Saturday, 31 December 2011

Happy New Year

I have no predictions to make. No big ideas. No suggestions that I can immediately summon up.

Right now I'm enjoying a few bottle conditioned beers and they're very nice thank you.

But I do hope things are at least slightly better in 2012. Overall. I'd like to hope things will be a LOT better but I don't like to push me luck.

Happy New Year everyone.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Shameless Cover-Up

Well, we finally have the Audit Committee meeting agenda up on the Council's website and they are indeed discussing the Annual Audit Letter which gives brief details of the crooked goings on behind the Future Jobs Fund and which I wrote about before when they mistakenly added it to their website a bit early.

They are also discussing the full report on the matter by the District Auditor but what's this? -


Report of District Auditor, Audit Commission"

Oh look, they're covering it up. I should be surprised. I SHOULD be...

There can be no possible public interest in not releasing to the public a report by the District Auditor, especially when there is clear reference to that report's main conclusions in the Annual Audit Letter which confirm serious criticisms of the Council's conduct.

The fact that JoCo has already selectively quoted from that report for his own political purposes simply adds further insult to the outrage.

I have written to the District Auditor asking that she insist on the matter being discussed in public and for the report to be made public. If she refuses to do this it can only raise questions about her political impartiality and complicity in a cover-up.



Friday, 23 December 2011

JoCo Returns to Fantasy Island

Fun and games at the last full Council Meeting when one of the Tories challenged JoCo over the recent Annual Audit letter which contains significant criticisms of the Future Jobs Fund. JoCo reponds with his usual mix of fantasy and lying by omission. Let's have a look at what he said.

"The  District  Auditor’s  comments  refer  to  a  report  drafted  in  response  to allegations ... suggesting both illegality and impropriety in the  way  contracts  were  allocated  for  work  placements  within  the programme.  A  report  that,  in  officer  time  and  audit  fees,  will  have probably  have  cost  local  tax  payers  around  £100,000."

Hmm, just like Freedom of Information costs us £500,000 no doubt. And a fraction of the cost of the botched police raid on the Iona School in an attempt to criminalise environmental activists which JoCo has repeatedly justified.

"The  report  also  acknowledges  that  the  Portfolio  Holder,  and  again  I quote:

“Complied with the requirements of the Code of Conduct on registration of interests and declaration of interests at formal Council committees and Executive meetings.” "

Firstly that's not in the Annual Audit Letter so JoCo is presumably quoting from the actual report which is yet to be made public. I presumably hasn't been released to the opposition either which means JoCo is deriving political advantage from privileged information. More on the issue of releasing information later.

However, what JoCo fails to mention is that the DA said -

"My investigation has led me to conclude that the relevant Portfolio Holder’s conduct may have been in breach of paragraph 3(2)(d) of the Code of Conduct (conduct which has compromised or is likely to compromise the impartiality of officers). My concerns arise from the need for transparency and good corporate governance rather than that there was any actual inappropriate allocation of contracts (in relation to which I did not find any evidence)."

Interestingly, the Annual Audit Letter was published on the council's website but, was removed when I wrote about it. It is due to be discussed at the Audit Committee meeting on 6 January 2012 but NCC is being unusually tardy in publishing the agenda for that meeting. That couldn't be to prevent the public from seeing it for as long as possible could it?

And it's still not clear whether the actual report will be published or placed before the same committee. Without that we can't see exactly what the DA found or what the reasons for her findings were. This is important because JoCo made the following remark -

"It appears that the DA originally believed that the  allegation,  suggesting,  that  as  a  result  she  may  have  to  issue  a public  report  on  the  matter.  However,  as  she  proceeded  with  her investigation,  it  became  clear  that  they  had  little  substance..."

The DA, Sue Sunderland has previous form of being a bit supine when criticising NCC. It would be unfortunate if political pressure had been brought to bear, resulting in her watering her conclusions.

Monday, 19 December 2011

How Much Does Freedom of Information Cost 2

One thing that has been popping up in NCC's FoI responses is little passive aggressive notes at the end such as this one I got with the request featured in the previous post-

"You may be interested to know that responding to the questions you have raised in the enquiry has cost the Authority approximately £102.35.

I may indeed be interested to know that. Alternatively, I may not give a shiny shit. I can only assume that this is designed to make you feel bad about rattling their cage. I wonder if social workers give child abusers notes telling them their visit cost £128.50, or maybe bin men will soon be leaving a little sticker on your bin with a breakdown of the cost of carting your crap away.

I don't know if the same method is used to calculate the numbers as that used by JoCo in his occasional outbursts but, if I can help, I'd recommend that costs could be significantly reduced by reducing the number of people signing off each response, leaving aside the obsessive secrecy requiring legal services to turn ever more complex legal somersaults and stop that silly trick of ignoring requests until the Information Commissioner finally orders them to respond.

This advice is a service I provide you know. For free.

Lights, Camera, ACTION!

Reasonably interesting response back from Information Governance today (and can I say a big hats off to them for getting it in just on the last day, even with it being the run-up to Xmas).

A few months back I wrote about the trials and tribulations of Welsh blogger Caebrwyn who was arrested for trying to film a council meeting. I thought this was a bit unreasonable so I thought I'd try and find out what NCC's attitude would be if someone tried the same trick. I have to say there's not much chance of me actually trying this but, in this time of austerity and cuts, somebody may do when face cuts to their school/leisure centre/care home etc looming.

In the meantime, the issue got a bit more local when there was a hullabaloo when somebody allegedly tried to film a meeting and the police were called. The miscreant legged it and has not been identified but interestingly the police said that as no offence had been committed they would not be taking any further action.

So, back to what Nottingham said.

I first asked whether meetings were recorded at all already, to which the answer was no but -

"...with the exception of full Council meetings where a tape recording of the meeting is taken in order to facilitate the verbatim recording within the minutes of the answers provided to Council and Public questions at the meeting."

So, presumably such recordings are available to members of the public then?


Erm, really? You haven't heard of the Freedom of Information Act then? Their justification is that the verbatim answers are provided within the minutes of the meetings which, of course, are published.

That's sort of fine except they imply that the whole meeting is recorded in which case the rest of the recording would be quite interesting to hear. However, former Cllr Alex Foster (refugee of the Lib Dem wipeout) had earlier annotated my request saying that the recording stopped after the first part of the meeting. Oh the uncertainty...

I next asked whether NCC was considering recording and/or webcasting meetings and the reply was that they are

"...currently exploring the costs and implications of webcasting council meetings."

I suspect that holding our breath on this one is not a safe option.

Lastly, I asked whether NCC would allow a member of the public to film a public meeting and whether there was any policy and/or legal justification for a refusal. The answer to this was that there was no policy and the decision to allow or not it would be down to the Chair of any meeting to make. So they are clearly of the view that the Chair has carte blanche to stop someone filming and, presumably, to eject them for doing so if they refuse to stop. Whether they would or not remains to be seen of course.

The problem with that is that the legal position is not exactly crystal on the subject. S.100A of the Local Government Act 1972 (as amended) deals with the right of the public to attend council meetings and stipulates when attendees can be excluded. Apart from the provisions for excluding the public by resolution for reasons of confidentiality there is the following -

(8)This section is without prejudice to any power of exclusion to suppress or prevent disorderly conduct or other misbehaviour at a meeting.

So to my reading, if somebody decides to film a meeting of the council and politely refuses to stop when asked, in order for the Chair to eject them it would have to be classified as 'disorderly conduct or other misbehaviour'. I reckon that's a bit of a stretch so if you fancy having a go remember to be scrupulously polite and otherwise co-operative at all times.

NCC would, I think, be on slightly stronger ground if they agreed a policy on the issue to be included in its standing orders. This would be a good idea in this era of camera phones and tiny camcorders, although a decision to ban would no doubt attract significant negative publicity. Until then (and I still wouldn't be certain), I honestly don't think it can legally stop you filming and it certainly can't require you to delete any footage you do take, like they tried to do in Ashfield.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Future Jobs Fund - NCC and a Certain Person Criticised Again

NCC has posted its latest 'Annual Audit Letter'* (AAL) from the Audit Commission to its website. A dull and rather fusty document normally but this one contains a chunk of info the NCC will NOT be keen to draw your attention to. So I suppose I'd better.

You'll remember that former councillor Hassan Ahmed decided not to run for office at the last local election and the Post speculated it might have been due to skullduggery with the Future Jobs Fund. Well the the AAL confirms that he was in the firing line. The letter only contains brief details but does say that a full report on the matter was sent to NCC in November but they have so far chosen not to make it public. Funny that.

So, what do we know so far? Let's simply quote in full what the District Auditor says -
  • "The Council (acting as accountable body) has failed to comply with the requirements of its own constitution, standing orders and financial regulations in awarding Future Jobs Fund and Community Programme contracts. In particular, specific individuals failed to demonstrate appropriate accountability for the decisions taken. These failures were compounded by poor record keeping within the Council
  • My investigation has led me to conclude that the relevant Portfolio Holder’s conduct may have been in breach of paragraph 3(2)(d) of the Code of Conduct (conduct which has compromised or is likely to compromise the impartiality of officers). My concerns arise from the need for transparency and good corporate governance rather than that there was any actual inappropriate allocation of contracts (in relation to which I did not find any evidence).
  • The role of partners as set out in the original bids did not fully materialise in practice: As a consequence, some partners felt let down and had concerns around consistency and transparency. In my view the Council could have done more to allay these concerns by being more open and transparent about the need for changes and to ensure everyone was given an equal opportunity to respond to these changes."
The 'relevant Portfolio Holder' was of course our old mucker Hassan Ahmed. Note the finding that he breached the members code of conduct, which is the second time he has been found guilty of this. he has gone now as I say but the other findings, including that NCC breached its constitution, standing orders and financial regulations is as damning as it gets.

It's not clear whether NCC intends to make the full report public. There have been numerous rumours about the matter for some time involving certain usual suspects. If it is going to be made public it is likely to be alongside the AAL at the next Audit Committee meeting due on 6 January 2012. If it doesn't appear there it'll be Freedom of Info Act time again.

* Since posting this document yesterday, NCC removed it from their website, presumably hoping to scupper my article in the process. This is why the link now goes to Google Docs, where I saved a copy.

Friday, 2 December 2011

All's Well That Ends Well

Remember the picture theft drama?

Well, NCC has been back in touch following my assurance to them that I would be taking them to the small claims court if they weren't a bit more accommodating and have agreed to make a payment for the use of my pic.

It's not a lot but then I didn't ask a lot because I didn't see any sense in taking the piss. That would have just made them dig their heels in.

So it's all cool now on the picture front although it's a lesson learned that it's worth sticking to your guns if something similar happens to you.