Friday, 29 October 2010

Freedom of Information Round-Up

Just thought I'd let you know that I have three Freedom of Information request with NCC at internal review stage all due to non-response to my initial requests. One of these is way out of time for a response to the review. I also have one case with them at initial request stage which is out of time for a response and three cases with the Information Commissioner.

That's not a good thing. And the Information Commissioner could help by hurrying the fuck up as well.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Equality Impact Assessments and CEHRNN

There was another interesting little snippet in the progress report on RUC recommendations that I discussed in my previous post. It concerned the use of Equality Impact Assessments and said -

"The corporate report writing guidance has also been amended to be clear that EIAs are needed for reports relating to new or changing policies, services or functions..."

In other words, if you a considering a change in policy, operations or whatever, as EIA is carried out to assess the potential impact on equalities issues and maybe make changes as a result.

NCC's EIA guidance says that priority services will also be subjected to an EIA according to a yearly timetable, more of an equalities review from what I can see. As a former manager who used to be involved in such things I'd question that. Services never stand still and will be subjected to a general review from time to time (and NCC certainly loves its reviews) and it seems somewhat fragmentary to have a separate EIA process happening at different times, better to carry out an EIA of your service review I'd have thought. Best practice is to have EIAs integrated into policy making and service development. But I digress.

Which brings me back to NCC's treatment of the Council for Equalities and Human Rights Nottm and Notts whose funding was removed by Cllrs Ahmed and Chapman ostensibly following an EIA which found the group wanting.

Let's have a look at the background here.

Firstly, Notts Racial Equality Council (CEHRNN's former handle) were awarded grant aid of £122k pa for three years at the Executive Board Meeting on 16 December 2008, the funding due to start in April 2009. The EIA looking at CEHRNN was started in November 2009 which means someone decided to do so some time before, when isn't known. The EIA document itself also confirms that it wasn't on the list of routine 'review' style assessments.

So why carry out an EIA on a funded external organisation only a few months after you've handed them £122k for 3 years? Why wasn't an EIA carried out as part of the decision to fund them i.e. before any money was handed over, if at all? What does it say about NCC's grant application procedures when so much money is handed to an organisation when, only months later, problems are found which are supposed to be so serious that they warranted an instant decision to withdraw that funding, a course of action which is pretty much unprecedented in the history of NCC's relationship with the voluntary sector? And why has that decision never been made public?

I've said before that an EIA is an inappropriate tool to use to review an organisation's overall effectiveness and this adds another element of inappropriateness to such action.

The EIA report notes that the initial decision to move from a purely race based organisation to one covering all equalities strands in 2007 and that the process was completed in Summer 2009. And yet one of the concerns highlighted in the EIA was that they had taken too long to widen their remit. Why wasn't this picked up in their funding bid if it was such a concern?

What's more we know that NCC had fabricated a complaint from the police about CEHRNN's involvement in protests against the EDL and were forced to withdraw it from the report. You have to wonder why they did that. And even if such a complaint had been made a) that's no proof that it was justified and b) CEHRNN is an independent organisation who can campaign on any issues it chooses, the only relevance to the grant aid would be whether it breaches the service level agreement between them and NCC.

And there's the rub. There was a contract. As far as I know there has been no explicit claim that CEHRNN was in breach of that contract by missing targets or failing to produce agreed outcomes. Do you think that's why they had to find another reason to remove the funding instead?

The multiple ironies are that NCC carries out an EIA which alleges that CEHRNN hasn't been carrying out its remit adequately so the funding was withdrawn in its entirity and the work is now not being done at all. Where's the Equalities Impact Assessment of that decision? And, despite the complaints that CEHRNN was only concentrating on race and not its wider remit, NCC/One Nottingham has since funded a new organisation, Nottingham Equal, which has no track record and only deals with erm, race issues. It does however, include Cllr Hassan Ahmed among its founding directors who only resigned when the Post busted him for not declaring the fact on his register of interests.

And so the ingredients which point to this being a stitch up are -

  • Lack of concerns at the time of the funding decision
  • Inappropriate use of EIA
  • Cllr Ahmed's non disclosed involvement with a potential competitor organisation
  • ...and involvement in the decision to withdraw funding
  • That decision being withheld from the public, what have they got to hide?
  • The competitor organisation later being awarded significant funding
Well, I'm afraid I'm convinced. I believe that the decision by Ahmed and Chapman to end CEHRNN's funding should be made public without delay so that as much light can be shed on this sorry matter as possible. I'm working on it.

More Radford Unity Complex Fall-Out

The Overview and Scrutiny Committee is soon to discuss the progress of implementing recommendations made by its call-in sub-committee after JoCo (and presumably a number of others) ballsed up the handling of what to do with the Radford Unity Complex.

I reported in my previous post that Nottingham Studios had secured a lease on the Douglas School site. Well, it now seems that the wronged parties in all of this i.e. the occupants of RUC have now been engaged in negotiations for a Community Asset Transfer of the property.

Like with Nottingham Studios and the Douglas School site, you have to ask why this wasn't done
before. It was claimed at call-in that

"...the City Council had not been forthcoming with community groups about the possibility of pursuing a community asset transfer...". 

Essentially the response by JoCo et al was "...well you didn't ask...". I paraphrase but that about sums up the quality of the debate.

Another recommendation from call-in was that a review of the 'communications strategy' between NCC and RUC be carried out. The latest report states that -

"Since the call in the communication plan for the Radford Unity Complex Project has been revised. In particular new channels of communication have been established. The RUC groups have appointed a main spokesperson, with a deputy to cover in his absence and to support as necessary. The groups’ spokesperson is in direct contact with the Service Manager (Voluntary Sector Sustainability) who acts as a two way channel of communication between the RUC groups..."

(NCCLOLS translation service - "we went and talked to them". I love the way that NCC calls a spade a strategic multi-purpose manually operated granular materials moving device.)

Meetings have also been held concerning a further recommendation to 'develop transparent criteria for asset transfer to the community'. This is to avoid in future giving the impression that policy is made on the hoof when one of JoCo's mates rings him up and asks if there are any properties they can have. Which isn't what happened with RUC obviously.

Other fine measures include overhauling procedures to ensure that equalities issues are taken into account. The Equality and Diversity team's advice was to ensure the form has a question along the lines of 'have you taken into account equalities issues? Yes/no'. Worth their weight in gold that lot, that midnight oil wasn't in short supply there. Finally, never again must that embarrassing situation occur where officers send notice of eviction three months before the political decision to dispose of the property is made. It just makes everybody look silly and gives the impression of being disorganised.

All in all, that's quite a lot of changes and recommendations considering that call-in voted almost unanimously that nothing had gone wrong anyway. Welcome to the bizarre world of local government.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Nottingham Studios Given a Home

Nottingham Studios last came to our attention when it emerged that they were intended as the beneficiaries of the decision to offload Radford Unity Complex due to it being 'surplus to requirements'.

Initially, NCC proposed to offer the RUC tenants the (genuinely) surplus Douglas School site but that wasn't suitable and, as the legal quagmire deepened the sale of RUC fell through.

In a twist of fate it now seems that Nottingham Studios is to be offered a lease on the Douglas School instead which you can't help feeling would have been a good idea at the start. Not that we get to see the terms of the lease mind, that's 'exempt' from publication.

It seems that NCC doesn't see it as being in our interests to examine whether our assets are being disposed of in a way which provides value for money.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

I Chatted to Some Councillors!

I really did! Not had so much fun in years. Here's my transcript. If any readers joined in with the 'Chat to a Councillor' thing and you'd like me to publish your transcript, email it to

Anyway, here we go. Re Cllr Dewinton, watch her start losing it 11.39 onwards -

10:30 2010/10/20 Me: Chat Transcript: What are councillors views on the length of time it takes for the Standards Committee to investigate councillors for alleged breach of the code of conduct?

Is it acceptable that e.g Cllr Grocock has been under investigation for over 20 months, has been appointed as Lord Mayor in the meantime and yet the Standards committee has not met since June?
10:31 2010/10/20 Librarian: Librarian 'Hilary' has joined the session.
10:31 2010/10/20 Librarian: Hello and welcome to our special Local Democracy Week councillor chat session. We have the following Nottingham City councillors here today: Georgina Culley (Wollaton), Emma Dewinton (Mapperley), Alex Foster (Leen Valley) & John Hartshorne (Bulwell). Is your question for a particular councillor/area?
10:32 2010/10/20 Me: I'd like to hear all cllrs' views on this one please
10:32 2010/10/20 Librarian: Ok I will pass you to Councillor Foster first, then we can try the others.
10:33 2010/10/20 Cllr Foster: Good morning Andy, and good to hear from you.
10:33 2010/10/20 Cllr Foster: I think it's disgraceful that the standards committee takes so long
10:34 2010/10/20 Cllr Foster: It was bad enough when Standards Board for England meant that there were years of delay
10:34 2010/10/20 Cllr Foster: but now the local committee is looking at it there is no way it should take so long.
10:35 2010/10/20 Cllr Foster: Of course, the slight disadvantage of the local committee is that by and large people who know each other quite well are determining each others' cases
10:35 2010/10/20 Cllr Foster: but I still think that's preferable than a multi-million pound body at the other end of the country trying to investigate remotely
10:35 2010/10/20 Librarian: OK, now I'm going to transfer you to Cllr Culley
10:35 2010/10/20 Me: Are you concerned that there may be bias in the local committee?
10:37 2010/10/20 Cllr Culley: Hi Andy, can I take a few moments to read your question and Alex's response.
10:39 2010/10/20 Cllr Culley: Hi Andy,
10:39 2010/10/20 Me: Morning
10:40 2010/10/20 Cllr Culley: I think that it is disgraceful that this whole matter has been going on for over four years.
10:42 2010/10/20 Me: One thing I might add is that it is not in the councillor's interest to have ann investigation hanging over them for so long
10:43 2010/10/20 Cllr Culley: I totally agree and I think in view of the fact that this came to light through a audit commission investigation and would expect us to have ensured that matter was dealt with very quickly to give a good impression to the residents of the City.
10:45 2010/10/20 Me: Thank you both, perhaps a view from the Labour councilors?
10:46 2010/10/20 Cllr Culley: Hi, both of the labour councillors are answering questions at the moment. I will transfer you as soon as I can.
10:48 2010/10/20 Me: In that case don't let me stop you if you have anything to add ;)
10:48 2010/10/20 Cllr Culley: In the meantime to respond to the initial part of your question. I think in the interests of being seen to be in tune with public opinion it would have been appropriate if Cllr Grocock had not been nominated for election as Lord Mayor.
10:52 2010/10/20 Cllr Culley: I am now passing you over to Cllr Dewinton
10:52 2010/10/20 Me: Thanks
10:58 2010/10/20 Cllr Dewinton: Hello and thank you for your question. I am Councillor Emma Dewinton. As Chair of Scrutiny at the Council, the Standards Committee is not part of my remit. However, I am aware of a previous case concerning a Conservative Councillor which took 2 years and did not come to a conclusion. It does not seem a speedy process overall. I will raise your concern at the Audit Committee on which I sit. As far as I am aware, the current Government is considering amending the processes regarding Councillor conduct. I do not think it would be appropriate to comment on a case that is in process. Hope this is helpfl. Best wishes.
11:01 2010/10/20 Me: I don't think it would be seen as pre-empting the conclusion of the investigation if you were to give your views on the appropriateness of Cllr Grocock's appointment as Lord Mayor under the circumstances
11:02 2010/10/20 Cllr Dewinton: Sorry Andy, I beg to differ. But very happy to talk about other issues.
11:04 2010/10/20 Me: Does Cllr Hartshorne have a view or shall I ask my next question?
11:05 2010/10/20 (GMT+0) Cllr Dewinton: Unfortunately Councillor Hartshorne is busy at the moment.
11:08 2010/10/20 Me: Ok, I'll ask my next question. Again for all cllrs - What are councillors views on the facility to withhold publication of certain information in the public interest eg discussions in council meetings?

At the recent call-in sub-committee meeting the information considered in private session included the revelation that Harold Tinworth's bid included an offer to provide political advice to the Executive. This information has so far only been released in the press.

Where does 'not in the public interest' stop and 'politically embarassing' start? Why did opposition councillors in particular agree to keeping this info secret?
11:18 2010/10/20 Cllr Dewinton: Thank you for your question. Council Committees including the call in Committee ask the advice of officers from the Legal Department regarding which matters are taken in confidential session. In this case, we were advised to go into confidential session to consider detailed factual information in respect of the operation of the restricted tendering process i.e. where confidential tender documents from private firms are to be considered. The call in process was conducted in public and widely reported. I understand you were unfortunately only present at the first morning's business, rather than being able to hear the whole process and the recommendations.
11:20 2010/10/20 Me: I have read the minutes. They give no clue as to the inclusion of political advice in Tinworth's tender.
11:21 2010/10/20 Me: In addition Cllr Ahmed agreed the tender with that provision included which would seem to be engaging the council in an illegal contract.
11:22 2010/10/20 Cllr Dewinton: You should have been there Andy. Council minutes are brief and to the point, compard to your blog I do appreciate. However, if you look at the recomendations they do include a unanimous agreement that the Executive Development Programme should be implemented, on the basis it had managerial perameters and was explicitly non-political in nature.
11:26 2010/10/20 Me: The recommendation for non political content stood in isolation in the minutes. In the summary of the closed session it made no mention of Tinworth's offer of political advice. Are you saying I have to attend council meetings to find these things out? Or rely on leaks to the Post?
11:28 2010/10/20 Patron: Btw in the Post's first article on the meeting they made no mention of this issue and I know they had a reporter at the meeting. This implies that the matter was not reported on verbally at the meeting
11:28 2010/10/20 Cllr Dewinton: The recommendation did not stand in isolation. See the minutes on
11:29 2010/10/20 Cllr Dewinton: If you want to hear the full discussion at any meeting of the council, it is best to be there.
11:33 2010/10/20 Me: I just checked the minutes. As I thought, absolutely no mention that Tinworth's tender included political advice. Are you stating categorically that this was specifically reported at the meeting?
11:39 2010/10/20 Cllr Dewinton: To repeat, you should have been there Andy. Minutes do not record every word - but key evidence and recommendations. Why don't you talk to the Post if you want to know what they heard?
11:41 2010/10/20 Me: I have done. It's clear we'll get no further on this. I hope some of you can answer my last question? What are councillors' views on the administration of Discretionary Housing Payments? Members were informed of the appallingly low take up rate in Sep 2006 but little has been done, leading to year on year reductions in NCC's allocation from central government. 2009/10 was the first year that all of the allocation was spent and NCC still has no local guidance of who to and when to make payments.

Given that the new government is placing a much greater emphasis on DHPs via an increase in their budget alongside cuts to mainstream Housing Benefit, what will NCC be doing to ensure that claimants will be aware of the facility and that it will be paid fairly?
11:48 2010/10/20 Cllr Dewinton: Approximately 18 months ago, I raised this issue and recieved detail of the actions being taken to remedy this situation. It is not correct to say that little has been done. I will forward you information regarding this. Obviously I do not have it to hand as I am taking part in this email chat on a computer at Nottingham Central Library. I will also get you a briefing as to City Council further actions to publicise DHPs.
11:51 2010/10/20 Me: I understand that there have been 2 informal meetings which were not minuted. There was little advice sector input to these. Why wasn't anything done before? NCC has lost lots of money because of this.
11:54 2010/10/20 Cllr Dewinton: I will check this information out. Not being aware of informal meetings, that is all I can say. You seem to be under an illusion regarding the City Council. In fact, we are currently trying to save jobs and services, whilst making huge savings, in the face of government cuts.
11:54 2010/10/20 Me: Before we finish I would like some opposition councillors' views on my question concerning information being withheld due to the public interest? In particular from Cllr Culley who I believe was at the call-in sub-committee?
11:55 2010/10/20 Me: With respect Cllr Dewinton, I don't think it's me who's under an illusion.
11:58 2010/10/20 Cllr Dewinton: Andy, I regret you can't cope with someone who argues with you. I would have passed you over to Councillor Culley. Unfortunately she is busy with another call. You can always email her at her Council email.
12:01 2010/10/20 Librarian: I hope that information was helpful to you. Thank you for participating in Local Democracy Week by asking a question today. I hope you will use the Enquire service again.
12:01 2010/10/20 Librarian: Librarian ended chat session.

Chat to a Councillor!

I'd forgotten that, as part of Local Democracy Week, NCC are offering a 'Chat to a Councillor' facility from 10.30am to midday today.

Pop over here for details of how to join in.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

CCTV's Role in Reducing Crime

It is very good news that crime has been reduced so much on the Bestwood Estate. The BBC are reporting police figures showing a 46% drop in crimes in the area. Somebody is clearly doing something right.

NCC routinely claims that CCTV is some sort of panacea against crime so you'd presume that it has played a significant role in the reduction of crime in Bestwood. And yet Bestwood has one of the lowest rates of CCTV implementation in the city, with just 4 cameras at the least count.

Radford & Park  and Dales wards have the highest numbers of CCTV installed. Radford & Park did see significant drops in dwelling burglary and violent crime between 2007-8 (-20.6% and -10.1%) but Dales saw increases in both (+14.6% and +0.2%). By far the highest incidence of violent crime is in Bridge Ward (mostly the Meadows) but this area is way down the league tables of CCTV provision, surely if the powers that be had any real faith in CCTV's use in crime prevention then Bridge Ward would be a veritable forest of the things.

Now I do appreciate that I'm not comparing like with like here and to tell the truth I have nowhere near the skills to carry out a proper analysis of the relationship between CCTV and crime prevention. But proper research has been done and the case is far from convincing. For me, a layman's view of the above doesn't inspire me with confidence that NCC's CCTV strategy is doing much to cut crime. Bearing in mind the cost (c £8m between 2004-9) we need to work out whether they're just not doing it right or it just doesn't work.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Working For Your Constituents

It's always heartwarming to see councillors stand up for their constituents, especially when that assistance transcends the fact that the constituent concerned is serving a 35 year stretch in one of Her Maj's finest establishments.

And so my cockles were warmed, nay toasted, to see Cllr Brian Grocock, duly elected member for Bestwood ward and the current Lord Mayor, representing a constituent's interests responding to a piece reported in the Post today.

You might have heard of Cllr Grocock's constituent. He's a misunderstood Robin Hood figure, no angel he'd be the first to admit but he loves his mum and always looked out for the old folk and local teenagers. Sometimes to the point of providing lucrative employment opportunities for the latter.

Among those who misunderstand our humble folk hero is Notts Police who helped to arrange for his long term stay in his new accommodation but not in the way that Cllr Grocock normally helps his constituents to find somewhere to live.

Anyway, the rozzers seem to be thinking that this chap is still involved in nefarious activities organised from his cell, as do a former Notts Chief Constable and a local community worker.

Enter stage left Cllr Grocock who's here to tell us that these fears are are all stuff and nonsense and that his constituent is being much maligned. After all, what do the police know, they only had a specialist unit investigating the alleged felon, his family and his associates (some of whom have also spent time in the clink but I've no truck with guilt by association on this blog) for several years? Clearly Cllr Grocock knows best and that anybody who thinks they are currently suffering at the hands of this chap and his associates must be imagining things.

I'm so glad that responsible and knowledgeable public figures like Cllr Grocock are here to combat the needless panic and alarm spread by the police and to stand up for his constituent's good name.

At least, I presume that's his motivation for speaking out, can't think of anything else...

Sunday, 17 October 2010

The Minutes that Don't Exist

Regular readers will know that I have a bee in my bonnet about NCC's mismanagement of Discretionary Housing Payments. At least partly due to me making a bit of a noise about it Housing Benefits (mis)manager and tribunal bullshitter Lisa Black was badgered into doing something about it. According to a reply I received from Cllr Trimble the following action had been agreed -

"The DHP administration follows the best practice as defined by the Department for Works and Pensions and decisions are reached based on the individual circumstances of each case. However, a complete refresh of publicity and guidance material is currently in progress. In addition, an operational review is planned to revisit the decision-making, standards of evidence and ongoing/additional support issues raised by the DHP claim. This review will be undertaken with direct input from the advice sector and housing professionals with the intent to deliver against the purpose of the Discretionary Housing Payments scheme, which is to alleviate poverty, sustain tenancies, prevent homelessness, safeguard families and help customers through difficult times.

Detailed below are steps already undertaken by the service to increase take up and award of DHP;

A working group has been established with key partners from Benefits Service, Housing Aid, Welfare Rights, and the Advice Sector, to look at issues such as demographics, publicity material and marketing, best practice from other LA's. All staff within the Customer Services Directorate answering general face to face enquiries and telephone calls have been trained to understand DHP scheme and advise customers of their potential eligibility where appropriate. A standard DHP application pro-forma has been created to assist the customer in providing the information required by standardising the approach. Each claim is assessed using income and expenditure details supplied by the customer and taking into account the customers individual circumstances at the time.

In conjunction with local advice agencies and the voluntary sector, agreed on standards of evidence required for household expenditure and agreed an accepted level of expenditure for typical household compositions where evidence was not available or unsubstantiated. A small pool of staff has been created with responsibility for DHP assessments in order to standardise the approach and provide consistency in decision-making."

I wanted to find out how this was going and a further FoI request, followed by some to and fro-ing produced this which revealed the following after retrieval of "...all relevant information from [NCC's] offsite storage facility..." -

"Having checked all relevant archived materials, the Authority can confirm that informal meetings were held on 31st March 2009 and 29th April 2009 but despite your assertions above, no minutes were taken. The 31st March 2009 meeting was attended by Ian Roper (Business Support Manager), Lisa Black (Service Head Revenues & Benefits) Alex Knowles (Operational Manager NCC Welfare Rights) Gary Harvey (Housing Solutions Manager) and Anthony Dixon (Hostels Liaison Group).  
  • Items discussed at this meeting were:-
  • Ideas for increasing DHP spend and budget. 
  • A look through and review of existing DHP literature.Ideas for an operational review of working practices. 
  • Contacting other local authorities to identify best practice. 
  • Ideas on how to increase the DHP budget.
The follow-up meeting on 29th April 2009 was attended by all those that attended the meeting on 31st March 2009 plus the following:- Paul Greevy (Homelessness Prevention and Assessment Manager), Joanne Williams (Team Manager NCC welfare Rights Service), Neil Matthews and Simon Taylor (Revenues & Benefits Business Managers) and Cheryl Weston (Nottingham Law Centre and Advice Nottingham Representative).

Items discussed at this meeting were:-
  • Looking at Derby City Council's approach.
  • Operational review of working practices. 
  • The Advice Sector perception of “no point in applying” 
  • Policy areas 
  • Debt advice training. 
  • Refresher training/training for decision-making staff."
But, and this is slightly puzzling, they are claiming that these meetings were not minuted. The above does seem to be quite a specific breakdown of what happened considering there were no minutes to refer to and what exactly was it that was retrieved from remote storage if not minutes?

But taking them at their word why not minute the meetings? If you meet to discuss working in partnership you'd surely want a record of what everybody agreed to do (unless, of course, the last thing you want is a record of what you agreed to do...) And a couple of informal chinwags hardly constitutes a 'working group' or covers all the tasks committed to in the earlier communication. Not exactly a huge amount of input from the advice sector and the later list doesn't seem to mention anything about drawing up 'agreed standards of evidence for household expenditure' which was claimed to have already happened.

It smacks of a bit of a token effort to me although credit where credit's due, there was a big increase in the number of applications to the scheme (almost 2/3 extra in 2009/10 but still not as many as in 2005/6 when the welfare rights service produced some leaflets about DHPs) so awareness has improved. It's just a pity that the success rate of those applications dropped to its lowest rate since 2006/7, resulting in only a corresponding c25% increase in awards. This despite the deteriorating working conditions which you'd expect to increase need. Yep, they're really 'on your side' aren't they?

Talking of which, it is a fail of epic proportions not to have tied DHPs into the 'We're On Your Side' campaign which was ongoing at the time. There's no mention of it at the meetings referred to above and WOYS had no information included about DHPs. Missed opportunity big style.

The thing is, NCC must get its act together over DHPs as the Tory government has announced what is effectively a band aid for the Housing Benefit cuts in the form of big increases in DHP budgets. In effect more and more tenants will be relying on NCC's 'discretion' to pay DHPs to keep a roof over their heads. And yet NCC only managed to spend its government allocation of funds for the first time since the scheme was introduced in 2009/10 (and that was more down to year on year reductions in the sums allocated caused by constant underspending each year) and still appears to have no local guidance for allocating payments. It doesn't bode well.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Website Fail

Quite large sections of NCC's website have been down for a week now. Basically, anything on the directory seems to be inaccessible which includes all the minutes and agendas of council meetings and, of more interest to people who aren't obsessive anorakky bloggers, the jobs pages.

As far as all the minutes and stuff goes I realise that I'm probably the only person in the entire city who actually looks at them but publishing details about the council's comings and goings is an essential part of democracy and accountability. It's a mainstay of our society that people should have the RIGHT to look at them, even if they don't actually choose to bother.

And I'm already feeling sorry for the jobseeker who will finally get to look at sits vac whenever it's back only to see that her/his dream job is past the deadline for applications.

Come to think of it I'm already feeling sorry for anybody who thinks that their dream job is to be found at Nottingham City Council but that's not the point. There's a principle at stake here.

I eventually gave in and emailed asking what's wrong. However, the web manager either doesn't know or isn't allowed to tell me because he immediately copied me in to his email to the Head of IT Infrastructure asking him to respond to me instead. Who hasn't done so as yet.

Of course I know what they're up to really. They're trying to stop me blogging. Those minutes are the lifeblood of this blog. It's all about me you know. It is I tell you!....Now where's my tin foil hat?...

Addendum - Oh yes I forgot. It's 'Local Democracy Week'. Good way to celebrate, shutting down the democracy sections of your website.

Update 15/10 - It's back now

Friday, 8 October 2010

Standards Committee Fail

Here is the text of an email that I have just sent to Glen O'Connell, Nottingham City Council's monitoring officer concerning the consistent and ongoing failure of the Standards Committee to deal with complaints against councillors -

"Dear Mr O'Connell,

It is nearly two months since I last heard from you with regard to the complaints I have made against serving City Councillors and yet I have heard nothing further. Both of these go back as far as May yet as far as I can tell absolutely nothing has been done.

In addition I notice that complaints about other councillors appear to be making no progress and yet the Standards Committee appears to be repeatedly canceling meetings. Even if they do manage to get it together the agenda rarely seems packed. I think it is true to say that the Standards Committee have yet to hear any complaint against a serving councillor.

It is hard not to conclude that the internal regulation system for elected members' behaviour is collectively dragging its feet. At best it is utterly failing to do its duty to the citizens of Nottingham. I realise it would be politically embarrassing for the Lord Mayor, Leader and a Portfolio Holder to be investigated at the same time but I hope that this is not playing any part in the delay.

Please will you take this email as a formal complaint under Nottingham City Council's complaints procedure for the unacceptable delays in dealing with all complaints against councillors. As part of dealing with this complaint I would be grateful if you could provide an update to the cases that I have referred at least, however it would be preferable if The Standards Committee were to provide a public update on all cases. Nottingham City Council is quick to name and shame individuals when it sees fit and sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander."

The reference to cases that I referred concerns complaints I made in May in May about Cllr Ahmed's role in the decision to cut CEHRNN's funding and against JoCo for, ahem, 'making a mistake' when telling the call-in sub-committee that the sale of Radford Unity Complex would raise twice as much as he had already offered it for sale to a bunch of artists. In addition there is still the Cllr Grocock issue outstanding which is becoming farcical in the extent of its delay.

I can't help wondering if the agenda is to make sure that nothing is heard before the elections next year.

Update - no response by end of play Friday

Thursday, 7 October 2010

PR Fail

You may have noticed that the comments section to my piece an Cllr Mick Newton's story of his illness looks a bit busy. If you haven't already I recommend you go have a look. It presents an interesting view of how to make a total ass of youself online NCC's PR strategy.

Corporate Media Manager Stephan Richeux took offence at my quite clear statement that baseball batting someone in the face would be an 'unacceptable reaction' which is slightly bizarre. Does this mean he thinks that it is acceptable?

The point I was making, which I am sure is plain and clear to all lifeforms above the 'drunken amoeba' level is that, after being treated extremely badly in a life/career ruining kind of way, there are good ways of channeling your anger and bad ways. I like to think I've picked the good way. Perhaps Mr Richeux disagrees.

Of course he missed the bit where I was praising a NCC councillor for his frankness and honesty and the bit where I wrote about my own personal experiences, including the hint of an admission that not all of my feelings in response to the way I've been treated have been good but at least I've not been daft enough to act on them and never will. He homed in on an admittedly flippant remark which I used as part of my attempt to make light of the issue. It's a defence tactic I often use when things get a bit heavy.

And it all seemed to go downhill from there, the result being that Richeux makes a total dick of himself. Not a bright thing to do in the world of PR I'd have thought but there you go.

Council House to be Wrapped in Cotton Wool - Or Is It?

A while ago I wrote about the council's refusal to allow the East Midlands Vegan Festival to be held at the Council House, citing all those DM clad vegan feet causing 'wear and tear' as the reason. I was a bit cynical so I did the usual and put in a Freedom of Information request to see if this policy was being applied consistently. Results are in and they are somewhat inconclusive.

First thing to note is that the restriction on usage doesn't appear to be part of a formal decision making process. They provided a copy of a portfolio decision to review the charging policy but there's no mention of anything to do with new numbers restrictions. They provide a separate document setting out events they no longer accept but that looks like it was drawn up specifically for my FoI response.

Looking through the list of events (MSExcel document) that they provided it is apparent that there were still a number of 200 capacity events held throughout 2010 but none listed as 'drop-in', which EMVF is described as in earlier years. It seems that it's this 'drop-in' nature of larger events that seems to be the deal breaker in their eyes.

Also, the 'events we no longer accept' document provides specific examples of events they've turned down including two jobs fairs, RNIB low vision awareness day and the Trent Uni fashion show which all seem to be 200 capacity drop-in jobs. So, presuming that the 'drop-in' nature really is more damaging then it all started looking fair enough, if maybe a little over protective.

But doubts remain. This year's jobs fair seems to be a much larger event than in previous years and the Council House wouldn't have been big enough. Trent Uni used the refurbished Newton Building as its venue for the fashion show which is arguably at least as prestigious and they would have been keen to show it off. So that's two events that have valid reasons to switch venues other than so-called 'wear and tear'. I can't find any mention of the Low Vision Awareness Day anywhere on NCC's website or anywhere else.

And then there's the Deaf Awareness Day held on 13 October (might as well give them a plug while we're here, hope they do keep on hosting it at the Council House) which does look suspiciously like a 'drop-in' event and is likely to be very popular. Is EMVF likely to be anymore damaging?

I must emphasise that the point here is not to say 'don't hold the Deaf Awareness Day' but to say why not host the EMVF? It seems to me that inconsistent decisions are being made on the hoof at best. Alternatively there may be some double standards being applied, deliberately or otherwise.

Local Democracy Week

It's Local Democracy Week next week.

The idea is to persuade Nottingham peeps " get more involved with the work of the council." Good idea.

Of course, you could satisfy yourself with the uberspun, sanitised idea of the 'work of the council' presented to you by this event.

Alternatively (or in addition) you could drop in back here regularly to see the sort of thing that really goes on.

Update - Couldn't resist a bit of guerrilla marketing

Further update - only put this up today and already it's 4th and 5th on page 1 on Google search for 'Local Democracy Week Nottingham'.

Respect is Due

Perhaps unusually for this blog I want to congratulate a councillor, in this case Cllr Mick Newton, for telling his story of his own struggle with mental illness in today's Post.

It's rarely an easy decision for anybody to be public about suffering from mental health problems, as Cllr Newton says, "...some have treated [him] as though I have the plague." It's probably even more risky for someone in public life to do so but so often, that's the only way people find out how debilitating depression and other mental health problems can be. Very often depression is seen as the 'least serious' of mental illnesses and, while I acknowledge that its effects are less dramatic than those of, say, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, it can be very disabling and sometimes deadly; suicide is approximately 5 times more likely for someone with depression compared to the general population (6% vs 1.3%).

Regular readers of this blog will know that I suffer from depression and I recognise many of the experiences that Cllr Newton describes in his article. Unfortunately, one of the many people and/or organisations (along with Nadine Dorries) that shows a lack of understanding of my own illness is Nottingham City Council. This combined with the fact that it was them that caused my illness in the first place is a cause of considerable, um, frustration for me.

There's no point in pretending that the establishment of this blog had nothing to do with this frustration and anger at my treatment at their hands. However, I always wanted to ensure that it was very much a way of channeling this anger into something useful rather than just be a ranty mess. It is a ranty mess in places I accept but I do believe I am starting to have a small effect in making NCC accountable for some of the dodgy things it does. I think that's more constructive than taking a baseball bat to Lisa Black's face (as a hypothetical example of a completely unacceptable reaction) and, as an added bonus, it's less likely to end up with me being Big Ron's 'special friend' in the prison showers.

I don't know how things are going to end up in the long run. I have yet to find a route out of this situation and it's certainly not helped by NCC's ongoing abuse of statutory processes to harass me. I'm very pleased that Cllr Newton is back on his feet but unfortunately I feel a little way off that just yet.

Please note - it is Mental Health Awareness Week, the Post has a list of events and activities here.

Monday, 4 October 2010

You Lift Me Up...

As you can see I'm running out of potential titles with the word 'lift' in them.

A response has arrived from NCC about how much they are paying to Dunbar and Boardman for lift maintenance.

It works out to £3388 per month including VAT which comes to £40655 pa. Not as much as I was expecting I have to admit. In the last year that the internal team was in operation the net cost was £36,070 pa although that was back in 2008.

My guess is that at most NCC gets a couple of days work for that monthly spend whereas the internal team had at least two full time staff (more I think). Remember that this is for monitoring and commissioning work, costs for actual repairs and maintenance are separate.

With this being a suspiciously low figure I hope that my first info request eventually digs up a copy of the decision to commission Dunbar and Boardman via the Information Commissioner's Office. Will have to wait for a bit on that one though.

Update - Been told that D+B only have to look after approx 20% of the lifts that NCC's internal team did as the majority are the responsibility of NCH. Prior to D+B NCH looked after all of them but decided to cut back after the Viccy Flats accident. I think NCH have one f/t worker doing their lifts.

Nadine Dorries 'As Stupid as Nottingham City Council' Reveals Blogger (Or Off-Topic-Post-that-We've-Managed-to-Squeeze-a-Local-Angle-Into of the Week)

Arch House of Commons shit-for-brains Nadine Dorries has been condemned as being as stupid as Nottingham City Council by the blogosphere over the weekend.

Dorries, in a one woman demonstration of the utterly knackered state of our democracy and politics generally, somehow managed to get re-elected as the (Tory, which partly explains it) member for Mid Bedfordshire in May. Last week she decided to let rip with a series of posts of unimaginable inanity. She essentially argued that you couldn't possibly be disabled if you could blog or use Twitter and invited people to report such alleged cheats to the Department of Work and Pensions -

"In the meantime, do you know of anyone else who has Tweeted more than 35,000 times in less than six months? If so, email my office and let me know. Or, better still, if it's someone you know is on benefits, contact the DWP...

If you Twitter all day, every day about claiming disability benefit in one tweet whist arranging a night out in the pub in the next. If you tweet about claiming six months rent from the social fund whilst tweeting how bad your hangover is and if you stride into political meetings and shout the odds with energy and enthusiasm with no sign of any physical disability and if you claim to work for the Labour party and write porn at the same time as claiming your disability benefit - then don't expect someone like me not to a) inform the authorities and b) tell you to get of your Twitter and get a job."

In order to ensure that everyone realised the sheer fat-headed ignorance of her views she got Guido Fawkes (who I refuse to link to) to back her up. He provided the cherry for the cake by naming one of Her Nadness' constituents and regular critics as an alleged offender, thus ensuring that Dorries herself was able to feign surprise and couldn't be criticised for naming the person herself.

Long term readers may remember that NCC questioned whether I had a disability or mental health problem at my employment tribunal, using the fact that I take photos and write a blog as justification for this. This was a pretty similar argument to that which Dorries was using and that means that she is in fact just as stupid as them. That's really saying something, believe me.

I know that this story has nothing to do with Nottingham really (apart from an excuse to again point out how shabbily NCC treats its employees and the lengths it will go to in tribunals) but I do occasionally like to challenge some of the total fucking idiots out there who express ignorant and often wilfully fascistic opinions about disabled people and benefit claimants. Nadine Dorries can therefore join Janet Street-Porter and NCC in the School of Utter Ignorance.

It seems that the Nasty Party is back.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Moving the Goalposts

I was surprised to get another response from NCC to my FoIA request on delegated powers to officers. Surprised because it's with the Information Commissioner who I'm pretty sure is about to issue a formal decision notice.

Obviously they're not giving me the info because it's plain to see that they haven't got it. It turns out to be a fairly shameless attempt at moving the goalposts and I'm wondering if I might have unwisely helped them along with that.

Cast you mind back to the post I wrote when I had received the result of the internal review. This confirmed that the 1998 list was all that they had and so wouldn't be sending anything else, as such they were refusing my request on the basis that they don't hold the information. At the time I said -

"I did wonder if they would claim that the information existed but that it could only be provided at disproportionate cost...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...)"

Cut to Friday and here's what they've now come up with -

"Unfortunately again without significant time and resource Democratic Services are unable to identify a complete list of delegations made by committees, boards etc since 1998, as all of the minutes from those meetings would require reviewing to see if they contained information about the power to delegate and so sadly, Democratic services are unable to supply this information in response to your request at this time.

Democratic Services have estimated that there are in excess of 2000 meetings between 1998 and 2010 and that this would equate to approximately 160 hours work...

However, Should you still require to receive this information prior to next year, the Council would issue you with a fees notice in order to retrieve this"

They then go on to quote me £4075 to provide the info. I think I'll keep my gob shut next time. Maybe they're hoping this will persuade the ICO not to make an adverse decision?

Still, the point is reinforced. NCC simply has no idea who has been delegated powers to act on behalf the council and in what circumstances. This is unacceptable. I think I can reasonably claim the credit for ensuring that they put this right.

Oh, and if you think this is just about people being allowed to order their own paperclips have a look at the delegated decisions section* on the NCC website. On the first page there's one for £4m and several for hundreds of £k. I think that's something I'd like to keep track of.

*For some reason they appear to be listing these in reverse order. More alarmingly they seem to have stopped listing them at all since July.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Someone Does the Wrong Thing

I am genuinely stunned by the latest development in the Harold Tinworth Saga.

The Post has published another three articles on the call-in sub-committee (my report of the first day is here) meeting held to look into the decision to formally award him a contract instead of it being all unofficial. It now turns out that in his pitch he proposed advising councillors on preparing their manifesto for the 2011 council elections.

Yes, this supposedly expert consultant who has been both a Leader of a council and a Chief Executive was happy to include an offer to carry out (illegal) political work in exchange for council taxpayers money in a document that would be seen by officers.

It's been clear from the off that the contracted work was a continuation of the work he had been doing since 2006. It therefore seems reasonable to conclude that at least some of his earlier work included political advice which we paid for, seeing as the last election was in 2007. This might explain some of the apparent discomfiture expressed in an early memo on the subject to the then Service Director of Democratic Services Tony McGovern.

However, the bit that really gets my goat is the fact that NCC was intending to keep this secret on the basis that publishing it was against the 'public interest'. The minutes are out now and there is nothing of this in there apart from a summary of the discussion from which the public were excluded.

In a paragraph which gob-smackingly starts with the phrase "In the interests of openness and transparency..." we hear -
"...that the contract, if and when awarded, should have specific managerial parameters; and the work conducted be explicitly non-political in nature;"

and that's it. It turns out that the meeting decided to write to Tinworth to clarify this point.

None of the officers who assessed the bids challenged the original proposal and Cllr Hassan Ahmed must have approved it in its original form with the illegal political activity intact, meaning he had effectively led NCC into an illegal contract. Does approving an illegal contract make you a crook?

Worst of all is that none of the opposition councillors, which included both Tory and Lib Dem group leaders, challenged the decision to hear this part of the meeting in closed session. Way to go chaps, thank you for sticking up for democracy. Although presumably one of them is likely to be the person who leaked the details to the Post.

This is final and conclusive evidence, as if it were needed, that NCC equates 'politically embarrassing' with 'not in the public interest'. See the treatment of the Hardmoor Associates report for earlier evidence of this contemptible attitude.

There appears to have been a brief discussion on the District Auditor's intervention during the second day of the hearing which I didn't attend. Both Cllr Ahmed and Angela Probert the Director of HR admitted that they knew about this yet both were asked about the timing of the tender on day 1 and neither saw fit to mention it then. At the time I thought this info had been kept in the 'exempt information' category but it seems not to be the case.

Despite all this the committee decided that everything was above board and tickety-boo which is something of a whitewash.

Personally I think this was a scandal of the utmost seriousness. £110k of public money appears to have been spent on blatant political activity. I think JoCo should be surcharged for this and I have written back to the District Auditor to request that she reconsiders her decision not to investigate the legality of the payments.

In addition I believe that the contract with Tinworth should not be proceeded with as he is clearly tainted, not just by a willingness to engage in illegal spending of taxpayers' money but by being somewhat incompetent.