Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Are NCC's Adverts For the Mayoral Referendum Above Board?

NCC has erected billboard ads for the upcoming referendum about whether we're going to have an elected Mayor in the City. This is all right and proper in itself, you want to do everything you can to encourage people to vote.

But let's have a look at it (TVM @mikebettison for use of the pic)

Hmm, see how the poster makes it very clear that NCC opposes having a Mayor and clearly states it would not be 'value for money'.

Thing is there is a Code of Practice for local government publicity and I'm not at all sure that this complies.

Para 30 of the code says the following -

"30. Advertisements are not normally likely to be appropriate as a means of explaining policy or commenting on proposals, since an advertisement by its nature summarises information, compresses issues and arguments, and markets views and opinions."

This implies to me that, if NCC wants to tell us about the issues that affect the decision to have a mayor or not a billboard ad isn't the best way to do it. This is probably a minor issue though.

More important is the (amended) version of para 43 dealing with referendums which says -

"The publicity should not be capable of being perceived as seeking to influence public support for, or opposition to, the referendum proposals and should not associate support for, or opposition to, the proposals with any individual or group."

I think the ad clearly breaches that requirement. I should add the proviso that the provision mentioned above refers to the old referendum rules for Mayors etc not the new ones introduced by the Localism Act, This is presumably because the code was written before the Localism Act was passed. I'm not sure that would really make a difference though and, even if it did technically, I think it would still be breaching the spirit of the code.

As you may know, NCC has form on dodgy publicity and the Audit Commission has form on not really doing a lot about it. But if there are people who feel very strongly about having a Mayor they may well be able to use this advertising to challenge the validity of a 'no' vote.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Quick! Band Aid For the Housing Benefits Service!

Following my recent pieces on the decline and fall of NCC's Housing Benefits service (including the revelation that the most recent figures put them as second worst in the country for processing new claims), all of a sudden NCC goes galloping in with a 'solution'.

Yes they are running to a private sector agency to get a load of temporary staff. Apparently, £112k gets you 12 staff for 12 weeks, an equivalent cost of £40k/yr for each one. That will include employer's NI payments of course but you can bet it doesn't include any pension contributions like a directly employed staff member would be entitled to. I'd guess a directly employed Benefits Processing staff member would be on around £20k so actual cost of their employment would be around £26k. So in round numbers the agency staff are costing something like half as much again as a directly employed staff member.

Like I said before, they're just lurching from crisis to crisis.

In other Housing Benefits news, the ever generous government has been handing out cash to help councils 'ease the transition' of the HB cuts. This money is not designed to be paid out as, say, part of the DHP scheme but to be used for infrastructure to deal with the fallout.

Slightly chillingly, look at the first item the government suggests as an intended use of the money -

"For example, preventing homelessness, negotiating with landlords, supporting people who need to move, and giving money advice."

Hasn't the government been telling us that nobody will be made homeless by these cuts?

Nottingham is getting the princely sum of £57,992 for 2012. That's just over half what NCC are planning on frittering away fixing their current problems. Doesn't bode well.

Monday, 27 February 2012

NCC Starts Moves to Evict Market Square Occupiers

It was pretty much inevitable that, since the Court of Appeal refused to hear Occupy LSX's appeal against eviction from land near St Paul's Cathedral, NCC would start the process of evicting Occupy Nottingham.

Initially, the council and the occupiers seemed to be quite chummy even 'enjoying' a visit from JoCo himself. But how long that'll last remains to be seen.

It isn't absolutely inevitable that the fate of the Nottm occupiers will mirror that of Occupy LSX. Part of the reasoning for the London case was that the presence of the camp threatened 'freedom to worship' human rights of the St Pauls Cathedral congregation. That aspect won't apply to Nottingham because they're not on religious ground. What's more the Nottingham Camp is considerably smaller so the major aspects of the case i.e. that the camp is an unreasonable use of the highway and breaches planning rules, aren't as strong, although these are likely to be the arguments used here in Nottingham.

A lot of research has been done into who owns the Market Square but, in all honesty, that really isn't an issue, it's always been a matter of rights of way/highways law for the most part. I hadn't really considered planning being an issue but I suppose it isn't surprising that it was included in the London case so it's bound to be copied up here.

So far Occupy Nottm are saying that they plan to stay put although they might want to have a read of the open letter to Occupy LSX that the New Statesman's legal blogger wrote last week. On the other hand, the City Council needs to have a good long think about whether it really wants bailiffs charging in at such a high profile public spot.

It could get messy.

Update - Occupy Nottm have released a statement alleging they were on the verge of an agreement with NCC to clear the camp in stages before being served with an eviction notice. Clearly I have no means of confirming that but then, it's hardly uncharacteristic of NCC to go marching in with the big macho size 12s on.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Tell Me JoCo, Do You Prefer Freedom of Information or Leaks?

Collins has been whinging on Twitter again about the terrible injustice of the Freedom of Information Act getting in the way of him and his mates doing what they like and choosing what the public finds out about.

He generally claims that FoI costs NCC £500k/yr which, even if it's true (I'm skeptical) it probably mostly goes on legal costs of trying to keep things hidden. I wonder how the information governance staff feel about his constantly putting them down and devaluing their work?

Anyway, would JoCo prefer a world where we have to rely on leaks? A bit like this one reported in the Post. It's the 'Jobs Plan Review' which NCC has been desperately trying to cover up. My FoI attempt at seeing a copy is about to go to the Information Commissioner.

Do follow the link to the Post articles if you haven't already seen them. Very interesting indeed. No doubt Collins and co will soon to be found slagging the Post off for being 'biased', just as they recently rather childishly personalised their issues with Charlie Walker and former councillor Tony Sutton at the last full council meeting (scroll to p295). But of course, the Post is doing exactly what it is expected to do which is hold local decision makers to account.

Can Housing Benefits Get Any Worse?

Recently I wrote about how NCC had to repay over £400k in housing benefits subsidy due to 'shortcutting' procedures for classifying overpayments in the 2008/9 financial year. To put this into context the District Auditor initially estimated that over £2m had been overclaimed so it's fair to say her initial estimates, based on sampling, aren't carved in stone.

And we should also note that, after a strip being torn off them in 2008/9 things improved markedly in 2009/10 as the DA only found an estimated £78k overclaimed.

So problem solved yes?

No. The equivalent report for 2010/11 has now arrived in NCC's inbox and is to be discussed at the next Audit Committee meeting. Considering that the DA estimates a potential overclaim for the year of £729k the language is somewhat restrained. There is mention of a separate letter to the Head of Revenues and Benefits (my old mucker Lisa Black who's responsible for all this mismanagement) and perhaps there's a bit more plain speaking in that. I doubt it will go so far as the required "Why the fuck are you still in your job" but there you go.

The problem this time is apparently Council Tax Benefit, rather than Housing Benefit with 53% of the sample considered found to be incorrect. That's pretty bad.

NCC's Housing Benefits service is clearly lurching from crisis to crisis. As I wrote recently, the most recent performance figures show them to be the SECOND WORST IN THE COUNTRY for speed of processing new claims, the sort of thing that results in people losing their homes. Predictably there is an 'action plan' to solve the latest problems and all HB staff are to go through mandatory retraining (with exams at the end!) but, looking at all these rather ugly numbers and my own experience of some of the personalities involved, they really should be aiming their attention at the top.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Grocock Hearing Minutes Published

Yes, the minutes of Cllr Grocock's Standards Committee hearing are now on the NCC website.

I wrote about the actual result here and my analysis of the background report is here. It's worth revisiting a few issues while highlighting a big new one.

Let's recall that the membership of the hearing committee was hand picked by the Deputy Chief Exec in consultation with the Chair of the full Standards Committee, which is not normally how things are done. The Committee was comprised of two Labour members (one of whom, Cllr Toby Neal, is the only NCC councillor to block me on Twitter, ignorant self-deluding tosspot now says he didn't realise he'd blocked me) and three independent members.

The big news here is that two of the independent members voted against letting Grocock off, so the decision was carried by the two Labour members and the Chair of the hearing committee, giving a majority of one. That's democracy for you.

So, despite all of JoCo's public blustering that all of the recommendations of the Public Interest Report were accepted we now in fact have another rejection of one of its key findings. To read about the first one see my post from March 2009. And of course nobody has been held to account and no properties have been recovered.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Housing Benefits Getting Even Shitter - Second Worst in the Country at Processing New HB Claims

Every now and then I like to pass the time by having a look at Housing Benefits 'Speed of Processing' stats. I last did this back in March last year when the most recent figures we had were Q2 2010. I now have those for Q2 2011 (Excel file).

Things were looking pretty bad for NCC last year and things seem to have got even worse in the latest results. For the equivalent quarter in 2010 speed of processing all new claims was 37 days and for changes in circumstances 14 days. For Q2 2011 these increased to 60 days and 36 days.

These figures are truly shocking by modern standards and leaves NCC by far the worst in the East Midlands on both counts. The next worst is Derby City with processing new claims at 42 days and changes in circumstances at 29 days. Leicester is at 29 days and 16 days. There are only three other LAs in the East Midlands with new claims processing times of more than 30 days, out of a total of 40 councils. It means that NCC is the second worst in Great Britain at processing new claims, with only Durham worse, taking an average of 69 days.

This increasingly poor service is no doubt in part due to the recession but a lack of inspection and piss-poor management are also key factors. I recently wrote about Housing Benefits having to return over £400k in benefits subsidies, an error which can be laid firmly at senior managers' door.

Unfortunately, due to its forthcoming abolition the Audit Commission doesn't appear to running any more inspections of  LA benefits services, not that it was difficult for cynical managers to manipulate the system to make the numbers look good. So things will undoubtedly continue to get worse.

Mayoral Referendum in Nottingham - End of JoCo?

As part of changes originating in the Localism Act (see para 9N), Nottingham will be holding a referendum to decide whether we want to stay with the current Executive system or change to an Elected Mayor. The Notice of Referendum is here.

Broadly speaking, the current system means that the vast majority of the council's powers are in the hands of the Executive Board which is hand picked by Cllr JoCo himself. As such the majority of the power is really in his gift and I suspect he likes it that way. Under an Elected Mayor, the majority of the power is in the hands of one person who may or may not end up being JoCo.

JoCo is not in favour of an elected Mayor in Nottingham.

It's not hard to see why. If he is to retain his current level of power he has to ensure that he gets the nod as official Labour candidate for the post as Mayor and, following his failure to secure the Nottingham East nomination for the last general Election, he probably can't be entirely confident of this. Furthermore Collins is a networker rather than a figurehead meaning he is far more suited to securing the nomination of a cabal of elected members on a council than to inspiring a whole city to vote for him. You only have to look at how often he relies on Deputy Leader Graham Chapman to be the public face of the council to see how uncomfortable he is in the spotlight.

Let's be clear. If an elected mayor is chosen the role of Leader of the Council will suddenly become very minor. Coupled with the abolition of the Police Authority, which he chairs, JoCo is going to have to do some serious Labour Party arse kissing if he doesn't want to find himself a mere minnow in Nottingham's political scene.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Audit Commission Wastes £3,500 on Legal Threat Against NCCLols

Yes I got a steamy legal letter (poor quality scan I'm sorry but readable) from the Audit Commission who were unhappy about my criticism of the District Auditor here and here. A subsequent FoI request revealed that this cost them £3,500.

£3,500. Three. Thousand. And. Five. Hundred. Pounds. Three... you get the picture. That's public money handed over to a private firm of solicitors for... well for what exactly?

You see the letter seems to go off on a kind of litigation intimidation bingo session. I'm first told that I'm guilty of harassing the District Auditor (!!!!!), then told that, if I'm lucky I might have done a bit of defamation and malicious falsehood as well. Apparently, I've been "vicious, vexatious and highly derogatory" and I'm said to have caused her "alarm and distress".

Oh for fucks sake.

I've generally given the accusations short shrift, pointing out that a public figure such as the District Auditor should normally be expected to have a thicker skin and that the PR effects of pursuing such a claim may not be that desirable and could include a syndrome known as the 'Streisand Effect'.

What is alarming here is that the Audit Commission appears to be funding a legal action for one of its individual employees and I'm really not sure that is lawful. There has been caselaw around local councils taking libel actions out and generally speaking they can't and I can't see any reason why that should be any different for a body like the Audit Commission. It is apparently possible for a council to fund an action one of its employees is taking but this depends on the reading of a certain piece of legislation specific to councils, not relevant to the Commission. So, all told, this looks a bit dodgy.

What's more, if the Commission is unhappy that I have expressed suspicion that they aren't as robust with Nottingham City Council as they should be (a suggestion I have made with evidence, see above linked posts and this one concerning the difference between the treatment of Leicester's HB service and NCC's) and that things are a bit cosy between them then might I suggest that threatening to sue a blogger whose raison d'etre is to write critically about Nottingham City Council is probably not the best way to dispel such suspicions.