have authority to do so under NCC's constitution. If that turns out to be correct it means there is a very strong argument that their actions constitute criminal harassment as they would no longer have lawful reason for those actions. I can't see why the individual officers couldn't be prosecuted for that. One or two people might need to start sweating.

* My problems looking after my garden stem from mental health problems which NCC refuse to recognise or take into account, putting them in breach of the Disability Discrimination Act.

** NCC are pretty clearly trying to get me back for a) blogging about them and b) exposing their solicitors and management (especially useless fat-arse Lisa Black) at an Employment Tribunal for being grossly incompetent and/or dishonest bullies. They tried to claim that I wasn't disabled then as well.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Volunteers Issued With New Net Curtains to Twitch

I did think twice about writing this post honest. But the 'Post' has already given it the positive spin so I think it's my job to provide the cynical one. Cos that's the kind of blog this is.

NCC has recruited a bunch of volunteers to spy on "look out for and to report environmental issues".

Info is thin on the ground on NCC's website so far but from the 'Post' article it seems that 'thousands' of volunteers are to be recruited to report on environmental problems in their area. They will be given a special hotline and email addy to speed their reports to specially waiting crack clean-up squads and their reports will be given higher priority than those from the hoi polloi. As a special reward, they will be given 'updates' when the work is carried out.

We are told that they will be looking out for -

"...problems like fly-tipping, litter and abandoned cars..."

which is all well and good. But I can't help wondering if this will degenerate into a quagmire of trumped up reports on unpopular neighbours who don't 'fit in' or are the wrong skin colour. The quote from one of the geezers they've already got signed up hardly inspires confidence -

"Let's face it, years ago everyone used to clean their own front doorstep and their pavement, but you don't get that now."

Well no, that's because anybody who scrubs their front doorstep is an arse and we pay taxes for the council to keep the pavements clean. I've heard you used to be able to leave your door unlocked without a worry as well, it's just not the same since all them darkies came over and closed the pits down...

This all part of an initiative called the 'Big Summer Clean' and I'd be the first to agree that there's worthwhile stuff in there. Personally, I'm looking forward to -

"Garden Watch
Tackling nuisance gardens, do your garden with the help of the Tool Train and Garden Assistance schemes."


I could do with some help from that 'Garden Assistance Scheme'. But unfortunately it's only for Nottingham City Homes tenants (even though it's run by the City Council), the rest of us just get prosecuted. And of course, in Nottingham City Council's eyes I can't possibly be disabled because my mental health problem isn't a 'proper' disability and I haven't got a social worker. Pick the discrimination issues out of that lot.

All these 'report on your neighbour' type schemes have a lot in common with the anti-social behaviour agenda, which itself seeks to re-brand certain poor persons' crimes as ASB and lump them in together with a bundle of non crimes and deal with them all together. Thus you can big up the ASB problem by constantly referring to the real crimes while using crime resources to stop teenagers from hanging round street corners and taking advantage of 'respectable' people's willingness to spend their energy peering through their net curtains at people they disapprove of. Now they've got a hotline for wheelie bins and belligerent begonias as well. And, of course, you get extra government resources to do all this and expand your empire. Or at least you used to...

A useful side effect of these agendas is that people are less likely to notice the real problems that go on in the Council House. We don't notice the leader of the council trying to secretly offload council assets for half their value and then lying to a council committee about it. We don't notice him secretly funneling council cash to a consultant. We don't notice cabinet members hiding their interests in certain organisations, then closing down potential competitor organisations and keeping the decisions secret.

We don't notice any of these things because we're furiously dialing the hotline number to report that Dirty Gertie from Number Thirty has left her wheelie bin out for 20 minutes too long and has offensively coloured washing out on the line.

We need to get a grip.