Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Council Tax Benefit Replacement - It's Decision Time

Big news - the Council's Executive Board is to make the decision on the local replacement for Council Tax Benefit on 18 December. The 'Defend Council Tax Benefit Campaign' appear to have a demo booked and I presume that will still go ahead despite significant amendments to the proposals since we last saw them.

So the report with all the details, as well as quite a bit of info from the consultation exercises is here. It confirms that NCC has amended its scheme to ensure it qualifies for a share of DCLG's panic grant which was informally announced at a meeting at NCVS. Unfortunately, the report goes on to say that this will only be in place for one year, as that is how long the DCLG money lasts. That said, the government's Council Tax Freeze grants have been renewed so there's a chance a similar thing may happen here. It's also worth noting that NCC has done the bare minimum on this so those on passported benefits will still have to pay 8.5% of their Council Tax bill but it seems that the Band B cap has also been abandoned as part of this temporary relief.

Also confirmed is the abolition of empty homes discounts and the money saved, £2.67m apparently, used to off set the cuts. There would have been no excuse for NCC to do anything else but, even so, this is reassuring.

Also announced is that backdating will continue and that the proposal to impose a minimum payment has been modified to 50p/wk, instead of the £2 - £4 originally mooted. This means that, if your benefit entitlement works out at less than 50p/wk you don't get anything. This would've been pretty catastrophic if the threshold had remained at £4. It looks like the drop in capital allowance from £16k to £6k remains, as is abolition of second adult rebate.

NCC says that a £1.2m funding gap remains which suggests to me from one of my notoriously unreliable back of envelope calculations that they expect to collect 100% of that 8.5% that people on Income Support etc have to pay. That sounds a little ambitious to me. Also, in the absence of any further rabbits out of hats from DCLG next year it is stated that full-on Plan A will be back.

So things are still looking pretty bad as far as I can tell and it still needs to be challenged.

Interestingly, the report includes an exempt appendix which the Board are planning to discuss in private. This is on the basis that it is subject to legal professional privilege which can only mean that they are concerned that part, or all, of the scheme is vulnerable to legal challenge and the appendix contains the legal advice on that.

I have written to the committee administrator to challenge this decision to discuss the appendix in private on the basis that they have not properly considered whether it is in the public interest and that they have not complied with the required public notice requirements to do so. My email is set out below and I would be interested in any opinions on this as the arguments involved are all new to me and I've been suffering from brainfog for some weeks (you'll have noticed the lack of posting on here). Anyway, If I get a reply I'll let you know and hopefully see you at the demos.

"I am writing to you about the decision to discuss an exempt appendix to the Council Tax Support scheme report in private at the Executive Board meeting on 18 December.

According to the notice posted at the previous Exec Board (the 28 day notice)


it was stated that the item was not expected to be discussed in private. This might explain why no representations have been received challenging a decision to discuss the matter in public, as noted in your 5 day notice


I would certainly wish to challenge the decision to hear any part of the decision concerning the proposed Council Tax Support scheme in private.

The discussion of the exempt appendix in private on the basis of legal privilege is justified as being in the public interest in the following terms;

"Furthermore, having regard to all the circumstances, the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information. This is because disclosing the information could waive legal professional privilege in any future legal proceedings."

In my view this not a valid public interest justification. Essentially the justification amounts to "the matter is subject to legal privilege and should be heard in private because we want to keep it that way". This is essentially a circular argument and doesn't in fact address the issue of public interest at all. It does not automatically follow that because legal privilege can be claimed it is automatically in the public interest to do so. Neither does it follow that, because discusing a matter in public may cause the council some embarrassment or discomfort it is automatically in the public interest to discuss it in private.

The establishment of the CT support scheme has generated considerable public discussion and interest, including the formation of a dedicated campaign group on the matter. I strongly believe that it is very much in the public interest that any and all discussions of this new scheme should be held in public. Furthermore, as stated above, I do not accept that the council has made out any sort of case for the matter to be discussed in private.

I therefore request that it be agreed that the matter is discussed in public. I suspect that not to do so would be unlawful due to the failure of the 28 day notice to mention any possibility of the matter being discussed in private, as well as the lack of any satisfactory public interest justification.

I have cc'd my local councillors and ask that they also take this matter forward on my behalf."

Friday, 7 December 2012

Our Man in the Plastic Throne - Ian Curryer

NCC has announced the appointment of its new Chief Exec.

Ian Curryer was previously the Corporate Director for Children and Families which, via a convoluted route, also meant he was the statutory chief officer for adults' social work too. This might make replacing him in those posts a mite tricky.

One wonders how Carole Mills-Evans, the Deputy Chief Exec who stood in as acting Chief Exec feels about this as she has effectively been leapfrogged. Not that I care too much seeing as the silly cow has blocked me on Twitter (crybaby). I don't know if she applied, all I know from the announcement was that there were three candidates up for final selection.

Other than the above I know absolutely nothing about him so there's no point in me speculating how things will be with him at the helm. Although I suspect the apple carts are safe from any disturbance.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Um, Like, I Forgot...

Last Thursday, the 29 November a momentous occasion, er, occurred. I forgot. Nobody reminded me/noticed.

What was this occasion I hear you cry, as one? Well, it was the Fourth Anniversary of the start of this blog.

Like I said, momentous eh?

Please do feel free to send vegan cakes.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Hold the Front Page! A Bit of Info About the Housing Scandal has been Allowed Out!

Only a little bit mind you. And what has come out simply raises more questions than it answers.

Okay then. As you know the housing allocations scandal has been going on forever with NCC desperate to prevent any info about what went on, and more seriously, why nobody has been made to answer for it, getting out into the open.

My own FoI request has been going on since May 2011 and there has been allegations of vexatiousness (quickly but wordlessly dropped), exemption bingo and a thoroughly unsatisfactory Information Commissioner's decision which brought us back to square one.

Since then NCC has withdrawn an appeal against another requester's case where the Commissioner ordered disclosure of some information and, as my request overlapped with that one, I got the info too.

Considering what has come out, the suspicion that NCC is frankly taking the piss with resisting FoI requests is somewhat reinforced. It is pretty fucking outrageous that public money has been spent stopping this information getting out.

So, what have we got? Well, only information from 2006 unfortunately consisting of
  • Hand written notes of a meeting between NCC and the Police on 15 May 2006 where removing IT equipment from housing offices for examination was discussed (note also the reference to 'players'!)
  • A detailed briefing document summarising a meeting on 11 July 2006. This clearly shows that the Police were on message with investigating the matter, had formed an initial view on what the focus of the investigation should be (this is redacted but I think we can safely assume it to be 'The Sports and Social Club That Must Not Be Named'). If anything, NCC are saying that the Police have been a bit directionless and seem fired up with getting further info together and passing it on.
  • A brief summary document on the three meetings that had occurred between NCC and the Police that year.
And that's it. My request asked for quite a lot more, in particular later meetings, so I have written back to remind them of this fact. Probably best not to hold my breath...

But the upshot of this is that it seems clear that the Police were well up for investigating the matter. So why did this attitude change, leaving NCC to spend £100k on external solicitors covering for its own legal team carefully looking the other way investigating the matter, with no prosecutions?

The answer will presumably be in the minutes of meetings in 2010 (which we know happened from earlier disclosures. Note also in there, Notts Police Head of Fraud Kevin Fidler. This shit writes itself). As such, I suspect a continuing battle to get hold of them.

Wish me luck.

Addendum; Following a comment on Indymedia I went back and checked some dates and it does seem that the July-Sept 2010 meetings that likely decided the fate of the police investigation were hot on the feet of JoCo being appointed Chair of the Police Authority and installing his 'Change Management' team. Which is rather an amazing coincidence.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Why I think It Is Worth Voting In the Notts PCC Election

So, we have the elections for the Police and Crime Commissioners coming up on the 15 November. You can see the line-up of chaps (and yes, it is all chaps) for the Notts job here. I'm claiming this post as not 'off-topic' because as far as the police are concerned, Nottingham City is included in Nottinghamshire.

So, I'm somewhat ambivalent as to whether PCCs are a good idea. I have reservations that having a high profile single person being elected will lead to populist policing policies and of course, there is the danger that policing becomes a party political plaything.

But the thing is, they are happening whatever you or I think. This is not like the elected mayor question, this is not a referendum on whether Notts will have a PCC. Our government has 'benevolently' decided on our behalf that a PCC is what we are going to have and whether 20 or 200,000 people vote in this election, there will be a man in post on the morning of the 16th.

So, in my view we are in a damage limitation exercise. Long-term readers will know I am not a fan of not voting or spoiling your ballot paper (though I confess I'm really struggling to think of what to do in the next general election). So here are my recommendations of who to vote for, using the time honoured principles of picking the least worst option.

Now we have four candidates, Labour, Tory and two Independents. Now, starting from the point of view that letting mainstream party politicians get their mitts directly on the police is a no-no, that leaves us with the two Independents. My view on this is that Labour's candidate, former MP Paddy Tipping, is, according to what I've heard, very much on the 'useful idiot' wing of the Labour Party and, given that there will also be 'Police and Crime Panels' including members of the force area's local councils 'scrutinising' their PCC, Tipping is likely to spend his entire term with JoCo's hand up his arse.

So, the two Independents then, Raj Chandran and Malcolm Spencer. Firstly Chandran is a former Tory PPC and, although he says he is no longer a member of the party, he is likely to still be a Tory at heart. More worryingly perhaps, he happens to be a Freemason. Quite why anybody connected with the Police is still allowed to join such secretive boys' clubs is beyond my reckoning, suffice to say that in my mind, this disqualifies him from getting my vote.

So, without even going into their individual policies, we are left with one candidate that I can conceivably imagine voting for, let's hope he's not a horror story eh? In fact Spencer is a former copper himself and appears to be proposing nothing that will frighten the horses policy wise. My main concern about him is that he doesn't appear to have any experience of high level leadership so may be at risk of being dominated by both the small and large 'p' politicians. Still, as far as running the police is concerned, solid and conventional beats frothing ideologue any day of the week.

So, not exactly a ringing endorsement then but I hope I've presented a reasonably rational argument for going out to put your cross on the piece of paper. Turnout is expected to be very low so there is a real likelihood of your vote making a difference.

And remember, there are a lot of Tories out in the County and they are probably the people most likely to vote...

Friday, 2 November 2012

Better Late Than Never? Not much...

NCC's consultation exercise on its replacement for Council Tax Benefit is now over. As such, they now deem it safe to respond to the questions I asked at the consultation event I went to in Bulwell, as I can no longer use the info to come up with clever-arsed objections to their ideas.

Not that the info they've provided would have been much help. I'll reproduce it in full here;

"Dear Mr Platt,

Thank you for attending our recent information event on the changes to Council Tax Benefit. There were a few questions on the day that we couldn’t answer so please see below for our response as promised.

- You asked for the savings generated by each proposal. We are unable to provide the estimated savings generated by each individual proposal because the proposals are inter-dependant and will not show a true reflection of savings if treated separately. However, if we assume that all proposals in our draft scheme are applied then the savings generated would be:

Estimated savings generated



*An assumed collection rate of 70% has been being used in the calculation of the net savings figure.

- You asked what collection rate these figures were based on. Please see answer above.

- You asked to see the Equality Impact Assessment. A full EIA is not required at this stage as the scheme is still only a proposal and isn’t to change or introduce a new policy/service/function. Due regard to equality has been applied throughout the development of the proposed scheme and the consultation process itself forms part of the EIA. A full EIA will be completed to accompany the decision on the final design of the Council Tax Support Scheme following the period of consultation with all interested parties.

Nottingham City Council

Consultation Team"

There isn't really very much there is there? So why did that take a month to provide?

It's also fairly dodgy to claim that they couldn't provide the individual costings. I think it's disingenuous to claim that they are all interdependent. Yes, there may be diminishing returns as the cumulative effects of each change eventually knock individuals out of eligibility, preventing further provisions having any further effect in that individual case but this doesn't apply to all. In particular, the minimum 20% proposal can at least be partially calculated; I previously estimated that it would raise £3.5m from those currently receiving full CTB alone.

The confirmation of the expected 70% collection rate is also a red flag warning of the laws of diminishing returns. As this huge drop in collection rates is entirely attributable to the proposals, surely this demonstrates that some of the proposals are doing more harm than good?

This claim suggests that NCC simply grabbed together a random selection of cuts to apply and calculated the expected overall cost. This doesn't sound very strategic. Surely there must have been substitute calculations demonstrating effects of only including one of the provisions, or all except one etc? That would have given me some idea of the effects of each one.

As for the claim that no EIA has been carried out. All I can say is that's not what they said on the day. So why has the story changed? Is it that it's just in 'draft' form and showing us would give the impression that the proposals were a done deal and the consultation was a sham? Perish the thought...

This is deeply unsatisfactory. I still have an open FoI request, currently subject to review as they didn't answer my original request (not like them eh?) so hopefully this will produce more info. Failing that it's time for legal advice on possible judicial review and demanding the info via court production procedures.

It goes on...

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

NCC Withdraws Appeal Against Housing Allocations Disclosure Decision

Good News!

I think anyway.

A while ago I wrote about NCC's appeal against an Information Commissioner decision ordering them to release minutes of meetings between themselves and Notts Police, during which it was decided that the Police wouldn't be investigating after all.

According to the Information Rights Tribunal's current cases list, that appeal has now been withdrawn. This presumably means those minutes will be published in the not too distant future. Scroll down to case number EA/2012/0112, or do search for 'Nottingham'.

I will be keeping an eye on the disclosure log.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

DCLG Cash - Update

Update on my post yesterday.

Cllr David Trimble has just apparently told a meeting of voluntary sector reps that NCC is going to be applying to the DCLG for a share of the money that has been offered to councils who restrict cuts to Council Tax Benefit.

Justs had a brief Twitter convo with someone there who was live tweeting it -

This is pretty major because it will require a total redesign of NCC's current proposed scheme.

More if and when we get it.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Will NCC Pick Up the Crumbs from Central Government for Council Tax?

As the consultation exercise for the replacement of Council Tax Benefit nears its end two things spring to mind.

Firstly, NCC has not responded to my FoI request for the costings of the individual measures they propose in their new scheme, impairing my ability to respond properly to the consultation (some might suggest this is more than a coincidence. Worth noting that the facilitators at the consultation event I attended promised to forward this info too but no cigar). Secondly there seems to have been a bit of a panic at the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Possibly following evidence of panic at local authorities who are preparing for large rates of non-payment (NCC said at the consultation event that they are expecting collection rates to drop to 70%. But then they also said they'd send me a bunch of costings...), DCLG have announced a £100m transition fund which authorities can apply too to offset the cost of schemes that protect the poorest.

If this money was divided up among all authorities in proportion to their share of council tax benefit expenditure it would provide something approaching an extra £800k for Nottingham. However, there's no telling whether this is how it is intending to allocate the money and not all councils will be eligible because their support schemes don't fit the criteria which are;

  • those who would be on 100 per cent support under current council tax benefit arrangements pay between zero and no more than 8.5 per cent of their council tax liability;
  • the taper rate does not increase above 25 per cent;
  • there is no sharp reduction in support for those entering work - for claimants currently entitled to less than 100 per cent support, the taper will be applied to an amount at least equal to their maximum eligible award.
That first one is going to prove tricky for Nottingham because, as we've seen, they intend to make those even on maximum help pay 20% of Council Tax. I've estimated that this measure alone is likely to raise £3.5m so a grant of £800k isn't likely to tempt NCC to join in. Furthermore, it is a one-off transitional fund and NCC is likely to see that as saving problems up for the future, as they have done with the government grants for freezing Council Tax.

So my guess is the they will snub it. In fairness it is crumbs from the table and likely designed to embarrass councils like Nottingham when they don't join in. On the other hand, I can't help feeling they should clutch every straw that comes our way.

I think it is well worth anybody going to the last listed consultation event tomorrow (10am Loxley House) and bringing this up. I will try to go myself but the usual health issues make this probably unlikely.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Evidence of Rip-Off in Council Tax Benefit Replacement

Following my visit to one of the consultation events last week one or two more snippets have emerged in a Post article.

At the consultation event the facillitators confirmed that the cuts described in the consultation exercise did amount to the £6m allegedly being cut from Council Tax Support. I asked about removing discounts for empty properties and was told that was completely separate, no decisions had been made and clear attempts were made to steer the conversation elsewhere.

Well, the Post no states that the NCC has decided to remove all empty homes discounts which means it has got an extra £2 1/4m to play with. So why does it still want to cut £6m from Council Tax Support at the expense of the worst off in Nottingham? And why was this not in the consultation?

The answer, I believe, is that the Politburo did not want us riff-raff benefit claimants to know that there was no need to cut Council Tax Support so much and they could use the money to glad-rag their businessmen friends, pay for plastic policemen and other pet projects, while sending the bailiffs out after the likes of us who won't be able to pay.

The truth is that Collins and Chapman don't give a shit about the poor and it's all crocodile tears. The Tory decision to protect pensioners is just as helpful to them as the government because, in local as well as national elections, pensioners are among the groups most likely to vote. Poor people, on the other hand are much less likely to vote so dump the cuts on them, blame central government and there should be minimum disruption with the 'project'.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Council Tax Benefit Replacement; It Moves On...

So, we've talked about this before haven't we, this replacement for Council Tax Benefit that's coming up? Although I'm not sure I've mentioned on here the council's consultation exercise that's still going on, although I have mentioned it on Facebook and Twitter quite a lot.

By the way, before I go on, this consultation exercise is still going on and I strongly advise you to go along to one of the remaining events. It's a different exercise to the one about three months ago so don't go thinking that just because you went to one of those that it's not worth going to one of the second tranche. Also, there are various questionnaires as well as the events. Anyway check the link if you haven't already, it's worth it.

So, the point of this post is that yesterday I went to the consultation event at Bulwell Riverside. I'd decided I had to go but wasn't looking forward to it because there was a strong chance that one of my mortal enemies from Employment Tribunal days would be leading the event. As it happened there wasn't but there was the chair of Nottm City Unison branch in attendance and...me.

That's right, just me. And a union bod. And the two peeps doing the presentation. You wouldn't think that, for decades Bulwell flew in the face of conventional politics by repeatedly electing a Communist then Green to the City Council would you? Where were you all?

Whinge aside, I did attempt to live tweet the event and if you want to see that it's here. It also forms the basis of the rest of this blog.

So, yeah we arrived and said our hellos. The event leaders said they weren't Council Tax/Benefit bods but were part of the policy team but were confident they could still manage technical questions. In all honesty they did a pretty fair job of it.

They started off by quickly going through the background stuff which was on the website. The first useful fact that popped up was that there were 19k households in Nottingham currently receiving maximum Council Tax benefit, all of whom, 'if' the proposals for the new scheme were adopted, would all have to suddenly find AT LEAST 20% 0f their full Council Tax, much more if your property is band C or higher. This will vary from about £160 to £2,200 per year. When you're on Income Support/IBJSA/IBESA. Do NOT be property rich in Nottingham next April.

Another important issue that came out fairly quickly (because I asked about it) was the fact that NCC's proposals envisage ringfencing the cuts to central government funding to current Council Tax Benefit recipients alone. I suspected this all along, after all they played a similar trick with Supporting People funding.

We then got a bit more into the nitty-gritty and I challenged a couple of points -

I said that it couldn't be justified to ignore war pensions as income in the apparent economic climate. Initially they said the law required the council to do so but, after a short discussion, they accepted this wasn't correct.

I then asked if the individual proposals had been costed, I was told they had been but they weren't available at the meeting. They did confirm that the total savings amounted to the £6m needed and they agreed to email me the full calculations.

I then questioned the lack of any mention of the new powers to remove discounts for second homes and long term empty buildings. I was told this was being considered but was 'separate'. I made it clear that I thought this was unacceptable because it gave the impression that there was no alternative to recouping the cuts in central funding from benefit claimants whereas, in fact, there was a new source of income that could be used to offset some of those cuts. I got the distinct impression that plans to utilise these measures were well underway but that any savings were going elsewhere and us benefit claimants were on our own. This one might be a runner...

Perhaps one of the most disturbing admissions came when I suggested that, if they were going to slap a load of new charges on extremely poor people than, by application of advanced 'blood from a stone' theory, collection rates may well take a nosedive. They admitted that internal discussions had suggested that collection rates of around 70% were likely. Council Tax collection rates are currently well into the 90-95% range. That's not so much a nosedive, more jumping off a cliff.

It's fair to say nobody at NCC likes this situation. That said, I'm not so sure there isn't a truckload of cynicism going on. It should be remembered that the poorest and most vulnerable among us are less likely to vote, take part in consultations or fight back against cuts until it's too late. This is exactly the group who are bearing the brunt of these cuts. Personally I don't think that's a coincidence.


I did a couple of back of envelope type calculations/estimates. Firstly, I reckon that removing the 50% discount for second homes would raise around £600k to offset the cuts. Secondly, bearing in mind that there are 19k people currently receiving full council tax benefit, I estimate that the absolute minimum the new proposals will save from this group alone is around £3.5m. And the assumptions I made in that mean it is a ridiculously conservative estimate indeed.



Thanks to Jean in the comments for pointing out that second home discount is in fact normally 10% so my above estimate is clearly wrong.

In addition I have found a previous FoI response from the council which provides an estimate that £77k/yr could be raised by removing the second home discount. It also provides an estimate of a further £2.179m if all empty homes discounts were removed. As such there is a potential £2.256m that could be raised from empty homes.

There will be many arguments for not removing some empty homes discounts entirely but there is clearly potential extra revenue here. personally, if nothing else I cannot see any argument for keeping any second home discount at all under the current financial climate.

Note also that the above only refers to removing discounts. It will also be possible for councils to charge greater than 100% for some long-term empty properties. Considering the significant desirability of policies disadvantaging keeping residential properties empty I would hope that extra charges of this nature would be a shoo-in, although how much extra it would raise I don't know.

Friday, 14 September 2012

From Leader to MEP?

A while back I wrote about a rumour that one NCC's senior politicians was planning an exit from local government to be a Labour candidate for the European Parliament.

Well, my source has been busily checking and I now feel confident enough to suggest that you go out and bet five of your British pounds* on seeing Jon Collins' name on the ballot paper when we next go to vote in 2014. I don't think the party selection process is finished yet but the word is that JoCo is a 'shoo-in'.

This will have a marked effect on NCC, almost certainly for the better. It may well mean that the council has a better chance of attracting high quality candidates to be Jane Todd's successor as Collins' attitude to a succession of Chief Execs resulted in Nottingham gaining 'poisoned chalice' status among chief exec circles.

So who will be the one to wear the 'Je suis le maire' t-shirt next? Obvious guess would be Graham Chapman but I wouldn't be surprised if David Mellen has a go at the top job. Jane Urquart shouldn't be discounted, one of the few areas that Nottingham has a good reputation in is transport and at least some of that must be down to her.

A wildcard entry might be Alex Norris. Despite never having had a proper job (he was Labour's political assistant before becoming a councillor) he has that Tory-lite smarm and all important 'Progress' membership that seems to give people the skills to shin up the Labour Party greasy pole. Straight in as a Portfolio Holder, that must have really pissed off his more longstanding Basford colleague Cat Arnold who's been stuck in Executive Assistant purgatory for years.

Very exciting.

*NCCLols takes no responsibility for the betting shop manager looking at you with incredulity and going "you what?", before taking your money and you never seeing it again because of the above turning out to be completely untrue. Caveat emptor, on your own heads peeps.

(H/T Lord Beestonia. See his blog in the Nottingham(ish) blogroll on the right)

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Jane Todd Departs the Plastic Throne

So. Farewell then. Jane Todd*...

As you might have heard, Jane Todd has become the first Nottingham City Council Chief Exec in around 10 years to depart for reasons unconnected with JoCo's megalomania. Joking apart, she's going so that she can recover from an operation to remove a form of brain tumour which is seriously nasty stuff. I genuinely hope that she continues to improve and returns to full health asap.

I'm no fan of hers professionally but neither am I particular a hater. There will be puff pieces in the local media but we don't really do puff pieces over here. So what follows is, I hope, a small analysis of Ms Todd's record in the context of the rather vexed history of the NCC Chief Exec post.

As many know, the Chief Executive Post at NCC has not had a happy recent history. Ms Todd is the forth postholder in about 10 years, with the three predecessors leaving with large payouts. Much of this was blamed on JoCo's apparent inability to get on with his Chief Execs, a point of view supported by the infamous Hardmoor Associates report. Ms Todd's immediate predecessor, Michael Frater, did not necessarily have a reputation as being a particularly nice man but he is known for rooting out corruption. Some might wonder whether his rather swift departure and huge payout, even by NCC standards, might be connected with that.

So in swans Jane, initially as an 'interim' 'consultant' chief exec. She'd been a senior officer at the council before and was generally regarded to have kept links with the local Labour Party establishment. She wasn't expected to rock the boat and no-one was surprised when she got the job on a permanent basis in December 2008.

It wasn't long before she started fulfilling her promise. When the Hardmoor report was leaked she leapt into action with a somewhat cringeworthy defence of her political colleagues. She deftly sidestepped the massive elephant in the room that the chief suspect behind all the trouble was still in position while trying to convince us all that there was nothing to see here. I'm afraid I thought that she made rather a fool of herself.

A quick pause here. I think there can be absolutely no doubt that Ms Todd is an extremely able woman. You don't get to inhabit the very senior positions in both local and central government without that being the case. And I also have no doubt that she deserves all the plaudits she has received from the top NCC politicians because she has, without a shadow of a doubt, delivered everything that they could have asked for her.

With that in mind, the list of her achievements on first reading doesn't look over generous. Maybe that's because her main achievements can't really be stated out loud and, while JoCo and the politburo have much to thank her for, it's less clear that the ordinary Joe and Joesephine of Nottingham should feel so grateful.

Forgive me for another digression. Essentially, local government is based partly on a separation between the political side i.e. the councillors and the paid staff i.e. the officers. For the most part ( there are exceptions e.g. political assistants), the officers are supposed to remain politically neutral. The politicians' job is to decide policy, the officers' job is to deliver it, without fear or favour.

That sounds simple but difficulties emerge when the politicians expect the officers to join in with some of the more political aspects of public life. The Hardmoor report touched on this. One of the tasks that the head of paid staff has to negotiate is to keep this separation and to support those officers below her/him in doing so too.

Let's have a look at the 'achievement' described as 'effective partnership working with Notts Police has contributed to major reductions in crime'. A big chunk of this 'major reduction in crime' is the joint decision by NCC and Notts Police that the worst local authority housing housing scandal since Dame Shirley Porter was doing the rounds wasn't really a crime at all and the resultant massive cover-up. Now most of the blame deserves to be laid firmly at the feet of the politicians but the papering over of the cracks could not have been achieved without some serious input from senior paid staff. As the head of the paid staff, and with a scandal that goes to the heart of the authority's reputation, that puts Jane Todd firmly in the spotlight as an accessory after the fact.

So, looking at what we know, including largely circumstantial evidence, reinforced by the findings by Hardmoor Associates, what I find myself concluding is that Jane Todd's predecessors did make some attempt to keeep the political separate from the officers but Ms Todd was less fussy. It doesn't take a full blown conspiracy theorist to suspect that is the chief reason why she and JoCo worked so well together and her valiant defence of his past battles supports this. Like I said, she has done everything the politicians could have hoped for. Whether she did everything WE could have hoped for remains very much open to question. The two are not the same thing.

So to summarise, I'm glad Ms Todd is still alive, because her illness I'm sure could well have been life threatening, and I hope she carries on in rude health for many years to come. But I'm not that sad that she's left her post to tell the truth. I think she got too far into bed with the dodgy politicians, forgetting that her role was to deliver the policy, not the personal agendas.

Of course, the next thing to worry about is who the hell we're going to get next. There were many rumours that Nottingham was seen as a bit of a poisoned chalice in Chief Executive circles and that's probably not gone away. Luckily the bunch on the next tier down appear sufficiently supine so I predict an internal appointment.

*Legally required intro for article about anybody leaving, passing on etc.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Council Tax Benefit Replacement; Progress, of Sorts...

We have a new Portfolio decision, re-announcing the consultation on how to replace Council Tax benefit with a local scheme as required by government. The consultation itself hasn't started yet, that's due on 3 September, about 4 weeks later than it was due to start. The irony of course is that the consultation period is only 8 weeks long when government guidelines suggest 12 weeks as a minimum. They are again justifying 8 weeks on the basis that they won't have time to formalise the scheme otherwise but, if they had only got the consultation out on time instead of just dicking about...

The decision does include important information about some of the main proposals for the scheme. Some of these are pretty horrific and include;
  • A maximum discount of 80% liability. Yes folks, NCC is taking us right back to 1990 where everyone 'has to make a contribution' of at least 20% of their council tax. That's a massive hole in the budget right there because it won't be collectable.
  • Almost as bad is installing a cap on your discount at Band B rate. This is preposterously low. It is likely that many authorities will attempt to focus cuts on higher value properties but remember, Band D is supposed to be the mid-point of Council Tax liability.
  • Reducing the upper capital limit from £16,000 to £6,000. This is the sort of amendment I feel able to support, or at least disagree with the least. 
  • Removing second adult rebate. Frankly hardly anyone claims this so I doubt that will make a huge amount of difference.
  • Removing backdating. This is simply petty and small-minded. NCC is planning to make savings at the expense of the vulnerable who might have problems making a claim e.g. those with mental health issues and those who are unaware of their entitlements. It's a fucking disgrace.
  • NCC will continue to fully disregard all war pensions. I'm sorry but this cannot be justified and appears to have been included purely for ears of PR reasons. This is not something they have to do now so why they are continuing to do so in the extreme circumstances of the new local scheme and its attendant cuts is beyond me.
So, there's only really one aspect proposed above that is anywhere near reasonable. The decision also repeats as fact that NCC will lose over £6m in central government support. I still haven't received a response to my FoI request on how this was calculated and until I do I cannot agree that the loss would be any more than £4m. Given the drastic nature of the cuts as described above I can only assume that NCC is intending to make larger cuts than is required in order to bail out other areas of expenditure, then blaming central government. Another PR bonus.

One other thing. Whoever drafted that portfolio decision talks throughout about people claiming Jobseekers Allowance, Employment Support Allowance and Housing Benefit etc. However, when this new scheme arrives in 2013, these benefits will be replaced by Universal Credit. Not mentioning this does suggest that the author has arses and elbows issues.

Compare NCC's approach to Broxtowe Borough Council's. Now I realise that the two authorities are very different in size and economics but BBC have proposed keeping the council tax support scheme the same as Council Tax Benefit is now and covering the loss in central government grant by increasing charges on empty properties and second homes. Now Broxtowe probably has significantly more scope to do this than NCC but NCC doesn't appear to be taking such measures at all. That's simply not good enough.

So watch out for the consultation going live and do respond. NCC is dumping the problem on the worst off and that must not be allowed to happen. If it does I suggest you all move to Broxtowe.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Our Replacement For Council Tax Benefit Is Missing

A couple of weeks or so ago I wrote about nascent plans for the replacement of Council Tax Benefit with a new local scheme. It's gone a bit quiet.

NCC had announced plans for an 8 week consultation scheme. The Portfolio Holder decision justified the consultation period being shorter than the normally required 12 weeks on the basis that the longer period would mean the council would be unable to meet the deadline for the publication of the final scheme, which must be ready by 31 January 2013.

According to that decision, the consultation was supposed to start on the 9 August. A statement on the website, now removed, actually said it was due to start on the 6th. Either way it is now 22 August and there's no sign of it. Contacts in the voluntary sector tell me they were told the consultation has been 'delayed' and that the reasons for that were 'complicated', NCCspeak for 'we've fucked up' and/or 'we don't want to tell you the reason'.

So, a consultation exercise that was so urgent it had to be run for a period 4 weeks shorter than guidelines require has now been delayed for 2 weeks, with no explanation. That bodes well...

Friday, 17 August 2012

FoI Costs/JoCo Hissy Fit; A Further Analysis

I've had a re-read of the spat involving JoCo and his dislike of inconvenient figures demonstrating the relatively low costs of FoI and, with the help of the re-appearance of this follow-up in the Post where some poor spokesdroid tries to give JoCo's side of the story. I have to say, it's a bit muddled.

First of all, let's have a look at what the original FoI response actually told us. Basically, it told us of two exercises where the FoI team had attempted to establish how much FoI cost.

The first, from what I understand from what they say, was a one off exercise to calculate the average (presumably the mean) cost of a FoI case which gave them a figure of £94 each. This is made up from the following;

"Case administration 0.5 hours
Case management 2 hours
Quality assurance 1 hour
Reputation impact assessment 0.5 hours"

They go on to state clearly that this does NOT include the time taken by the bod from whatever department the information request relates to squirrelling about actually finding the info. It does however, include 'reputation impact assessment' which is presumably carried out by the Communications peeps. Other than that, it seems pretty clear that this estimate of costs relates to the internal work carried out by the Information Governance team i.e. staff time/wages etc.

It appears from the Post follow-up the the NCC spokesdroid is saying that this £94 figure has now increased to £138.07 per case. I'm having to assume from the context that we are comparing like with like here, there's nothing to suggest otherwise. The alternative is the possibility that they calculate the average figure now including the costs of workers from other departments chasing down the info. I'm not sure but what we can be certain about is that this figure definitely includes the work done by the Information Governance team. This is important, more on this in a bit.

The second exercise described is one involving a trawl of their new casework system which presumably works out the costs as you go along. This is the system that, we are now told (and it would have been worth this having been mentioned in the original FoI response if anybody's asking my opinion) only had 'half' the case recorded on it, the other half being on the old system. This is the one that gave us the figure of £32,161 for 6 months. As we discussed before, presuming all else is equal and there was nothing unrepresentative about the tie period concerned, our best estimate of the annual cost is 4 times this i.e. £128,644. Note that the FoI response is quite clear that the figure derived from this exercise DOES include the cost of external department bods fishing out the info.

Right. Now let's have a look at the explanation by the spokesdroid in the Post, I will reproduce in full;

"The costs of the Information Governance team clearly form a large part of the overall cost – currently totalling £210,000. (This figure was substantially higher at £320,000 in 2010/11). We estimate that, added to this, the latest full year of FOI responses will amount to £155,577 – giving a total of around £370,000. This is based on the council handling and closing 939 cases between September last year and June 2012 at an average cost which now stands at £138.07. As the number of requests rise beyond 1,000 a year, this total figure is likely to increase."

We first hear about the total cost of the Info Gov team, £210k apparently, which must include all their FoI processing work plus data-protection, advising departments etc. Then we are told that the full year costs of FoI cases is £155,577, based on multiplying up 10 months worth of cases (939) to 12 (1,127) and multiplying it by the new average cost of a case, £138.07. All well and good so far but then HE ADDS THIS TOTAL TO THE FULL COST OF THE INFORMATION GOVERNANCE TEAM.

Now hang on, we can be pretty certain that, as the average case cost already includes Info Gov staff time, adding the cost of the team on again is double counting and thus invalid no? So I'm very sorry but Cllr Collins is going to have to be disappointed that his latest claim of the cost of FoI being 'around £370,000' has just been blown out of the water.

So what does that leave us with, apart from the fact that JoCo is a serial bullshitter who bullies council staff when they simply get on and do their jobs? Well, I would have to say that the best estimate for the cost of FoI to Nottingham City Council is probably about £155k. This comes from the above calculation which includes an updated average case cost and a bigger sample of cases than the one derived from the original FoI response. Also, it is of a similar order of magnitude to that earlier estimate which adds to its credibility.

Without an opportunity to closely examine the methodology and to confirm the added assumptions I've made that's the best I can do. However, we can definitely be sure that JoCo's latest claim of the cost of Foi is demonstrably wrong. That won't stop him repeating it ad nauseam mind.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

FoI Staff Give Out the Info, Boss Not Happy, Issues Thinly Disguised Threat

Bit of a follow up drama on the true costs of FoI that I wrote about a while back. Seems that Tories have found the original FoI request my article was based on and it's all found its way into the Post.

To recap, a FoI request unearthed the 'surprising' info that FoI doesn't cost anything like as much as JoCo likes to claim. He likes to over-inflate estimates of the cost in order to discredit FoI because he's scared it will reveal the various shenanigans behind the scenes. He's on record as claiming it costs £500k/yr, whereas the above mentioned response said it was less than £64k/yr.

Clearly, this will never do. One might get the impression that FoI is an insignificant cost and certain people should stop blubbing about. So NCC has come up a new figure of £370k/yr, along with an explanation that the £64k figure only represents about half the total cases, the ones that are logged onto the new system as mentioned in the FoI response. The other half, recorded on the old system, represents over £300k of expenditure. They know this despite the open admission that the cost per case wasn't recorded.

Some points to consider. If I had a reasonably accurate new information management system that told me that half of my workload cost me £64k per year, my best estimate for the whole workload would be £128k per year. In order to guess it to be £370k I'd need to see some pretty convincing evidence that, for some reason, the cases on the old system were so much more labour intensive.

What is perhaps the most sinister aspect of the event is JoCo's quote that he gave to the Post, which I reproduce in full;

"I've always referred to costs of the information management team and other officer time spent dealing with questions and queries – so more than FOIs.

With regard to this paragraph, no I don't think he has done at all. He particularly seems to gloss over the fact that Information Governance also deal with Data Protection, which is a big job in itself, and also have to spend time preparing the various policies, keep the publication scheme up to date and no doubt advise others on its operation, the disclosure logs and all the day to day hygiene stuff like team meetings and supervision.

"Still, if they think they can do the job for £30,000 then I can cut their budget to that and save hundreds of thousands of pounds for more useful frontline services."

This part is rather sinister. It rather looks to me like a rather menacing threat that if certain persons don't play the game budgets may be cut resulting in redundancies. Collins is frequently disparaging about Information Governance's work but this does somewhat take the Abbey Crunch.

As I've said before, if Collins and the crew weren't so secretive they wouldn't have to pay the lawyers so much to fight off the requests for information. Not being seriously dodgy in the first place would mean that fewer people would feel the need to see so much information.

Frankly, Collins wants to thank his lucky stars that the Information is a bit of a pussycat as far as enforcement goes. If they started fining authorities a bit more often the costs would snowball.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Replacing Council Tax Benefit

As you've probably heard, Council Tax benefit is to be abolished from next year and councils are being charged with devising their own local schemes to replace it. Big issues include the fact that central government will be cutting support for the new schemes by 10% of what they are paying now and that, for rather obvious political purposes, councils are being told that pensioners' entitlements must be protected. This of course means that if the cut in central government funding is passed onto claimants in its entirety it will fall disproportionally on those of working age.

Unfortunately, this appears to be what NCC is planning on doing and they seem to be buttering us up for such an eventuality, see this article in the Post for an example. It also matches up with what I am hearing is being discussed in local Labour Party meetings.

The thing is, there is absolutely no reason why any cut has to be ring-fenced to the the benefits budget. It could be covered wholly or in part by cuts elsewhere, this is a decision that NCC is supposed to make. Instead they appear to be blaming it entirely on central government (whose fault it is mostly, granted) yet they have the power to mitigate the cuts if they choose to do so. A similar situation occurred with Supporting People. NCC claimed the cuts were forced on them but the reality wasn't quite as simple as this; again funding for Supporting People was no longer ring-fenced so councils could choose to spread the cuts over other service areas. NCC chose not to.

NCC has also announced an 8 week long consultation process about the changes. Government guidelines normally recommend 12 weeks for a consultation exercise but NCC claims this won't give them enough time to draw up the draft scheme. This consultation was supposed to start on Monday 6 August according to the above Post article and this page on NCC's website, although the portfolio decision says the 9th. Either way, at the time of writing this, details of the consultation have yet to be posted on the website.

This consultation needs to be closely watched and responded to. You might be interested in a Facebook group that has been set up to campaign against the cuts.

I set out a few issues below which I suggest people think about. I've not thought them through fully myself as yet but it's something to get the ball rolling -

  • The idea that the cut in funding should be ring-fenced should be resisted strongly. It's probably unlikely that we could ever persuade NCC to offset the cut entirely elsewhere but there's no reason why it shouldn't be in part.
  • The current national Council Tax Benefit scheme is hardly generous as a starting point so any cuts to the scheme will be hitting the poorest hardest.
  • NCC needs to remember that, if cuts mean that Council Tax liability increases for the worst off, income-replacement benefits such as JobSeekers' Allowance will not be increased to make up the difference. It is therefore likely that such extra liability will simply not be paid and costs for enforcement will increase. It is a false economy to implement a scheme that will simply leave a hole in the budget.
  • NCC is claiming that the cut in central funding will leave the council £6m worse off. I've asked for a copy of the analysis that produced this figure but obviously I haven't got it yet. Last figures for CTB expenditure I saw was around £31m for 2010, which could be in the region of £40m by 2013 with no change. As such, until I see all the figures, I can't see why a cut of anything more than around £4m is expected.
  • NCC needs to be creative in its design of the new scheme. I've heard rumours that nobody will be entitled to 100% benefit anymore which would be a huge mistake. NCC needs to consider placing a higher burden on those with savings, possibly a more aggressive income taper etc before simply applying an across the board added liability to even the very worst off who currently get 100% benefit.
  • NCC has an appalling record of considering the effects of policy on disabled people. It seems to believe that the only people classed as 'disabled' are those in receipt of Disability Living Allowance. If this attitude continues it could put them in breach of the Equalities Act, as the act has a much wider definition of people classsed as disabled. In the past, people who seem to have lost out because of this blinkered mentality probably most includes long-term recipients of Incapacity Benefit/Employment Support Allowance.
That's a start, please do feel free to add any ideas in the comments and please do watch out for the consultation and respond to it when it appears.

Addendum; Comprehensive report on the effects of the 10% cut released by Institute for Fiscal Studies/Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Their section on possible options (see p68) covers similar ground to some of the points raised above and adds the suggestion of concentrating cuts in benefit on owners of larger higher band properties. Unfortunately it doesn't go into the vexed question of how much each authority is going to lose, relying on central government data which I understand is a key area of challenge under NCC's assessment. Worth a read anyhow if you have the time (note, pretty big file).

Thursday, 26 July 2012

No Jobseekers, No Sickies, No Dogs. Economic Cleansing at Stonebridge?

Today I found out about a potentially disturbing and possibly illegal decision made about new lettings at the Stonebridge Park development of so-called 'social housing'.

The last time we heard about this particular development was when the nearby City Farm was presented with an apparent fait accompli by NCC to have 10% of their land taken away for parking for residents of the new estate. A portent of the levels of user friendliness to come maybe?

Anyway, it seems that at least some of the new social housing is to be subject to a 'local lettings policy' to restrict the type of people eligible for a tenancy. The policy aims, in short to '...improve the social profile of the area' by introducing a lettings policy that '...tackles crime and antisocial behaviour and also takes a different approach to the letting of the properties by focusing particularly on potential residents who are in employment or training.'

Ok, that looks a lot to me like they consider people who aren't in employment or training as having a negative impact on the social profile of an area. No?

Further into the report the following condition is cited (among others) -

"You are in employment or on a training programme i.e. apprenticeship and you can demonstrate the ability to pay rent subject to income assessment. Applicants in receipt of Disability Living Allowance will not be subject to employment/income conditions and those of pensionable age will be considered."

Preumably, the concessions to those on DLA and pensioners are there in a ham-fisted attempt at avoiding legal action for disability discrimination or the political fall-out of having a 'no pensioners' rule. Indeed, the appended Equality Impact Assessment notes no problems caused to people with disabilities by the policy other than some tosh about problems caused by having to wait for adaptations.

The problem here is, yet again, NCC's utter inability to understand the meaning of 'disability', both in everyday life and as defined by the Equality Act. Not all disabled people get DLA by a long chalk and, contrary to the policy's apparent expectations, quite a lot of people getting DLA do in fact work.

On the other hand, all those on Incapacity Benefit or its replacement Employment Support Allowance are UNABLE to work, that is a key defining condition of the benefit and a great deal of them will be defined as disabled under the Equality Act. I think what I'm saying here is that NCC is about to face a number of disability discrimination claims if the policy  remains in this state.

That aside (and I haven't even mentioned that their crappy EIA accepts that the policy may well discriminate against women due to most lone parents, who are significantly less likely to be working, being women. The justification is basically that they can go somewhere else. I kid you not) we should have a look at the whole basis of this belief that out of work benefit claimants are undesirables. NCC's evidence for this is based entirely on the experiences of the Victoria Centre flats which has had a similar policy for 25 years, according to the report. This 'evidence' includes the 'positive opinion of the Housing Patch Manager' (srsly) and that a 3 year survey of the dreaded anti-social behaviour' fingered 66% (27 in all) of miscreants being out of work.

First of all, that figure is meaningless without knowing the overall work status rates of the whole population of the flats. If 66% of all tenants are out of work then it cannot be argued that those out of work are more likely to be involved with ASB. Furthermore, it turns out that 12 of the 27 were receiving DLA or Incapacity Benefit so this raises questions as to the effectiveness of the entire policy i.e. they want to stamp out ASB but they are planning to allow DLA claimants in, but not Incapacity Benefit claimants, even though past evidence has shown they may commit ASB. So, the policy is an irrational shambles as well as likely to be discriminatory, think we've seen this somewhere before.

The sheer crapness of the evidence combined with a determination to go ahead anyway is the kind of policy based evidence that keeps the Daily Mail warm at night and has no real basis in fact. Anti-social behaviour will NOT be reduced by not accepting benefit claimants as tenants but it WILL result in fewer housing choices for some of the most vulnerable members of our society.

Friday, 20 July 2012

We Pay As NCC Ramps Up the Guarding of JoCo's Secrets

A couple of months ago I wrote about an Information Commissioner decision notice that looked like it might well open up some of the murkiness around the police's decision not to prosecute anyone involved with the Housing Allocations scandal. The Commissioner refused to accept NCC's claims that minutes of meetings between the council and the police were exempt. The decision notice is here.

However, I did say 'subject to appeal' at the time and this appears to have been sensible. Because, yes folks, NCC has decided to spend your tax pounds on an appeal to the Information Tribunal. It is asking YOU to pay for it's attempts to keep you in the dark, to cover up its shifty little dealings.

Scroll down about a quarter of the way down this document (or do a search for 'Nottingham', it's the first one) and you'll find case number EA/2012/0112, formerly known to the Information Commissioner as FS5031799. Yes, it's the case linked to above with Nottingham City Council up there as the appellant.

JoCo regularly bleats on about the cost of Freedom of Info to the council and we have previously taken the piss out of him for doing so. It must be very time consuming and expensive for NCC's lawyers to be pursuing appeals to this level and you really have to wonder whether to do so is within the public interest.

I won't be holding my breath, waiting for JoCo's principled stand against the cost of his lawyers.

Future Jobs Fund Report Arrives at Last

....or most of it at least.

Yes, in a surprise development, NCC has released a copy of the District Auditors report into Future Jobs Fund irregularities that they had been desperately trying to keep from the hoi-polloi. Presumably this is following discussions with the Information Commissioner.

First thing to say is that there seems to be absolutely no excuse for them to have kept the report secret at all. Originally they told me that the report was exempt because they were intending to publish it in the future. Presumably the fact that this hasn't happened has prompted the Information Commissioner to prod things along a bit.

Now they are saying

"...it was this Council’s opinion that the report should not be disclosed (at that time) as it was yet to be considered by the Council’s Audit Committee..."

At the Audit Committee meeting itself, councillors voted to discuss the report in secret because publishing it would supposedly prejudice a potential Standards Committee investigation into former councillor Hassan Ahmed's conduct. Are we to assume that's not going ahead now?

The thing is, the main body of the report doesn't actually mention anybody or any of the groups by name. Yes, it's obvious they're talking about Ahmed when it mentions the Portfolio Holder for Employment and Skills and the two Corporate Directors mentioned are identifiable (Barry Horne and Michael Williams, both also long gone) but that is no good reason to keep the report secret. The only part with any personal details in is an appendix with details of Ahmed's myriad connections to groups who, by an amazing coincidence, received a large amount of public money. And that was all redacted.

Anyway, there follows a short summary of what the report says. I've linked above to the rather comprehensive summary the Post wrote when it got hold of a leaked version so have a look at that, or the report itself, if you want more detail

  • In some circumstances e.g. urgency the council can suspend normal procurement rules but to do so must be formally authorised by the Portfolio Holder. In this case the rules were dispensed with but no formal authorisation took place.
  • Decisions to award contracts that should have been authorised by the Portfolio Holder apparently taken by officers instead. Contracts were worth around £500k in some cases and the maximum an officer can authorise is £200k.
  • Barry Horne in particular is singled out for not keeping on top of this and for not keeping records of decisions that he made.
  • Decisions for 5 contracts of £1m each which should only be made by the Executive Board, yet no clear records of who made them.
  • One contract extended twice, from £1m to £1.5m, then to £2.5m, despite clear rules prohibiting contracts being extended more than once.
  • Lack of required input from Legal Services in award of large contracts.
  • Late addition of further requirements to contracts putting some tender organisations at a disadvantage.
  • Hassan Ahmed's many connections to organisations bidding successfully for contracts, his involvement in the decision making to award such contracts and his failure to notify others involved of his interests.
  • The bid for funding for the programme differed markedly from reality; the bid stated that 'partners' formally signed up, in fact the bid was submitted via the already long formed One Nottingham, some 'partners hadn't even seen the bid even though it was submitted in their name, steering group mentioned in bid not formed until late in the day.
  • Late involvement of 'intermediary' organisations, lack of clarity as to how they had been chosen, half of all contracts issued via these intermediaries.
Like I say, there's lots more in the detail so do have a read.

The bit I don't understand is that the District Auditor says -

"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)."

before going on to, as far as I can see, provide lots of details of how contracts were awarded inappropriately. If a contract is awarded by a public body without the required authorisation then that is at the least 'inappropriate', probably illegal I'd have thought.

But of course no-one will face any sanctions. To be fair, the main players are all now gone, sacked stood down by mutual consent, sacked retired and sacked deciding not to stand again. And of course, no doubt that great public sector fuck-up mantra can be repeated, 'lessons have been learnt', even if they haven't.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Batman Mystery Solved?

Probably not the one you were thinking of.

You will not have failed to notice there's a new Batman film coming out. Last summer, many of the scenes were filmed at Wollaton Hall which was the new setting for Batman's day-clothes persona Bruce Wayne's mansion. Presumably the filmmakers paid handsomely for the privilege.

For some reason NCC is very unkeen for the amount paid to be made public, citing commercial confidentiality. You have an FoI refusal here and a refusal to answer a councillor's question here (see pp 152-3).

But the Post has twice claimed the amount paid was £100k here and, more recently, again here.

So, did they just make it up? Alternatively, why hasn't the council challenged them if the commercial sensitivity is so great? Odd.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

New Discretionary Housing Payments Policy; It's, Erm, Not Brilliant

When I asked my big question about Housing Benefits and DHPs to full council, Cllr Chapman's response mentioned 'local policy and criteria' for awarding DHPs. As I had previously been told there was no such local policy I was intrigued and fired of a FoI request for what must be a new development. Well folks, in defiance of my honest but admittedly cynical expectations, here it is.

It starts off well, explaining the context and background of DHPs and encouragingly, makes the early point that DHPs should not be seen in isolation but as part of a wider strategy to prevent homelessness and maintain housing. Of course saying it is one thing and doing is another but the starting point is actually writing it down clearly and you can't argue with that.

It sort of goes downhill a bit from there. The section detailing the start date of a DHP award (see p5) is very confused. In particular, para ii) gives the incorrect impression that a DHP can only be backdated if a claim is made within a month of the mainstream housing benefits start date. In fact, there is no legal bar on backdating a DHP but, within the discretionary framework, authorities are entitled to set out situations where doing so may be a lower priority than paying for current shortfalls. NCC's policy doesn't even attempt to do that.

This lack of a 'priorities' framework is a repeated problem throughout the policy. It's structure essentially sets out the various problem areas that DHPs may be used to help alleviate, such as young people finding accommodation or preventing homelessness, then goes on to stipulate situations where they would consider a DHP, followed by situations where they would NOT consider one.

This is a massive issue. In discretionary schemes like this you cannot issue such prescriptive guidance, in legal terms it is known as 'fettering discretion'. It goes against the principle that all cases must be judged as individuals  on their own merits.

What you ARE supposed to do is to set out factors which may increase or decrease a person's priority for a DHP. The decision uses this guidance to determine the applicant's overall priority and depending on the budget position, uses this to decide whether to award a payment or not. Of course, you must also recognise that people may present situations that are outside your 'priority' definitions and the priority/non-priority should not simply be shorthand for will/won't get a payment. NCC's policy doesn't begin to do this, it just says 'yes you will get one if you are in list A' and 'no you won't if you're in list B'. Unfortunately, this makes it totally unfit for purpose.

Within this there are other bizarrities. For example, in the 'Young Individuals' section, the list of those who won't be considered for a DHP includes those in 5 bed accommodation who haven't faced a restriction to 4 bed HB levels (one of the standard Tory HB cuts which came into play this year). I mean, it's not impossible I suppose but how many 'young individuals' are going to have families so large that they need a 5 bed house?

A more basic error occurs where, in a couple of the lists where a DHP would not be considered (e.g. p8 and p12), one of the categories is where the council has good reason to believe that the tenancy is not on a commercial basis. The thing is, a tenancy not being on a commercial basis means that a person should be treated as not liable to pay rent and as such wouldn't be entitled to housing benefit at all (see Reg 9(1)(a) HB Regs 2006). As one of the basic entitlement conditions for a DHP is that there must be some entitlement to housing benefit, so in the circumstances where a claimant's tenancy is not considered to be a commercial one the question of a DHP is simply not going to arise. This just gives the impression that the policy was written by someone who has no idea of what they are talking about.

It sort of goes on like that. The last issue that concerns me is that there is no mention of budget profiling throughout the year i.e. planning in advance to ensure you don't spend the lot in three months and take into account known seasonal factors etc. All we get is -

"On a quarterly basis a report detailing all DHP applications received, decisions made and DHP fund available is forwarded to the Head of Service for  approval."

Yeah right, like she's going to bother reading that. When I worked at NCC one HB worker described handing a report to Lisa Black (for it is she) as a reason for nothing else happening on the initiative. Funnily enough, that was about DHPs too, back in 2006.

On the plus side, they have at least got a policy and its existence is useful for anyone trying to challenge a refusal to pay a DHP. Who knows, maybe they pulled their fingers out in response to the fuss I made on here? If so, maybe they'll read this post and look at it again.

In the meantime, anybody who IS challenging a DHP decision, my advice is to get a good lawyer on board and consider challenging the whole policy via Judicial Review.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

What Freedom of Information REALLY Costs (Spoiler, a Lot Less Than JoCo Claims)

I've occasionally touched on JoCo's often verging on the hysterical claims on how much the council spends on processing Freedom of Information requests. He generally claims it's about £500k/yr and then goes off into a whinge about 'how many services' you could fund with that.

However, someone recently submitted a FoI request asking for detaiils of calculations that had been carried out to ascertain costs of responding to requests. According to the response, the total costs, i.e. the Information Governance Unit's own costs plus the time spent by the person in the information holding department, was £32,161 for the period Sep 11 - Feb 12.

Funnily enough, the IGU's costs include an average half hour for 'reputation impact assessment' (NCCLols translation service; 10 mins of 'ohshitohshitohshitohshit' followed by20 min phone call to Legal about how it can be covered up).

In other words, FoI costs slightly over 20%* about 13% of what Collins has been claiming.

Footnote; NCC has now sorted out a decent disclosure log of FoI responses which runs from September 2011. It also has a search facility. This is a Good Thing.

(H/T Joseph C)

*Momentarily forgot how to do sums.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Personal Data is Not 'Personal Data', Not When It's Gathered For the Purposes of the Workplace Parking Levy

About a year ago I revealed that enforcement of the Workplace Parking Levy would involve officers in a vehicle equipped with Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) tech touring the car parks of Nottingham, recording the registration numbers of cars parked there to determine how many spaces are being used by people working there. I suggested that this was a bit dodgy because, arguably such activity should be registered under RIPA and it would mean shunting quite a lot of individuals' personal data around which implies certain obligations. As the WPL rules do not include spaces used by Blue Badge holders i.e. people with disabilities, this includes what is defined as 'sensitive' personal data which requires explicit consent for processing. In other words, from a data protection point of view, this is some heavy shit.

Not surprisingly others are interested in this issue and there has been a rather illuminating response to a Freedom of Information request. Be amazed at this extract;

"We have determined that the information collected by our ANPR vehicle for the purposes of the WPL does not constitute personal data.

We have not completed the ICO self-assessment questionnaire.

We have obtained legal advice regarding all aspects of the Data Protection Act and the Workplace Parking Levy however, this information is exempt from disclosure under section 42 of this act as we feel releasing the information would breach legal professional privilege."

Ok, so they are claiming that records of thousands of individuals' number plates do not constitute personal data. They claim to have legal advice on this but they're not going to tell us. Handily this let's them off all the obligations for processing personal data fairly, including whether they pass it on to all and sundry which is another of my key concerns.

Let's have a look at the definition of personal data from the Information Commissioner's website;

"Personal data means data which relate to a living individual who can be identified –

(a) from those data, or

(b) from those data and other information which is in the possession of, or is likely to come into the possession of, the data controller,

and includes any expression of opinion about the individual and any indication of the intentions of the data controller or any other person in respect of the individual."

Now it's probably fair to say that this information doesn't count as personal data under part a), you can't identify somebody from their number plate alone. But what about part b)? We know that NCC has access to the DVLA database because there was a hoo-har about them allegedly being suspended from it a while back due to lax security procedures. The council also processes Blue Badge applications. There's probably more but from these two sources, combined with the ANPR data, individuals would be personally identifiable and the latter is thus personal data. No wonder they're unwilling to share the legal advice that says it isn't, it sounds well dodgy. That FoI exemption they used looks a lot less than watertight as well.

Later on in the response NCC appears to be saying that the ANPR vehicle has yet to be used in anger but it cost £93k so it will be at some point.

There is one other element of the response which has quite a lot of amusement value as well as being wrong. The questioner asked for the locations of signs at NCC's administrative boundaries informing people that they are entering ANPR surveyed areas. Here is the priceless response;

"These signs are in the public domain therefore this information is exempt from disclosure under section 21 of this act as it already publicly available."

Ok, there is an exemption under the Freedom of Information Act for information obtainable elsewhere but I'm really not sure that's what it means. The fact that the signs are physically viewable at the side of the road is not the same as a list of their locations. I hope that actually is a kind of a subtle 'fuck you' because if the FoI officer really believes that is the correct response, the work is only just beginning.


Thanks to 'Sanman' in the comments for the news that NCC's Data Protection Register Entry now includes vehicle registrations. See 'Purpose 7; Assessment and Collection of Taxes and Other Revenue', further description of purpose includes 'ADMINISTRATION AND ENFORCEMENT OF WORKPLACE PARKING LEVY' and 'Data Classes' includes 'VEHICLE REGISTRATION MARKS'.

This kind of implies that they do accept the vehicle reg numbers are personal data after all which in turn implies that the FoI response is incorrect.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Rumour Mill

I'm hearing what is said to be a very solid rumour that a certain senior NCC councillor is planning an exit from local government and has ambitions of becoming an MEP. I have been given a name but, because I can't substantiate it, I'm not passing it on at this stage.

If it is true it would seriously change the political dynamic at NCC. More importantly, I will be able to go around looking smug with a *you read it here first* face on.

Friday, 15 June 2012

That Answer In Full; Why Housing Benefits Are 'Not Brilliant'

I've just had the minutes through for the full council meeting on 11th June. I asked a question about problems with the Housing Benefits service and here is the answer I got from Graham Chapman. I've added the odd comment as you'd expect.

"Thank you, Lord Mayor, and I promise that the answer will be marginally shorter than the question.

[Guffaw! He's known for his jokes is Cllr Chapman]

Between May 2009 and May 2012 there has been a 14.8% increase in the benefit caseload increasing the annual benefit paid from £133 million to £175 million, that is an increase of 31%. Although not a national comparator, Nottingham puts 82% of cases received into payment, compared with a Core City average of 70%. In simple terms this means that more people that need support are getting that support in Nottingham than in the average Core City, and that is very important point.

[That's interesting. Is Chappers claiming that other core cities get round the issue by simply not paying benefit to people who are eligible? I wonder what these other core cities would have to say about that.

And how relevant is this to speed of processing? You still have to process the claim and make a decision even when benefit isn't payable.]

There has also been a marked increase in the caseload for the private rented sector, an increase of 63% over the same period. Now I am aware that on basic statistics, Nottingham’s performance on speed of processing new claims and changes in circumstances relative to other English local authorities is not brilliant. For 2011/12 Nottingham City Council performance for all new claims was 53 days and 27 days for changes of circumstance. The All England average was 24 days and 12 days respectively.

['On basic statistics'. 'Not brilliant'. It's like pulling teeth.]

On average we allow 36 days for provision of information, with reminder letters and follow-up action taken to secure evidence in support of claims, whereas the vast majority of high performers allow around 14 days, with limited follow-up activity. 

[Can I just stop you there? ALL local authorities are required to allow claimants at least a month to provide any information required to support their claim if the authority notifies them it is required (see sub-para 8). So if these 'high performers' really are cutting claims off after only 14days they are acting unlawfully. Not beyond the realms of possibility I know but without evidence I'm sorry Cllr Chapman but on this one, I name thee 'Bullshitter'.]

If our focus was only on processing times and only on the stats, rather than getting money into people’s pockets then 12%, or some 5,000 people, would not have received support they have. That is quite the opposite of what is implied in the question. In other words, we do not have a cut off date which allows us to say the case has been dealt with, we keep the case on file and work with it, and that way we get far more money into people’s pockets, but our performance statistics don’t look as good, and if anybody asks me which one I prefer, I prefer getting money into people’s pockets than having nice neat performance statistics which show us in a false light.

[Again, this is clearly bollocks as it's based on the same false premise as above. Is Chapman seriously claiming that if you submit a half-completed form and don't respond to chase-ups for 5 years, they'll still process the claim back to day one? That's not how I remember things going. Councils are allowed to allow longer than a month to provide missing info and there are many cases when they should. On this basis the claim that NCC allows an average of 36 days doesn't look over-generous.]

Since July 2011 the benefits service has been working with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to improve performance however. There has been significant investment in the service, both in terms of 13 new posts and additional temporary staff to assist with the speed and accuracy of processing. As a result, new average claims processing time has reduced by 9 days to 44 days in May 2012, and we anticipate further improvements. Performance on changes in circumstances will take longer to improve, the focus of activity during June, July and August is to bring the change of circumstances to a 14 day turnaround. On this matter the questioner does have a point, we are concerned, but we are doing something about it.

[13 extra staff is good. However, I'm a bit cynical about the sticking plaster/PR friendly use of temporary staff not least because of the cost.]

Now, on subsidy, it is acknowledged that in 2010/11 housing benefit subsidy was qualified to the value of £729,000. This was out of a total claim of over £157 million, so that means it is a 99.53% accuracy rate. This is consistent with other authorities of our size and complexity. Some £300,000 of the £729,000 was subsidy claimed in error when the equivalent expenditure had not been incurred, so there was no loss to the public purse nor citizens in the benefits system. Again, this is not what the question implied.

[I wonder what Cllr Chapman's response would be to a benefit claimant who claimed benefit 'in error' when the 'equivalent expenditure' in rent 'had not been incurred'? I suspect he'd have been very happy to have seen him down the Magistrates Court. And it's good to see Chapman being so blase about the remaining £400k.]

On to discretionary housing payments (DHP). Unsuccessful applications for discretionary housing payments are in simple terms the result of the claim not meeting the qualifying criteria.

[Really? That's a bit odd seeing as the potential eligibility is so wide. The assumption is that eligibility exceeds demand and that authorities use their discretion to decide who should receive a payment.]

The local policy and criteria itself was developed in line with the national parameters and in consultation with benefit practitioners, the welfare rights sector, housing professionals in the City, and we have a very good relationship with them.

[What is this 'local policy and criteria' of which you speak? Has Cllr Chapman seen it? In 2009 there was no such thing and the (small) bit of info I've been given about these meetings with the welfare rights sector etc didn't mention anything about drawing up local criteria. Not that they were minuted mind so their usefulness is limited. Maybe it's time for another FoI request to see if this has changed?]

In 2011/12, in recognition of the impact of changes to local housing allowance rates, the Government increased DHP fund allocation, more than doubling it for Nottingham, and I’ll give the Government credit for that. However, due to a transitional protection scheme introduced by the same Government, the full impact of the local housing allowance reforms was not felt during 2011/12, therefore, to expend the money would not have been appropriate. 

[Why the hell not? The best way to demonstrate need is to spend what you've been given. That also serves to increase the next year's allocation.And this claim isn't really consistent with the near 30% increase in applications in 2011/12.]

The DWP therefore agreed that the authority’s underspend could be carried forward to the next financial year. Nottingham City requested that £62,741 be carried forward to 2012/13 making our total provision £274,621.

[I like the way that he makes it sound like it was all planned, rather than an arse-covering exercise. Sorry but I'm not convinced by that at all.]

The take-up and availability of DHPs are widely promoted by frontline benefit colleagues as well as colleagues in housing, welfare rights and within the charitable sector. Thank you."

[Yeah right. That's why the council's leaflet on DHPs hasn't been changed for 7 years and refers you to an office that no longer exists. Oh and while we're here, notice how he makes no mention of the past record of DHP performance over the last 11 years.]

So, that was Cllr Chapman's response. I would rate it as inadequate and misleading to be honest. It's full of unsupported assertions along with blatant inaccuracies. It's a list of excuses that simply don't hold water, like a child caught by a shopkeeper with sweets he hadn't paid for. However, to someone who knows little about Housing Benefit and none of the background to DHPs and their administration in Nottingham, which probably includes the vast majority of councillors, it probably comes across as a robust response.

In Cllr Chapman's defence he probably had no idea what Discretionary Housing Payments are until he was given the above rubbish to read out but, at the end of the day, he's put his name to the response and he is the Portfolio Holder for the service. He is responsible for his answer and it simply isn't satisfactory.