Friday, 10 August 2018


It wasn’t that long ago that Ministers and senior civil servants were completely dismissing any suggestion that some individual local authorities were heading for the financial rocks, let alone that the whole sector was rapidly approaching a cliff edge.
I don’t think they are as complacent today. However, despite the continued insistence that they are not expecting any surprises it is clear that there is a lot of nervousness and finger crossing.
Establishment complacency has largely been fuelled by the way in which local government has managed to cope with the significant cuts in resources since 2010 assisted by the disciplines brought about by best value and comprehensive performance assessment. These cuts have been on a scale not faced by any other service nor by any government department.
Of course, the cuts have not been evenly distributed, but even the massive redistribution of resources from the poorest areas to the wealthiest has not offered sufficient protection to the latter, which are now in the front row of red-flag wavers.
Northamptonshire may be blamed as simply a case of bad management but they are not alone. Surrey, East Sussex, Birmingham, Northants, Shropshire , Somerset and Lancashire are already posting warning signs. Earlier this year the National Audit Office (NAO) said 10% of upper-tier authorities were 'vulnerable to financial failure'. A large number of district councils are now actively considering full or partial mergers as one way of cutting costs.
The ‘vast reserves’, which Eric Pickles claimed could be used to avoid any cuts, are now being used at a dramatic rate – not for the purposes for which they were intended, but to cover in-year overspends and next year’s planned expenditure. The NAO suggests that one-in-ten councils could run out of reserves within three years.
Section 151 officers up and down the country will now realise that there is nothing to be gained by keeping their concerns private or by not drafting their S114 notices. Many auditors are busily re-reading S24 of the Local Audit and Accountability Act.
But the problem is a lot bigger than just a shortage of money. We have now reached a situation where the immediate financial challenges are absolutely compounded by all the uncertainties about local government’s financial infrastructure.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) asked the government to explain by the end of September why it believes that local authorities are sustainable in the current spending round, and, with local authorities, to agree a definition of financial sustainability and a methodology for assessing risk. Will ministers agree?
The green paper on adult social care funding is delayed till the Autumn. The problem doesn’t go away by delay. It’s a classic ‘wicked issue’. It is political leadership and courage that is required..
Given individual and collective failures in children’s services over the last decade and the justified criticism of councils’ performance , it was inevitable that we would see a significant rise in the number of children in the ‘care system’ . The Children’s Commissioner has now warned ministers that the £2bn resource gap inevitably means that crisis work will be prioritised and preventative work will be cancelled.
Housing is so high up the government’s agenda – we keep being told – but the promised social housing green paper has failed to materialise.
On the income side, the government has reaffirmed its long-term commitment to 100% business rates retention but refuses to give a timetable for implementation. NNDR is under attack as the retail sector is in turmoil and Amazon reveals that it paid just £4.5m in UK corporation tax last year and relatively little on business rates on its out-of-town warehouses, compared to its High Street competitors.
Similarly, unreformed council tax, with no extension of the bands and still based on 1991 valuations is increasingly seen as unfair.
So we need nothing short of fundamental reform. A significant increase in the quantum of funding available to councils and specifically a social premium and a slice of inheritance tax to meet the growing demands of social care as recommended by the joint select committee inquiry . Reform to council tax and business rates is needed to make them fairer and more effective.
Then there’s devolution , forgotten but hopefully not abandoned. Transferring powers to councils can improve services and value for money . Let’s start with the obvious candidates skills and transport. But if we are to see councils have a tax base able to grow with service demands we also need to devolve tax raising as well as spending powers. The Treasury may not like continuing demands from the LGA for more money but it likes the idea of giving councils the ability to raise that money themselves even less.
We may get some change but will it be fundamental reform?

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Not bold, just criminal

Those with long memories (or those who own the appropriate box-set) cannot fail to remember the wonderful 1980s TV series Yes Minister, a political satire which featured the daily tussles between a government minister and senior civil servants.
Most of the episodes revolved around proposals for new policies, legislation or administrative change put forward by either the minister or civil service and the determined attempts of the other to frustrate the proposals, whilst purporting to support them. Of course, it was all fictional but, occasionally, so close to the truth that laughter was tinged with alarm bells.
The reason I mention this now is because, whenever Minister Jim Hacker put forward a scheme - which could clearly only end in a policy shambles, political calamity, public anger and a massive waste of money – Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby would inevitably respond “Well that’s a very bold proposal, Minister”.
So it was when Conservative Minister Christopher Grayling – yes, that’s the same CG who the Yorkshire Post, thousands of rail users and MPs from all parties have been calling on to resign as Secretary of State for Transport, given the rail timetable shambles he oversaw this year, but then Justice Secretary - decided to press ahead with the privatisation of the probation service.
The probation service is responsible for the supervision of offenders in the community – either undertaking community service or following release from prison - and for providing reports to the criminal courts to assist judges in their sentencing judgements.
My Grayling is ideologically committed to privatisation. When senior civil servants told him his probation proposals were ‘bold’, he just told them to get on with it. When everyone concerned with the criminal justice system told him that his policies would end in failure, poor performance and waste vast sums of money, he told them they were wrong. In fact, the only people who supported Mr Grayling’s proposals were a few free-market think-tanks, ideologically committed to privatisation, and a number of companies which claimed wide expertise in the criminal justice system in the UK and overseas.
Yes, you’ve guessed. These companies included those – like G4S and Serco - who had been busy ripping off the public purse by charging millions of pounds for claiming to have fitted and be monitoring the tags of people who were dead or in prison. G4S had to repay £104m and Serco repaid £71m for over-charging. It wasn’t surprising that they supported privatisation but, given their performance, alarm bells should have been ringing loudly in Mr Grayling’s ears. But no, he pressed ahead with his ideological experiment.
It has been a complete and utter disaster.
Not only did service performance drop dramatically - we learned of offenders only being supervised over the telephone – but it also proved a financial disaster. Last year, the government was forced to spend an extra £342m to bail out the privatised ‘community rehabilitation companies’.
Earlier this year, the National Audit Office produced a scathing report about the new services. This was followed by similar scathing reports from the chief inspector of probation and the all-party justice committee.
Finally, last month, the new Conservative Justice Secretary David Gaulke announced that the eight private firms that run these ‘community rehabilitation companies’ will have their contracts terminated in 2020, two years earlier than agreed. Just to prop up this service until 2020 will cost an additional £170m.
So, Mr Grayling’s ideological venture has proved to have cost more than an additional £500m and much more money will now have to be spent in recreating a probation service from 2020.
Mr Grayling’s experiment was not bold. It was criminal.

Monday, 6 August 2018

Time for a re-think

Over centuries – and, in some countries, still today - men and women have battled to get the vote. As Churchill reminded us, when compared to the alternatives, democracy is the least worst form of governance.
Democracy requires elections. There is no one pure type of election process; all have their strengths and weaknesses. It’s perfectly reasonable to have different sorts of election process dependent upon whether the election is for a President or a Mayor, Parliament or Council, or Executive or Revising Chamber.
But, whatever the type or process, all elections have to be conducted with absolute honesty. In many countries, we rely on International Election Observation Missions to monitor and report on the integrity of elections. In the last week, in the maelstrom of contrasting views, we have had to place some reliance on observers of the elections in Zimbabwe to get an accurate picture of events.
What is little known in the UK is that international observers have long been very critical of some of the UK’s election infrastructure. Forget for a moment that we still rely on stubby pencils, attached to a piece of string, to mark our X.
The biggest criticisms are (1) the way in which the electoral register is constructed and (2) the lack of a requirement to produce ID when we arrive at the polling station to claim our voting paper.
The first arises from historic processes and an assumption that we will tell the truth about who lives in our home and is eligible to vote. Actually, the biggest disgrace about this issue is the level of under-registration, particularly in those inner-city communities with the highest mobility.
The second arises because, unlike most of the rest of the world, we do not have a single, reliable, robust method of ID. It might be argued that the then Labour Government approached the issue of ID cards in completely the wrong way but, there can be little doubt now, that the UK missed a huge opportunity to get some sense into policies and policy implementation when proposals for bio-metric ID were abandoned.
I have no time for those politicians and newspaper editors who bang on about ‘migration being uncontrolled/we don’t know who is coming in or out of our country’ or about ‘stopping unentitled people from accessing our benefits’ system or NHS’ when they have campaigned against bio-metric ID cards which are an essential element for implementing and managing such policies. It’s hypocritical to suggest otherwise.
I’m very clear that our election processes must demonstrate integrity. I’m intolerant of those who try to abuse or cheat the system, and believe that the law should come down hard on any perpetrators.
As it happens, I do think that elections in the UK are overwhelmingly honest. However, in every year since 1945, there have been a small number of reports of ‘personation’ (obtaining a vote by pretending to be someone else), but there have been very few prosecutions or convictions. At one time, in the 1960s, it was suggested that personation had become an Olympic Sport in some parts of N Ireland, but no-one suggests it is a significant issue today.
More recently, concerns have been raised about posting vote fraud. Occurrences are not new. As it happens, I was able to see at close hand when, in the early 1980s, Sheffield Liberal Democrat Councillor Malcolm Johnson was convicted of, and imprisoned for, postal vote fraud. He had collected unused postal votes from the homes of recently deceased electors, and then voted for himself.
There have been a small number of well-publicised but isolated examples of postal vote fraud in the near twenty years since electors could choose to have a postal vote instead of having to prove that they were on their deathbed or thousands of miles away on holiday or work.
So, despite a significant amount of well-argued criticism and opposition, this government decided to undertake trials in five areas in the last elections held in May this year, when electors would have to produce ID before they could obtain their voting paper. The government said that “A report from the Electoral Commission showed that allegations of people pretending to be other people to steal their votes doubled nationally between 2014 and 2016.”
However, the results of these pilots are now out. They show that some 350 people were prevented from voting in those five areas because they did not have the right form of ID.
So, how does this compare with the problem of ‘personation’ that these pilots were said to be solving? Well, in 2014, there were 21 alleged cases of personation at a polling station, in 2016 there were 45, but in 2017 the number actually fell again to just 28 cases. Even then, the UK Statistics Authority was critical of this analysis as it did not put its figures in context, they “are not typical of the fuller time series”, which showed an average of 22 cases pa over the last decade.
To summarise, there were 172 alleged cases of personation at a polling station between 2010 and 2017, and in just five small areas, and at a cost of more than £1 million, more than twice as many people (350) who were entitled to vote were actually prevented from voting.
It is time for the government to re-think.