Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Benefit Subsidy Overclaim - NCC Repays Over £400k

Nearly two years ago now I wrote about how NCC's Housing Benefits service were clobbered by the Audit Commission for overclaiming central government subsidy for paying benefit claims. I subsequently discovered that there had already been a heads up on the issue from NCC's own Internal Audit team who expressed alarm about 'experienced staff' shortcutting the process for classifying overpayments, one of the issues that had led to the criticism from the Audit Commission.

There was some talk about challenging the Audit Commission's original statement that £2m worth of subsidies had been overpaid but then it all went a bit quiet. It was down to the Dept for Work and Pensions to decide on the final amount and whether it should be recovered.

I've now managed to get hold of the final figure for the amount that was overpaid and it comes to £408,655, a considerable reduction on that initial estimate. Initially the DWP appeared to want £683,543 back but NCC challenged this further. You get the feeling the DWP gave in just for a quiet life.

So, NCC had to repay over £400k in Housing Benefit subsidy in circumstances that Internal Audit described as 'shortcutting' the correct procedures. To put that into context, they had found only £300k in claimant fraud over the same period of time. I wonder how much sympathy claimants would get for 'shortcutting' the claims procedures?

Still getting that down from £2m is quite an achievement, wonder why we didn't see a nice big press release about their efforts?

A Big Boy Did It and Ran Away

Finally we hear from the Post that Cllr Grocock has been cleared by the Standards Committee over his 'grandson' getting a house, as highlighted originally in the report on the housing allocations scandal.

Not really a surprise, especially seeing as the monitoring officer appears to have been acting as an unofficial advocate on Grocock's behalf. His preliminary report urged the committee to throw the case out without a hearing. However, the committee would have none of that, possibly because on the day only the independent members and a Lib Dem were in attendance.

Oddly, when it came to appointing the members of the hearing sub-committee last July, i.e. the people who would hear the case, the committee deviated from its normal practice of appointing the members themselves and, on the recommendation of the monitoring officer, agreed to delegate responsibility for doing so to the Deputy Chief Executive 'in consultation with the Chair' who hadn't turned up that day. So apart from what's in the Post report we currently don't know who sat in judgment.

Anyway the Post does report that the independent member on the committee made it clear she thought his conduct was a breach of the Code of Conduct. However it seems that the monitoring officer swung the day saying -

"This happened because a senior housing officer [Tyron Browne] issued what could be described as an oblique instruction to the housing office and a tenancy was allocated. I remain of the view that the actual cause was the senior housing officer and the culture at the time."

Browne of course has since resigned and has never faced any sanction.

So, as you can see, a big boy really did do it and then ran away.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Where the Bodies Are Buried

Last night I sent the following message out on Twitter

I didn't get a reply. Well not via Twitter anyway.

Today the Post reveals that Barker has taken 'voluntary redundancy'. I suspect the race is now on to FoI request how much his pay-off is.

Pugwash has, of course only been back five minutes since his 5 months unpaid leave and, according to his blog was last seen in Albania. They really don't want him talking to the press do they?

Looking at the cuts consultation list it seems that NCC are planning chopping a big chunk out of Communications, £213k next year alone, the loss of the Director post will cover about £90k of that I reckon. Presumably they'll now just be reporting directly to the Deputy Chief Exec/Corp Director of resources, meaning a layer of management is removed. I reckon that'll be popular for a number of reasons.

The Post gives a handy breakdown of the various scandals that Pugwash has found himself embroiled in (well, the ones they can print anyway) so have a look at that or click on the tag at the foot of this article for a longer history.

News just in - Pugwash claims he's only on statutory redundancy

That's almost certainly what an FoI will try and claim too. Seems kind of unlikely though really, doesn't it? How would they stop him blabbing about where the bodies are buried?

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Closure of Museum of Nottingham Life

Hearing via the BBC that one of the proposals contained in the next NCC budget is to close the Museum of Nottingham Life to the general public. It is intended to still allow visits from groups and schools.

This would be a serious mistake. The museum is an excellent resource and located in historic buildings in the Brewhouse Yard - the cottages date back to the 17th Century. It seems to be following a long term pattern of closing or restricting the opening hours of Nottingham's heritage centres, following closures of the Canal and Costume Museums, the Lace Museum and the reduction of opening hours at Newstead Abbey.

It is said that closing the museum will save £40k/yr which is chicken feed, especially when you bear in mind that Nottingham Contemporary received £313k last year and the Playhouse got £235k. Surely these organisations could stand a cut of similar size without much hurt, they could probably make it up with corporate eventing easily enough.

I use these other organisations merely as an example, you could probably find others. The issue is that heritage always seems to lose out. The more you restrict opening hours the fewer visitors you end up getting and this is often a pre-cursor to full closure. How long before we lose the Castle?

Note; pics taken by me which means I own the copyright. See 'creative commons' license terms over on the sidebar before you try and nick them.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Some Are More Equal Than Others

It's been a while since I last wrote about Nottingham Equal. I've been chasing up a few Freedom of Info requests here and there which has shed a bit more light on the help they have received with their fundraising activities.

I have been writing about concerns with possible conflicts of interest between NCC's decision to end funding for the now closed Council for Equalities and Human Rights Nottm and Notts and the funding of Nottingham Equal for some time. These were initially based around Hassan Ahmed's involvement in the NE and jointly making the CEHRNN funding decision.

Let's have a bit of a recap. Ahmed and Cllr Chapman made the decision to stop CEHRNN's funding immediately in March 2010. In October that year a portfolio decision was published to fund Nottingham Equal to the tune of around £70k which seemed a bit of a coincidence. This funding came via One Nottingham. In April 2011, a further year of funding was allocated, the decision to do so citing 'satisfactory monitoring information' as a justification.

I was quite interested in this 'satisfactory monitoring information' so I put in a FoI for it. An interesting point this revealed is that the monitoring information concerned a period from April to December 2010 and reported on performance on a service level agreement which was only signed by representatives of Nottingham Equal (one of whom was Tyron Browne) on 19 January 2011. In other words, we have a report on outputs and outcomes before those outputs and outcomes were even agreed. Odd that.

What is also apparent is how closely that Nottingham Equal matched its targets. The target for the number of organisations supoorted was 8 and the number of organisationas actually supported was 8. The target for getting individuals involved in 'dialogue' on decision making was 30 and, you'll never guess, the number of individuals who became involved with 'dialogue' was, happily, 30. One target was exceeded, they organised two meetings against a target of just one, but of seven targets, six were met exactly. There was a week between the SLA being signed and these outputs reported. Thank the maker for happy coincidences.

In the meantime I had been trying to get hold of the tender consideration meeting minutes for this decision from One Notttingham who eventually refused. I went to the Information Commissioner who decided that, although ON weren't subject to FoI, the council should have responded instead because I had copied them into my review request. Not the result I was expecting but I have now had the minutes of the meeting, held 10 May 2010, and they make some interesting reading.

Firstly, the attendees include Hasseeb Ahmed, NCC's Head of Equalities. He was CEHRNN's project officer and wrote the damning (and seriously flawed) Equalities Impact Assessment which resulted in CEHRNN losing their funding. He was also listed as Nottingham Equal's project officer on their SLA but whether he had become involved by the time of this meeting I don't know.

Secondly, the original NCC portfolio decision confirming funding for Nottingham Equal (see link above) said that funding an alternative organisation had been considered as an option but that 'no comparable organisations existed'. The minutes contradict this somewhat because there was an alternative tender from an organisation called 'HRN'. In the remarks it was noted that their 'delivery vehicle' was CEHRNN.

Now then, due to Haseeb Ahmad's previous involvement with CEHRNN there is a strong argument that he had a massive conflict of interest being involved in this decision. He cannot possibly have come to the discussion with an open mind and assessed a bid involving CEHRNN dispassionately. Two other members of the panel expressed 'concerns about the delivery vehicle - CEHRNN' which strongly suggests that HRN never stood a chance. Nobody expressed any concerns about Nottingham Equal, despite Hassan Ahmed being a founder member and at the time of the meeting being before Standards for England accused of breaching the councillors code of conduct, nor of Tyron Browne's involvement when he had figured rather large in the housing allocations scandal.

If you've followed the story of CEHRNN, Nottingham Equal and the associated individuals it is extremely hard not to seriously wonder whether it was a king sized stitch up to take the funding from CEHRNN, pass it over to a more friendly organisation in the form of Nottingham Equal and do it via One Nottingham to make it more difficult to scrutinise what happened. This latest information in the form of the tender meeting minutes only adds to that impression.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Shameless Cover-Up Continues

The Post is reporting that the Audit Committee yesterday voted to discuss the critical report into the administration of the Future Jobs Fund in private. An early contender for smallest surprise of the year I reckon.

One of the recommendations is apparently that former councillor Hassan Ahmed's conduct be referred to the Standards Committee. The article quotes Cllr Stuart Fox agreeing with monitoring officer Glen O'Connell's opinion that publishing the report could prejudice an investigation by the Committee -

"In the public domain it would prejudice the next step. It would undermine one of the district auditor's recommendations."

I'm sorry but how? The only way it could prejudice proceedings is if those making decisions i.e. councillors in the main, get to see information that could unduly influence them in making their decision. As it is already public knowledge that the District Auditor already believes that Ahmed breached the code of conduct that horse has already bolted. Furthermore, the councillors will have already seen the full report so any further prejudice that could be said to occur has already happened. Letting the public see the report can make no difference because we don't have a say in the matter. It's not like a trial where we could potentially be picked for jury service.

It also seems pretty pointless to bother with a Standards Committee investigation anyway. Ahmed is no longer a councillor and all the committee could do is to make a public finding against him which, hey, the District Auditor has already done. The man's reputation is soiled beyond redemption anyway so what more could they say?

Of course, pursuing a Standards Committee investigation gives them the excuse to kick the full report into the long grass. The investigation into Grocock's case has taken the best part of three years and, whatever else might be said about him, he does at least appear to have done everything he could to co-operate with them. There's not much chance of Ahmed being so compliant and, after all why should he be? He's got absolutely nothing to lose or gain. I doubt we'll hear any more before the next local elections.

It's interesting to note that the District Auditor did actually say that it was her 'preference' that the report be published. Well, grow some fucking ovaries missus, if you'd made it a public interest report they wouldn't have had a choice would they?

In the meantime Freedom of Information Act requests have been issued and no quarter will be given re time limits. I doubt very much that the Information Commissioner will have a lot of time for the weasel excuses NCC has wheeled out, he's no Nottingham City Council fan anyway.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Grocock Report Published

The Monitoring Officer's report to NCC's Standards Committee, concerning Cllr Grocock and his 'grandson', has finally been published on the council's website, in advance of the Standards hearing Sub-Committee hearing the case next Friday.

This matter first went before the Standards Committee early 2009 so it has taken the best part of three years to reach this stage. As far as I know this is where a decision is actually made although don't bank on it.

As it's been so long let's remind ourselves that the case against Grocock is that he falsely claimed that a young man was his grandson when advocating for him and his partner to be allocated a property. The couple who had only specified Bestwood as an area where he would accept a property. In the end he was allocated a property in Bestwood Park, an extremely high demand area where applicants would normally spend years waiting for a property.

A factor that has previously seen little attention and which I hadn't really taken account of is that Grocock initially made his case via the Portfolio Holder for Housing at the time, Cllr David Trimble and it was him who made the approach to a 'senior officer' (unnamed but we might be able to hazard a guess). It is apparently only in his approaches to Trimble on the couple's behalf that Grocock described his constituent as his 'grandson' and had never done so before when previously approaching housing staff on his behalf.

Grocock says that he only approached Trimble after there being 'no progress' with his attempts to persuade housing officers direct of the merits of his constituent's case. In fact he had been sent two emails explaining why the couple were unlikely to get an allocation any time soon. Normally, a councillor's involvement should stop there.

Grocock's defence, and the conclusion of the monitoring officer, is that in using the 'grandson' term he was ensuring that he was declaring a personal interest as the man was a close family friend. He claims never to have got the emails from housing staff.

Now, this would be fine and a properly functional and honest environment, although you do wonder why he didn't just use the term 'close family friend' which would have been the truth. But at the time it wasn't a functional environment and the use of the term would be more likely to mean that officers would simply see that 'Cllr Grocock's lad' needed a house and to make sure one was provided.

To be fair the report does acknowledge the potential dual interpretations possible of the various facts (see p22) and says that a judgment call is required. Support for Grocock being essentially a 'good egg' is drawn from his 'long record of public life' (ignoring the fact that his stint as Lord Mayor was in its entirety occurring while he was under investigation by the Standards Committee, a situation that should not have been allowed to happen. More on this later) and the fact that he self-referred for investigation and helped facilitate it by allowing evidence collected for the District Auditor to be considered.

However, the alternative interpretation has a good deal of merit too.  Let's imagine for example that it wasn't 'lack of progress' that frustrated Cllr Grocock but that he simply didn't like the answers he had received. It's hard to imagine that he had no idea of the way things were run in the housing department at the time but maybe he didn't have access to the people that mattered himself so he had to go and see Trimble. Perhaps he needed a stronger argument for assistance than just 'close family friend'.

There are interview notes included with the report and it is notable that Grocock spends a lot of time telling the interviewers what he doesn't know. This is the standard tactic of those in power who are caught with their trousers down (for a recent example of a high profile non-Nottingham instance of this see the Murdochs before that Parliamentary committee). It seems fairly evident that Grocock isn't the sharpest tool in the box but the idea that he had no idea of what was going on is not credible.

Another factor that reduces the surprise level of the report's conclusion is that, as I mentioned above, Grocock got himself installed in the Lord Mayor's robes while the investigation was still going on. This strongly indicates that someone was pretty sure that he would be exonerated as otherwise it is not considered wise to elevate the position of a person under investigation.

Another interesting aspect is that, despite the man concerned supposedly being a close family friend, in the interview with Monitoring Officer he says that he was never contacted by him again once the matter had been passed to Trimble. That's a bit odd don't you think? I think it's possible that knowing exactly who this chap is might be quite informative.

So, as I say, the Standards Committee meets next Friday to finally consider the case. The fact that they previously refused to simply rubber-stamp the monitoring officer's conclusion is encouraging but I wouldn't want to put any money on things going against Grocock in the end.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Pointless I know...

I know that such attempts at engaging with our democratically elected members is a hiding to nothing but I have sent the following email to the members of the Audit Committee which is meeting tomorrow to discuss, among other things the District Auditor's 'Jobs Plan Review' report -

"I am writing to you as members of the Audit Committee to ask that you reject the recommendation to discuss the 'Jobs Plan Review' report in private and to agree to the report being made public.

From the Annual Audit Letter it is clear that the District Auditor contains some serious criticisms of the way the Future Jobs Fund was administered and it is overwhelmingly in the public interest for those criticisms to be made public.

The Leader of the Council has already quoted directly fro the report for his own political purposes and for him to be able to do this without the public knowing the full contents of the report really is an insut to the people who voted for you and to democracy itself.

If you choose to vote in favour of the report being kept private I challenge you to reply to me to give your reasons why so that the public can understand your thinking. I would be intending to make such replies public.

Lastly, can I point out that I have requested a copy of the report under the Freedom of Information Act and, even if you do vote for the report to remain private under s.100A of the LGA 1972, this will not necessarily mean that the Information Commissioner would conclude that the report is exempt from release under the FoIA. As such, in time it is likely for the report to be made public eventually."

I am under no real illusions that any of them will take the slightest bit of notice but you have to try.

Addendum - Perhaps not completely hopeless, I did get one helpful reply back.

I won't name the member involved but they did say that they hadn't yet been given detailed reasons why the matter should be discussed in closed session. But the Post has a council spokesperson saying -

"...that "open circulation" of the report might lead to defamation of those identified within it and prejudice the initial stages any standards committee hearing."

So it looks like the PR team are being briefed before councillors who are charged with making the decisions. Not good.

Check that Post article for a brilliantly comedic quote from Hassan Ahmed as well at the end.

Auditor Schmauditor

The District Auditor for Nottingham City Council, Mrs Sue Sunderland, is not fit to be in her job. She has routinely failed to hold the council to account and in fact has repeatedly endorsed NCC's efforts to conceal massive corruption from the public. Let me explain -

Council Publicity

NCC has a history of flouting the law on council publicity. What does Mrs Sunderland do? She writes them a letter. That's it.

Housing Scandal

This is of course the biggie and should have resulted in mass resignations amongst politicians and prosecutions by the police. In the event none of this has happened. NCC has spent £100k on outside solicitors carrying out the council's normal work while the internal legal team carried out its own investigation. Not only is this inefficient (the external legal bods would have had to spend extra time learning NCC's procedures) but the internal team would clearly have been briefed where not to look.

What does Mrs Sunderland do? She says this is all ok and that £100k is a lot to spend on an investigation. It is of course approximately 25% of what she charges for her auditing 'skills' annually.

Harold Tinworth

Tinworth has been working for the council as an £870/day consultant for NCC since around 2006 but his work had never been put out to tender until, following pressure from me, Mrs Sunderland told them to. Opinions vary as to how he was ever employed in the first place.

Mrs Sunderland refused to look into the matter beyond instructing NCC to initiate a proper tender exercise for the work.

Since then the open secret that he was providing political advice on public pay blew up. Despite this Mrs Sunderland refused to re-investigate, saying -

"Following on from the articles in the newspaper to which you drew my attention I have now had an opportunity to explore this matter further. I have not found any evidence that would contradict the Council's response that the contract is for professional support and development for the Leader and other executive councillors and is not related to any political work. As a consequence and linking back to my earlier response to you dated 27 July 2010 I cannot justify any further investigation into this matter."She later claimed -

"My remit is currently limited to the financial years 2009/10 and 2010/11. From the copy invoices I have seen the expenditure during 2009/10 was <£30,000, whilst this may seem a significant sum to an individual, when seen in the context of the Council’s annual gross expenditure of £1,066 million it is negligible"

However I have since heard that this may not be true and that an 'extraordinary audit' could be carried out in these circumstances.

Future Jobs Fund

Interestingly, during my correspondence with Mrs Sunderland regarding the Tinworth affair Mrs S tried to reassure me of her determination to get to the truth as follows -

"You may be aware that I haven't given my certificate on the 2009/10 accounts because I am investigating a query raised by another elector, so I can assure you that I will investigate areas which fall within my remit where there are sufficient grounds to warrant it."

This turned out to be reference to the 'Jobs Plan Review' report.

Now we know that this report contains serious criticisms of the council so it should be public yes? Mrs Sunderland again -

"The Jobs Plan Review is not a public interest report (ie a report issued under S8 of the Audit Commission Act 1998) it is therefore for the Council (not me) to decide how to deal with it."


It is to be noted that a District Auditor has absolute discretion as to whether a report they issue is to be a Public Interest Report.

According to JoCo it was initially planned that the investigation would result in a PIR. From the last council meeting -

"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."

So she changed her mind for some reason, despite the report containing serious criticisms. Now why would she do that eh?

I asked her the following questions -

"1) Why did you choose not to make the report into this matter a public interest report?

2) Are you willing to reverse this decision and make the report public? If not why not?

3) Are you or are you not willing to make any comment at NCC's Audit Committee meeting on Friday concerning the council's decision to exempt your report and insist it is included in the minutes?

4) Considering the number of times that NCC has been found to be acting illegally in reports of various status and your failure to hold them to account do you believe that it is appropriate for the Leader of NCC to continue working for the Audit Commission, bearing in mind the considerable perception of bias that this leads to, not to mention legitimate concerns about what he actually is training your clients to do?"

She refused to answer any of them, merely saying -

"I am sorry but I cannot get into a debate with you on this subject. I have investigated the allegations fully and independently and I have reported my findings, conclusions and recommendations to the Council. I will also follow up on the action taken in response to my recommendations."

So that's alright then.

The most generous conclusion we can draw from all this is that Mrs Sunderland is incompetent and prefers the quiet life, having neither the ability nor the will to robustly challenge and hold NCC to account. For this supine jobbing bureaucrat every man, woman and child in Nottingham is charged something like £1.20 per year. Good value she is not.

However incompetence as an excuse can only go so far and many of Mrs Sunderland's failures start to look somewhat wilful and a little more sinister. Is the relationship too cosy? Yes I personally think it is and I think that it stinks to high heaven.

So someone tell me; who audits the Auditors?