Friday 25 March 2011

Housing Benefits Standards Slipping - Worst in E. Midlands for New Claims

I have just found the most recent figures for Housing Benefits processing speeds on the DWP website. The numbers relate to Q2 2010/11, i.e. July-Aug 2010.

It's pretty poor news for NCC. They took an average of 37 days to process new claims for benefits over the quarter. This makes them joint worst performing (with Harborough) in the East Midlands. You probably won't see a NCC press release on that.

Worse still, this disguises serious in quarter deterioration in performance with monthly figures of 33days (July), 36 days (August) and 44 days (September).

They were better at processing changes in circumstances at an average of 14 days which is about mid table. The best for this was 3 days (Daventry) and the worst 27 days (Derby).

Compare these figures to Leicester City which took 19 days for new claims and 11 days for changes in circumstances, an awful lot better. LCC had an Audit Commission inspection in May 2009 and scored zero stars. Its average new claims time then was 37.5 days, hardly worse than Nottingham's is now. They were also criticised for not using their full allocation for Discretionary Housing Payments, something I've had a lot to say about in Nottingham.

This is relevant because NCC's benefits service hasn't had an inspection since at least 2007 because the Audit Commission sees them as 'low risk' due to their record of getting 4 star assessments, albeit after adjusting their service provision around the needs of the inspections.

All this comes after last year's revelations of serious processing accuracy problems and dodgy subsidy claims. On this basis if NCC was inspected tomorrow they would probably score one star at best.

Don't Tell Them About the Mobile Phones!

It may be me but NCC appears to have reached new levels of paranoia over the release of information under the Freedom of Information Act.

Someone has made a request for details of senior posts who are issued with mobile phones paid for by the council, or alternatively, provided with expenses for phone use. He also asks for phone numbers and the associated expenditure over the last three years.

Not the sort of thing I'd be bothered about knowing I admit, partly because I don't think it's particularly unreasonable to provide senior managers with a means to be contacted easily and in my experience councils aren't particularly profligate in this area (by which I mean I never got one. I could have claimed for calls I made for work but frankly it was more work than it was worth). Still, not for me to judge the validity of other people's requests, I'm sure this guy has his reasons.

On the other hand, I will judge NCC on what seems like a completely unjustified claim of exempt information. They have said that they are considering exempting the info under s.36 of the FoIA which allows them to refuse requests for info that may "prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs".

For the life of me I cannot see how on earth they can consider that this exemption applies, with the possible exemption of the actual phone numbers. Having those out in the public domain may well get in the way of 'public affairs' if some joker decides it would be a laugh to phone them at inconvenient times of the day. But the rest seems like a simple 'lets see how much of our money councils waste on freebies for managers' type of request which may be a bit of a pain to deal with but hardly justifies the use of an exemption to keep it secret.

Thursday 24 March 2011

Taking His Ball Away

Now you've done it. JoCo is upset 

It seems that he thinks the Post has been beastly to him. It's a tough old world out there when not everyone slavishly believes everything you say.

Addendum - This would appear to be about the PM's visit

Friday 18 March 2011

Golf Wars and Other Secrets

Bulwell Hall Golf Course. Anybody give a shit? Some people apparently do.

Nottgirl did a piece on it a year or so ago, basically saying that the Jack Barker Golf Co got a rather generous deal when they took over the running of the place. She mentions that a commenter on a 'Post' article also expressed concerns but the comment was later removed.

The grounds maintenance part of the agreement has recently come up for renewal recently and portfolio holder Cllr Trimble has made a decision to bypass normal financial procedures and simply agree an extension. This seems to have upset the Tories who have had the decision subjected to call-in.

So far so dull. To me, golf is just a way to spoil a nice walk in the park and the reasons for extending don't seem too suspicious. I'm not even in a position to wonder about the VFM aspects of the original agreement as I don't know the going rates for golf clubs. However, this affair does cast a bit of light on some aspects of how both the Labour and opposition councillors' respective worldviews.

In a seemingly unrelated move, NCC has just released its latest whinge about revealing financial information (explaining 'once and for all' as they put it on Twitter, like we are all a bunch of rather thick schoolchildren).

In this rather unconvincing rant NCC says -

"...that the information published by other local authorities and the Department for Communities and Local Government does not improve transparency or accountability because it doesn't let people judge value for money or the need for the expenditure."

This is of course bollocks and this particular portfolio decision shows why. You see, NCC routinely makes all financial aspects of these decisions i.e. the cost to us, the local taxpayers, confidential under sch 12A of the LGA which allows councils to withhold information -

"...relating to the financial or business affairs of any particular person (including the authority holding that information)."

among many other things.

I'm not convinced that the purpose of this part of the act is to keep details of the amounts of money paid to contractors secret and it could of course mean that all sorts of woes are kept hidden. In fact if NCC's interpretation is correct Eric 'Buffoon' Pickles' demands to release all expenditure over £500 would be unlawful.

Could it be that JoCo and the team's fear of accountability stems from the fact that we would at last be able to make a judgment on the value for money of some of their decisions*?

The second thing this issue tells us is that the Tories on NCC care more about golf clubs than organisations such as the Council for Equalities and Human Rights Nottm and Notts cos they didn't lift a finger when Hassan Ahmed cut their funding and that has now resulted in its closure. Talk about fucked up priorities.

*In this case, somebody who knows about golf courses obviously, not me.

Thursday 17 March 2011

The Rumour Mill Pt 2

Just for the record, my earlier claim of an Executive councillor not standing in the upcoming elections did not refer to Hassan Ahmed, so that means there two of them leaving in May.

Also, I've heard of another councillor no longer standing so, if all my rumours are true, Labour have lost two key executive members and three rank and file.

Update - Cllr Newton's 'Independent' status now confirmed on NCC website.

Hassan Ahmed's (Hopefully) Last Victim

The Post reports today that the Council for Equalities and Human Rights Nottm and Notts is to close due to lack of funding. Previously known as Notts REC, it had been active in the city for 55 years.

It was of course Hassan Ahmed who jointly made the decision to end their funding last year. The decision was kept secret for reasons that remain unclear. I've got a FoIA request outstanding on that (and other issues) but NCC is simply stalling, having provided no response to my request which was sent on 2 September 2010 and so far ignoring an order from the Information Commissioner's Office to respond by 15 February 2011.

In a possibly connected matter, let's remember that One Nottingham are refusing to disclose who was involved in making the decision to award funding to Nottingham Equal, an organisation of which Ahmed was a founding member and whose Chief Exec is his bezzy mate Tyron Browne.

No doubt Cllr Ahmed will be very proud of his achievement, closing one of the most respected and certainly long lasting equalities groups in Notts.

Wednesday 16 March 2011

Cllr Ahmed; A Heartfelt Tribute

So. Farewell then. Councillor Hassan Ahmed.

On his announcement that I will only have about half as much material to write about from now on he is to stand down at the next election I thought it appropriate to remember some of the great works he has done for the city and the wider world of business. Not to mention some of his closest friends...

Firstly, Cllr Ahmed very nearly forced the closure of the Council of Equality and Human Rights Nottingham and Notts by suddenly halting their funding on dodgy equalities grounds. Doubly dodgy was the fact that he was involved with Nottingham Equal at the time which, not only had he not declared that on his register of interests, also happened to be a potential competitor organisation.

A number of coincidences followed. Firstly CEHRNN's Chief Exec lost his position as the BME representative on One Nottingham's board after an election that was run by erm, Nottingham Equal. Secondly, Nottingham Equal got a grant from NCC which was suspiciously similar to the amount removed from CEHRNN. This grant was decided by One Nottingham which Ahmed had managed to wheedle his way into as the Chair of its new 'Fairness Commission'. ON has refused to divulge any details of how it reached the decision to pick NE for receipt of grant aid, claiming that it is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

Interestingly, one of the criticisms levelled at CEHRNN was that they had failed to adequately address the equalities strands other than race. Nottingham Equal be covering the following strands; race, that's it.

In the meantime, Ahmed was found guilty of breaching the Members Code of Conduct due to multiple instances of failing to register his outside interests with NCC. He celebrated this by claiming in the local press that he had been 'exonerated'. It turned out that a significant part of the reasoning behind the decision by Standards for England not to impose any sanction was down to the fact that he wasn't a member of the Executive at the relevant time. However he WAS Graham Chapman's Executive Assistant so was in a position to influence decisions.

Like a moth to a flame, Ahmed even managed to inveigle himself in NCC's other big corruption scare by being the one who made the decision to award a contract  to Harold Tinworth for political advice on how to win the local election for Labour providing support to members of NCC's executive members. This is now causing all kinds of unhappiness for JoCo and his cohorts.

And now he has apparently been implicated in this new Future Jobs Fund issue and he's decided rather suddenly that he needs to spend more time with his pets. He won't be missed.

One Down...

The 'Post' is on fire these days with revelations about NCC and today's is the news that our old mate Hassan Ahmed has decided not to stand in the upcoming elections. The Post has suggested that his decision may be due to an upcoming report from the Audit Commission concerning irregularities in the Future Jobs Fund although Ahmed denies this.

Slightly frustrating for me because I actually got a tip-off a few weeks back about some dodginess involving Ahmed, the FJF and another local anti-hero but I couldn't verify it. As such I didn't dare run it for fear of a communication from m'learned friends. And I'm afraid I'm still chicken about naming the other alleged party so we'll all just have to wait for that Audit Commission report.

It's good that at least one of the chiselling little crooks has been upended, especially after the cover up over the housing allocations scandal meaning that Cllr Grocock and Tyron Browne have managed to wriggle free, so far at least. It's a long shot but if the poisonous influence that is Jon Collins can be removed at the election NCC will be immeasurably improved.

Addendum - JoCo wrote a puff piece about FJF on his blog recently. For some reason he seems to have switched the comments off...

Monday 7 March 2011

You Win Some...

NCC was justifiably proud for coming second in the 'UK's Cleanest City' awards. So proud that they spun it into winning 'Cleanest Big City' award which doesn't actually exist, on the basis that the actual winner Truro only has 18,000 residents.

I hope the workers on the ground were invited to the glitzy do and rewarded individually. After all they'd need something to take their minds off the increased risk of mesothelioma and other diseases, thanks to their employer failing to tackle the asbestos at the Woolsthorpe depot.

But of course you don't see that latter detail mentioned on the NCC website.

More Standards Committee Deliberations

The minutes from the Standards Committee meeting held to discuss the Grocock case are out. As I said before, it wasn't the actual decision making meeting but a kind of pre-discussion.

Interestingly, monitoring officer Glen O'Connell argued for the meeting and investigation report to remain private but this was rejected by the committee, although I can't see it published anywhere.

The minutes also reveal that O'Connell's recommendation is that Grocock did not breach the code of conduct which, if the committee agrees, would be a bit of a bombshell. Can't wait to see how he's justified that one.

Thursday 3 March 2011

"No Scams" Cllr Collins?

Yesterday Jon Collins said there were 'no scams' in the appointment of Harold Tinworth as a consultant to NCC's executive. It seems that the Post would beg to differ.

They have managed to get hold of email correspondence between Collins and Tinworth which appears to show blatantly political advice being given, the most damaging, in my opinion, being this extract -

"The solution to the problem is to change the government asap. The budget review has to be agreed on its tight timetable but has it/will it exclude, diminish the real priority for you all and how do you guard against it. ie If getting the least damaging package of cuts from 80% right to 90% right stops you campaigning as effectively as you could and are able to do would that be the right balance [sic]".

On one level this could be seen as simply a question of time spent by councillors either campaigning or working on the budget. Or could it be that Tinworth was advising that a budget with damaging cuts (e.g. to Supporting People) would be better for Labour attacking the Tories?

The government has regularly claimed that Labour councils were engaging in 'political' cuts and this plays right into their hands. Yet more top political judgment skills from JoCo there.

Let's not forget that this whole 'political advice' thing was supposedly nixed by the call-in process last year. It seems that, in a shocking show of contempt for due process they went ahead anyway.

How can the Labour Party continue to support Collins as a candidate after this?

The Rumour Mill

I recently heard a rumour that Cllr Mick Newton was no longer a Labour councillor and was sitting as an independent. I wasn't going to write about it as I couldn't reasonably verify it but, after a look at the 'Nottingham Labour' website I feel confident enough to do so.

Have a look at the 'Labour Team' page. Third row down, the Basford councillors Cat Arnold and Rob Lee are there but where you'd expect to find Cllr Newton is someone called Bill Ottewell, who has cropped up elsewhere as a 'campaign team member' amongst other things. Whether he'll be running for the seat at the upcoming election I've no idea, nor do I know whether Newton jumped or was pushed. Either way I can't think of any other reason why he wouldn't be up there but if anyone knows different please let me know and I will correct forthwith.

However, I DO know that the Standards Committee was meeting to consider a case a couple of weeks ago and I do know that Cllr Newton was one of the councillors who was being investigated for something. However it's a bit of a jump to automatically connect the two for now.

Other rumours that I've heard are that an Executive Board member is not planning on standing again and that another Labour councillor had been effectively deselected. No names on these as I can't cross reference with anything but the next full council meeting is the last before the election and it's apparently tradition for there to be official tearful farewells. We'll see.

Wednesday 2 March 2011

Tinworth Waters Slightly Muddier

Been having a little Twitter chat with JoCo today and Harold Tinworth came up.

Collins said that Tinworth was first employed by Government Office (presumably GOEM). That's interesting because Cllr Ahmed said that he was first commissioned by former Chief Exec Michael Frater at the call-in sub-committee.

I mean, I'm not one for starting a row between councillor colleagues but there is a teensy bit of inconsistency here, maybe someone should clear it up?

Dumb Political Decisions R Us (cont'd)

NCC got a mention in the mother of parliaments today in a classic demonstration of how not very good politicians turn themselves into a political football.

At Prime Minister's Questions today, Ed Milibean asked a perfectly reasonable question about the horrendous cuts to local government using a Tory council as an example of the hollowness of the government's claim that frontline services should not be affected. DavCam responded thusly (from Hansard) -

"The Prime Minister: Yes, we have made reductions in local government grant, because frankly we inherited a complete mess in the nation’s finances. What we have done is ask every single local authority to make public every single bit of spending they do so that members of the public can make sure that they are cutting bureaucracy, cutting councillor allowances and cutting pay, rather than cutting services. When the right hon. Gentleman gets to his feet, perhaps he can tell us why only one authority in the entire country, Labour-run Nottingham, refuses to do so."

Now by any standards that is a crap response, any idiot can see that. But political point scorers home in on the 'only one' and 'Labour run' aspects, shout 'yah boo sucks!' very loudly and Cameron gets away with it.

Now I'm strongly in favour of this initiative to publish local government spending because I'm a big fan of accountability. I accept it's flawed and that most people will be able to make only limited use of the data but it's a start. What's more I fully agree that it perhaps isn't the most important issue facing local government, although that in itself is no reason not to do it. However, Ed M was raising a serious point about a tory council shutting 13 of 16 children's centres and one council's (and probably one man's) belligerence allowed DC to avoid the issue entirely.

I wonder if the Labour party's national office is right behind JoCo's principled stand.

Update - some increasingly desperate sounding tweets from the man himself here and here.