Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Executive Board in a Bit of a Rush?

Saw a tweet from one of the Post reporters earlier that the Executive Board meeting today was all done in 17 minutes bar an 'exempt item'.

Executive Board is really the meeting where the vast majority of bigger decisions are made. This meeting had three 'key' decisions, one of which is a £13m pool development at Harvey Hadden, the schools budget for the year and a review of gambling policy. Quite a work rate you might think.

Look a bit further down the agenda and you get a possible clue to this apparent ability to make decisions so quickly


Now then, Executive Board is only actually made up of the Portfolio Holders (opposition parties can send a non-voting representative but, for obvious reasons rarely bother).

So why have a meeting of the Executive Board in the Leader's Room for up to an hour before the official meeting of the Executive Board? Because of course, the public don't have access to the pre-meeting, they can only go and watch the official meeting.

Now I'm sure I'm just being Mr cynical conspiracy theorist but is it not just possible that the idea behind this arrangement is to make sure the real decision making and discussion happens in private and, once the story's straight, go on to a public rubber stamp meeting.

I doubt it's any different to how things go with any other council which has a party with such a large majority but it's not great is it?

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Proud to be Still Failing to Pay Discretionary Housing Payments

Yep, it's bee-in-the-bonnet time again. I've just got back a response to a Freedom of Info request about the most recent two years of Discretionary Housing Payments. I don't like to ask every year, that would overwork our hard-pressed Information Governance Team.

What this means is that I can update my occasionally published table illustrating past performance on the issue. I've also added a running total at the bottom.

Now, I previously speculated whether NCC would pull their socks up and sort DHPs out seeing as the government had impose swingeing Housing Benefit cuts and had increased DHP allocations as a kind of sticking plaster solution. After all, those in poverty were more likely to need them and consequences for not sorting it would be much worse right?

Have a look at the last two years on the table. See how the government contribution more than doubles in 2011/12? See how the number of applications increases from 2010/11's 556 to 701, possibly due to the cuts starting to bite? And see how the number of successful applications drops from 201 to 176 and the total amount paid out drops from £71,183 to £56,575.

So. The council gets given more money to hand out as DHPs. Economic conditions are not improving and benefit cuts are starting to bite resulting in more applications. And their solution is to make FEWER awards. Not more awards. FEWER.

WT absolute F?

Because of this and the other aspects of worsening Housing Benefits performance I have decided to post a question to be asked at Full Council. I know it's a bit long and I wouldn't be at all surprised if it gets knocked back on that basis (even though there's no limit given on questions to full council), failing that it'll probably be shunted off for a written response. Anyway, I reproduce it here and I'll let you know if it goes anywhere.

"Question to Full Council Concerning the Operation of the Housing Benefits Service

I would like to ask the following of the relevant Portfolio Holder and the Full Council;

Should the Portfolio Holder and the Council not be concerned at the extremely poor performance of the Housing Benefits Service in this time of continued recession and Tory benefit cuts?

According to the latest statistics available (Q2 and Q3 of the last financial year) Nottingham was the second worst in the country for speed of processing new claims. It was the fifth worst for processing changes in circumstances. Does this not exacerbate the problems of benefit cuts and poverty already experienced by claimants? Don't delays in processing changes in circumstances lead inevitably to more overpayments, which is in neither the council's or claimants' interests?

Furthermore, NCC has had to repay considerable sums of overpaid housing benefit subsidy. Over £400,000 in 2008/9, £78,000 in 2009/10 and potentially £729,000 for 2010/11. If a claimant received overpayments of benefits so consistently they'd be prosecuted for fraud. When will this issue be tackled?

Are the Portfolio Holder and the Council also not deeply concerned about the alarming maladministration of the Discretionary Housing Payments scheme?

In the 11 years of the existence of the Discretionary Housing Payments Scheme, the Housing Benefits Service has paid out the equivalent of the full government grant in only two years (2009/10 and 2010/11) and has never paid out more than 51% of the full amount it is allowed to by law in any financial year. And yet the majority of applications are refused. The highest success rate for applications was 55.4% in the first year of operation. After that it varied between 21.2% and 53.3%. Over the life of the scheme 33% of applications have resulted in an award. Is this high rate of refusal not a strange anomaly?

In terms of the amounts paid out, over the life of the scheme so far NCC could have received £889,132 in central government grant for DHPs yet it only paid out £527614. That is £361,518 that could have been paid out to Nottingham's poorest citizens AT NO EXTRA COST TO THE COUNCIL.

Except that it's worse than that. Between the years 2003/4 and 2010/11, if the previous year's allocation from central government was not fully utilised, the following year's allocation was reduced. This happened in Nottingham year on year from 2003/4 to 2008/9. Imagine if the central government grant had remained at 2003/4 levels throughout the rest of the life of the scheme (up to 2011/12 when the system changed) Nottingham would have received £1,131,390. That is a very conservative estimate, all it would have required would have been for the Housing Benefits Service to have paid out what it was given by the government and it makes no allowance for any inflationary increases. And of course, if more had been paid out then the next year's allocation would have increased. On this very conservative basis then Nottingham's citizens have lost out on £603,776. Think how many evictions that could have prevented, all at no extra cost to the City Council. Does the Portfolio Holder and the Council see this as a success?

In 2011/12 the system was changed to take into account vicious Tory cuts to mainstream Housing Benefits. DHPs were increased in an attempt to offset the worst of the effects. Nottingham's central government allocation increased to £119,386 from the previous year's £55,863 i.e. it more than doubled. Applications increased to 701 from the previous year's 556, perhaps reflecting the initial bite of the cuts to mainstream benefits. So what happened to the number of successful applications? It dropped from 201 in 2010/11 to 176 in 2011/12. So, the grant allocation was doubled, mainstream benefits were cut and we continued in recession, yet the Housing Benefits Service decided that FEWER people should be paid a bit extra to help with their rent. Can the Portfolio Holder explain why this was the case?

During this time Nottingham faced a recession, like the rest of the country. The council launched a campaign called 'We're On Your Side'. Why were DHPs not promoted as part of this? One Nottingham has held two sessions to discuss the effects of benefit cuts on the citizens of Nottingham yet DHPs were never even mentioned, when the scheme is one of the few measures at the council's disposal to mitigate these cuts. Why are they not shouting about DHPs from the rooftops?

What is the Council going to do about this double whammy of bottom-of-the-table performance of the mainstream Housing Benefit scheme along with the year on year failure to properly administer the Discretionary Housing Payments scheme that is faced by Nottingham's poorest? Does this not reflect an abject failure by the Housing Benefit Service Management?"

Thursday, 10 May 2012

The Net is Closing...

It's the thing that JoCo has been hoping would go away but, in the manner of pulling teeth, NCC is being forced to reveal information on the Housing Allocations scandal. Subject to appeal of course.

The Information Commissioner has just released a decision notice on the issue. You may remember that, despite initial positive noises the police were never asked to mount a formal investigation into the matter. Council officials did meet with the police in 2006 but we don't know what was discussed. That maybe about to change.

Somebody has asked NCC for the minutes of those meetings under the Freedom of Information Act. Amazingly, NCC refused and went off on its usual delaying tactics and exemption bingo and the matter has ended up in the Information Commissioner's lap. He has now released his decision notice.

Initially, NCC's refusal was based on the exemption for information used in an investigation which an authority has a duty to carry out to decide whether someone has committed a criminal offence. The ICO was having none of that, saying that NCC was under no such duty. At most, its possibilities amounted to a power to decide on whether to conduct civil recovery proceedings against individuals but only the police could press criminal charges e.g. for misconduct in public office.

NCC's second objection, that the minutes included details of a 'group' of individuals they were investigating and releasing details of them would breach Data Protection principles was on stronger ground. After all, you can't go around being 'cavalier' with people's personal data can you? Even though the number of people in Nottingham who aren't aware of who EXACTLY that group is now only consists of sub-rock dwellers.

So the Information Commissioner has ordered the release of the minutes of three meetings between the council and the police in 2006 but with the details of the 'group' of individuals redacted. Like I say, that won't diminish their impact a great deal. It might finally shed some light on why the hell the police utterly failed to do their job at the time.

Will they appeal? Time will tell.

Note; I've also still got an outstanding complaint to the ICO about a request that covers the same ground plus some extras. Will let you know how I get on...

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The Sheriff's New Clothes

With the news that Nottingham's Sheriff is looking to get himself a new frock designed I'd like to submit my humble offering -

I reckon it will help prevent confusion should he accompany JoCo on one of his trips to France where he has to pretend to be the mayor in order to be taken seriously.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Nottingham Picks the 'I Don't Give a Fuck' Option

The real winner of the referendum yesterday was apathy.

The truth is that very few people in Nottingham give a flying one about local government. At the last local election, with the added attraction of a referendum on our national voting system, we only managed to achieve a 37% turnout. Previous elections attracted 32.4% (2007) and 29.1% (2003, pre relaxation of postal vote rules). The turnout for the referendum was 23.9%.

The actual result of 57.5% to 42.5% rather pales into insignificance compared to that dour turnout figure. Despite being in favour of a mayor I would have honestly felt uncomfortable seeing such a significant change if the 'yes' vote had won on a similar turnout.

To make matters worse, over 20% of the votes, approximately 11,000 I was told, over 46% of the votes i.e. 23,019, were postal votes. That dwarfs the actual majority of approx 8,000. I've expressed my concerns about postal voting before and I've seen more than one reference to 'Labour's postal voting machine' about the place, including from someone who would definitely know what that entails. I mean it MIGHT all be above board but I suppose we'll never know.

It can't have helped that local politicians such as Lillian Greenwood, MP for Nottingham South went around telling people that it was all an irrelevance and we should concentrate on jobs and such. Because obviously, if we had a mayor, we wouldn't be able to do that any more. Is there anything less edifying than elected politicians telling us we shouldn't be allowed to vote for something? Still, let's 'get Nottingham trending' eh Lilian? Like she says, back to the things that matter.

And I can't bring myself to write anything else on Nottingham Labour's appalling scaremongering, so if you want to know what I think about it you'll have to go back here. I wonder how much negative campaigning actually puts people off voting at all? I suspect a lot.

But really, the end of it is that Nottingham doesn't give a fuck about local politics. Many of our local politicians rather like it that way as they can get on with serving their own interests without too many people looking. You only have to look at the reactions of the likes of JoCo and Cllr Toby Neal at people who do take an interest.

Still, look on the bright side. I added quite a few new followers on Twitter, with 500 now being a real possibility soon (hello btw), and yesterday generated the biggest number of hits pretty much since I started. So it's not all bad. After all, it's all about me really isn't it?


As you can see I've edited the postal vote figure above, following receipt of new information. To put that in context, the 2011 local election attracted 23,986 postal votes on a much bigger overall turnout. There's something deeply smelly about that.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Councillor Makes Desperate Smear Against the Post

We're used to JoCo denigrating the 'Post' as biased whenever it fails to quite toe the party line but Berridge Ward councillor Toby Neal has stepped in with a particularly amateurish attempt, presumably to curry favour with the boss -

As you can see, Neal claimed that the Post wouldn't print 'good news' stories about Nottingham, specifically that Nottingham is Europe's most energy self sufficient city.

Unfortunately for Cllr Neal, not long ago the 'Post' printed a story about exactly that, somewhat undermining his argument. However, Neal then went on to justify his outburst with a non-specific accusation about a 'piece today' and was justifiably ridiculed for this by 'Post' columnist Erik Petersen.

Local Government correspondent Delia Monk then challenged Neal's allegation and requested further clarification of his problem -

Neal later confirmed that it was this editorial that had got his thong in a twist.

While the editorial is somewhat negative it's bang on the money regarding local Labour's pathetically alarmist and downright dishonest 'No' campaign. As for the allegations of development failures, at least they didn't mention the Trinity Square carbuncle.

Certain Labour figures seem to equate Nottingham's fortunes with the Party's fortunes and imply that an attack on one is an attack on the other. This childish victim mentality, combined with an apparent 'right to rule' attitude is ridiculous for a council with such a huge Labour majority and has to stop.

A local newspaper should challenge those in power and should not simply be a cheerleader for the local authority as Neal and Collins seem to expect. The 'Post' does print positive articles about the Labour council's achievements. But it also writes about some of the fuck-ups. That's how it should be.

Dry yer eyes, Councillor Toby Neal.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

That 'No' Campaign in Full #NottinghamMayor

Yes, it's voting day tomorrow folks and, in the interests of balance I thought I should present a short summary of the 'No' campaign's main points. So, in reverse order -

5. Some very clever people have told us that a mayor will cost about £500k. They told us this twice so that makes £1m in total. We will have to steal the food from old people's plates to be able to afford this.

4. Whenever JoCo and Graham Chapman represent the city in France one of them always makes a point of saying "Je suis le maire'. We think they've got away with it so far and actually having a real mayor would spoil the fun for next year.

3. A mayor is likely to be much more risk averse and we absolutely cannot take the risk of somebody like that being in charge. That's the gamble. Do you feel lucky, punk?

2. A mayor will NOT have any new powers so it's not worth having one. Except when we want to frighten you about ALL THE TERRIFYING POWER THE MAYOR WILL HAVE!!!!!

1. Voting for a mayor would just be a distraction from, erm something...LOOK! AN EAGLE!!

So there you have it. I think you can agree that I've covered their case in some detail. Don't let it ever be said that I'm not impartial.