Big bang theory

November 18, 2013

AEG D77000GF-M with shattered glass doorWe were sitting enjoying dinner last night when we were startled by a loud bang and the sound of breaking glass in the kitchen. To our amazement, the glass in the oven had shattered for no apparent reason – the oven was switched off, and the top oven had only been used for warming plates. A little research later showed that this is not as rare an occurrence as you might think. However, it was also a good demonstration of the first law of guarantees – you guessed it, the extended warranty lasted for three years, and we bought the oven in January 2010.

A quick hunt for spare parts for this oven (an AEG D77000GF-M) didn’t show any obvious candidates – you can buy every conceivable part except for the one you need. More research required…


Well, what a surprising way to spend an evening

October 25, 2013

Life is full of surprises. I had settled down at home for the evening yesterday, reading the local newspaper, when right on the very last page I spotted a note:

The celebrated power and melody of rock foursome Wishbone Ash can be heard in Kendal tonight (Thursday).

I couldn’t believe it. Not the Wishbone Ash? This was one of my all time favourite bands in my student days. I never managed to see them live, but I have this tradition that any time I upgrade my hi-fi system, the first thing I do is to give their album Argus a blast to see if the money has been well spent (I originally bought it as an audio cassette – remember those?)

Wishbone AshOf course, I had to go. Never in my wildest imagination did I expect to hear this one time mega-band play here in Kendal. I haven’t been to a rock concert in decades, and I had to look up Bootlegger’s website to check out where they were.

So, here I am, 18 hours later, with just a residual buzzing in my ears when it’s quiet to remind me of the experience. Yes, there’s only one member of the original band left, but it’s Andy Powell, guitar and vocals – arguably the hardest part of a band’s sound to replace. The only anachronistic member was the drummer, who looks as though he wasn’t born when Wishbone Ash were in their heyday.

And I suppose that sums up the experience. Andy made a comment along the lines that it’s hard to select material for a concert when you’ve four decades to choose from, but there’s no doubt what the predominantly middle aged audience was there to hear. Andy introduced one of the classic tracks with the words: “Here’s one we recorded in 1972″ … you could see the fans doing the arithmetic – yes, that was 41 years ago.

Don’t believe them – nostalgia is what it used to be – and some. Guys, thanks for a great evening. I look forward to hearing you next time you’re in Kendal – even if you’re using your bus passes to get here.


More questions for councillors

June 27, 2013

The decision to let Cumbria County Council’s Chief Executive take early retirement proved highly contentious. We now have the official minutes of the meeting where the decision was made. Sensitive material was redacted (“placed in Part 2″ in council-speak), but it still made interesting reading, as I pointed out today in my speech to full Council:

Thank you Chair.

I would like to present to members the Minutes of the Chief Officers’ Panel which took place on Tuesday 23rd April. This was the meeting which approved the Early Retirement of the Chief Executive. You may remember this decision caused some excitement in the media at the time. Now that we have the official minutes on the Council website, I thought it would be useful to take members through what we now know about the decision.

The minutes tell us that the Panel was supported by an impressive array of officers. The intellectual heavyweights, the confidential and trusted advisors you would want in the room when making a sensitive and controversial decision.

The minutes tell us the officers presented their reports: Part 2 material, not in the public domain. After they had said their piece, the confidential and trusted advisors were then asked to leave the room. Twenty minutes later, they were invited back into the room, to record the Panel’s decision.

So what do we know about the decision. There was talk in the press at the time that the Council had to let the Chief Exec go. The minutes make it clear that this was not so. The Chief Executive had requested early retirement in the interest of efficiency of the service (ERIES). Under the Council’s policy for ERIES, it is entirely at the discretion of management. The Panel had every right to say no.

However, once they said yes, then there was an immediate and inevitable cost to the Council, to cover the ‘actuarial strain’ on the pension scheme. There’s a mathematical formula for it – it’s non-negotiable. Talk in the press about ‘golden goodbyes’ was therefore incorrect.

ERIES. The Panel is trying to save the Council money. What the minutes then show is that the Panel also agreed a further payment in lieu of notice. This again is discretionary – the Chief Exec could simply have worked her notice, taken her holidays, and it wouldn’t have cost a penny extra. The Panel told us they were trying to save the Council money – but they incurred extra costs, just to get the Chief Exec go early.

Because ERIES is expensive, the Council has strict rules to make sure that the cost is justified. Section 4: Before any application for early retirement or voluntary redundancy is approved, the full additional estimated cost of the termination must be shown to be recoverable within three years of the employee’s termination date.

The minutes do not record whether this cost was considered, so I asked for a Section 151 conversation (as any member is entitled to). Were the full costs written down for the Panel? They were. Was there an itemised plan for recovering the cost in 3 years? There was not. Various possibilities were discussed, but there was no costed plan for achieving the savings.

And indeed, it would have been strange to have had a plan. We were nine days away from an election. The Chair of the Panel had already announced he would be standing down, and none of the other Panel members could guarantee they would be in post for the next three years. So realistically, there was no-one there who could sign up to delivering a savings plan – assuming there had been one to sign up to. But ERIES policy says you must not approve the early retirement, unless you can guarantee the savings.

The Panel also considered guidance from the Secretary of State: “Authorities should … offer full council … the opportunity to vote before large severance packages … are approved for staff leaving the organisation. … In presenting information to full council, authorities should set out clearly the components of relevant severance packages … salary paid in lieu, redundancy compensation, pension entitlements, holiday pay and any bonuses, fees or allowances paid”.

The Panel agreed this advice was “not mandatory” and “that details of the proposed severance payment, should not be reported to full Council on this occasion”.

The minutes also record that “both parties [agreed to] enter into a legally binding compromise agreement setting out the agreement reached” – this was the so-called “gagging order” referred to in the press.

So, why does this matter? It matters, because in about one year’s time, all the financial details which been buried in Part 2 must be published in the Council’s accounts. You can be sure they will be pored over in detail by the press and public. I can hear it now: “You’re on the Council – how did you let this happen? What have you been doing about it this last twelve months?”

Fellow councillors, it’s a ticking time bomb under this Council. And the beauty of it is this. Because of the timing, we’re all implicated – either as part of the previous administration, who made the decision, or as part of the new one, which has to implement it.

Because we will have to answer the questions: “Why does the Council employ highly paid experts, and then shut them out of the room?” “Why did the Panel not do the obvious thing – leave the request to the new Council, which could guarantee the savings, which could bring the matter to full Council as per the Secretary of State’s guidance?” There might even have been time for the Chief Exec to take her holidays and work her notice, saving the Council a bob or two.

Good questions. Fellow Councillors – return to your divisions, and prepare your answers. You have about twelve months.

Thank you Chair.

Unfortunately, there are few powers available to councillors to investigate further, or hold a previous administration to account. The jury is out on whether recent changes to the UK’s legislation around whistle blowing will encourage disclosures in the public interest or not.


A question of priorities

June 25, 2013

Ofsted logoIt’s now just over a year since I was first elected to Cumbria County Council. One of the immediate issues the Council had to deal with was an Ofsted report into Cumbria’s safeguarding and looked after childrens’ services. As I noted at the time, the report didn’t make for comfortable reading, with five ‘inadequate’, 16 ‘adequate’, and only one ‘good’ inspection judgements.

In my past life, I have been involved in similar situations on the odd occasion, and there is no great secret about how to run recovery plans. If you’ve been given a list of actions to complete by certain dates, you make sure you know exactly where you are against each item until you’ve got them cleared.

I was surprised that the Council didn’t seem to work like that – even when I asked a specific question, I couldn’t get a reply about whether we were on track. It really should not have been a difficult question.

So, although I was disappointed when I read Ofsted’s latest Inspection of local authority arrangements for the protection of children – Cumbria County Council, it didn’t come as a total surprise. The County was rated ‘inadequate’ (the worst rating) on all four categories assessed. More worryingly: “This inspection found that a significant number of children required immediate action to secure their protection”. This is about as bad as it gets.

Like all councils, the new County Council is under tremendous pressure to reduce costs, and there are going to be many priority calls to be made. As an elected member I’m constantly under pressure from residents to do something about all sorts of issues (highways problems usually top the list). I haven’t had a single phone call, email, or questionnaire response asking about the Council’s children’s services.

Maybe it’s a good thing we have Ofsted to help us get our priorities right. One child’s safety is worth more than any number of mended potholes. Let’s keep our promise to Cumbria’s kids.


Over to Ed

June 6, 2013

As the dust settled on MRWS, some of us wondered if we had been fighting the wrong battle – rather than worry about a potential threat some time in the future, should we be worrying about a real threat now, namely the “significant risks to people and the environment” posed by the poor state of the facilities at Sellafield today?

As a result of this, we launched a petition. Uniquely, it attracted support right across the board, from Sellafield workers to anti-nuclear campaigners. It hit the 900 signature mark last night, which seemed a good reason to send it off to Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change:

Ed, 900 people have signed the attached petition, asking you to listen to the National Audit Office, and commit to eliminating the ‘intolerable risk’ posed today by hazardous waste stored in run-down buildings at the Sellafield nuclear plant.

You will be aware of the report’s findings: “Some of the older facilities at Sellafield containing highly hazardous radioactive waste have deteriorated so much that their contents pose significant risks to people and the environment.”

The signatories accept that the waste has already been created, and it has to be kept safe until a proper solution is in place for dealing with it. West Cumbria urgently needs government investment to enable it to safeguard this material on behalf of the whole of the UK. What’s more, the problem is growing – there’s 44 tonnes more waste currently being moved down from Dounreay currently, with another 30 tonnes in the pipeline.

The signatories call on you to ensure the Government commits to the investment to make Sellafield safe. This is one item of expenditure that simply must not be cut back. We also believe your Department should order the NDA to stop shipping waste into Sellafield, until the facilities are given a clean bill of health by the NAO.

We look forward to your response

I have also asked the six members of the All Party Committee of Cumbrian MPs (Tony Cunningham, Tim Farron, Jamie Reed, John Stevenson, Rory Stewart, and John Woodcock) to support this appeal on behalf of their constituents. It will also be interesting to ask at Council what steps the new administration at are taking as a result of the Cabinet decision made on 30th January:

RESOLVED that Cabinet decide … to encourage the Government to make the necessary investment to improve surface storage facilities at Sellafield, (taking account of the findings of the National Audit Officereport HC 630 dated 7 November 2012)


20 minutes is a long time in politics

May 30, 2013

Cumbria County Council has now published the minutes of the meeting of its Chief Officers’ Panel (COP) which was held on Tuesday, 23rd April, 2013 at 11.00 am. This wouldn’t normally be an event of any great interest to the general public. However, this is the meeting which took the highly controversial decision to approve the departure of its Chief Executive, at a reported cost to the council tax payers of Cumbria of some £400k.

Councils have the power to exclude press and public from meetings when there are ‘exempt items’ being discussed. The Council used this power during this meeting, on the grounds that the meeting was considering Information relating to the financial or business affairs of any particular person (including the authority holding that information) (paragraph 3 of part 1 of schedule 12A of the Local Government Act 1972). So anyone looking for a complete open book about this affair is likely to be disappointed.

Despite this, there were a couple of interesting notes in the minutes:

  • the meeting was considering a request from the Chief Executive for early retirement in the interest of efficiency of the service (ERIES)
  • at one point the council officers were asked to leave the room so private discussions could take place: following an adjournment of approximately twenty minutes the meeting reconvened

Let’s break the first one down:

  1. The request for voluntary early retirement had come from the employee, so it was entirely up to the COP to decide whether to accept the request
  2. If the request was approved, then under the rules of the pension scheme, the Council would have to make an additional payment into the scheme (this is a mathematical formula based on covering the ‘actuarial strain’)
  3. Because of this extra cost, the Council has a strict policy on granting ERIES requests: the full additional estimated cost of the termination must be shown to be recoverable within three years of the employee’s termination date

So, did the COP have the full business case in front of them as required by policy? did they know exactly how the Council was going to recover the costs over the next three years? Remember, only nine days after this meeting, all the members in the room would be up for election, and the Leader of the Council (and Chair of this COP) had already announced he would not be standing again.

And why were officers excluded from the room during the vital 20 minutes when the decision was taken? These are not junior staff members, but the Council’s legal, and financial and HR heavyweights: Assistant Director – Finance; Interim Assistant Director – Legal & Democratic Services; Assistant Director – People Management. In fact, just the sort of people you would want to have in the room when you were taking a sensitive and controversial decision.


Quit while you’re winning

May 28, 2013

One of the hardest decisions for any creative person to make must be to decide to call it a day. For common-or-garden wage slaves working as employees, the decision is often made by others. But for musicians, authors, artists … how do you decide when your best work is over?

book coverIf you look at my bookshelves, you’ll find pretty well the entire collected works of John le Carré. I believe if he had written in any genre other than ‘spy thrillers’, he’d be ranked highly as a serious novelist: from the depth of his characters, the quality of his prose, plus of course his excellence as a story-teller. A new le Carré is a matter of keen anticipation.

I’ve just had his latest work out of the library – A delicate Truth – and I’m afraid to say it isn’t a vintage work. The plot is really a bit thin, the characters are sketches, and the unexpected turns of phrase that stop you in your tracks are nowhere to be found. At over 80 years of age, is it time for the master to hang up his quill?

CD coverDifferent genre, but similar thoughts: if you look at my CD collection, you will find a good sprinkling of music by the prog rock band Renaissance  (the only rock band I have ever been introduced to while wearing green bri-nylon pyjamas). True to its name, this band has had more changes of lineup than most in its 40-plus years of existence. So when I saw an announcement of a new album on 1st June, I had two questions: who is left in it from the classic lineup (Camp, Dunford, Haslam, Sullivan, Tout), and is the album any good?

Unfortunately, the answer to both questions was disappointing. Only Annie Haslam is left, and one individual – however creative – will always struggle to replace the musical and lyrical talents of a group (never mind trying to design the album cover – stick to the day job, Annie). Judging from the sample tracks of Grandine il Vento, the results are disappointing. Even the famous Haslam voice has succumbed to the ravages of time. The sustained high notes have gone, and the vibrato is, well – ‘ageing soprano’.

Time to move on, and discover some new authors, and new musicians.