Friday, 22 November 2013

Local Government Ombudsman Screws Up

Arguably not strictly down to NCC this but it is in connection with an NCC benefits decision so I think it is of interest.

Ask anybody who's had contact with them and they will tell you that the Local Government Ombudsman is a bag of shit. Even within the preposterously restricted boundaries they manage to set themselves for looking into complaints against councils they have a reputation for at best toothlessness and at worst outright bias. A true 'Watchpoodle' if you will.

It also turns out they are capable of being legally incompetent. On one of my random browsing sessions I found this decision on some complaints about Housing Benefit and DHP issues.

As far as the restricted boundaries I mention above are concerned, this paragraph on the DHP aspect sums it up nicely -

"The decision was based on the merits of the case. I am satisfied the Council carried out the correct process in deciding not to award a second DHP. It is not my role to comment on the merits of the decision itself."

Essentially, the Ombudsman is saying that as long as the procedure was followed, the fact that you may have been refused a DHP because of your penchant for wearing loud shirts in built up areas is none of their business. Yeah, you try explaining that too an ordinary Joe/Josie.

However more concerning is how the Ombudsman dealt with a complaint that NCC had wrongly suspended his benefit on two occasions. It kind of relates to those boundaries again -

"I did not investigate the complaint. Mr B complained that Mr B’s housing benefit was suspended on two occasions. He had the right to appeal to the social entitlement appeal tribunal over these decisions. I consider it would have been reasonable for him to exercise that right."

Oh dear. Can I refer m'learned friend to para 5 of the schedule to the Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit (Decisions and Appeals) Regs

"5. No appeal shall lie against a decision under Part III of these Regulations of a relevant authority relating to–

(a) suspension of a payment of benefit or of a reduction;


So, the Ombudsman refused to investigate an aspect of a complaint on the grounds that the complainant had a course of redress that he didn't, in fact, have at his disposal at all. That is a fundamental legal error and is totally unacceptable.

One wonders if this position was argued by NCC or whether the Ombudsman came up with it her/himself. If the former then NCC's HB staff need to have a word with themselves too (no change there) but either way, the Ombudsman's treatment of this complaint is way below standard.

NCC Breaches Code of Practice on Publicity - Again

Ok, so I actually rather liked this breach but I suppose we have to accept sauce for the goose etc.

I did mention briefly that NCC ran its own petition against the bedroom tax earlier this year. I signed it and recommended that you did too. However it disappeared off the website rather suddenly without explanation.

Turns out the petition was referred to the council's auditors and they have now decided that it breached the code of practice for local authority publicity. Presumably it failed the 'objectivity' test.

Despite the fact that I was and am foursquare behind the campaign against the bedroom tax and would support contributions from any quarter, with our objective heads on we have to note that NCC has form on this. It seems that certain sectors of the council have still not quite taken it in that NCC and the Labour Party are not one and the same. It's fine for councillors to shout from the rooftops about the injustice of the bedroom tax and I hope they do but it seems that it's not so fine to use council resources to do so.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Please Fill In Our Survey About What We've Already Told You To Think

This is another post about NCC's attitude to street drinking, although hopefully a bit shorter.

A couple of weeks ago NCC issued a short survey on its website about street drinking. I'm not sure how long it will be up there so I'll be using screengrabs to illustrate my points below.

Here's a shot of the introductory page. As far as I'm aware this is the only route into the survey unless someone sends you a direct link (click for bigness)

And now here's the survey they want you to fill in (again, clicky)

So, question 1 asks you how much of a problem street drinkers are, right after telling you -

"People drinking on the streets can lead to antisocial behaviour and other problems in our communities...

Problems such as littering, noise and public indecency can be made worse by the disorderly conduct of those under the influence of alcohol."

Question 2 asks what problems are connected with street drinking right after... well, you get the idea.

The next questions do ask specifically what issues you've faced in your area in the last 12 months. After ticking lots of boxes what are people going to do when, on thinking about it, their only contact with street drinkers was seeing a bloke walking up the road with a tinny on, otherwise completely minding his own business?

Such a massively leading introduction is as compromising as asking blatantly leading questions in the survey itself. The result is that the results will virtually no credibility at all.

I bet you they still use it to back up the DPPO though.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Open Spaces Everywhere but Not a Spot to Drink

Disclosure; I like a drink. In fact I'm having a drink while writing this now. I went to the 'Robin Hood Beer Festival' and enjoyed heavily hopped strong ales (unfined ones only, I can out beersnob CAMRA). I drink at home, in my garden, in pubs, round friends' houses but I can't honestly remember the last time I drank in an outdoor public place. Of course, the fact that I can't remember it...

So anyway, today I'm writing about Designated Public Places Orders because NCC has embarked on the first steps of establishing one across the entire city and I don't think I like it. There already are small DPPOs in various parts of the city but, to paraphrase Niemoller, when they came for Hyson Green I did nothing. And when they came for me, I thought I'd better write a blogpost.

Oh yes, I should explain what a DPPO is. Broadly speaking, if a local authority thinks that boozy ne'er do wells are making a nuisance of themselves in a particular area, it can make an order making that area as a Designated Public Place. Once it is in place, this gives the police, PCSOs and CPOs the right to order anyone drinking alcohol in the designated area to stop doing so and to hand over any alcohol they might have with them. If you refuse either without 'reasonable excuse', you are guilty of a criminal offence. It's not the actual drinking that matters but the refusing to stop and give it up that lands you in trouble. One last thing to note is that whether a DPPO is made or not, police have separate powers to stop underage drinkers and confiscate their alcohol.

My first thought was that this would hardly be popular with nice middle class voters who like to pop down the Arboretum with a picnic and a crisp Chardonnay. But no, JoCo's introductory report explains that it's not about them -

"Any powers arising from an Order are not intended to disrupt peaceful activities, for example families or groups having a picnic and consuming alcohol in the Proposed Area, but are solely intended for use as a control measure for the consumption of alcohol in public places by those who cause anti-social behaviour..." 

So the rozzers have discretion, they can pick and choose who they march up to and demand surrender of some of their property. That's completely reasonable don't you think? I mean what could possibly go wrong? I'm sure that black people will be treated with EXACTLY the same level of discretion as they receive when our wonderful police execute their stop and search powers for example. As for CPOs...

What's also interesting, and not a little ironic, is that at the same full council meeting a motion praising 'well run' pubs as community assets, lamenting the loss of local pubs, bigging up the beer festival and local breweries and continuing the battle against the sale of 'strong alcohol' and other 'irresponsible drinking' stuff was passed.

Ok, in isolation there really isn't a word in that motion that I would disagree with but, looking at the wider picture, including DPPOs, it gives the impression of a mixed message. It also has a nasty taste of the double standards. I'll come back to this in a sec.

One of the things I slightly object to is this rather romantic notion of the great traditional British boozer. I'm sorry but it's 95% bollocks. A hell of a lot of pubs are simply meat markets, pre-fight gatherings or hopelessly garish theme parks. Let me tell you about one 'local' 'community' pub.

When I first moved into my current address I thought I'd check out the local scenery. Food shopping was the priority but as I walked round the corner, barely 300 yards from my home, I came across a pub. That's handy, I thought, an actual 'local'. On getting a bit closer, for some reason I started thinking that actually, I probably wouldn't be going in that particular pub after all. There was something about it. And I never did.

About 15 months after this a young chap had his brains blown out in the car park. Turns out this particular pub was unofficially under the control of Nottingham's favourite Robin Hoods the Gunns and somebody they didn't like overreacted to a perceived sleight. You'll have read about the consequences. The pub was called the Sporting Chance and is one of those 'neighbourhood pubs' that have closed down. In this case bulldozed and a housing estate built over it.

The point I'm trying to make here is that pubs as drinking venues aren't always great. I know the motion specifies 'well run' pubs but clearly nobody thought the Chance was badly run because it was still trading quite happily until what happened. I know for a fact it wasn't the only pub the Gunns held sway over either.

The other point is that, even after spending the evening in a 'well run' pub, you don't suddenly sober up once you walk out the door. It's not the where that matters, it's the 'how much' and the 'what sort of person are you when drunk'. Drinking in an excellent pub does not guarantee an absence of anti-social behaviour, as anybody making their way through Slab Square late at night will tell you.

As for the 'strong alcohol' objection, most of the beers I drank at the NCC sponsored beer festival were in the range of 6-7% and utterly fantastic they were too. Both Brewdog and newcomer the Ned Ludd sell beers with a strength in excess of 10%. But as these venues are the preferred destinations of the Sherwood 'Laddie Daddies' who have a lot of money to spend in the City Centre presumably none of that matters.

To bring it all back here, my view is that NCC's attitude to alcohol is that there is a right way to do it and an undesirable way. Middle class people sipping a crisp white in the park or lads after football practice quaffing craft ales in an oak beamed saloon is fine. Anything else means trouble. This distinction particularly applies if you dare to drink outside a controlled indoor environment. I believe that we are talking serious sledgehammer and nut territory here.

Is the 'undesirable way' always so bad? Just because you happen to be a group of young people in the park, maybe playing frisbee or something and *horrors* audibly enjoying yourselves, does that justify the CPO marching over and nicking all your booze? Everywhere in the city? Cos I bet that's what will happen. And from the opposite viewpoint, what about the family with the picnic, is normalising drinking in front of young children always ok? Why are they apparently exempt?

I cannot help suspecting that those who fall foul of DPPO orders will be of certain social, maybe racial groups. There appears to be no checks or balances on the police or CPO use of discretion beyond the 'reasonable excuse' proviso, which none of the NCC documents seem to mention. And you will be faced with the option of a fixed penalty notice or going before those noted liberals the Magistrates Court to argue that, although you were just quietly reading a book in the park with a bottle of Strongbow, the fact that you were bothering nobody is a 'reasonable excuse' not to hand over some of your property to the police. If you don't convince them you get an even bigger fine. Best of luck if you do find yourself in this position.

Like I say, sledgehammer and nut, like pretty much all of the 'Anti-Social Behaviour' agenda. This is especially true of the 'whole city' aspect of the plans. Interestingly, the main justification for the citywide thing is -

"Unless the powers are adopted across the whole city, there is a high likelihood the problems experienced will continue and are likely to continue to be pushed from areas covered by a DPPO into neighbouring areas across the City..."

What do you think neighbouring local authorities think about the possibility of displacement of city drinkers to their areas? Presumably they will be 'consulted'.

It's not good enough is it? I'm open to the idea that DPPOs are potentially a good idea in some local areas, mostly temporarily. as one of the tools to deal with a particular problem. But setting one up across the entire city smacks of a more authoritarian agenda, one where NCC cannot be bothered to deal with difficult problems so picks an easy solution off the shelf. They need to stop doing that.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Like A Bad Penny...

If we thought we'd heard the last of Hassan Ahmed, whilst snooping around the interwebs I found out that he has now been appointed a Director of the Renewal Trust.

The Renewal Trust is a charity with the purpose of carrying out good works in St Anns and Sneinton. However, its board includes three senior City Councillors including JoCo (inevitably) and Jane Todd also appears to be involved.

One of the things it does is run a couple of business centres, one of which, the John Folman Business Centre, houses the Nottingham Labour Party. Cllr Toby Neal, Labour's Chief Whip at NCC, also appears to work there as a part-time administrator.

Cosy then. The gang's all here.

Let's make no bones about this, Ahmed is dodgy*. And as Cllrs Collins, Williams and Mellen, not to mention Jane Todd, were all in front seat positions to see what was going on you have to wonder what the hell they are doing appointing him to the board of a registered charity.

*After I wrote that article, CEHRNN did in fact close down and the District Auditor recommended that Ahmed should be referred to NCC's Standards Committee for the second time for his games with the Future Jobs Fund. That seems to have died a death though.

Canning Circus Creative Hub; The Next Radford Unity Complex?

Stumbled across a petition asking for support for the Canning Circus Creative Hub the other day, I'd recommend that you sign it.

The Hub is, in its own words

'... a hub for creative individuals and organisations, taking our name from the area of Nottingham in which we are based.

We are a collective of creative companies who work together to share resources and ideas. We represent a shared movement, intended to promote, inspire and create work we’re all proud to put our name to.'

They are based in buildings on Wollaton St which they rent from the City Council. The regular readers of this blog may already be able to guess the way this is going.

Yes, despite happily toiling away for nigh on 30 years, the council has asked them to leave. They have a press release which gives some background. As yet, NCC has just asked them to 'leave quietly' as opposed to serving a formal notice quit.

I've been in contact with a couple of people based at the Hub. Their feeling is that the situation has arisen due the City Council's failure to maintain the range of buildings it owns on Wollaton St, of which the Hub is only part, leaving them on the verge of being condemned. They have an 'amusing' story of NCC contractors bungling the fitting of fire doors so badly they had to redo it themselves. Redevelopment is clearly on the agenda, almost certainly via the private sector, but the Hub's residents were apparently the last to be told.

Broadly speaking, the businesses at the Hub are very happy with how things are going as they are. None of them are interested in expanding and none of them want to move, particularly if it means being dispersed around the City. None of them receive any grant funding. The impression I get is that the Hub is more than just the sum of its parts but is very much an interdependent community. Such things are hard to translate into cold business language and, as such, tends to get ignored.

As a backdrop to this we have the Radford Unity Complex debacle where NCC wasted gobs of cash trying to hand the building for a cut-price to an arts organisation called Nottingham Studios, completely disregarding the needs, not to mention the legal tenancy rights, of the community groups who were already using it. When that fell apart NS were handed another set of buildings to become 'Primary', ironically just round the corner on Seely Rd. We also have the planned 'Creative Quarter' in the Lace Market, whose 'ambassador' has apparently cited CCCH as a major inspiration.

Unfortunately, the CQ doesn't reach as far as Canning Circus so CCCH cannot access any of the mountain of funding from the City Deal if they want to stay where they are. Some of the residents have looked into relocating to the CQ but feel the properties on offer aren't suitable. And of course, everyone wants to keep their artistic community together which may not be possible if they do move.

As sort of an aside, CQ has launched a loan scheme to assist companies with the costs of relocating there. Now CQ is a separate body to NCC but they are clearly working closely together. Seasoned council watchers therefore may not be over surprised that the company who got the gig managing the loan scheme is First Enterprise, one of whose directors is one of NCCLols' very old friends, former councillor Hassan Ahmed. They were also mentioned as benefiting from the dodgy Future Jobs Fund allocations that Ahmed presided over. So I'm sure that's all completely above board then.

So, with all this past and future money flying around it seems somewhat unfair that at the first sign of panic about the state of their building, NCC's first reaction is to ask them to leave. Since then Cllr Nick McDonald has been quoted in the Post saying that 'no decisions have been made'. However that isn't really very reassuring because, technically speaking, 'no decisions had been made' when Nottingham Studios were invited to buy the RUC building from under the feet of its tenants. At least CCCH seems to have got a bit more warning than the RUC groups did.

We'll be watching this one closely.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Not Quite a 'No-Evictions' Policy

According to 'Inside Housing' magazine, Nottingham City Homes and a number of Housing Associations have come up with a protocol for dealing with people subjected to the Bedroom Tax. The only provider to announce themselves so far is Asra HA but there is no extra information provided.

It should be emphasised that this is not a 'no-evictions' policy so it falls way short of what campaigners are asking for. Instead, it is intended to set up an agreement with the tenant and the landlord whereby, as long as the tenant is engaging with debt advice agencies and has applied for a Discretionary Housing Payment eviction proceedings will not go ahead. The fact that there will be renewed impetus for tenants to apply for DHPs is a plus at least. Mind you a side effect will probably that those in private renting will be told to go and whistle but, hey, nothing new there.

It's a start but there are still many gaps to fall through. Unfortunately, debt advisers cannot actually perform miracles. Most of the effectiveness of debt advice is identifying debts which are lower priority than the rent, e.g. non-secured loans, catalogues and the like and negotiating lower repayments freeing up cash to go on the rent. However, if you haven't got other debts then opportunities for freeing up income are limited. If a single person under 25 on Jobseekers' has to find £10/wk bedroom tax you're only going to have £46/wk left to live on. That's what's known as a challenge.

And to an old cynic like me who's been to countless meetings and watched agreement after protocol fall by the wayside it is difficult to raise too much hope. People will still be unreasonably refused DHPs, there will be issues of awareness among housing staff and of course, there will be people who are simply unable to find the money. But, as I say, it's a start.

Of course, what we need is for Labour to make a firm commitment to repeal the bedroom tax. This will give campaigners a stronger bast to argue for a true non-evictions policy as any pain will only be temporary. As yet, Labour is shying away from promising anything. The fact that Labour NCC is refusing to entertain the possibility of no evictions may suggest they have inside knowledge of what the party's plans are in this area.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Curse of NCCLOLs?

Just found this little web snippett.

It concerns someone called Helen Spencer who used to be Director of Customer Services for Nottingham City Council. She was the Director of the service area that included Housing Benefits and Welfare Rights when I was working there and when I resigned.

She was the one who heard my complaint against Lisa 'Lying Fat Arse' Black. She said that Lisa's decisions that I had 'harassed' people were 'well reasoned'. As such she whitewashed over the gaping cracks and made it impossible for me to return to work.

Funnily enough, at my Employment Tribunal, witness after witness were falling over themselves to deny that Black's decisions that I had harrassed people meant that I had actually, you know, harassed people. 'Well reasoned' eh Helen?

Anyway, the above web snippett appears to be Helen Spencer telling the world that NCC had made her redundant. It's dated 8 December 2009, which is about 2 weeks after my Employment Tribunal had ended. The very same Tribunal where Spencer had cheerily defended her and NCC's actions as being beyond reproach.

I wonder how she felt about that when they told her? Maybe she wondered when the decision had been made? Maybe the decision had been made some weeks before but NCC had delayed informing her in case it affected her performance at my Tribunal?

You have to say, schadenfreude doesn't get any tougher than this *stifles giggles*.

So, of the people who fucked me over a significant number of people have lost their jobs, some under a bit of a cloud. Two of the people who made false complaints about me were sacked for gross misconduct, Michael Williams, the Corporate Director at the time retired and was subsequently seriously criticised in the District Auditor's report into the Future Jobs Fund fiasco. And now poor old Helen, only days after she tried to sell me down the river at my Tribunal hearing.

Who's next for the Curse of NCCLOLs?

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

One Nottingham And Its Voluntary Sector Representatives

While we're on the subject of One Nottingham (see previous post wrt workfare issues) I thought we might have a look at the categories of voluntary sector reps that serve on its board because it's a bit odd.

As mentioned previously the board has a 'faith' representative, a BME representative and a 'general' representative.

Personally I think this is a bit odd. I absolutely agree that an organisation such as One Nottingham should have at least one board member representing BME communities but why is this only as part of the voluntary sector? Don't black people work in banks too?

I also wonder about whether a faiths representative is justified. Yes, I know the majority of people in Nottingham identify with a religion but I suspect only a tiny number of the 44% of Nottingham people identifying as Christian actually bother turning up of a Sunday. I'm sure levels of devotion in other religions is much higher but I suspect there's a lot of overlap between BME and non-Christian faith issues. Maybe combine the two?

That said, a sound justification for having a 'faith' representative is that, like race, it is one of the protected characteristics in discrimination law. However, that opens several worm-cans as One Nottingham appears to have no representation for the other major categories of women (yes, I know it's actually 'sex' but it's generally women who face the discrimination side of things), disability, older/younger people and LGBT communities, other than via the 'general' VCS rep. It's this that concerns me the most and I have no idea what the justification is. Please feel free to write in if you do.

It seems to me that a better way of doing things would be to have board reps representing the above sections of the community, based around the protected characteristics rather than on a particular service sector. Don't get me wrong, a voluntary sector rep is still justified as they are important service providers in the city. However I think it's wrong to assume that the interests of that particular business sector are necessarily the same as the people they serve.

What got me thinking about this is the current elections to the VCS reps on the ON board. While looking into this an aspect of the organisation of the vote for the BME rep concerned me a little and that is the involvement of Nottingham Equal;-

"The BME candidates will be elected by an electorate who have been notified to ON primarily (but not only) by Nottingham Equal."

Why does Nottingham Equal play such an important role? I've written quite a lot about this bunch in the past, largely due to its connections with two of Nottingham's dodgier characters, Hassan Ahmed and Tyron Browne, as well as the coincidental rise of this organisation concurrent with the demise of the former Racial Equality Council, more recently the Council for Equalities and Human Rights Nottm and Notts, which had Ahmed's fingerprints all over it. Browne is, of course still involved with NE. He is/was also involved with PATRA which did quite nicely out of the Future Jobs Fund (Prop. Hassan Ahmed).

I seem to remember that NE 'facillitated' the VCS BME rep election where the Chief Exec of CEHRNN was voted out of the role back in 2010 which left a bad taste in the mouth. Now they appear to effectively be the gatekeeper for the BME rep this time round.

With this latter point in mind it seems quite astonishing that one of NE's own board members, Prof Cecille Wright, is running for the BME rep post on the ON board. Have they never heard the phrase 'perceived conflict of interest'? Prof Wright is also a board member for PATRA too which is quite a coincidence.

So Nottingham Equal seems to have the entire BME sector in Nottingham in lockdown, quite an achievement for an organisation little more than three years old. How much of this is down to Browne's influence cannot be quantified but it's certainly true that NCC, and thus One Nottingham, have a very big motivation to keep him on side. After all, nobody knows better where the housing allocations scandal bodies are buried.

Monday, 1 July 2013

One Nottingham VCS Board Member Elections and Workfare

One Nottingham, the 'strategic partnership' has a management board with various posts reserved for representatives of particular sectors e.g., business, higher education and the voluntary sector. Currently, elections are underway for the voluntary sector posts which include a 'faith' representative, a BME representative and a sort of general 'everybody else' representative. More on the choices of these categories another time, maybe.

In the meantime, let's concentrate on the 'general' post. One of the candidates is Andrew Redfern, the Chief Exec of Framework HA which has deservedly attracted controversy and outright hostility for its participation in the Tories' take on modern slavery that is workfare. Have a look at their Facebook page to see some of the comments.

Because of this involvement in workfare, it would send a message if Redfern was sent packing in this election. Therefore, if you have any influence at any voluntary sector organisation in the City I urge you to persuade your organisation not to vote for him. It would also be very useful if any organisations exercising their vote in this way made it very clear why.

Framework has repeatedly refused to answer key questions about its use of workfare, particularly about whether it has reported participants for transgressions, putting them at risk of benefit sanctions and thus homelessness. It is an extraordinary course of action for an organisation which is supposed to be helping the homeless.

In the meantime, you may be interested in joining in with an internet blockade against Framework during the upcoming week of action against workfare.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Crackdown On Lucrative Second Hand Wheelie Bin Market

A couple of years ago I had a wheelie bin nicked. It all ended happily, I got a new one free of charge without too much trouble. If I hadn't been dirt poor I'd have had to pay for it but I am so I didn't.

However, if a Twitter friend's experience is anything to go by, this soft-hearted liberal approach has been set aside as Nottingham City Council looks like it is taking a firm hand to the suspected wheelie-bin second-hand market.

Yes, it seems that NCC is so worried about people 'pretending' to have their wheelie-bins stolen that they are requiring victims to CALL THE POLICE before accepting that a genuine loss has occurred.

Impressively, the rozzers are leaving no stone unturned. As you can see, they are actually going out to visit Karen about her loss. That's value for money for you. Apparently, when she called them up they asked her for a description of the aforementioned pilfered waste receptacle...

Friday, 7 June 2013

'No Evictions' Petition

Just a quickie.

38 Degrees has a petition requesting that Nottingham City Council pledges not to evict anybody for bedroom tax arrears.

The petition can be found here.

I do think these petitions are worth signing, even though it won't directly help housing association tenants. The fewer evictions the better.

Update; signatures are arriving slowly but the initial target of 100 has been reached. New target is 200...

Friday, 31 May 2013

DHPs and the Bedroom Tax

There is another demo against the Bedroom Tax in Nottingham tomorrow (albeit one arranged in an extremely unsatisfactory manner via an off the cuff announcement by some SWP apparatchik at the Peoples Assembly but hey ho).

The last one attracted a few NCC councillors, including Graham Chapman the Deputy Leader. They have been very vocal in their own opposition to the BT, even going as far as organising a petition against it. So are we to assume that they are doing everything they can to alleviate its effects?

Not quite. This year NCC's allocation for Discretionary Housing Payments is just over £696k. However, councils have the power to pay out up to a maximum of 2.5 times their government allocation, making up the rest from their own coffers. Nottingham could therefore pay out up to £1.74m. That extra million would help quite a few more people avoid homelessness.

However, from published decisions, it seems clear that NCC is only willing to splash out the central government money, no more.

So tomorrow, when you see Chapman and his pals shedding crocodile tears about the sheer awfulness of it all, remember our council has CHOSEN not to spend all it can to help those facing one of the most oppressive welfare policies for years.

Monday, 1 April 2013

The Now Traditional April Fool Post

Nottingham City Council has organised a demo against the Bedroom Tax while making the poorest pay Council Tax....

Oh. No, that one actually happened didn't it? Erm...

John Collins has accused Boots of being tax avoiders, then accused The Nottingham Post of making it up...

That's true as well isn't it? Oh botheration...

I'm afraid that, due to the world now being beyond satire, I regret to announce there will be no witty April Fool from me this year.

Oh, and your shoelaces are undone.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Bedroom Tax - When Is a Two-Bedroom Flat not a Two-Bedroom Flat?

I had really mixed feelings over writing this post. As you may have noticed, this blog is normally a little bit critical of Nottingham City Council, both from moral and/or legal viewpoints. So what should I do when NCC does something which you applaud morally but have serious misgivings about legally? Keep schtum and hope nobody notices? Or be Mr Consistent and call it out anyway? I've gone for the latter because there seems to be a significant amount of legal woo building up on the whole 'Bedroom Tax' subject and most importantly because the consequences of what is essentially wishful thinking will probably fall on the heads of tenants.

I'm talking of course about of NCC's decision to redefine all high rise flats it owns as 1 bedroom flats regardless of how many bedrooms they have. This has now hit the mainstream media and I quietly mentioned it in an addendum to my earlier post on the bedroom tax. The decision also includes 'reviewing' a small number of other properties where one of the alleged bedrooms is smaller than 50 sq ft. I'm happier (legally) with this bit so I'll come back to it later.

So, the decision to redefine the high rise properties then. It initially looked so simple, politicians and expert commentators were saying that the number of bedrooms you have is decided by your landlord. Landlords actually have no interest in 20% of their tenants being suddenly unable to pay their rent so what would you do?

The problem is that politicians saying all this sounded to me very much like the sort of pronouncements of gay abandon popular with people who actually have no idea how the law works. You think this doesn't happen? Witness Cameron bullshitting on a virtually daily basis about people who are exempt when the political situation makes it advantageous to do so. And so it is the case about it all being up to landlords.

The fundamental problem is that the new law does not define what a bedroom is and furthermore, does not actually say who decides. If the politicians were right and it really was down to the landlord the law would say that.

Where does that leave us? Well, the actual decision as to how much benefit you get, which implicitly includes all 'bedroom tax' questions including how many bedrooms you have, is made by the decision makers of the benefit authorities i.e. the council's housing benefits officers. For now at least (as usual, more in a bit on this). It's a matter of simple fact i.e. what the situation actually is rather than what someone would like it to be. They have to decide what a 'bedroom' is using the normal English use of the word which is the default position when a term is not specifically defined in the law.

On the face of it that doesn't sound so bad. After all, NCC Housing Benefits officers are hardly likely to go against NCC/NCH decisions are they? Not when it will effectively mean NCC losing out. Well no, they probably won't but the thing is, from October the new Universal Credit benefit scheme is coming in and that, including the rent element, will be decided by JobCentre Plus. They might not be so keen to look the other way. I'm afraid it will be a brave UC claimant saying he only has one bedroom on his claim form when he lives in a 2 bed flat because there's a real chance that will be seen as misrepresentation, a criminal offence.

What's more, let's say you appeal to a Tribunal over an aspect of your HB claim unrelated to the bedroom tax. It's quite open to the Tribunal to not just look at the bit you've appealed against but the claim in it's entirety. You might win your specific point but be worse off because the Tribunal also decides that the bedroom tax should be applied. I've represented hundreds of people before benefits appeal Tribunals in my time, one taking the initiative in this way is entirely feasible, believe me.

That's not the end of it. NCC's auditors will probably look at it at some point. I really don't see how an auditor could sign off what is essentially a scam. I actually think it's possible that charges of conspiracy to defraud could be on the table. There is a small possibility that claimants who went along with it could find themselves charged with this too. This is serious heavy shit for anyone concerned.

Cllr Liversidge's portfolio holder decision notice says that advice has been obtained from a law firm called Trowers and Hamlin. They are supposedly the leading law firm in social rented housing. Well, that's what Wikipedia says anyway so make of that what you will. I have to say that, if they have really provided such advice I humbly and respectively disagree with their conclusions. Not only did I used to be shit-hot at Housing Benefit appeals I've also seen a legal opinion by Jonathon Mitchell QC provided to a Scottish advice agency and I reckon he is pretty much saying the same as I'm saying above, apart from my suggestion of possible conspiracy offences which he hasn't touched on. Even if I'm wrong on that specific point (quite possible I'm no criminal expert) the situation we're left in is not a good one.

I said I'd also look at the situation where small bedrooms are to be disregarded. I think NCC are on much stronger ground here because, although the Housing Benefit regs don't stipulate what counts as a bedroom, the overcrowding rules in the 1985 Housing Act do say that a room smaller than 50 sq ft cannot count as a bedroom even for half a person (less grisly than it sounds, just refers to a child aged between 1 and 10). It's therefore plausible to argue that, when counting up the number of bedrooms those of such a small size should be disregarded. It's a perfectly rational way of deciding such matters and I'd be very surprised if a Tribunal or court interfered with it.

However, there's always a 'but'. Such a principle should in theory apply as much to rented properties in the private sector. As I pointed out before, they have their own version of a bedroom tax baked in to their version of housing benefit. I wonder if NCC has been looking at their claims in this way? If you were a private rented tenant who has had their benefit reduced because of a tiny box room you'd be entitled to be pretty pissed off having seen how NCC proposes to treat council tenants. In fact, under the new regime the same would apply to a Housing Association tenant, NCC cannot redefine other landlords' properties but Housing Benefit decision makers still have to make decisions on a consistent basis.

To be honest, I'm extremely surprised that a private sector tenant has not made a challenge on this basis before, there must be people out there affected in this way. If such a person does launch an appeal and it fails, that would put this aspect of NCC's 'review' under severe threat.

So, I'm sorry people, after considerable thought and research in an area that I do still claim expertise in, I pronounce this a dog's dinner of epic proportions. I really cannot see it holding for long and, even if it does, it is far from equitable to all housing sectors. I'll be watching closely what happens.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Bedroom Tax - Some Thoughts

I went to Nottingham's 'Bedroom Tax' demo last week. Saw the odd NCC councillor and apparently at least one MP popped in too.

You might also be aware that NCC has launched it's own petition against it too and, despite the fact that they deserve a long list of "Where were you when...?" questions, I would urge you to sign it.

It's not hard to see NCC's self interest in challenging the bedroom tax. It's implication will result in a rocketing level of arrears for council housing, the financing of which they are responsible for. In addition, the resultant homelessness and mass of downsizing applications will be a nightmare for them to deal with. We'll see how sympathetic they really are when those evicted for rent arrears rock up at the homelessness office and get told that they're intentionally homeless.

So, to those of us who have actually taken a genuine interest in social welfare provision it's no surprise to see them jump on this particular bandwagon when they haven't given a shit about poor people before. But their voice against the bedroom tax will help the campaign, hence my encouragement for you to sign the petition. Just please make sure you sign all the others too.

But, the fact that there has always been a 'bedroom tax' baked into the housing benefit scheme for private tenants, which has been constantly chipped away at by successive Tory AND Labour governments with nary a campaign, nevermind a squeak from NCC before* raises the question as to what is different. After all, ToryDems are using this former advantage for social housing tenants as a justification for bringing the bedroom tax in. This seems to be a significant gap in the campaign to me.

As far as I can see there are two main reasons why applying a bedroom tax to social tenants is worse than applying to private tenants;

1) You have to apply for social housing, satisfy eligibility criteria, usually spend time on a waiting list before being allocated a property. You rarely get very much choice in where you go. As such, you have no control over how many bedrooms you have so introducing a charege for having a 'spare' seems more unjust.

Of course, the flaw in this argument is that, with the total lack of available social housing,along with this country's peculiar obsession with owner-occupation means that those with neither of those options available are flooding the oversubscribed and overpriced private renting sector and any alleged 'choice' is probably somewhat illusory.

2) The continuing disastrous reduction in supply of social housing has meant that it has more and more become an option for the vulnerable alone, rather than a genuine mass option for housing that it used to be. Therefore it follows that an attack on this sector's housing benefit provision is much more likely to hit the vulnerable which, in most people's eyes, is worse than hitting fit, healthy people should just get on with it.

But again, that theory falls down due to that lack of supply of social housing has meant that vulnerable people fall through the gaps and are stuck with the private sector. In fact, because owner-occupation does look like a much better deal than private renting for solvent, healthy people, you have to wonder if most of those left in the private rented sector do have some element of vulnerability.

So to my mind, those two above reasons set out why a bedroom tax applied to social tenants is worse than one applied to private tenants. My caveats simply meant that, like most generalisations, the differences do not hold true 100% and are less likely to hold true as time goes on and the post WW2 social contract is progressively undermined. If you have other ideas please do add them to the comments.

So I think the anti bedroom tax campaigners need to make these points, otherwise to be consistent we need to also campaign against size related benefit restrictions whatever the sector, or be accused of double standards by the ToryDems. Such accusations, if they stick, can often be the death knell of a campaign.

Addendum; It appears that NCC is reviewing all its housing stock to identify any properties with rooms of less than 50 sq ft.Such small rooms will no longer be counted as bedrooms. They are also re-classifying all high rise flats as 1 bed properties, as they are only available to single and couples without children. Of course, a side effect of this welcome application of modern housing standards is that these properties will be less likely to be caught by the bedroom tax. Credit where it's due etc...

*Let's not forget that NCC, like many councils, has made the situation worse for private sector tenants by its monumental failure to administer Discretionary Housing Payments properly. The increased DHP provision to offset the bedroom tax is a drop in the ocean but I'll be keeping an eye on whether it is used properly.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

By-Election 'Purdah'

There are a couple of by-elections coming up in the City on 4 April, one in Bilborough and the other in Wollaton East & Lenton Abbey. The Bilborough one will probably be a shoo-in for Labour but the WE&LA one isn't perhaps quite as certain. Lib Dems have held the seat before and one of the former incumbents, Tony Sutton, is running again this time.

By some strange coincidence, the Labour councillor (Cllr Longford) in the other seat in the ward has decided to use her ward-member's budget to fund a 'Week of Action' for the ward in March. Isn't that nice of her? I'm sure it will provide a wonderful and positive impression of the Council and, of course, the party in power.

Obviously Cllr Longford will resist any temptation to use the occasion to bombard the area with 'Proud' literature or materials giving the impression that Labour councillors like her are a wonderful thing. That might step over the line during the period of electoral 'purdah', which the Week of Action will be smack in the middle of. Guidance and the law prohibits councils from publishing anything that might influence voters during this time.

Still, I'm sure they'll all have a lovely time with their 'community engagement' events, nothing better take your mind off those pesky elections.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Collins In New Battle With the 'Post'

Brief announcement; It has come to my notice that this post has been linked to from a BNP Facebook page. If that is the route you got here then please fuck off because it's very likely you're a nazi cunt. This blog is resolutely anti-fascist and anti-discrimination. The fact that I regularly criticise Labour Party politicians does NOT mean I'm sympathetic to the right wing, quite the opposite.

Brief announcement over, if you got here via a conventional route, enjoy.

Oh dear, he's off on one again.

Yes, Cllr Collins has picked another battle with the Nottingham Post, claiming that they made up a quote from him. I won't put that in speech marks, you'll see why later.

It all started off with Collins' motion criticising corporate tax avoidance at the full City Council meeting on 11 February. The Post later wrote an article on it with the headline "Council leader: 'Boots are avoiding paying corporation tax'".

Cllr Collins didn't like that at all and responded on Twitter thusly (read from bottom up);

That link to what he says he actually said is here.

So, broadly speaking, Collins appears to be saying that 'Boots are avoiding paying corporation tax' is completely different to saying 'Even Nottingham based Boots paid just £14 million tax on profits of £475 million in 2009/10' in the context of a speech condemning tax avoidance. It's a question of interpretation, obviously.

So, to help us, let's get the impression of a totally unbiased party. Someone who was at the meeting if possible. And who was live-tweeting it. That should prove Cllr Collins' point shouldn't it?...


Now the thing is, the Post clearly didn't write exactly what Collins said on the day, they used a journalistic technique called 'paraphrasing'. I think it's fairly common. Collins would have legitimate grounds for complaint if the Post had significantly altered his meaning but, seeing as his own party Twitter feed reported him as saying almost exactly what the Post said, I think he's onto a loser with arguing that one.

Thing is, he's still banging on about it, weeks later, posting these tweets earlier this evening;

Frankly, it's all getting a little undignified, not to mention getting a bit close to the bone re defamation and stuff. This might go on for a while yet.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Benefits Certification Returns Qualified by Auditors - Again

NCC has had it's grant claim for Housing and Council Tax Benefits qualified by new auditors KPMG. This seems to be an ongoing issue.

Again, the problem appears to be incorrect classification of overpayments which, as I wrote about before, has an affect on how much central government pays the council towards its benefit expenditure. It may be that the DWP chases up the council for a return of up to £799k, which is just under  0.5% of total expenditure on benefits.

Last time this happened, Deputy Leader Graham Chapman was quite chilled about it, preferring to concentrate on the 99.53% that was classified correctly. However that's slightly misleading as the problem is concerned with the classification of overpayments (which account for a very small part of expenditure), so expressing the sum at risk as a percentage of ALL benefit expenditure is very much turning a frown into a smile.

What's more, pretty much every year the National Audit Office qualifies the DWP's accounts and that tends to be seen as pretty newsworthy, will it be the same locally?

Another thing to bear in mind is that, when it is found that CLAIMANTS fraudulently obtain 0.5% of a benefit's expenditure, as is the case with Disability Living Allowance, it is seen by successive governments, both Labour and Tory, as signifying the end of days. Yet when a local council fucks up to that extent, everybody remains relaxed.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Discretionary Housing Payments 2013

I've been trying for a while to find the annual circular stating how much authorities would be getting from the government for Discretionary Housing Payments. I have finally found it. This was a lesson in picking your search terms...

For 2013/4 NCC will get £696,031, an increase from last year's £274,621 (although this included a one-off carry-over of £62,741 from 2011/2, this was apparently quite common). This means that, in theory, NCC could pay out up to £1.74m although, on past experience, the chances of them going over the level of government funding (or even reaching it) is quite slim. I don't know how much they actually paid out last year.

This year they have to deal with the 'bedroom tax' which will upset the apple cart somewhat. Conversely, although the replacement of Council Tax Benefit with a local scheme means an effective cut in support of around 18% for those of working age, the DHP scheme will not be available to help. Bad news for tenants but a slight lifting of pressure on the DHP budget.

Interestingly though, according to a report from NCVS on a briefing from Cllr Liversidge (available here), NCC are setting up an 'emergency fund' for those unable to pay their Council Tax as a result of the change. I only heard about this today and have absolutely no idea of what's planned, how it's being paid for or why the money for it wasn't used to offset further the cuts in Council Tax support.

Anyway, what is clear is that there is an overall cut in support and a much increased role for 'discretionary' support to partially fill the gap. Interestingly, the DWP has announced it will now be monitoring the administration of DHPs from now on, something the Audit Commission never got round to doing. Will this make a difference, one wonders?

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Final Decision on Council Tax Benefit Replacement Due

The Full Council is meeting on 28 January to decide, amongst other things, whether to ratify the final version of the Council Tax Benefit replacement which was agreed by Executive Board in December.

I say 'whether', it is of course merely a rubber stamping exercise and the scheme has to be approved by 31 January or the Council will be saddled with the 'default scheme' which, being similar to the current system, will be more expensive.

As you'll be aware if you visit here regularly, the original proposals have been softened a bit to ensure that NCC qualifies for the one-off transitional grant from central government. However, after this first year it will be back to plan A, 20% minimum contribution and all. The report before full council says -

"NCC considered a number of options based on modelling of different levels of contribution from all working age households varying from 10% to 25%. As a result of this modelling, claimant contributions of 10% and 15% were found to be unaffordable in the long-term for the Council."

I find it interesting that 'not affordable' is always seen as a perfectly adequate excuse for NCC not to do something yet they don't afford this luxury to the citizens of Nottingham. If I find that my 8.5% and later 20% contributions are 'not affordable' due to the amount of money I have to shell out for housing, food and heating etc I'll simply get a visit from the bailiffs.

It could be even worse in 2014. DCLG has been forced to deny that further cuts to the funding for Council Tax reduction schemes are due in 2014. Reports were claiming that a further 8.5% would be lopped off.

They've denied it yes but do you feel lucky?

Sunday, 20 January 2013

The IT Crowd

Nottingham City Homes has someone running a public blog providing updates on social housing issues and the like. It's quite useful if you're interested in the field so I've added it to the blogroll (thought I'd added it ages ago tbh but it wasn't there so must have removed it, heaven knows why).

I did have to giggle at a recent post. The City Council does their IT for them and runs a blocking feature for social media to stop those naughty council worker scamps spending all their time on Facebook*. Apparently it randomly blocked Phil Meadows, NCH's blog admin, leaving him unable to update the blog.

Took NCC's IT mob 10 days to fix it back, presumably by turning it off and turning it back on again.

I'm sure you'll agree, Phil hides his frustration very well!

*Blocks you from Facebook but not, apparently, from Google Mail. Although I do remember that when I worked for NCC all webmail services were blocked. Does make you wonder whether certain employees were given special permission to use Google Mail and what for...

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Chapman Plays the Striver/Skivers Game for LOLs

Deputy Leader Graham Chapman has had the opportunity to pop down to that London and tell the Select Committee on Welfare Reform how bad the government's ideas are. Good stuff. Its how he's chosen to publicise it that pisses me off.

You see, like a number of mainstream Labour politicians he seems to have bought into the 'strivers v skivers' divide, the latest revamp of Victorian deserving/undeserving poor attitudes. The Victorian era is where such bigoted claptrap should remain.

You see, it is NOT the only thing wrong with government plans to limit benefit and tax credits increases to 1% per year that it will affect a lot of working people. It is wrong because it will also affect all unemployed people. Even if Chapman is just trying to highlight the Tories clumsy attempt to hide the affects of this real terms cut, he couldn't bring himself to highlight the government lie that disabled people will be exempt; the cap will also be applied to Employment Support Allowance too, many of whom are, in the common sense and/or technical legal term, disabled.

By buying into such divisive language Chapman is fueling the exact same image that the government and its tame poodle media are trying to embed. Labour has form on this of course, playing the exact same tricks like exaggerating benefit fraud and, in fact, the invention of Employment Support Allowance itself. In fact this left many with real terms cuts in benefits too as the amounts paid are often less than the Incapacity Benefit most claimants were previously paid.

Happy New Year by the way!

PS According to a source Chapman later felt bad about the use of language, so the above link will send you somewhere more friendly now.

Just so you know I didn't make it up, here's what it used to look like.

Fair play he felt bad. Maybe an apology Cllr Chapman?

PPS the Tories' 1% cap will probably affect most less than NCC's decision to insist on the poorest paying at least 8.5% of the full Council Tax. He blames central government for this too, with some justification. He will blame all of us when we can't pay it from our real-terms reduced benefits. The only people he won't blame is himself and his councillor colleagues.