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

" 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.