Tuesday, 31 May 2011

No smoking gun but still lots of questions

Cornwall Council has got through the first working day of the Daily Telegraph's "spending card scandal" relatively unscathed.

Silk ties - nailed at 7am. £1,080 on Rick Stein's restuarant? It wasn't for food or drink, but payment for a Future Jobs Fund project recouped from the Department of Work & Pensions. The One Eyed Cat restaurant bill for £1,269? A lunch for 43 people as part of a European Union project about higher education, recouped in its entirety from the EU.

So here are a few more items which, on the face of it, merit further inquiry:

* £2,425.20 on mobile phone socks
* £1,260 for a senior official and two councillors to stay at the Palace Hotel
* Several hundred pounds in various pubs
* Two nights accommodation at the Alveston House Hotel for two people, at £90pppn, totals £360 - yet the bill was for £540. So what was the £180 "extras" and what was the purpose of the stay?
* £500 bills at Sainsbury's supermarkets

I've just emailed a few dozen questions of this nature and look forward to the answers in a few days. There may well be perfectly acceptable explanations, although on the face of it a £3,000+ return taxi ride to Bolton will take quite a bit of explaining (did they go via New York?)

I'm keen to clarify the council's policy on alcohol and whether these cards can be used this way - it seems it might be OK to have "some" alcohol with a meal, but no-one seems to know how much "some" actually is.

I've also asked the council to clarify its spending on consultants. The data for 2010-11 should now be available so that we can make valid year-on-year comparisons.

One area where the council is clearly struggling is the way it handles information - a Freedom of Information request which contained serious errors, as well as breaching data protection laws, was sent to a national newspaper without being checked. As usual, the cock-up theory of history appears to be winning over the conspiracy theory - but that's probably no cause for celebration.

Cornwall Council's latest statement on spending cards

Just surfaced on Twitter:
"Cornwall Council has not spent £9 million on credit cards as suggested by recent media reports.

"The Council does not use credit cards as local authorities are not allowed to have credit. The payments were made using payment cards which work in a similar way to debit cards.

"The Council has also not spent millions of pounds on foreign travel and meals. The figures provided in the FOI response to Daily Telegraph had not been converted from the original currencies - producing a misleadingly high figure. The suggestion, therefore, that we spent £114,142 for hotel costs in India for an educational exchange involving teachers from Cornish schools was not true. This amount was actually in Indian Rupees and would have been £1,645 in UK currency.

"There are similar inaccuracies in the amounts highlighted for restaurant payments - with one figure of £15,640 quoted for a restaurant in Japan during another educational exchange. This amount is in Japanese Yen and would be £118 in UK currency.

"These payment cards were originally introduced by the Government as they are a cheaper and more efficient way of paying for goods and services - saving an average of £33 per transaction. The system is also popular with suppliers are it is much faster than submitting invoices to the Council.

"The Council currently has 509 cards in use of which 154 are allocated to schools and there are very strict financial controls in place to regulate their use. Individual cards have a maximum limit on them - usually around £1,000 - with any payment about this limit having to be authorised by a senior member of staff."

Five hours in cardland

At 7am this morning Cornwall Council's Director of Corporate Resources, Michael Crich, told BBC Radio Cornwall the council had issued "about 1,000" spending cards. By 12 noon this figure had dropped to "about 600."

At 7am Michael said the cards' spending limits "starts at around £1,000." By 12 noon the figure started at £500.

Four days after the Daily Telegraph broke the story, and asked by Laurence Reed about the council's policy on buying alcohol: "I'm not sure."

Anyone hoping for a swift end to this story is likely to be disappointed.

STOP PRESS: 2.45pm. Council now says a total of 509 spending cards, of which 154 are issued to schools.

STOP STOP PRESS: 3.15pm Council now again says spending limit on cards is "usually around £1,000."

Anyone feeling confident yet?

Peeling the onion

First of all my thanks to Cornwall Council leader Alec Robertson and the Corporate Director for Resources, Michael Crich, for coming on BBC Radio Cornwall at 7am this morning. Some fascinating detail about the Daily Telegraph's credit card story is now starting to emerge.

Michael told us that there are about 1,000 of these cards in circulation and none has a spending limit of less than £1,000. For an organisation with a total headcount of around 19,000, the next question is about how the cards are distributed.

Clearly the council itself is still struggling to find out what's been going on - Alec said he is among those who wants answers about apparently extravagant restaurant bills and luxury hotels. At least the question of the £1,000 on silk ties appears to have been sorted. Alec said these were council ties, purchased with a view to selling them on to members. If this answer had been supplied to the Daily Telegraph on Friday, then that's one part of the media firestorm which would never have started.

Alec's assertion that no money at all had been spent on "credit" cards - because these are government-backed "spending cards" - is perhaps a bit flimsy. Goods and services were still supplied on credit, but there was no risk of interest charges. But again, councillors will want to know why this informaton had not been available to the Telegraph by Friday.

This story will run for as long as there is detail that needs explanation. For example, on 24th August 2010 the council spent £1,269 at the One Eyed Cat restaurant in Truro. Who was there, and why? What did they eat? And even more importantly, what did they drink? The charge is coded to the council's legal department.

I was interested to hear Michael defend the council's finance department in relation to last week's story about spending on consultants. He said no-one had made any mistakes. Perhaps he hasn't read the council's statement, issued on Thursday:
"it appears that some of the payments made to contractors for large capital projects such as new school buildings and roads have been wrongly allocated to the consultants budget."
So which is right - last week's statement or this morning's? If there were no coding errors, does that mean that spending on consultants and agency staff really was £10m in just three months?

Rarely will there have been as much interest as there's likely to be in Thursday's gathering of the Corporate Resources Oversight & Scrutiny Committee.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Calling all bean counters


If I've managed the technical stuff properly, you should be able to open this Excel file and read for yourself the details of Cornwall Council's credit card spending.

I suspect that once the dust has settled, and everything is in the same currency, it will be expenditure on restaurants and hotels for staff and Cabinet members rather than computer games (possibly for children's homes?) which will take the most explaining. But I'd be grateful if eagle-eyed readers would comment with anything they think looks particularly dodgy.

Meanwhile I'm wearing myself out thinking up new questions: how many credit cards has the council issued, and to whom? Who signs off on them? Why are some utility bills settled this way, rather than (the usually cost-saving) direct debit?

I'm particularly curious to know how many staff have been lost from the finance department in the past two years? In the long run, good accountants save you more than they cost.

(Cornwall Council told me this afternoon that its own original Excel file, which the council itself issued to the Daily Telegraph last week, contained confidential details of some court cases which potentially identify vulnerable children. I therefore agreed to the council's request to take down the spreadsheet while the council redacted this information and supplied me with a "clean" version - hopefully in all the correct currencies - and which does not breach any court orders. I'm still waiting for the council version, but have myself edited out all details of where the cards were used in court cases. I will post the council's spreadsheet when it finally arrives.)

Saturday, 28 May 2011

How the Council whacked it on the plastic

This just in from County Hall:
"Cornwall Council is the largest unitary council and one of the largest local authorities in the country with an annual budget of more than £1.2 billion. Using credit cards is an efficient and transparent method of payment and is standard practice in both the public and private sectors. While we accept that the figure quoted in the Daily Telegraph article for credit card spending appears high, it is important to recognise that the Council's overall budget for this same three year period was over £3.5 billion.

"We have also disputed the accuracy of some of the figures quoted by the Daily Telegraph. One of the largest areas of spending highlighted in the article was for hotels and travel. Unfortunately the figures quoted in the article have not been converted from the original currencies - producing a misleadingly high figure. One example of this is a figure of £114,142 for hotel costs in India for an educational exchange involving teachers from Cornish schools. This amount was actually in Indian Rupees and would have been £1,645 in UK currency. There are similar inaccuracies in the amounts highlighted for restaurant payments - with one figure of £15,640 quoted for a restaurant in Japan during another educational exchange. This amount is in Japanese Jen and would be £118 in UK currency. We are still checking these figures but so far estimate that at least £1.3 million of the costs highlighted for overseas travel and hotels are wrong.

"Cornwall Council is committed to achieving the best possible value for money for council tax payers in Cornwall" said Council Leader Alec Robertson. "All spending, including credit card spending, is very closely monitored and strict financial controls are in place.

"However, while we are committed to being open and transparent, this incident shows the importance of analysing raw data carefully and responsibly. Unfortunately the deadline set by the newspaper meant that we were unable to check all the figures before the article was published. We are disappointed that, having told the journalist that the information was inaccurate, they did not give us the time to provide them with the accurate information."

I wonder how much time Alec thinks is reasonable. When the Daily Telegraph went to press last night it said Cornwall Council had been given an additional three days to explain the answers which the council itself had earlier provided in response to a Freedom of Information question.

The fact that the council can't tell the difference between pounds and rupees might explain the mind-boggling headline figures for some of the credit card items. It hardly inspires confidence in the council's financial controls. And we still don't know why it was necessary to spend any money at all on things like fish tanks, disco equipment or silk ties.

This story has legs.

Scrapped ferry link wasted more than £700K

Friday afternoons are clearly a popular time for Cornwall Council to post answers to FoI questions - here's another, in response to a query about the Penzance-Isles of Scilly ferry link:
The FOI request asked how much we had spent on Option A for which the answer is £724,606.32 comprising:
ECI contractor (design preparation) 463,507.96
Legal & internal consultancy 227,326.81
Other Costs 33,771.55

Has Jim fixed it yet?

I hope that Jim Currie, the Cornwall Council cabinet member with responsibility for finance, has an enjoyable weekend and bank holiday. Because when he gets back to County Hall on Tuesday he may well find the department for which he carries political responsibility having something of a collective nervous breakdown.

Today's Daily Telegraph carries an astonishing story about the council's credit card. Millions, apparently, spent on overseas trips, luxury hotels and bizarre gifts. Read it, look at your council tax bill, and weep.

And yet I suspect that when the council finally comes up with an answer, we will find that cock-up, rather than conspiracy, is at least part of it. As some councillors have already blogged, the £300,000 apparently spent on the Sky Hotel, Bangkok, is surely a typo....or is it an even more fundamental mistake?

Even the Presidential Suite at this hotel costs a mere £321/night - or 16,000 Baht in Thai currency. The Telegraph has simply reported information provided by the council in response to a Freedom of Information request. Did the council remember about currency conversion?

The reason I ask is that a few days ago the council reported on its website that it had spent nearly £10million in three months on consultants and agency staff. It then said it had made a mistake and had wrongly attributed £2.5m in contractors' fees to its consultants' ledger.

Back in September I blogged about Cornwall Council's "weak" financial management and the Audit Commission report which gave the impression that there was an awful lot in the accounts which was unreliable. The Commission chucked out words like "considerable number of errors and omissions" and warned councillors that they, and not officers, were responsible. Financial controls were so poor that the Audit Commission refused to issue an opinion about the accounts.

Cock-up or not, there are still questions to ask about why any money at all was spent on things like fish tanks, disco equipment and silk ties. Perhaps it is time to take the scissors to the credit card.

Sooner or later, everyone stops smoking

I'm grateful to the Freedom of Information inquisitor who asked how much Cornwall Council punts on tobacco companies in its staff pension fund. The answer posted yesterday on the council's website: £24,541,713.

British American Tobacco and Imperial are the main deals, in a total pot of more than £1.1bn. The person who posed this question also wanted to know the council's policy on ethical investment and I'm happy to dig out the answer, buried as it is deep within last year's Annual Report:
Socially responsible investment (SRI)
The Pensions Committee recognises that fund managers must consider social, environmental and ethical issues when choosing which investments to buy, keep or sell. In considering these issues, the fund managers must invest in the best interest of the Fund. The Pensions Committee believe that the best way to deal with any concerns is for fund managers to contact the directors of listed companies. The fund managers act in the best interest of the Fund when voting on the Fund's behalf at shareholder meetings. Any issues that could cause disagreement at shareholder meetings are reported back to the Pensions Committee meetings, which are held every three months. The reports also include any SRI issues that the fund managers have considered.

The council's Pensions Committee meets next month.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Cracking the code

A very interesting response from Cornwall Council to Wednesday's blog about spending on consultants:
"The Council introduced a new coding structure from 1 January 2011 and it appears that some of the payments made to contractors for large capital projects such as new school buildings and roads have been wrongly allocated to the consultants budget. We are carrying out a detailed analysis of the situation but early indications show that at least £2.5 million of the amount coded to the consultants budget between January and March actually relates to payments to contractors."

Consultants, contractors - who knows? I don't suppose this answer was actually designed to boost confidence in the council's accounting procedures. The key question, which I have also asked, is how the year-on-year spend compares with 2008/9 and 2009/10. I fear the answer might take a while as we wait for the finance department to do the "detailed analysis" to gets its codes in order.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Looking back on Building Schools for the Future

As I have blogged previously, the government's decision to scrap the Building Schools for the Future project cost Cornwall more than £500,000. Thanks to another Freedom of Information question, answered on Cornwall Council's website, we now know the details:
* Specialist advice was received from five consultants, total spend within the BSF project was £126,026.
* Financial advice was procured from PricewaterhouseCoopers, the contract value was £256,548 (inclusive of expenses)
* The Educational and Technical advice was procured through EC Harris, no contract was signed.
* ICT Advice was contracted with Novatia, the contract value was £216,929.
* KKP (Knight, Kavanagh & Page) were contracted to produce the Playing Pitch Strategy and Non-Playing Pitch Strategy. The contract value was £33,160 in total.

Council spending on agency staff and consultants continues to rise

A few months ago Cornwall Council attracted the unwelcome attention of the Taxpayers' Alliance when it was revealed that it had spent £6 million in two months on temporary workers and consultants.

The latest set of data available on the council's excellent website shows that this spend is increasing dramatically - to nearly £10 million in three months. Indeed, the current rate of spending on consultants far exceeds the average monthly spend which the Conservative-led council inherited from its predecessor, the former Cornwall County Council, in 2009.

The data for December 2010 and January this year, which produced such predictable froth and fury from the Taxpayers' Alliance, showed the council was spending nearly £70,000 per day on consultants and more than £27,500 per day on agency staff. The latest data, averaged over January, February and March 2011, shows that spend is increasing - to more than £76,300 per day on consultants and nearly £35,000 per day on agency staff.

The monthly spend on consultants for March was more than £3.2million, more than double the monthly average in 2009. Here are the stats:

Agency staff: £578,416
Consultants: £1,774,978

Agency staff: £1,198,815
Consultants: £1,858,619

Agency staff £1,337,709
Consultants: £3,240,038

TOTAL £9,988,578

At the same time the council's headcount contnues to fall - down by nearly 2,000 from the start of 2010 to around 19,000 today.

In 2008/9 the former county council spent £15.4m on consultants. By 2009/10 the new council had got this figure down to £11.2m. But the data for the past three months suggests the annual spend is now heading in completely the wrong direction for an administration whose election slogan had been "We'll never forget it's the taxpayers' money."

I appreciate that the term "consultant" can mean different things at different times so have asked the council for an explanation. The £3.2m spend in March is particularly interesting.

Better late than never

They say that old news is only old if you haven't heard it before, but I confess that only laziness has prevented me from checking to see how this blog gets on when compared with some others.

It would appear that since September Graham Smith's Cornwall has been ranked 49th in the UK-wideTotal Politics league table of Media Blogs, sandwiched between my BBC colleague and Home Editor Mark Easton (48) and Channel 4's political editor Gary Gibbon (50). The BBC's political editor Nick Robinson was 6th.

This list is the result of more than 2,200 people who voted in the Total Politics Annual Blog Poll during the second half of July. So if you voted for me, thank you very much. At the time this particular league was compiled this blog was barely six months' old, although I suspect that blog rankings, like my tennis ranking, will rarely defy gravity for long.

Don't try this at home

Currently signed off work with a slipped disc, caused by trying to pick up a kettle. My left arm went in the general direction of the kettle, clearly surprising my lumbar vertebrae which must have thought they were still heading for the door. Hoping to be back at work on Monday.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Lipstick on a pig?

Cornwall Council leader Alec Robertson has started sending members a "media briefing" to help them recognise the previous week's heroic achievements. Prepared by the council's press office, the document is helpfully divided into lists of "positive news" and "negative news," and as long as the former outnumber the latter then Cornwall's Tribunes can rest easy, secure in the knowledge that the bosses know what they're doing.

But - gadzooks! - don't these lists look rather subjective? For example, the decision of the Secretary of State to approve the St Dennis waste incinerator is only good news if you don't actually live in St Dennis. And, er, the official policy of the council (as set out at a £1million+ public inquiry) is still to oppose the St Dennis incinerator.

There is quite a number of stories claimed as "positive" which could just as easily be described as "negative" - such as writing to the government to protest at changes to the feed-in tariff for solar electricity.

And the much shorter list of "bad news" stories seems to have missed completely the one about last Tuesday's full council meeting, which blocked Alec's plan to pay Special Responsibility Allowances to four newly-created Cabinet Support Members, which saw his coalition partners in the Independent group say they weren't convinced of the need for CSMs at all, and which has left him without a CSM for education.

I wonder if any of the council's 123 members take such official, corporate media briefings seriously. If so, they probably enjoy the ideal environmental conditions for growing mushrooms. I also wonder if such a partisan approach to "news" is an appropriate use of tax-funded resources. Readers are invited to submit their own lists of positive and negative council stories.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Incinerator gets the nod

The Department of Communities and Local Government has this morning announced its approval of plans to build a waste incinerator at St Dennis.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Armand Toms - TFF Superstar

I've only recently discovered Cornwall councillor Armand Toms on Twitter and I have to say he has some very impressive statistics. Number of people following him: 17. Number of people he follows: 0. This gives him a TFF (Twitter Follower/Friend) ratio of infinity. Number of Tweets: 0.

Burning questions

Last night all 123 members of Cornwall Council received a copy of a letter written by their leader, Alec Robertson, to Communities & Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles. It concerns the proposed waste incinerator at St Dennis, about which Mr Pickles is due very soon to announce his decision on planning permission.

Here's an extract from the letter:
"I and my Cabinet colleagues are unanimously of the view that the appeal needs to be upheld and strongly urge you to uphold it."

In other words, the leader of the council is now deliberately undermining his own planning department, which at a very expensive public inquiry last year sought to defend its refusal of planning permission.

Alec had previously voted against the incinerator. Was he right then or is he right now? The letter is dated 7th April. So when precisely did Alec undergo this conversion of opinion? What is the cost to the public purse of last year's planning inquiry - and who should pay the bill?

On Tuesday Alec took quite a beating at the full council meeting on the issue of Cabinet Support Members. It's been a tough week. Methinks it might be about to get even tougher.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Please, sir - who's in charge?

A question for Cornwall Council: following the Independent group's decision not to appoint anyone to be the Cabinet Support Member for education, which politician is leading on this subject? I will post the answer as soon as I get it.

STOP PRESS: Faster than a speeding bullet, the council phones to tell me that Neil Burden retains responsibility for education - for the time being.

Got those Wednesday morning no good low down Cabinet Support Member reshuffled blues

Two Cornwall Councillors who today might have good reason to feel pretty fed up are Joan Symons and Lance Kennedy. Reshuffled out of the Cabinet on Friday night, they are now more than £16,700/year worse off because of the Special Responsibility Allowance lost on exit.

Yesterday's 55-35 defeat for council leader Alec Robertson, on the question of pay for Cabinet Support Members (which Joan and Lance might have been looking forward to) suggests to me that the Independent group will need more than just a cheery smile to get them back on board.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Where's the pork?

This is what Cornwall Council's press release said about Cabinet Support Members on Friday:
"The Leader of the Council's Independent Group John Wood said that the Independents had been consulted on these changes and were pleased with the progress made by the Leader of the Council."

The Indie group deputy leader, Mike Clayton, has just read a short statement to today's full council meeting saying his group has yet to be convinced of the need for CSMs and had therefore not (yet) appointed anyone to fill the vacant education portfolio.

Perhaps I'm not the only one who thinks the Indies had been bought rather cheaply. And councillor Fiona Ferguson, narrowly defeated in the Conservative group election for leader, has just said she does not support council leader Alec Robertson on this issue. And by a secret vote of 55-35, the council votes against paying CSMs.

The plot thickens...

FoI news

Trawling through Cornwall Council's log of answers published in response to Freedom of Information requests, I noted this one about out-of-court settlements.

The answer shows that over the past five years the council (and the former county council) paid more than £473,000 in out-of-court settlements. There were a total of 40 claims, or potential claims, and nearly all of them involved allegations of unfair dismissal and sex discrimination.

That's an average of eight claims per year, which in an organisation which employs more than 19,000 is perhaps only to be expected. In 2009, the first year of Cornwall Council, 18 claims were settled at a cost of £203,215. Last year the figure was £124,583 for five out-of-court settlements.

Oor Wullie's progress

Congratulations to the Liberal Democrats' former Cornwall Campaigns Officer, Willie Rennie, who has become his party's leader in Scotland. The Lib Dems lost 11 seats in recent elections to the Scottish Parliament and now have only five MSPs.

Monday, 16 May 2011

The councillors we deserve?

I don't suppose the Annual Report of Cornwall's Standards Board will command acres of newsprint when it's reported to the Cornwall Council annual meeting tomorrow, so here's a digest of the interesting bits:

107 allegations against a total of 77 councillors
66 allegations resulted in no action being taken
Average cost of dealing with each complaint - £150
Total cost of processing complaints - £11,500
18 allegations concerned Cornwall Councillors (out of 123, so 15%)
89 allegations concerned town, parish and city councillors (out of about 1,800, so 5%). These were confined to only 27 town, parish or city councils

The Annual Report states:
"The majority of allegations made have concerned the behaviour of Councillors with failure to treat others with respect and bringing their office or authority into disrepute being the most common. Failure to declare personal and rejudicial interests was the next most reported allegation."

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Alec reshuffles the pack

I think it was one of the Godfather movies where I first heard the line: "Keep your friends close - and your enemies closer."

Last night's Cornwall Council cabinet reshuffle, announced on Twitter (surely a first?), breaks this golden rule of politics and demonstrates that when I forecast a job for Fiona Ferguson I was completely wrong.

The creation of four new Cabinet Support Members - three Conservatives and one Independent - suggest to me that the Indies have been bought rather cheaply. The 3-1 ratio does not reflect political balance either in the council or the 3-2 balance in the former cabinet.

We don't yet know how much these new posts are going to cost in terms of extra responsibility allowances. Council leader Alec Robertson has suggested there might be no cost at all, as a result of savings elsewhere. But ultimately it looks as if the total spend on members will have to go up, while that on professional staff is going down.

Tuesday's full council meeting will be fascinating.

Friday, 6 May 2011

The changing of the guard

Pressure of work has delayed me blogging my tribute to Doris Ansari, who steps down formally on Monday as leader of the Lib Dem group on Cornwall Council. I'm immensely grateful to Doris for taking the time last week to go on BBC Radio Cornwall with Martin Bailie to announce her intentions.

I've known Doris for nearly 30 years and she has always been unfailingly courteous and straightforward, a rare combination in a politician (yeah, OK, I know many journos are not much better.) During the 1980s she was one of a handful of councillors who dragged Cornish politics out of its Independent-dominated rural squirearchy and transformed it into a reasonably recognisable version of the 20th century.

It's entirely appropriate that Doris's OBE should have been awarded "for services to the people of Cornwall." She represents a significant chapter in Cornwall's local government history and it's good to know that she'll still be there at County Hall to offer words of wisdom from the back benches.

Monday's Lib Dem group meeting will confirm Jeremy Rowe as its new leader, and it's hard to envisage a more 21st century local government politician. Jeremy blogs and Tweets and has the sort of sense of humour which - if not actually terrifying his opponents - often leaves them completely lost for words.

Jeremy will be elected unopposed, which sounds a bit like the way they used to do things in Albania, but at least there won't be the need for any of that Alternative Voting. It will be very interesting to see if Jeremy can keep his role as a front-bench jester once he has to combine it with the gravitas of detail that comes with leadership. But if anybody can cheer up the Lib Dems right now, it's Jeremy - I wish him luck.

Devonwall - the final word?

For many of Cornwall's Liberal Democrats, the loss of the historic political boundary with Devon was the price that had to be paid for the referendum on changing the voting system. It was different for the Conservatives, who didn't want the referendum but simply seized an opportunity to reduce the number of MPs. By this evening we'll know the result of that referendum. I do hope that once the referendum result is known, the Lib Dems will comment on whether they think Devonwall was a price worth paying.