Too many councillors for too few taxpayers is a problem that Northern Ireland has wrestled with for some time. In my hometown within the Strabane District Council, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, this is particularly acute. Strabane has a small population of which just over 26,000 people are registered to vote, yet the District has 16 councillor. Based on the electoral register at the last local election each and every councillor represents only 1664 people. This is roughly half of a councillor within mainland Britain.
Councillors obviously get allowances for their work and it is understood that Strabane is largely rural, but the size of their expenses doesn’t really seem justified by their responsibilties. As revealed in an FOI request, just one of these councillors claimed £13,685.73 in expenses. Between 2009 and 2011, he claimed £7,762.86 in fuel allowances, £1,356.56 in other fares and parking, £1,246.92 in hotel expenses, £234.39 in meals, £3,085 in conference fees at various locations including York, Chester and Blackpool. Times this by sixteen and you have a lot of money that could be going on front-line services.
In an acknowledgement of this problem, government planned to reduce the number of district councils in Northern Ireland from 26 to 11, but this sensible strategy was shelved in June 2010 by the Northern Ireland Assembly. In these belt-tightening times, is it not appropriate to revisit this problem and reduce both the number of councils and councillors within them or give them more responsibility including education provision, housing or roads; areas of governance currently not in their portfolio?
Lee Canning, Northern Ireland TaxPayers’ Alliance
On Wednesday, I wrote about the way spending above £500 was presented on East Riding of Yorkshire Council’s website. I was contacted by a councillor, Geoff Pickering, telling me he intended to raise this matter at a scrutiny committee meeting which met yesterday. After reading my post, he too tried to access the information and found it extremely difficult. After the meeting he sent me this message:
I raised this issue at Corporate Issues Overview & Scrutiny committee today. We resolved – (despite the director’s insistence that there was no issue as the information was published as required) to make a formal recommendation that the information be presented in a clear usable manner. We were then overruled as that is ‘operational’. The recommendation is now for all information on the website to be accessible noting the publication of expenditure as an example. There are serious issues when an a scrutiny committee is 100% in agreement and still can not do anything to ensure that officers do the right thing.
It seems as if the information is deliberately presented in a confusing way. Council officers are not interested if you cannot easily read it. They are not bothered that you cannot copy and paste the figures into a spreadsheet, and councillors are not in a position to do anything about it.
So much for the council and the council leader saying they are committed to the government’s transparency agenda. Once again this council is letting taxpayers down. Residents should receive one of the lowest council tax bills in the country; yet they have to endure year-on-year rises. Now it can’t be bothered to allow taxpayers their right to view expenditure in an easily accessible way.
Why not write to the Director of Corporate Resources, Malcolm Sims, and tell him what you think? Mr Sims is new to his job. His predecessor was Sue Lockwood – who received £364K into her pension pot last year. He needs reminding he is there to serve the people, not make it harder for them to access important information.
Well done to Hull City Council who is now publishing all spending online - not just spending above £500. I hope other councils will take note and follow suit. If Hull can do it, other councils can too. The information is also presented in a user friendly format, and you can easily see where your money is going. There are a number of redactions though. Some I can understand – such as payments to foster carers – others I’m not sure about. The council must keep the number of redactions to a minimum. If it doesn’t the net result will be more Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, which will defeat the object of the exercise. If spending is open and transparent, taxpayers will not feel the need to issue FOIs in the same way as they did before.
Unfortunately, although East Riding of Yorkshire Council (ERYC) is now publishing all spending above £500, the way it is presented leaves much to be desired. You have to increase the size of the page by 200% before you can easily read anything. This means it is impossible to read with whole width of the table on one page. Anyone with any sense should have realised this, or perhaps they did? It looks like it has been done deliberately. ERYC may be sticking to the letter of the law, but they are not in keeping with the spirit of the law. Making it harder for taxpayers in the East Riding to see where their money is going implies the council has something to hide.
The leader, Cllr Stephen Parnaby, says he is committed to the government’s Local Transparency Agenda. If his words are to mean anything (bearing in mind how he tried to hide a £364K payment to a senior council officer last year) he should instruct officers to change the format. It is not good enough to simply publish the figures. They have to be easily accessed by everyone.
Some of Northern Ireland’s Members’ of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), their devolved government, are spending taxpayers’ money with little restraint. At least one of West Tyrone’s six Assembly members has been claiming for expensive trips throughout Europe that leave taxpayers out of pocket. After an FOI request, it has been discovered that a number of significantly large claims have been forwarded for duties relating to the arts, agricultural and regional development.
Over the last three years, five of the six MLAs between them claimed a sum totalling under £1,500, with one of these representatives not filing any claims within the past three years. However, the sixth MLA claimed over £4,350. These claims have been for a number of stays within four and five star hotels throughout the UK, Ireland and Spain. Claims have also been made including upgraded flights, first class rail travel and a taxi from Dublin to Wexford which cost £56, when a coach would have cost approximately £12 for exactly the same journey.
These are not the extortionate amounts that taxpayers witnessed when the MPs’ expenses scandal unravelled, but they are all the same very worrying. There are 108 MLAs serving in the Assembly. More accountability is needed and MLAs need to understand that taxpayers’ money is not there to be exploited.
Lee Canning – Taxpayers Alliance Northern Ireland
Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council have been trialling a system for transferring information electronically instead of using printed-paper, including meeting agendas and reports. Thirteen of the council’s 34 councillors have been taking part in the experiment to see how well they could carry out their roles using only computer equipment and it has been calculated that it would save the authority about £70,000 a year if introduced across the board, but the council has decided to leave the decision about whether to extend the scheme to all councillors until after the election this coming May.
At first glance, this looks as if yet another council is wasting evermore amounts of taxpayer’s money for the benefit of their own employees, however, as the figures prove, this measure could save Leicestershire taxpayers tens of thousands of pounds. Yes, it would cost £30,000 in start-up costs, but the long-term benefits would be huge for a relatively small local government body. Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council should be applauded for their innovation and we plead with them to extend the initiative so we can reap the full rewards of their good work. Let’s just hope that if adopted, the plan will involve standard laptops as opposed to top of the range units and of course used across the board; the last thing we would want is for £30,000 of taxpayers money to be spent on computers only for council employees to continue to use paper for some of their duties.
Jago Pearson, Leicestershire TPA
On this occasion, TPA supporter John Martin sets out his ideas for reducing the allowances paid by Norfolk County Council to its members.
Well, Norfolk’s Big Conversation is over and the Norfolk County Council (NCC) Cabinet has announced the recommendations that it will shortly put to the full Council to produce budget cuts of over £60m in the coming financial year. Job losses will be inevitable, however there will be many council employees who will take voluntary redundancy, and many will be approaching retirement age. The Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead has managed to reduce council tax and increase funding to frontline services. So the headline figure will not be as bad as some might think. What there hasn’t been a mention of though is a reduction in the allowances paid to NCC members, and so these are my thoughts to make up for that.
At present, the collective bill for members’ allowances (before reimbursement of travel and subsistence costs) paid by NCC and the seven district councils in Norfolk is in excess of £3 million. NCC’s share of that figure is approximately £1.1 million. But bear in mind that some fifty members of NCC also sit on a district council. (They tend to be referred to as “twin-hatters”.) In the light of the present economic conditions, this large bill has clearly caused some public disquiet. This was apparent, for instance, from some of the responses to the Big Conversation.
There are various reasons why it would be appropriate at this stage for the members of NCC to accept a cut – as opposed to a freeze – in the amount of allowances that they receive. First, there is the basic issue of fairness and setting an example by leadership. In the near future, some 1,300 employees will lose their jobs altogether. The pain rightly should be shared. Secondly, with a much-reduced staff – a further 1,700 employees are being transferred to Norse Group Ltd, a company wholly owned by NCC – and a smaller budget, the responsibility of members is considerably lessened. Thirdly, large tranches of services, e.g. adult social services, are being outsourced with a similar consequence.
(An alternative to a cut in allowances would be a reduction in size of NCC from eighty-four members, but that raises legal and constitutional issues and it could probably not be brought about before the elections in 2013.)
One obvious method of cutting allowances would be on a fixed percentage basis. For instance, a straight 10% cut across the board would save £110,000 annually, and it has a semblance of fairness. However, there is an argument that the basic allowance of approximately £9,000 should be left intact, so that anyone on a lower income is not discouraged from standing for election to NCC. Such an approach might also be viewed as unfair to the small group of single-hatters not in receipt of any additional special responsibility allowance (SRA). Another straightforward approach would be to place an overall cap on the total amount of allowances that any NCC member could be paid. On a rough estimate, if a ceiling of £15,000 were imposed the saving might be in the region £85,000 annually.
To move to the approach of selective cuts, the Cabinet members alone might be asked to make a sacrifice, since they are obviously the best rewarded. A straight 10% cut would, however, produce a saving of only £24,000, which is obviously better than nothing but probably less than the public would hope to see. An alternative would be to ask the fifty twin-hatters to give credit for the basic allowances that they receive from their district councils. This would produce a saving of closer to £200,000, and would have the additional advantage of answering the main criticism that many members of the public have of the twin-hatter system.
A final possibility would be to target some of the forty-five or so roles that attract an SRA. For instance, should the role of NCC Chairman – which is essentially a figurehead role – attract a further allowance of over £10,000? (Bear in mind that on many occasions the role is fulfilled either by the Leader or the Chief Executive.) Do the leader of the main opposition party and his deputy deserve to share an additional £16,000? Are the six deputy Cabinet members’ duties so onerous that they deserve to be paid an extra £6,000 each? The same question might be asked in the case of the Chairman of the Planning (Regulatory) Committee, who is in receipt of over £5,000 on top of his basic allowance.
A few of us have asked Cllr Derrick Murphy, the NCC Leader, to initiate a full Council debate on this. We await his reaction with bated breath.
You can tell election time is looming in Bath from the amount of councillors posing for photographs in the local newspaper against so-called achievements. But what are some of these ‘victories’ for the taxpayer?
Some time ago I reported that the council had implemented a small but essential change to the traffic system in Bath to alleviate traffic jams along the London Road. They had moved a bus stop a little way along from a busy junction. But my thrill at this display of common sense was premature. It now appears this was merely a temporary measure and it has returned to its original position. In the meantime, however, our fearless councillors claimed that, under pressure from a few elderly residents, they reversed the decision. As one witty local observer commented after they received substantial coverage for ‘campaigning’ to move the bus stop—‘the only thing these councillors had to do was nothing; simply wait before pronouncing their campaign successful.’
Similarly, two councillors can be seen posing determinedly outside a restaurant opposite the Roman Baths. ‘Work has started on a new family-friendly café and restaurant for the Roman Baths,’ says the Bath Chronicle. But excuse me, wasn’t this already a busy restaurant called ‘Binks’ crowded with relaxed families sitting inside and outside?
Now I know it didn’t get rave reviews for its food, but in these days of cuts and redundancies, should the council really be spending money out of council reserves on compensating the current lease-holder for his £500,000 lease and covering his legal fees? In addition to that, the council will close the restaurant for a year (thus losing rental income for council taxpayers), and then spend tens of thousands of taxpayers’ pounds fitting it out and turning it into what? ‘Somewhere relaxed and casual where families can go,’ says an heroic councillor. Which it already had been for the last 20 years! And by the way, since when it did it fall within the job-description of councillors to become restaurateurs? Beats me, but at least it gets them yet more press coverage at our expense.
Tim Newark, Bath & South West TaxPayers’ Alliance
I once heard a joke which asked how many councillors does it take to change a light bulb? The answer is 30. One to change the light bulb and 29 to go on an essential fact finding mission to the Caribbean to find out how it’s done there! Sounds far fetched, doesn’t it? Not when you read some of the recent revelations in the Yorkshire Post.
The Yorkshire Post sent Freedom of Information requests to councils and other public bodies in Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire to find out how much of our money they spent on travel and accommodation. Amazingly, North Lincolnshire Council spent almost £10,000 sending councillors and officers across Europe to help them decide how to deal with residents’ rubbish. Five and six man teams went to Spain, Slovenia, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland. The council says these were essential fact finding missions, and described them as a small price to pay! Are they expecting us to believe they couldn’t study councils closer to home? Can they not communicate by e-mail and teleconferencing? But this is just the start of this expenses story.
Doncaster NHS Primary Care Trust (PCT) spent £5000 sending three executives to Vancouver to study the Canadian healthcare system. The chief executive of Hull NHS PCT flew club class to Mumbai, India as part of a government-led Top Management Programme. His justification for travelling club class was he was advised to do so to ensure he wasn’t too tired when he arrived in India, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to get the maximum benefit from the course.
Other revelations include stays in expensive London hotels, such as the Crown Plaza in Buckingham Gate, so a councillor and officer from Craven District Council could be near Buckingham Palce to attend a Royal Garden Party. Hull City Council has spent £37,000 on flights and a further £227,000 on hotel bills in the last three years, and Richmondshire District Council spent almost £5000 on flights and hotels for an interim chief executive. Amazingly, he was only in charge of the authority between April and August 2007.
Despite all of this, councils and the NHS feel they have done nothing wrong. They say they always ensure the best value for taxpayers’ money. Well, let me tell them this. When I travel on behalf of the TPA, I always make sure I get the cheapest rail travel possible. I go onto various websites to find the best hotel deals, and stay in budget hotels. If you are travelling to London and have to stay overnight, you can find 3* hotels in or very close to central London for under £100 a night, and this is at short notice. All you have to do is spend a little time searching for the best deals. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. They would do it if they were spending their own money, and it’s what they should be doing when their spending ours.
The devolved Welsh Assembly Government continues to be lax with accounting for taxpayers’ money. Its flagship ‘Communities First’ programme, designed to aid those in deprived areas, has been caught napping again. After a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, it was discovered that there are a number of significant and inherent failings within the record keeping of its Cardiff Council-based Human Resources department.
Apparently, the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) have only maintained recruitment costs for their ‘Communities First’ programme since 2005, even though it has been in operation since 2001. That means that four years of spending Welsh Taxpayers’ money has gone unregulated. Nationally, I would not even want to comprehend the amount of Taxpayers’ money outside of Cardiff that has been totally unaccounted for.
On a more damning note, since 2005, a total of £75,648 has been spent by Cardiff Council on recruitment towards their thirty-five member staff team. But within the FOI response, it was highlighted that Cardiff Council when reporting expenditure had not accounted for several elements of recruitment, including interview expenses and Criminal Record Bureau checks, which could account for tens of thousands of pounds more.
A further depressing element to this well-meaning initiative is that the three charitable organisations receiving WAG grants for ‘Communities First’ are not required to forward their expenses onto the Welsh Assembly and only publish results within their annual report. This leaves Welsh Taxpayers totally in the dark about their spending plans and the use of public money.
Yesterday, I wrote about Bradford Council deciding to delay publishing its spending above £500. This morning I was interviewed by BBC Radio Leeds, who told me Leeds and Kirklees councils have not as yet published their spending. It seems those two councils will just meet the deadline, however all councils have had since June last year to prepare themselves. Anyone with basic computer knowledge will tell you this is not a difficult process. Councils do not have any excuses. This information should be online now.
To give you an example, there are five councils in Suffolk who have yet to comply. They are: Suffolk Coastal, St Edmundsbury, Ipswich, Waveney, and Suffolk County Council.
In Berkshire, the leader of Wokingham Borough Council said finance openness ‘is not a priority’ and last week in the House of Commons, Helen Goodman, the MP for Bishop Auckland, accused Eric Pickles of ‘pointless posturing’ over his demands to publish spending. It is worth noting this is the same MP who claimed £600 in expenses to pay her husband to advise her on the running of her office.
The Department for Communities and Local Government has a list of councils who have published their spending. If your council is not on the list, contact them to find out why not. One thing is for certain, we will continue to campaign vigorously to make sure all councils comply. It is our money and we have a right to know how it is spent.
With a sense of impending doom, TPA supporter John Martin brings us up to date on the Norfolk incinerator project.
At the risk of repeating myself, when – figuratively speaking – I last set pen to paper Norfolk County Council (NCC) remained hell bent on acquiring itself an incinerator. It much preferred terms like “energy from waste plant”, but on a good day its officers emerged sufficiently from the closet to use the i – word. Nevertheless, problems were starting to appear.
NCC chose a contractor, the US arm of which was soon to be reported as attracting the eye of the Massachusetts’ attorney general in relation to environmental violations on her patch. The deal was to involve a costly twenty-five year PFI contract, something of which we in Norfolk already have had a bad experience. Expensive penalty provisions were to be included in the contract, sheltering the contractor if the project failed to get clearance. Research uncovered the fact that the land in King’s Lynn that NCC had already acquired as a site was burdened by a restrictive covenant preventing its use for the commercial production of electricity. And NCC unwisely took the view that it could be judge in its own cause and determine the necessary planning application itself.
(On this last point, even the NCC Cabinet Scrutiny Committee took fright and asked the Cabinet to request a call-in by the Secretary of State. This merely prompted an internal statement to the effect that NCC would be doing nothing wrong if it granted planning permission itself. This caused steam to erupt from the ears of Cllr George Nobbs, the flamboyant but concerned leader of the Labour group (of three) at NCC.)
The enemy – sorry, the objectors – then put forward some extremely convincing technical arguments to demonstrate that the incinerator was very likely to have a disastrous impact on health and the environment over a wide portion of Norfolk, albeit not including the site of County Hall. Even I started to understand how difficult it can be to ensure that there are no unacceptable levels of dioxin emissions. However, NCC resolutely refused to answer those arguments, and announced that it was satisfied with what it had read on informed websites.
King’s Lynn Borough Council, no doubt encouraged by the tenor of the Localism Bill, agreed to hold a referendum on whether the incinerator should be built, and that is shortly to take place. NCC professed itself unwilling to give weight to the result. A concerned resident made a formal complaint to NCC about misleading statements on its website, but that was summarily dismissed. Private Eye, in its Rotten Boroughs’ feature, reminded its readership of the disastrous experiences in Derbyshire, Shropshire and Cornwall – I would also have thrown in Neath Port Talbot – but despite the feature being circulated to members, nothing changed.
Now, dear readers, you possibly understand the reference to a sense of impending doom. With some like-minded chums in support, I thought that it was time to put a few formal questions to the NCC Cabinet.
First of all, we asked whether any members or officers at NCC had inspected an incinerator of exactly the same design and capacity as that intended for King’s Lynn, and talked to both local occupiers and the pollution control authority. The answer? “No. The layout and design are specific to the site.”
Then we asked why NCC was unwilling to analyse the expert opinion put in front of it by the enemy – oops, the objectors – before the PFI contract is entered into, and so at a time when the penalty provisions are not in operation. (If this is left until the planning application and environmental permit application stages, and the project falls through, NCC could face a bill of up to £20.5m from the contractor.) The answer? “It is conventional for the procuring authority to award a contract before planning permission and permitting are secured as this approach represents the best value for money outcome and transfers some of the risk of failure onto the private sector.”
Finally, we asked whether Counsel’s opinion had been taken on the likelihood of success of a third party claim for judicial review on the ground of apparent bias, should NCC grant planning permission. The answer? “It is our job as elected members to determine a range of matters, sometimes contentious, which affect Norfolk and the people of Norfolk. We follow well-established practices and procedures to ensure that we do so lawfully. We do not take such responsibilities lightly and please be assured that we take the legal advice we need in each case.” Was that a “yes” or a “no”? Search me.
So there you have it. Who knows what will happen next. But this one is likely to run and run. I fear for the outcome.
Time is almost running out for councils to publish all spending above £500. On 10 January, it was reported that with just three weeks to go, only 135 of the 326 English councils had so far complied. If some councils can manage it – including Hammersmith and Fulham who started publishing this information last June – why can’t others? Is it incompetence, or do they have something to hide?
The Bradford Telegraph and Argus reported on Monday that Bradford Council will not have this information up in time. Here is the reason the leader, Cllr Ian Greenwood gives:
There’s an obligation been put on us by the Communities Secretary to disclose all bills of £500 or above. We won’t be doing that until all the invoices have been purged of commercially-sensitive information that could enable Bradford suppliers to be undercut by firms elsewhere once the details are published.
The council has had months to prepare for this. It has had plenty of time to publish these details online. The council should also ensure it is getting the best deal for taxpayers. It should be procuring goods and services at the best possible price. Many local businesses should be able to do this, but if they can’t, other suppliers should be sought. What else will the council try to hide in the future? What else will it regard as sensitive information? Will it try to hide embarrassing expenditure? These delaying tactics do nothing to convince taxpayers their money is not being wasted.
Bradford taxpayers have a right to know how their money is spent. They have a right to look through this information, and if they want, challenge the figures they see. There is no excuse for not doing this on time.
Is your council trying to something similar? If it is, please let me know.