All posts tagged 'expenses'

Manston, Miller and Mr Farage: The top political stories of the week

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, April 11 2014

Here's my round-up of the top political stories of the week in Kent and beyond:

1. After trying to stave off calls to quit, Maria Miller capitulated to the inevitable and quit her job as culture secretary. Few Kent MPs seemed prepared to comment in public about the saga which left Mr Cameron facing questions about his judgement. One that did was Tracey Crouch, the Chatham and Aylesford MP, who said Mrs Miller was right to resign but expressed frustration that MPs elected in 2010 were being tarred with the same brush despite the expenses rules being tightened.

2. Rarely out of the political spotlight, the definitely not shy or retiring UKIP leader Nigel Farage had another week in the headlines. A poll suggested that if he chose to stand at the general election in Folkestone and Hythe against Conservative incumbent Damian Collins, he would run him close but may not win. Bring it on, said Mr Collins. Mr Farage dropped an even heavier hint that he was eyeing up a Kent seat in 2015 but declined to say which one. Our bet? It will be Thanet South.

3. There may have been a spectacular increase in people cycling but Kent's track record on encouraging more people to use two wheels rather than four was under the spotlight. Census figures suggested fewer people were  cycling to work than ten years ago - compared with more forward-looking places like Brighton and London. The Green county councillor Martin Whybrow denounced the county council for its track record, altlhough given that the Conservative leader of KCC is an enthusiastic rally car driver, maybe he shouldn't have been that surprised.

4. An unfortunate piece of timing left some people wondering whether David Cameron was "running frit' after a scheduled and heavly trailed interview with Radio Kent was abruptly cancelled - supposedly so he could make a telephone call to a fellow unnamed Prime Minister.  Was it coincidence that the interview was due to take place the day after Maria Miller quit? Who knows.

5. Uncertainty continues over the fate of Manston Airport as the final flight by KLM took off on Wednesday and the airline boss of the Dutch operator made clear the carrier would most definitely would not be coming back. There continue to be talks over a possible buyout and owner Ann Gloag has agreed to consider a rescue plan drafted by staff. A case of watch this space.

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Categories: Liberal Democrats | Politics | Precept

You Got Mail: read the expenses correspondence between Kent County Council+tax inspectors

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Thursday, August 29 2013

Kent County Council has one or two blind spots when it comes to how it spends taxpayers' money - executive pay has, in the past, been among them - but it certainly had the blinkers on when it engaged in a tussle with tax officials over their expenses.

 

The tussle, as we have reported, centred on a ruling by HRMC that county councillors should be (and should have been) paying tax on their mileage claims from home to County Hall.

That the council's leader Paul Carter took the issue seriously and was reluctant to accede to the instruction is underlined not just by the fact that it paid £5,000 for independent advice.

It is graphically illustrated in the correspondence he exchanged with HRMC chief executive Lin Homer, which you can read at the end of this posting.

It was, as it transpired, a one-way correspondence as HRMC Lin Homer delegated the job of replying to a flurry of letters from County Hall to an unnamed "complaints officer" - so junior, apparently, that his or her name cannot be disclosed under Freedom of Information laws.

Kent County Council's case rested on its contention that county councillors should not have their mileage claims from home to County Hall taxed because they regularly worked from home.

Mr Carter asserted in his first letter that members "spend a very significant amount of time working at home" but, because of safety fears, few regularly saw constituents there.

This latter point is important because HRMC said seeing consituents routinely at home was the basis on which it permitted mileage claims not to be taxed.

Actually, few councillors that I know regularly see constituents in their own homes - and not many avoid doing so because thy are anxious about doing so alone. Much of what they do is - rightly - out and about in their wards or electoral divisions.

They may read correspondence and council agendas but hardly on a scale which could be described as "significant" and certainly not enough to justify calling their home a place of work.

(Many teachers spend considerable time "working from home" but I think heads and indeed council chiefs would balk at being asked to pay their travel expenses as a result. Even some journalists occasionally do...)

And we should not overlook the fact that some of this "work" will be party political, which should definitely not be tax deductible.

It is arguable that given that some members may qualify under the HRMC's ruling and not have to pay  tax that KCC will face some additional administrative work.

But given that there are only 84 elected members, it hardly seems overly burdensome. The county council has plenty of experience in dealing with this sort of bureaucracy.

HRMC was clearly unconvinced by the argument that "councillors get a very modest allowance" and rightly so. "Very modest" is not how most people would see a yearly allowance of close to £13,000 a year for every member.

Read the KCC expenses correspondence between the council leader Paul Carter and HRMC:

Paul Carter to HRMC1.pdf (73.77 kb)

 

Paul Carter to HRMC 2.pdf (23.87 kb)

 

Paul Carter to HRMC 3.pdf (36.49 kb)

HRMC to Paul Carter 1.pdf (31.40 kb)

 

 

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Emergency stop: county councillors slam on the brakes in mileage row

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, July 19 2013

There are times when County Hall - and county councillors - operate in a parallel universe entirely detached from real life. Occasionally, someone somewhere throws a bucket of cold water over them and they come to their senses.

The decision to perform an abrupt U-turn over a proposal to increase their travel expenses by close to 50% rescued them from a public relations disaster that would have done terrible damage to their reputation. I imagine it took several icy buckets to bring them round.

But let's be clear about it. Had the council's members thought they could get away with it, they would have done. It was only the media coverage that persuaded them them to engage reverse gear rather rapidly.

Indeed, in a Conservative group meeting before yesterday's full council meeting - described as rather ugly by one source - opinion was fairly evenly split with some arguing that they should vote to accept the hike and take the flak.

KCC has fought tooth and nail with HRMC for close to two years over the matter and as I blogged earlier this week, leaders had sought top level meetings with HRMC to press their case.

The option should never have even got to a vote but the fact that it did goes back to a meeting of the authority's selection and member services committee - attended by the leaders of all the parties - where the report was tabled. Instead of seeing a red warning light and the sound of a very large klaxon, the committee supported the idea and that is why it came to the full council meeting.

Perhaps inevitably, rather than any expression of contrition, the leader of Kent County Council Paul Carter sought to deflect some of the criticism coming councillors way by implying that the media coverage failed to set the issue in context. (He issued a similar plea over the furore about the departure of former managing director Katherine Kerswell, urging the media to play with a 'straight bat').

Whenever the issue of councillors' expenses and allowances was raised, he complained, the media "had a field day" and set about writing stories about "snouts in the trough" - even though that particular phrase has not been used in any of our coverage, or indeed, anyone else's.

He suggested the media ought to "help us" by properly explaining the issue to residents. Which of course we did - although not perhaps in the way he and others would have wanted.

Still, at least there was one wise head in the Conservative ranks. Cllr Jeremy Kite, the leader of Dartford council, said it was no-one's fault but KCC's that it had got the issue so spectacularly wrong and the media had done precisely what was to be expected. He at least got that perception matters as much as anything in politics and there was nothing at all that looked good to the public about this idea.

There are some issues where Kent county council seems to have a particular blind spot and this is among them. Despite the retreat yesterday, the issue hasn't gone away. If the authority has any sense, it will see the wisdom of taking a very large barge pole and going nowhere near the subject for the next four years.

But it won't. And we will be there to help explain the "issue" when it next surfaces.

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What will be the point of voting for county councillors at the next election?

Not my question but one posed by the Labour backbencher Tom Maddison during a more thoughtful debate about the Conservative administration's £240m savings strategy which will see the council recast as a "commissioning" authority - meaning more privatisation and outsourcing.

The point here was that if KCC does go down this route, what will be the function of elected members. It is a good point. If KCC simply becomes a local goverment CostCo - trading and contracting services - just what will they do?

You may just as well have a management team and let them get on with the job. Which is why the commissioning approach raises important issues about local democracy and the view of some that it will see the "local government ethic" disappear. As Liberal Democrat leader Trudy Dean put it, many choose to work in local government because they are attracted to the idea of working in a sector wherethe service matters, not the profit.

They don't want to end up in the private sector where the bottom line for companies is ultimately what they can get for their shareholders rather than what they can do for communities.

And what will KCC do when things go awry with contractors, as is bound to happen? It won't have the staff left to step in and will simply have to find another private consortium to do the job.




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Categories: Politics

The wrong road - why KCC should engage reverse over bumping up expenses

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, July 17 2013

The taxman does not generally have many friends and Kent County Council is certainly not among them.

After a long wrangle which has been going on for more than a year, HMRC has told the authority that its 84 elected members should be paying tax on car journeys they make from home to County Hall.

The county council's response? It has set out an option to increase the mileage rate councillors can claim to compensate for the 'loss' caused by the tax deductions they will have to suffer.

Unfortunately for KCC, this particular option - which will be voted on on Thursday (18) - comes just one week after leaders announced they would be looking to make a further £240m savings from 2015 and would be looking to outsource many more services to avoid going bust.

So, the timing is not great and neither, whatever the arguments that may be made, is the perception that this amounts to a ruse by the council to ensure that they are not left out of pocket by HMRC's ruling. Inevitably, it would be the taxpayer picking up the estimated £50,000 more it will cost.

KCC's case that members should not pay tax on car journeys has turned on its contention that for many councillors, their home doubles as a place of work and consequently trips should be treated as business trips.

It is certainly true that many members do work in their own home (as indeed do many others employees who do not get any such tax relief) but HRMC said that unless members "routinely" saw constituents in their home, it did not class it as a workplace.

You can argue the case both ways, although my own feeling is that while many members do work at home, not many routinely see constituents at them - at least not as frequently as HMRC believes would be necessary.

(And no employer that I have come across subsidises travel from home to work.)

The HMRC guidance is pretty clear, saying that: "The fact that a councillor chooses to do some work at home - for example, reading council papers or completing correspondence - does not make that home a distinct place of work for the purpose of claiming tax relief on travel expenses."

All of which leaves county councillors in a quandary.

The one point where I have some sympathy is that certain members incur much more by way of expenses in travel because of where they live. Wear and tear on their cars is arguably more and so too are their petrol costs.

KCC says one other option might be to have some geographical banding, paying higher rates to those who live further away. That runs the perverse risk of incentivising more travel and the "meetings culture" too many town halls still cling too.

The county council's own report on the matter reveals just how seriously it has taken the issue.

It records "numerous representations" made to HRMC and disclosing that "members asked officers to delay implementation whilst a further approach was made to HRMC at the most senior level" only last month.

So, an idea of the priority they have given it.

I am less convinced by the argument that if this has to be accepted by the county council, it will somehow deter people from standing in local elections.

Members qualify for a pretty generous basic allowance of £12,800 already and in making this argument, KCC inadertently betrays that most of what members do takes place at County Hall rather than in their own divisions, which perhaps ought to be the case.

Cabinet members certainly do have to be at County Hall regularly, as do opposition leaders but it is less the case for backbenchers.

So, it will be interesting to see how county councillors vote and which of the options they back at Thursday's full council meeting.

I sense they may be gently applying the brakes and going into reverse gear, which wouldn't be a bad idea.

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There is a certain irony that to determine what they should do about their mileage claims, 84 members will travel to County Hall on Thursday to have a debate and a vote.

Wonder how many will car share?

 

 

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County Hall and the chauffeur saga

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, March 9 2012

AS MPs discovered to their cost when the expenses scandal unravelled, perceptions are rather important when it comes to the public making judgements about the way in which elected politicians act and behave.

Auditor accepts that admin errors were to blame for councillors expenses mistakes>>>

KCC will no doubt hope that the outcome of a prolonged investigation into complaints about how some councillors have used private taxis and the authority's own chauffeur-driven cars will draw a line under what has, frankly, been a messy saga.

The district auditor says he accepts KCC's explanation that administrative errors were to blame for mistakes made when a small number of councillors submitted claims for travel in their own car when they had actually been travelling in a taxi or chauffeur-driven car.

His eight-page report records that the princely sum of £430.80 has been repaid for these administrative errors by among others, the deputy leader Alex King and the former KCC chairman Bill Hayton.

On the issue of whether Cllr King was within the council's own rules when he used taxis and council cars for a string of meetings to London's St Stephen's Club and the Atrium restaurant, the auditor writes: "I have no evidence to suggest that this explanation is untrue".

So, in the strict sense, the only reason KCC has had a mild rap on the knuckles is because of administrative errors.

But the sensitivity around the issue is reflected by the fact that KCC and the leader Paul Carter "have accepted the use of chauffeur-driven cars for private purposes is inappropriate and have stopped this practice."

And we have already reported how the deputy leader was advised to stop using them to travel to and from his home as there was a question mark over the rules.

Had there not been an investigation triggered by a member of the public, it is highly likely that the council would have continued to allow the practice.

Whether you consider it necessary for county councillors to have access to chauffeur-driven cars or not, KCC has not exactly covered itself in glory over the matter. There may be an argument to be made that providing senior councillors with access to chauffeur-driven cars on some occasions is sensible, especially if the costs of paying members expenses would leave the taxpayer with a higher bill.

But KCC appears to have lost sight of how these things can appear, especially at a time when taxpayers are struggling with bills and pay freezes and indeed many of its own staff face redundancy.

It needs to ensure not just that councillors know the rules, but that the public can be reassured that whatever arrangements are in place, they are not susceptible to abuse or exploitation.

 

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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

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