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.

Undertaking council duties

May 16, 2013

The new Council

As the BBC reports, Cumbria County Council is back in business with a new political administration and a new temporary Chief Executive. The issues surrounding the departures of the previous Chief Exec have been well aired in this blog, so I will not repeat them now.

In an email to all Council Members and Staff, the Council claimed:

The new temporary arrangement could deliver net savings of over £97,000 in the first six months

Sadly, as I pointed out in the Council meeting this morning, this is not the case (apologies for the length of this – not very blog-friendly I’m afraid):

I’d like to draw members’ attention to paragraph 6.3, which shows the financial implications of these arrangements, as presented to the Chief Officers’ Panel. The figures show an estimated net saving of around £97k in the first six months.

This is based on the assumption that on handover day, the Council ceases paying the outgoing Chief Exec’s salary of £170k, and instead pays an ‘acting up’ allowance of £15k. £170k versus £15k – bit of a bargain really.

However, this is not what is actually being proposed. The Leader of the previous administration has stated that the outgoing Chief Exec will be paid salary in lieu of notice. This means that on handover day, the Council will start paying the acting Chief Exec an increased salary, but will also continue to pay the outgoing Chief Exec her full salary for the duration of the notice period. The Council will be paying salaries to two people: one to ‘act up’ as Chief Exec, and the other to stay at home.

Chair, the financial figures presented to the Chief Officers’ Panel as given in this report are partial, and do not show the full impact to the Council’s finances of this arrangement. The claimed saving of £97k in the six months following handover will not happen, as the Council will still be paying the outgoing Chief Exec her full salary during her notice period.

Chair, if the report in front of us today is accurate, then the Chief Officers’ Panel’s decision was made on a flawed business case. I would be grateful for clarification on this point.

Needless to say, I did not get any clarification, but a statement that all the figures would be put in the public domain in the statutory accounts – in June 2014! So a useful lesson for councils – if you want to bury bad news, and put it beyond the reach of councillors, do your digging during the interregnum between administrations.

Footnote: in welcoming the new Chair of the Council, reference was made to a time in his life when he worked as an undertaker: “he knows where all the bodies are buried”. Maybe we all will in a year’s time.

“Golden Goodbye” details exposed

May 6, 2013

The Mirror has the story: details of Jill Stannard’s “golden goodbye” from Cumbria County Council have at last entered the public domain. So the good people of Cumbria will not have to wait until summer 2014 to find out where their money has been spent.

However, the details raise as many questions as they answer:

  • why has she been paid £42k in lieu of notice? what was the urgency to get her off the premises immediately, rather than let her work through a phased transition to the new interim arrangements? Payment in lieu means the Council is still paying for her services, while she enjoys the summer in her garden – how can this contribute to “service efficiency”, the alleged reason for her departure?
  • why has she received a “maximum £45k payoff'”? payoff for what? for going quietly?

The Council needs to come clean with what has been going on here. The culture of omerta that characterised the old Council must go.

Why the mystery?

April 28, 2013

We seem to have a culture of secrecy here in the public sector in Cumbria. First of all the Police and Crime Commissioner’s office persecutes people who blow the whistle on their boss’s expenses – even though he now admits the claims were out of order and has repaid them – once the details came out into the open.

Now the County Council displays a similar level of paranoia over how and why its Chief Exec is making an untimely and hasty exit from her job, and how much it is costing the general public. The details will have to be published eventually, so why the unwillingness to publish them now? Instead, there is a steady trickle of titbits into the public domain as the beleaguered Tory Council leader, Eddie Martin, tries to respond to local criticism.

You couldn’t make it up – the local press tries to find out what’s going on, and then mysteriously pulls stories (you won’t find this story on the Westmorland Gazette site any more, but you will find it in Google’s cache)

The latest nugget to emerge from Eddie Martin is

The law requires that we top up her pension and she is entitled to payment in lieu

Payment in lieu of what? of notice presumably? I’ve queried earlier why Jill is leaving at such unholy speed, instead of working her (six months?) notice. Surely the council cannot be paying her off to leave quickly? Why?

Eddie may complain about the rumours and speculation over this issue, but the answer lies in his hands. If there is nothing to hide, then he should answer demands to publish the details, rather than wait for them to be published in summer 2014 – when curiously enough he will be long forgotten, leaving others to pick up the flack (Councillor Martin is not seeking re-election next week).