All posts tagged 'transparency'

Will voters be charged by Labour's energy pledge?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Thursday, September 26 2013

After its 2010 meltdown, where it lost all its MPs in Kent, Labour has been pondering just how it can overcome the "Southern Discomfort" phenomenon that has seen voters desert the party in droves.

Ed Miliband's pledge to freeze energy prices is one designed to encourage voters to think that Labour understands the pain of "hard-working" families.

Superficially, it looks attractive and is likely to appeal to those who open their monthly bills with their hands over their eyes.

It also plays into the perception Labour is keen to create that the Conservatives are more on the side of big companies and that it is the party that is standing up for ordinary families.(If you are looking for a parallel Conservative policy, the council tax freeze has the same aim).

On the other hand, there is the charge that the plan represents some kind of return to old-style Labour politics and greater state regulation of the kind that led to anti-competitive price controls.

The faultline with this line of attack is that many feel the lack of regulation and intervention by the government was one of the prime reason for the banking crisis and the current state of the economy.

Alarmist talk from the industry that the plan risks power cuts and the artificial inflation of fuel prices before a freeze has taken some of the shine of the announcement.

But Labour will calculate the public antipathy to the vested interests of big corporate organisations and the feeling  there are market monopolies will help its efforts to woo back disaffected voters.


Why would you be interested in a report titled "Constitutional Amendments To Reflect The Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings And Access To Information) (England) Regulations 2012 - unless, of course, you are a fan of brackets?

Well, one reason might be that within it is a recommendation that just might make it more difficult for the opposition parties at County Hall to challenge and hold to account the ruling Conservative administration.

Why? Because under rule changes voted through last week, if a county councillor wants to "call in" a decision taken by the cabinet, or an individual cabinet member, they will no longer be able to do so on their own.

Instead, they will have to get another councillor to support the request to call in the decision - and that second person cannot be from the same party.

According to KCC, the change is required because the current rules are not clear and "does not provide sufficient guidance for members as to when and why a call-in might be used".

Now, in reality it probably won't be too difficult for a councillor to persuade a colleague to support a call in request - and it shouldn't be forgotten that Conservative backbenchers also like to call in decisions to scrutinise.

Nevertheless, it adds to the impression that sometimes KCC is not as keen on being held to account as perhaps it should be.


And on that theme, it looks as though KCC has been rather heavy-handed in responding to criticism from one of its public health managers who had the temerity to speak out over the authority's pension investments in tobacco companies.

The individual has now been threatened with disciplinary action after making the comments - the council contending on rather thin and Orwellian grounds that she had made "unauthorised statements" to the media.

Talk about over the top. Why is the council so fearful of people expressing opinions?

A shocking example of the control-freakery sadly all too prevalent at County Hall where any "on message" deviation seems to result in a North Korean style crackdown.

No wonder some staff say they work for a paranoid organisation.

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How the council transparency revolution is proving a damp squib

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, March 2 2012

ERIC Pickles cannot be faulted for his commitment to greater open government. He has forced councils to do much more in terms of publishing details of how they are spending our money - a long overdue step.

But just how effective has his transparency crusade been? Has his belief that greater transparency would unleash an 'army of armchair auditors' who would scrutinise council accounts and come up with ways of saving the taxpayer money come to fruition?

Mr Pickles asserted last year that the creation of a 'citizen samizdat' had proved a 'triumph.' He told council finance chiefs that the publication of invoices of more than £500 had played an essential role in 'eliminating waste and inefficiency to deliver value for money to the taxpayer.'

If a survey we have done is any indication, Mr Pickles' grand claims do not stand up to scrutiny. In fact, far from sparking the creation of an auditors' army, it seems there has been monumental indifference to the transparency revolution.

We asked councils in Kent a series of questions relating to their monthly publication of invoices above £500 over last year. The questions concerned how many FOI requests they had received for information about individual invoices; how many general inquiries from the public they had received; whether any of these requests had led to a change in policy that may have saved money and finally, how much it had cost them to publish the invoice details over the year.

The request was sent to Kent County Council, Medway Council and the 12 district and borough councils.

Here's a summary:

Councils who received no FOI requests: Medway; Ashford, Swale, Maidstone, Gravesham, Tonbridge and Malling

Councils getting one request: Tunbridge Wells; Thanet; Dover

Councils getting more than one request: Kent county council (5).

Responses to the question about general inquiries about invoices were equally dismal. Several councils said they did not keep records anyway; most others who did either had zero or one. KCC did say that its website had received 3,945 hits.

Perhaps the most telling statistic came in the response to whether councils had changed policy as a result of any scrutiny of their invoices either by the media or the public. Not one council indicated they had.

As to the costs, some councils - contrary to earlier complaints about the expense - said they had not spent anything additionally on complying with the new rules. These included Ashord, Thanet, Medway. KCC said it cost about £120 a month to process the data.

For others, the costs were relatively modest: Tunbridge Wells (£1,300 per year); Gravesham said it had spent £1,500 setting up the system and was spending £320 a month doing it; Swale said it was spending £4,900 to use an outside company to do the work; Maidstone spent £4,000 setting up the system and £50 on staff time each month.

What does this tell us? The answers suggest widespread indifference to the tsunami of information the public now has access to but I do not think it is that simple.

The problem is that the data is produced and presented in a way which makes it impregnable to any meaningful analysis. Visitors to council websites are presented with gargantuan spreadsheets that offer only the most basic of information and crude figures, lacking any context of even explanation.

True, the persistent armchair auditor can sometimes elicit more through FOI requests but it hardly looks like the kind of revolution Pickles had in mind - and is far from the triumph he has claimed it to be.

This is not an argument against the principle of transparency; it is about whether the mechanisms councils have in place are sophisiticated enough to allow the public to properly understand how taxpayers' money is being spent.

If councils are to properly engage the citizen, they will need to do considerably more than publish each month reams and reams of impenetrable spreadsheets.

 £500 invoices.pdf (6.40 mb)

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Categories: Politics

Why KCC will have to come clean over its pay-off to departing MD Kerswell

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, December 13 2011

Not for the first time, Kent County Council has shown that when it comes to transparency, its view of what the public has a right to know depends rather on what the circumstances are.

It will not, we are told, be disclosing the details of the severance package it has agreed with its departing managing director Katherine Kerswell because it is bound by a confidentiality agreement. Ah, the good old confidentiality clause.

Perhaps with all the frenzy over trying to come to an agreement with Mrs Kerswell, the authority overlooked its new obligations to publish such information under the transparency regime that, to his credit, the communities secretary Eric Pickles has insisted all councils must follow.

Specifically, KCC appears to have not given much thought to a change in the Audit and Account Regulations 2009 that ensures the public is entitled to much more detailed information about the remuneration of senior council staff.

This places a requirement on councils to disclose how much senior employees have earned in salary, fees and allowances, bonuses and "the total amount of any compensation for loss of employment paid to or receivable by the person and any other payments made to or receivable by the person in connection with the termination of their employment by the relevant body."

In other words, everything about the pay and perks, as well as pension value, of senior staff for the financial year - including their names if they are earning more than £150,000.

So KCC will have to detail the sums involved in scrapping the group managing director's role when it next publishes its full accounts - probably around June.

This does, of course, give the council the advantage of hoping that enough time will have passed for everyone to have forgotten about it but I suspect that may be a vain hope.

So, why doesn't KCC grasp the nettle instead of hiding behind this fig leaf? One of the reasons is that it has form when it comes to eye-watering pay-offs to departing staff, most notably when it agreed to pay former chief executive Peter Gilroy £200,000 on the day he left the authority as part of the package agreed when his contract was extended by a year.

So, it undoubtedly wants to avoid a further clutch of embarrassing headlines.

Its own avowed approach to transparency is - and I quote from the county council leader Paul Carter - is that "it is enormously important that residents of the county who pay substantial taxes know where their money goes. We have no problems with that at all."

Could there be a more compelling case for disclosure of how taxpayers' money is being spent?

KCC is forever telling us how much its controversial re-structuring has saved the taxpayer. And its report proposing the deletion of the post of managing director emphasises how much it will save by not paying her salary - £265,000 a year.

If it can be so transparent on these matters, we are surely entitled to know the other side of the coin.

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Categories: Nu-Venture | Precept

Will bloggers now flock to council meetings? And that Southeastern trains 'audit

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Thursday, February 24 2011

It's encouraging to see the government continue with its efforts to persuade councils to do more to open up their meetings to the public. The latest development in the seemingly never-ending transparency crusade is an edict from the Department for Communities and Local Government that councils should "open up their meetings to local news bloggers and routinely allow online filming of public discussions as part of increasing their transparency."

Bloggers should, according to ministers, get the same routine access to council meetings as the 'traditional media'. Welcome though this is, I'm not convinced that it will trigger a march on town halls of bloggers availing themselves of these new entitlements. It's worth pointing out that council meetings are already open to the public and there's nothing to stop anyone from attending in any case. (It'll be interesting to see how councils respond when citizen journalists turn up with video cameras, mind you.)

For me, the wider issue is not who can go to meetings but the continuing concern that the system of cabinet government is one that gives councils enormous power to manage the decision-making process in a way that inhibits rather than enhances scrutiny.

And for all the government's warm words on transparency, it is worth noting that there are some worrying developments in the pipeline under the guise of its Localism Bill.

This sets out proposals that should worry all those who feel more needs to be done to hold authorities to account.

One proposal set out in the Bill would see the removal of any sanctions against authorities who failed to comply with the public's right to inspect documents relating to their accounts - including contracts - as well as the removal of a requirement that public bodies publish adverts in local newspapers giving notice of when the 20-day inspection period of accounts will take place.

It was these rights, incidentally, which enabled us to scrutinise the credit card bills of senior managers at County Hall last year. These changes would appear to run counter to the desire of Mr Pickles to see an army of armchair auditors poring over council accounts and spending.


I am not at all surprised that an audit of Southeastern trains' punctuality has concluded that its figures added up and it did indeed - albeit narrowly - pass the threshold that meant no discounts for season ticket holders.

It won't please long-suffering passengers, of course. The problem, however, is that the company simply complied with what was required of it under the Passenger's Charter. And that was something that was set by the previous government when it agreed franchise contracts with the operator and that the only way it could be changed is if the government instructed it to.

But even if this latest news is a let down for some, it will add to the pressure that a future contract should set out compensation agreements based on individual line performance rather than performance across the whole network. 

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Categories: Freedom of Information | National Politics | Public Sector

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.


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.


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. 


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