Friday, 29 July 2011

CWaC Council: Local Government Association (LGA) Membership costs

The Local Government Association (LGA) is a voluntary lobbying organisation acting as the voice of the local government.
Cost of membership for CWaC Council
2009/10 = £81,850 (net of VAT)
2010/11 = £79,220 (net of VAT)
2011/12 = £69,293 (net of VAT)
As of January this year there were 433 councils in the UK, of which 371 were members of the LGA. Many are leaving this year

Bromley, Torridge, North Somerset, Kings Lynn and West Norfolk have already withdrawn from the LGA and a further nine councils have said they are leaving.

Amber Valley to leave local government lobby group

Cotswold District Council could leave Local Government Association

"Cotswold District Council claims the Local Government Association's £12,500 subscription fee is not value for money."

My comment: I agree, why should councils use taxpayers money to fund an organisation that just lobbies government for even more taxpayer's money.  

Where is council cash being spent?

OPPOSITION Labour Group councillors have asked for more openness about who is spending what and where they are spending it following publications of details of the member’s budget.

Councillors on Cheshire West and Chester Council (CWAC) are given a budget each to spend on local organisations to benefit the areas they represent, This year’s budget has doubled to £10,000 for each of the 75 councillors.

However, Labour councillor Ben Powell is worried about some of the items on the list. He said £2,500 was spent on 500 Royal Wedding commemorative mugs, which were distributed for free to residents in one small area just before the election.

My comment: I raised my concerns, about the danger of member's budgets being wrongly used to buy votes, two weeks ago 'Member's budgets could be used to buy votes at the taxpayer's expense'. 

Read the full story from the source Northwich Guardian

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Cheshire fails in legal challenge to PFI cuts

Further to an earlier post of mine review in to waste cash. A Judicial Review claim against the government's decision to withdraw £100m of credits from a household waste PFI in Cheshire has failed.

Cheshire West & Chester and Cheshire East Councils claimed the department for environment, food and rural affairs used a flawed methodology to assess the merits of Cheshire's 25-year scheme to dispose of around 180,000 tonnes of waste annually.

Both local authorities also said ministers under-estimated benefits which would have accrued from the scheme.
Mr Justice Langstaff sitting in the High Court in Leeds
dismissed the councils' case on all five counts put to him.

Both authorities have applied for permission to appeal.

My comment: A judicial review was a waste of time and money. They should have put the money to better use....like training their legal departments. Seeking leave to appeal is just another waste of money. Just how many times does CWaC Council's legal department need to be proven wrong before someone starts asking serious questions! They are beginning to make the old Cheshire County Council legal department look positively competent.

Read the full story from the source Place North West

Monday, 25 July 2011

Does Cheshire West and Chester Council put pressure on our local press?

A story about CWaC Council staff altering papers hit our local press on the 23rd June 2011. [Date amended, please see correction from David below, however, this doesn't change the thrust of this post] Unfortunately this was old news because the story had been broken by the Scottish press a week earlier.

Why did it take longer for a negative news item about CWaC Council to find it's way into our local press, then only one paper, and why does it appear there are so few negative stories about CWaC Council in our local press?

A story about Copeland Council may hold some clues. When the Whitehaven News wanted to run something negative about their council, the council threatened them with legal action. When this didn't work they threatened to withdraw their co-operation on future stories and advertising.

That case gives us an insight into the three tools available to all councils should they wish to put pressure on a local newspaper to 'do as they are told'. Tactics which would be more difficult to implement with larger newspapers that had no connection with CWaC or our local press.

Legal threats/action:

Councils are funded by the taxpayer and accordingly can waste vast sums on legal action/threats. The legal threats against the Whitehaven News is an example of that, as is South Tyneside Council's threats and legal actions against Mr Monkey. Also see UPDATE 24th January 2012 below.

Advertising revenue: 

Local Press often rely heavily on Council advertising revenue and the last thing they need, especially in these difficult times, is for the Council to remove this valuable income stream.

Co-operation:

Fortunately for the press this tactic has a serious downside for the council. Whilst our local press needs the co-operation of the Council the Council also needs the co-operation of the local press.

For where would the Council be if the local press didn't print their positive spin press releases? In addition, would Councillors like it if the local press stopped printing their vanity photos every time they attended a none event? No, they wouldn't, like triple zzz list celebrities councillors need the oxygen of positive publicity.

Another example can be found with Barnet Council and the MetPro scandal. With Barnet we have a council that ignored it's own rules, employed an unlicensed security firm without a formal contact, failed to carry out checks on MetPro's financial status, its insurance or criminal records of staff but still paid them £1.2 million.  However, this scandal was NOT exposed by their local press but only by the determined actions of a few local bloggers. WHY?

Here are a few stories which I believe should have received much wider coverage and investigation by our local press. I will leave it to the reader to make their own mind up as to why they didn't.

The comments made by the leader in his message to staff (2009)
The sale of County hall
Our council wants to charge for all FOI requests
Cheshire West and Chester Councillor who lives in New Zealand
Member's budgets could be used to buy votes at the taxpayer's expense
Whistle-blowers, compromise agreements, bullying and pay offs
Unlawful gagging clauses?

FOOTNOTE: The Barnet Bloggers were praised by Eric Pickles for their efforts in exposing the MetPro scandal.

UPDATE 26th July 2011: The story which is still available at the Chester Chronicle and in much greater detail from national on-line sources was removed from a number of other local newspapers within days of it first appearing.

The Bearsden Herald (Johnston Press PLC)
Lancashire Evening Post (Johnston Press PLC)
The Leigh Reporter (Johnston Press PLC)
Wigan Today (Johnston Press PLC)
Lancaster Guardian (Johnston Press PLC)
Lytham St. Annes Express (Johnston Press PLC)
UPDATE 13th September 2011: Liverpool City Council is another council which doesn't like negative press. So much so they are willing to stop 'working proactively ' with any local paper that dares to print anything negative about them.

UPDATE 24th January 2012: Papers "gagged" by legal costs, MPs are told.

MP Gisela Stuart said the situation was “deeply troubling” and questioned whether it was undermining regional newspapers trying to carry out investigative journalism.

Mr Wallace replied: “Absolutely. To my mind the essentials of policing courts and local councils is absolutely critical to local media.

“Many of these councils and police forces have very high-powered PR machines and lawyers who make it very difficult for regional editors to go about their business and to hold government in particular to account.”

My comments: My sentiments exactly.

Read the full story from the source Mirror

Saturday, 23 July 2011

There's 28 wheels on CWaC Council's gravy train and it keeps rolling along

During 2009 Cheshire West and Chester Council attended the Local Government Association's annual Conference/Exhibition.

Margaret Eaton, Chair of the Local Government Associations states in her opening address......

"We’ll be asking how can we improve the public perception of councils? How can we best help our residents in a recession?"

1 Council (CWaC)
1 Conference/exhibition LGA Harrogate 3 days
4 Members (Leader plus 3 others).
7 Officers (CEO plus 6 others).
1 Hotel (11 people for 3 nights each. Total 33 nights).
7 Cars (4 for the members 3 for the officers). [hence 28 wheels :)]

Total cost £25937.84 plus LGA annual membership fees.

CWaC Council's objective of attending the 2009 LGA Conference/ Exhibition was, and I quote, "to promote the Council’s ambition and achievements to 2,500 delegates (Members, Chief Executives and senior officers) from councils across the UK."  

If the above is what CWaC Council consider helping their residents in a recession then God help us all. It certainly doesn't help improve the public's perception of CWaC Council when they spend such vast sums of money just to influence other council's members and officers whilst ignoring the LGA's message about helping their residents during a recession.

More details here, here and here.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

£25937.84 to promote Cheshire West and Chester Council to other Councils!

What started out as a simple query regarding a couple of items I spotted after CWaC was forced to publish details of all council spending on credit cards has now turned into something much more interesting.

Following information gleaned from another FOI request which itself led to a third FOI request the full cost of CWaC attending the 2009 Local Government Association can now be disclosed.

Total cost of attending the 2009 Local Government Association conference/exhibition. 
Accommodation costs at the Old Swan £2878.50
Registration fee £2984.25 
Cost for stand space at the exhibition and the development, design, build and dismantle of the stand: £18,251.53
Cost of promotional magazine to give away on stand: £1,354
Reimbursed petrol costs (officers): three cars for distance of 192.6 miles (Chester to Harrogate return): £ 156.76
Members travel cost total: £312.80 Individual details below
Councillor Mike Jones: £92.80
Councillor Derek Bateman: £97.60
Councillor Les Ford: £79.20
Councillor Malcolm Gaskell: £43.20 
Total costs identified so far = £25937.84 and that excludes CWaC's annual LGA membership cost and staff wages.

LGA Annual membership 2009/2010 £81,850 net of VAT.

When you consider Cheshire West and Chester objective for having a stand at the exhibition it brings into question whether the £25937.84 was value for money as far as taxpayers are concerned.

CWaC Council's objective was, and I quote, "to promote the Council’s ambition and achievements to 2,500 delegates (Members, Chief Executives and senior officers) from councils across the UK."

Who an earth decided that it was worth spending all that money promoting Cheshire West and Chester Council to other councils?  

It would have been cheaper just to mail a press release together with a £10 note to every single delegate.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Member's budgets could be used to buy votes at the taxpayer's expense

Details of Cheshire and Chester Council Member's budgets 

Over the past two years Members - given £5,000 a year for their own personal member budgets totalling £790,000 - funded 770 schemes for 465 organisations.

The figures were revealed when the annual report of the Members Budgets Expenditure Report went before the Executive last night (Wednesday).

This year’s Member budgets have increased to £10,000 for each of the 75 Councillors and Council Leader Mike Jones hopes that over the next four years they will rise to £60,000 per member. [My comment: That's £4.5 million for councillors to spend on individual pet projects which could be used to boost the number of people who vote for them.]

“I put £3,000 into a £50,000 project for nets for the young people in the local area and they have got a first class facility for cricket in Tattenhall now.

“So its what a local member sees as important. It allows local members to be innovative in working in some fantastic schemes going on in your community and to really be an enterprising force in your communities.”

My comment: Whilst there is no doubt member's budgets can be used for good causes there is a serious risk that some members could use them to indirectly buy votes. The council as a whole should award money to good causes not individual councillors.

Read more information from the source Cheshire West and Chester Council

UPDATE 26th July 2011: Looks like Telford & Wrekin Council is following in CWaC's footsteps.

Telford councillors given £1,000 each for community projects

My comment: I wonder how long it will take them to realise that given more money councillors could persuade more people to vote for them at the next election?

UPDATED 3rd August 2011: Cheshire West and Chester Council spokesman Laura Johnson said:

"How a member chooses to spend their member’s budget grant is completely down to them.” 

My comment: And therein lies the problem. It allows councillors, should they wish, to buy votes at the taxpayers expense and that can't be right under any circumstances. 

Read the full story from the source Ellesmere Port Pioneer

Whilst in Stoke on Trent City Council Councillor Mick Salih says  "I don't think we need to have it at all, but if we do retain some kind of ward budget system for next year then it must have proper criteria in place to ensure the funding is not misused for personal or political gain."

My comment: If a Councillor is worried that member's budgets could be misused then all taxpayers should be worried.

 Read the full story from the source This is Staffordshire

UPDATE 20th February 2012: Lawyer agree with me!

The Greater Sudbury Taxpayers Association consulted a London, Ont.-based lawyer who said 'individual councillors should not be responsible for distributing money. The lawyer suggested there could be a conflict of interest'.


Read the full story from the source CBC News Canada

Monday, 11 July 2011

Corporate hospitality must be reasonable and proportionate

The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) will look at five factors when considering whether corporate hospitality breach new anti-corruption laws, it has said.

The Bribery Act, which came into force on 1 July, does not criminalise genuine hospitality, but Government guidance (45-page / 380KB PDF) indicates that more lavish expenditure in relation to travel or accommodation is likely to be regarded with suspicion.

This could affect invitations extended to clients and suppliers to high-profile events such as the 2012 London Olympics.

The inference that the hospitality was intended as a bribe would be strengthened if there were unjustifiable 'add-ons', for example with regard to travel or accommodation, or if it occurred around the same time as some actual or potential business was being decided with the recipient - particularly in a competitive context, the SFO said.

The five factors are listed below.

The SFO’s five factors

Here is what the SFO have said:

Where the SFO is considering whether any particular case of corporate expenditure appears to fall outside the bounds of reasonable and proportionate hospitality, it will be looking to see whether:

1. the company has a clear issued policy regarding gifts and hospitality,

2. the scale of the expenditure in question fell within the confines of such policy and if not, whether special permission for it had been sought at a high level within the organisation,

3. the expenditure was proportionate with regard to the recipient,

4. there is evidence that such expenditure had been recorded by the Company,

5. the recipient was entitled to receive the hospitality under the law of the recipient's country.

The inference that the expenditure was intended as a bribe would be strengthened if it should transpire

(a) that there had been any unjustifiable ‘add-ons’, for example with regard to travel or accommodation, or

(b) that that the expenditure in question could be related in time to some actual or anticipated business with the recipient, particularly in a competitive context.

Read the full story from the source Out-Law

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Lawyer has forced Cheshire West and Chester Council to back down over a ‘gagging clause’

Ex-lighting engineer Paul Cardin is now free to request information from the council thanks to a successful legal challenge put together by his barrister Hugh Tomlinson QC, who represented the Manchester United star in the super-injunction case.

During his employment, Mr Cardin had raised concerns about a manager, sparking an external investigation.

Simon Goacher, the council’s head of legal services, responded to a letter from Mr Cardin’s solicitors by accepting he can now make such requests but not that the clause is unlawful.

Council leader Mike Jones confirmed in a letter to Mr Cardin, from Wallasey, that the authority may employ similar clauses again in future.

Mr Cardin, a Falklands War veteran, said: “Cheshire West and Chester Council’s long term attempt to muzzle an ex-employee and prevent them from asking important questions collapsed today.”

He added: “Despite the cave-in, they continue to maintain the clause banning FOI/DP was somehow ‘lawful’.

My comment: CWaC Council caved in when faced with proving Mr Goachers argument, that the gagging clause was lawful. The last thing they needed was case law proving them wrong because they wouldn't be able to threaten others with such a clause in the future. CWAC should be ashamed of themselves for resorting to such dirty tricks. CWaC Council is typical of all bullying organisations, threaten people then back down when their bluff is called.

Read the full story from the source Chester Chronicle

Read more about Paul Cardin's battle against gagging clauses.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Cheshire West and Chester Council staff payments to be cut

THOUSANDS of council staff will see their allowances and overtime payments slashed in a bid to save money.

The 7,000 employees at Cheshire West and Chester Council (CWAC) are being consulted on plans to overhaul the terms and conditions of their employment.

My comment: I bet the cuts don't have much impact on the pay and conditions of senior officers or their ability to swan around en mass at taxpayers expense to none events like the LGA conference etc. Neither do I expect the councillors to cut their own allowances, which swallows up 25% of what they are trying to save. Turkeys don't vote for Christmas and boy are some of our councillors turkeys.

Read the full story from the source Northwich Guardian