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).