Councils

Why Kent is right to demand action over councils placing vulnerable children in county. Plus: Under the bonnet of KCC's new cars policy

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Thursday, June 14 2012

There are few things that councils do that are more important than the task of safeguarding vulnerable children.

Yet it can appear that decisions taken by social services authorities are not always ones that have the welfare of the child as the sole concern.

Not for the first time, Kent County Council is highlighting the practice of some councils to send children into the county to be looked after. It is an issue KCC has been trying to bang heads together on for years yet, for all its efforts, nothing has materially changed.

Far from home: how councils from Wales and Scotland and London are placing vulnerable children in Kent>>>

That is wrong and the current and previous government must shoulder some of the blame for failing to take any action. But it could be that things are about to change. Why? 

One reason is the publicity surrounding the sex grooming trial in Rochdale, that involved the deeply distressing exploitation of underage vulnerable girls, one of whom was in care. As a result of that trial and the convictions, the leader of Rochdale council said recently he was unable to guarantee the welfare of children at risk in care homes because so many were outside the area and had been placed in them by other councils.

Kent county council has invoked Rochdale in its latest plea for something to be done, as have headteachers in Thanet who have issued a stark warning that Kent 'could be the next Rochdale.'

Scaremongering? Not really, when you look at the data and consider the challenges facing parts of east Kent in dealing with desperate levels of social deprivation and hardship.

Councils - particularly London boroughs - are making decisions based as much on their budget books as they are on children's welfare. They cast around and see east Kent as a cheaper alternative. Decisions are made that satisfy the bean counters.

That can never be right and if the government is to heed the warnings, it must act quickly and take up some of KCC's recommendations.

If councils simply ignore voluntary agreements about placements, the solution is for them to be compelled to do so through law.

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County councillors have finally agreed a new policy and rules about when our democratically-elected representatives at County Hall can use chauffeur-driven cars.

One not-so-subtle change to the policy, as I predicted, is that the word "chauffeur" no longer appears in the policy document. Instead, the council refers to "county cars".

On whether councillors can avail themselves of chauffeur-driven cars, sorry "county cars" - to get them from home to County Hall, there is a new clause.

This states that such travel should be regarded "as an exception to normal travelling arrangements for all members" and only authorised in specific circumstances.

And what are these specific circumstances? "To drive the chairman, leader or deputy leader of the county council or their spouse/partner or other guest from home and back for the purposes of attending formal meetings or engagements that [they] are required to attend on behalf of KCC as part of their official duties."

This is interesting as it comes against the background of an investigation by HRMC examining whether the use of KCC cars to and from home to County Hall could constitute a taxable benefit.

The investigation has not, so far as I'm aware, determined the matter.

Another clause permits states that where the chairman, vice chairman, leader or cabinet members wish to combine official council journeys with "journeys of a private nature" they may do so - by arranging for the services of a KCC driver to be provided to "drive their own cars."  Any costs will have to be met by the councillor concerned.

How much? In each case, it will be "based on a formula to be determined on each occasion by the Section 151 officer."

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Categories: Councils | Politics

So, exactly how much money will KCC need to save next year?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, December 14 2010

To help people understand how the government works out how much councils ought to get in grants to fund services next year, the Department for Communities and Local Government has helpfully published a "plain English" guide outlining how it all works. It runs to nine densely-worded pages and includes this gem:

"In the past, Government has set a single floor to limit the effects of changes from year to year. This is called damping. Instead of a single floor, this year councils have been grouped into four bands with four different floors." (Four bands on four floors? In other circumstances, that might represent a good night out).

Welcome to the impenetrable world of council funding. No wonder we have a bizarre situation in which Kent County Council can claim it needs to save £90m next year and local government minister Eric Pickles can claim that he's only reducing grants to KCC by £18.5m. And no wonder people find all this technical mumbo-jumbo, frankly, a bit of a turn off. 

Who is right? Well, KCC makes a fair point when it says that the settlement doesn't adequately reflect inflationary pressures or the rising demand for services from some quarters, such as elderly care.

As always, the debate about who is right serves as a pre-amble to the now traditional blame shifting exercise that goes on when councils do fix their budgets. But I suspect even that that will be overshadowed when KCC and others begin to publish their spending plans and have to set out exactly where the axe will fall.

KCC leader Paul Carter did not come across as overly pessimistic when I spoke to him for his reaction to Mr Pickles' announcement, hinting that he had a few things up his sleeve that might mitigate some of the cuts although job losses are another thing altogether.

We will see but expect to hear a lot about "innovation" come January and a greater emphasis on the authority's money-spinnig commercial enterprises.

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There's clearly a bit of restlessness among some Conservative backbenchers, meanwhile, about KCC's plans for a shake-up of the way it is run and a re-organisation of senior managers.

The "Change to Keep Succeeding" programme got a bit of a mauling when it was recently discussed by KCC's Governance and Audit committee, with councillors clearly vexed by certain aspects of the plans - the most vexing being their scepticism that it won't really go far enough in terms of slimming down the number of senior directors and appears not to be saving terribly much money (£477k apparently).

That wily old veteran Cllr Keith Ferrin revealed he had already been “very rude” about it elsewhere and said he could not quite believe “that anybody has the guts to put such rubbish in front of us.”

The normally mild-mannered Cllr Richard Parry wanted to know why the number of top officers had not been “significantly reduced” adding “29 to 24 [directors] is an inadequate reduction.”

Cllr Roland Tolputt was clearly exasperated by the fact that so many directors needed PAs.

Opposition Lib Dem Tim Prater joined in, saying that if a reduction of directors from 29 to 24 was really going to tackle County Hall’s black hole of £340m “we really do need a review of staff salaries.”

It was left to cabinet member John Simmonds to hold the party line but his appeal to give the planned reforms a fair wind appeared to have not been that persuasive.

 

 

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Categories: Conservatives | Councils | Politics

Are our councils hoarding money that could cushion looming cuts? Mr Pickles thinks so.

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Monday, December 6 2010

Whatever way you look at it, £222million is a lot of money. And it is money that councils in Kent have stashed away in reserves - so-called rainy day money kept back to deal with "contingencies".

Now they are coming under pressure from Eric Pickles, the local government minister, to spend some of it to spare taxpayers' a little of the pain coming their way - ironically, primarily as a result of the government's own parsimony in its on-going austerity drive.

Mr Pickles, in a rather inflammatory language, has spoken of councils turning town halls into Fort Knox - saying now is the time to be putting untapped funds to good use.

Find out how much your council has in reserves here>>>

The exhortation comes at a sensitive time. Councils are about to find out how much their budgets will be cut next year and Mr Pickles has clearly been advised that it would be a good way of turning the spotlight away from the uncomfortable fact that he's about to confirm council grants will be reduced by 25 to 30 per cent over the next four years. Even more cynically, by making a pre-emptive strike, he can - should councils acquiesce - take some of the credit later on for giving them the idea in the first place.

In Kent, district and borough councils between them have £104m in rainy-day funds; KCC has £105m (5.3 per cent of its revenue expenditure) and Medway £13m. Some appear to be sitting on quite sizeable amounts when compared to their overall spending.

Having said that, much of the money will have been earmarked already for specific projects but some will be unallocated. (Traditionally, councils have tended to dip into these pots around election time.Can't think why.)

They're the type of sums that will have many sympathising with Mr Pickles especially when councils start wielding the axe over a range of services.

The question is whether councils will heed his advice that they should "just like any household facing challenging times" consider the merits of dipping into their reserves to help them through  a sticky period.

 

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Categories: Councils | KCC | Local Politics

KCC officer payouts: auditors deliver a rap on the knuckles

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, November 30 2010

NOT unreasonable. Not unlawful. That’s the conclusion of Kent County Council’s auditors about various six-figure payouts to some of its top officers – including the infamous £200,000 paid to former chief executive Peter Gilroy.

 But while KCC can take some consolation from these conclusions, it can be less sanguine about some of the auditor’s other critical comments about how various deals and compromise payments were negotiated.

 Read how Gilroy's £200k cost £408k>>>

 

And many people will be shocked that the £200,000 payment offered to Mr Gilroy to ensure his pension was not adversely affected after he agreed to extend his contract actually cost the taxpayer a staggering £408,000.

KCC chose not to disclose this information at the time and even in February this year, when The KM Group broke the story about the payment to Mr Gilroy, no-one mentioned that the cost to the public purse was twice the actual sum.

 Auditors have a reputation of measuring any criticisms they may have rather carefully but there’s no disguising that they regard the county council’s arrangements for negotiating severance deals as having considerable shortcomings.

 

Their report talks about “recurring weaknesses” in the authority’s arrangements.

 

The consideration of value for money “was not adequately documented.” There was a “lack of effective performance management of staff.”  There was “little evidence” to show that the council “assessed the relative strength of individual legal claims against it” or that “payments made achieved the best/lowest settlement for council taxpayers.”

Perhaps most damaging is that “reports to members did not always provide a full, balanced view of the circumstances of individual cases.”

In the case of the controversial £200k that came Mr Gilroy’s way “the report to [KCC’s] personnel committee “fell short” of the standards; was "very brief" and “did not set out the full cost to the council - £408k. Neither did it “explore alternative options or evaluate value for money” and “it was not shared in advance with the Director of Finance.”

A pretty serious rap on the knuckles, then, on a subject that has done more to anger council taxpayers’ than probably anything else in the last year.

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Categories: Councils | KCC | Local Politics

Mystery over finance director's absence from County Hall

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, November 12 2010

Although KCC is grasping the government's transparency agenda with some vigour, it has declined to volunteer any information about why its finance director, Lynda McMullan, is absent from her desk and, from what little we do know, is expected to be so for at least two months.

We asked the authority a number of questions but it said it would not be commenting on the matter, which will only add to the intrigue and rumours circulating at Sessions House. Rightly or wrongly,  fairly or not, the "no comment" line does tend to give the impression there is something going on behind the scenes.

Most people appear to have been rather perplexed by the rather sudden absence. And it certainly comes at a particularly awkward time for the county council. Whatever the reasons, it cannot be a good thing to have the person who is usually responsible for drawing together the council's £2.4bn budget and spending plans away just weeks before critical announcements are expected on how KCC intends to cope with far-reaching cuts and a black hole of £340m.

I understand the situation was discussed at a meeting of the authority's personnel committee behind closed doors last Thursday. But I can't at this stage add much more than the basic facts that are known. Unless, of course, anyone wishes to enlighten us.

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Eric Pickles, the champion of open government, has further enhanced his reputation as a politican genuinely committed to greater public sector transparency.

He's firmly and rapidly squashed a council's proposal that it be allowed to charge people for dealing with their FOI requests.

Responding to Hampshire County Council's idea, Mr Pickles was ruthless.

 

"If town halls want to reduce the amount they spend on responding to freedom of information requests they should consider making the information freely available in the first place. The simple act of throwing open the books, rather than waiting for them to be prised apart by the force of an FoI, might even save a few pounds in the process."

Just for good  measure, Pickles has also been sounding off about council newspapers, which he intends to rein in under new rules limiting how often they can be produced.

"I don't think... there will be any great loss to British journalism if councils can't print their freesheets more than once a quarter. Propaganda dressed up as journalism not only wastes money but undermines a free press and a healthy democracy."

Couldn't have put it better myself.

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Categories: Councils | Local Politics | Politics | Public Sector

In defence of trips and treatments

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, November 2 2010

KCC has come out with a strong defence of the amount of money it has spent on foreign travel and a medical insurance scheme for senior managers. Its forthright response follows a survey by Channel 4 and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism which placed KCC in the top five spending authorities for both.

As with all such surveys, they do tend to offer a snapshot rather than a detailed analysis and it's worth pointing out that in relation to its size, the cost of KCC's health scheme does seem modest. If you live in Kensington and Chelsea, you are subsidising a similar scheme that costs £470k and is used by 791 staff; in Essex, the scheme there costs the taxpayer £315,000 and supports 774 staff - whereas KCC's costs £190k and 250 managers at KCC. Still, I imagine that in these straitened times, council chiefs will be looking to rein in the costs as the axe begins to fall elsewhere.

On foreign travel, KCC has, characteristically, emphasised its geographical proximity to mainland Europe as a justification for the sums involved in foreign travel - or, as its press statement puts it "Kent is a global gateway region" which apparently merits 117 trips to foreign climes in a year. I'm afraid that hard-pressed taxpayers will probably not be persuaded despite the assertion that foreign travel by officers and members has played a part in securing more than £20m in EU grants since 2007. (Incidentally, Sunderland tops this table with 41 trips at a cost of £82,228 although I've no idea whether it styles itself as a "global gateway region.") One of the problems with such broad-based assertions is that they are very difficult to test; and equally, it is impossible to say whether many of these grants might conceivably have come Kent's way regardless of whether a fact-finding, mission-statement and concordat pronouncing delegation had taken a trip to Brussels or some other destination or not.

And it is not just KCC that plays a role - when it comes to securing EU funding, generally speaking it is national governments that do the legwork through the kind of interminable negotiations that Brussels is famous for.

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I've never had Chris Huhne, the Lib dem secretary of state for the environment, down as a man-of-the-people politician. Far too cerebral. So I wasn't surprised when he told me in an interview that he felt the government's plans to increase Dartford Crossing tolls to £2.50 each way were "a good comrpomise." Not the most sympathetic phrase...

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Categories: Councils | Local Politics | Politics | Public Sector

The austerity era begins at County Hall

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Monday, October 11 2010

Every time I venture to County Hall, I half expect to come across county councillors dressed not in suits and ties but hairshirts. These are grim times for councils and KCC, as one of the biggest, is bracing itself for considerable upheaval as it confronts a budget black hole of £340m.

The "big ticket" item at today's cabinet meeting - as it was described by leader Paul Carter - was the plan to slim down the number of directorates that deliver 300 services to 1.6m people, which will mean far fewer senior managers. County Hall's re-organisation will see eight directorates cut to five and far fewer bosses, which many will argue is no bad thing.

KCC cuts directorates to five>>>

It's not yet clear how many management posts are to be deleted and we're unlikely to know the fine detail until December. Some of the names of the new directorates may confuse residents. If you've got a problem with the state of your road or pavement, you'll be dealt with by the Enterprise Directorate, for example. (I half wondered whether this had something to do with group managing director Katherine Kerswell being a fan of Star Trek).

There'll also be a Customer and Communities Directorate, which is described as the "directorate of the front line" and appears to be focusing on extending the Gateway programme, which has seen the development of various centres delivering different services.

One of the most fascinating elements of a late report tabled to the meeting was a section detailing the responses of an informal consultation on the shake up - or "the first bold step".  Responses were clearly mixed and although there were many that were positive, a number were revealing about the perception of KCC's management culture.

The various summaries included references to corporate management team in-fighting; the fact that some felt KCC was "controlling" and another comment expressed discomfort over the Orwellian dimension to the authority's determination to "communicate as one voice."

While most staff accepted KCC was "hungry for improvement" clearly not all agreed it was always happening. "We are sometimes dazzled by our own brilliance" said one respondent, while another said "we don't deliver but strategise well." Ouch.

KCC perhaps wouldn't have chosen precisely this time to embark on a major re-organisation but its hand is being forced by circumstances.

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What goes around comes around. At least it does in local government.

A few years ago, councils were told that they should integrate childrens' social services departments into their education departments, leading to the creation of childrens' services department. The move followed various government inquiries into child abuse scandals, notably Lord Laming's review into the Victoria Climbie scandal. Now KCC - and it is not the first - is moving the job of protecting young children to a new directorate that once again will look after all social services.   

 

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Categories: Councils | Local Politics | National Politics | Politics

More on how your money is spent - including a £4.50 taxi ride

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, October 1 2010

We've reported more on how County Hall has spent public money through its corporate credit cards today, along with some other interesting details about how the taxpayer has picked up the tab for a £4.50 taxi ride made by former chief executive Peter Gilroy.

The County Hall Spending Files>>>

There are some who think we have been wrong to present our disclosures in the way we have; some who think we are being too critical and sensationalising the subject and some who think (wrongly) that there is some other reason for our coverage - which has been based purely on our judgement that it is very much in the public interest and a subject our readers will find interesting to read about - whatever their views.

Others believe that if a public body is embracing transparency, then it cannot pick and choose which transactions it would prefer to be transparent about. One point worth making here is that many of the transactions that we have detailed fall below the £500 threshold set by the government at which all councils will be required to put into the public domain data on all invoices above that sum.

So, had the information not been gathered by a concerned resident and passed to us, a considerable amount of it would never have seen the light of day. KCC has rightly come round to the view that being open is a virtue and one that ultimately will be good for it and the residents it is there to serve.

As its own report unveiling its plans for a new transparency regime says, it is important that residents are able to make judgements about not just the costs they, as taxpayers, are bearing but that they can also make judgments about the value of what is being done with their money.

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Interestingly, the new Labour group leader on the Local Government Association has hit out at the government's transparency plans, asserting that they are a waste of time and councils have better things to do. You can read about it here Some of the comments are illuminating.

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I've blogged a couple of times about how Ed Miliband might play with the voters of Kent - especially the 80,000+ that deserted the party between 2005 and 2010. I've suggested he might become the Iain Duncan Smith of the party. But I was talking to a colleague who suggested a better comparison might be with William Hague, who had an ill-fated attempt to lead the party out of the wilderness after its nightmare of a defeat in 1997.  Just steer clear of the baseball cap, Ed. 


 

County Hall's flexible friends and transparency

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, September 24 2010

There’s a certain irony that the launch of KCC’s transparency revolution has coincided with the publication of fresh disclosures by us of how taxpayers’ money has been spent on corporate credit cards.

 

The Spending Files: read our report here

 

First, let’s give KCC credit – it is going much further than it needs to in publishing the data required of it by the government.

 

I sense a genuine desire to grasp the nettle once and for all over this issue and the move to publish additional details of the pay and expenses of senior staff is particularly welcome.

 

However, the revelations about how more than £8,000 was spent on celebrating the authority’s success in collecting and being nominated for national awards raises questions about the spending habits in some quarters of County Hall.

 

I don’t have any problem with staff of any organisation being recognised and thanked for their efforts. It’s something good employers do.

 

And let’s be fair – KCC’s legal services directorate turns a tidy sum for the authority and its residents each year.

 

The issue I think some will have is whether it is proportionate – particularly given that it involves public money. I do acknowledge that some may regard the sums involved as modest in the context of the council’s overall budget.

 

It’s a reasonable point except for the fact that as a public body, perceptions are all important.

 

Was it really necessary to spend £384 on Thorntons chocolates for 90 staff? Or £224 on commemorative photos? Taxis that came in at £935 when trains would have cost half that?

 

I wonder whether these expenses would have been made had it been known they would become public.

 

Yes, awards ceremonies have a habit of overrunning but would  it have really been impossible for those attending the two events in London to travel by train? As we report, there were two trains after the time at which the parties were collected by their taxis to ferry them back to County Hall – which is a stones throw from the station.

 

KCC has been highly successful in adapting practices from the private sector.

 

There are, however, some that it can do without and the corporate hospitality culture common to many private sector boardrooms is one of them.

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Categories: Councils | KCC | Local Politics

A mini constitutional crisis at County Hall...

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Thursday, September 16 2010

It seems some county councillors had misgivings about a decision to invite me to talk to KCC's cabinet scrutiny committee yesterday about the new transparency programme at County Hall. I'd been asked if I wanted to contribute to the meeting rather than cover it (although I ended up doing both) on the grounds that it might be useful for the council to have a media perspective on the initiative.

KCC sets out plans to open its books>>>


I had some reservations about appearing myself but agreed. But it seems my presence as a witness was giving some members cause for concern and before any discussion on the great transparency agenda took place there was a debate about whether my presence could be deemed to be against the council's constitution.

Conservative spokesman Cllr Roger Manning outlined what his concerns were first, which revolved around whether, as a witness, I could potentially ask members questions - although I was there to answer them. "I need to be clear in my own mind that we are acting within our constitution. It seems to me that we are setting a dangerous precedent" he said, before going on to add that he was anxious lest the authority be inundated with witnesses at future meetings who might also ask councillors questions.

Fellow Conservative Jean Law questioned whether it was in the gift of the chairman of the committee - Lib Dem Cllr Trudy Dean - to permit witnesses to ask questions as well as answer them. Cllr Dean replied that it had always been normal practice to allow questions from witnesses.

I was as bemused as anyone who might have been looking in at the webcast of the meeting. I certainly hadn't gone along with any intention of quizzing councillors. Although I'm bound to say it struck me as somewhat odd that some considered the idea that journalists should ask elected politicians questions somehow questionable.

Still, it was interesting to be the focus of a debate about whether, in agreeing to my presence, there might have been some dreadful constitutional crisis at County Hall.

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Still, I did have a salutary reality check when one member of the committee - Swanley Conservative councillor Robert Brookbank - interjected before the debate to demand to know who I was, declaring: "I have never heard of him." If I was a politician, I suppose I'd be describing that as a wake-up call.

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There was a robust defence of how the council is looking after vulnerable children at yesterday's meeting by managing director Rosalind Turner, who decried the willingness of agencies to press the nuclear option at the merest hint of possible harm and request KCC to carry out a risk assessment.

It follows a critical Ofsted report that flagged up delays in the time it is taking to assess vulnerable children in Kent.

It's undeniably the case that heightened sensitivities have created the risk averse culture and as always, striking the right balance is incredibly tricky, more so when any failing will inevitably trigger a slew of unfavourable headlines and searching questions.

No wonder it's hard to recruit social workers.

Don't press the nuclear option, says children's chief>>>

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Categories: Councils | KCC | Local Politics | National Politics

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