Thursday, 31 January 2013

Council apologises unreservedly for benefit form gaffe

Last night I blogged about the cock-up on Cornwall Council's housing and council tax benefit application form. This morning the council has apologised unreservedly.

I'm glad that they have done so. It was clearly a mistake and they are changing the forms online and manually altering the paper copies.

But there are two questions remaining:

- How did this mistake happen? Who was responsible for checking the draft of the form and how did it slip through the net?

- What use is made of the information taken from ethnic background monitoring? There is only a point in asking these questions if good use is made of the information that results. I'm not at all sure that it is.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Gypsy? Traveller? Cornish? It's the same thing according to Cornwall Council

You would think that Cornwall Council would understand the proud nature of Cornish identity. You'd think they would also understand the, shall we say, sensitivities that Cornish people sometimes feel about their identity.

Just this week a councillor stormed out of prayers at a council meeting because the priest leading them referred too often to the 'county' of Cornwall.

Whatever your view (and I am proud to be in the Cornish camp), you'd think that the council would have more nous than to design a form with an 'ethnic origin' box that lists: "Gypsy/Traveller/Cornish". But Cornwall Council has done so in the shape of a form to apply for Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit. (see photos)

Some people will suggest it is offensive. And they are right. Not because being likened to a gypsy or traveller is an insult. It isn't. But because the two backgrounds are so entirely different. What Cornwall Council has done in designing this form is to create a 'bucket' category for anyone who doesn't appear to fit into 'normal' definitions. It's offensive to Cornish people and offensive to gypsies and travellers.

The whole point of these ethnic origin sections (if they have a point at all) is to find out whether the balance of people filling in the form is markedly different from the balance of the community as a whole. And if it is different, the council should be trying to find out why and doing something about it. The categorisation on the Cornwall Council form achieves none of this.

Tonight I've written to the Chief Executive of the Council. I've asked him:

- who designed this form and who signed it off;
- will he withdraw the use of this form immediately;
- will he issue an apology;
- will he institute an inquiry to find out how and why the design of the form came to be like this.


Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Launceston residents parking schemes go live on 25th February

A bit more positive news...


I've just received a go live date for the parking and highways changes that have happened in Launceston. Some of these have been keenly awaited for more than five years.

The schemes ready to go live include three residents parking schemes, new yellow lines, disabled parking bays and the moving of the motorcycle bay in town. To be honest, I think many people will be shocked to find that they aren't live and enforceable already!

The delay is mainly because everything is contained within a single legal order to save money. But that means a delay to one scheme delays them all. Some of the signs and lines have not been checked because the staff who need to do so have been tied up with repairs following the recent flood damage.

But I am now told by the Council that:
"Cormac have given me a guaranteed timescale that the works, checking and sealing the Traffic Regulation Order for the residents’ parking zones and other changes in Launceston will be completed by the 25th of February. The council will therefore be sending out permits with a start date of 25th February over the next few days and enforcement will be started during that week as well.

I apologise on behalf of the Council and Cormac for the delays with this scheme but as you are aware the changes to part of the scheme and subsequent poor weather have had an impact on delivery.
The apology is welcome, as is the news of the start date. I have asked that an apology be sent to those who have been waiting for their permits to come through and who have had no news for many months. This will be done.


Devonwall defeated!

Congratulations to the House of Commons for voting by a large majority to kick plans for a cross-border Devonwall constituency into the long grass until at least 2018. This finally puts paid to David Cameron's plan for boundary changes before the next election.

The Commons were voting on whether to accept or kick out a House of Lords amendment proposed by, among others, Lib Dem Chris Rennard. That amendment stated that no boundary changes could take effect until 2018 at the earliest.

All three Cornish Lib Dems voted in favour of the Lords amendment and against Devonwall. I understand that Tories George Eustice and Sheryll Murray definitely voted in favour of Devonwall. I don't yet know about Sarah Newton. UPDATE - The Hansard report makes clear that Sarah Newton voted for Devonwall too.

Despite endless attempts to buy off the Lib Dems and the smaller parties, David Cameron eventually lost the vote by 42.

Whilst this is very good news, there will be boundary changes in time and the fight is now on to recognise Cornwall as a region worthy of protection. However the boundaries might change within Cornwall, they should never cross the Tamar.

Tories force through Cornwall Poor Tax

From April this year, if you are poor and of working age in Cornwall, you will be forced to pay at least a quarter of your council tax bill for the first time. That is the decision made today by the full council.

This will impose a poor tax averaging about £265 a year on the 26,000 poorest families of working age. At a time when the Conservative group leader is busy campaigning for a council tax freeze without explaining what services will have to be cut, her attitude seems to be that the poorest should still have to face a massive tax hike.

Today's debate looked at two options. The Conservative proposal was to impose the poor tax. The amendment that I put forward on behalf of the Liberal Democrats looked to retain the current system and to pay for this by cutting the spending on consultants and agency staff.

Cornwall Council currently spends more than £1 million a month on consultants and agency staff. Some of this is absolutely essential - it is spending on social workers and call centre workers and the council could not function without them. But that total (according to the figures given to me by the council) is around £5 million out of the total of £13 million. So the council would still be able to save the money without threatening lifeline or essential services.

There was a lot of bluster from the Conservatives claiming that every penny that they spend on consultants and agency staff is essential. Yet just two years ago they were spending £4 million per year less and their leaders were claiming it could be cut back further still. If we could spend so much less then, why can't we do so now and protect the most vulnerable from this tax hike in the process.

I am clear that this decision today will force thousands of families into debt that they will not be able to cope with. There will be thousands more county court judgements and bailiff visits and many more families struck down with the stress and worry of it all. I'm glad that there will be a £1 million hardship fund and that we will be giving the Citizens Advice Bureaux extra money to help counsel people. But the hardship fund will disappear after a year and I fear that the CAB money is far too little for the extra work they will be faced with.

This was never an easy decision to take. But when the Leader of the Conservative group says that she "knows nothing about these people," I think it tells you far more about her and her party's attitude to the poor than anything else.

UPDATE - BBC and WMN coverage of the decision

Friday, 25 January 2013

Cornwall Tories lose another councillor - the Fiona-shambles continues

Another day, another problem for accident-prone Cornwall Tory leader Fiona Ferguson.

Cllr George Trubody, councillor for Rame and the cabinet support member for localism, has quit. Not just his job as a portfolio holder, but from the Council completely.

George has got another job which means he will be unable to continue with his councillor role and I wish him the very best for the future. But it is another blow for the Conservative group and their leader.

Official: Fiona Ferguson costs Cornwall Council £300,000

Cornwall Council officers have confirmed that a decision by Tory group leader Fiona Ferguson when she was a cabinet member will cost the authority £300,000 next year.

Cornwall Council inherited a real mess of six different policies regarding discretionary rate relief. This is the discount that the council can give to voluntary and community organisations on the business rates that they pay.

For fourteen months, a group of councillors and officers worked to put together a new, uniform policy that would apply across Cornwall. This new policy would iron out some of the anomalies and get rid of a few of the sweetheart deals that were given to organisations that should not be getting such a handout at a time when the authority is having to save every penny it can.

This new policy was due to go to the cabinet for agreement in time to allow the new policy to be implemented at the start of the new financial year in April. All organisations likely to be affected had been written to warning them of the new policy and officers were planning on the additional £300k of income it would generate.

Except that Cllr Ferguson pulled the item from the cabinet agenda when she still held her post.

So it is now too late to implement for the coming year and Cornwall Council will be £300,000 out of pocket as a result.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Votes at 16 gets House of Commons support

Eleven years ago, I was working for the Electoral Reform Society and started on a project with an incredibly motivated woman called Louise King of the Childrens Rights Alliance for England. Together, we set up a campaign called Votes at 16.

We got a wide range of different organisations on board - the big four childrens charities; political parties, the National Union of Students and UK Youth Parliament, British Youth Council, Care Leavers Alliance and Black Youth Forum. We ended up with a coalition of more than 30 organisations. Most of these groups had little in common except a desire to see the voting age lowered to engage young people in politics and reflect the age at which they take on a wide range of responsibilities.

We succeeded in convincing a House of Commons Select Committee, the Welsh Assembly and even the House of Lords to back our cause. The Electoral Commission even carried out a review and the majority of consultees agreed with us (although the Commission declared that the time was not yet right).

Since that time countries like Austria have changed their voting age, as has the Isle of Man. And 16 and 17 year olds are being lined up to vote in the referendum on Scottish independence.

Today, for the first time, the House of Commons also backed the case to lower the voting age.

Lib Dem MP Stephen Williams had a backbench debate on the issue and it was agreed by 119 votes to 46 that the voting age should be lowered to 16 for elections and referendums in the UK. Although non-binding, this is a huge step forward and puts pressure on Parliament to debate a bill which could actually change the law.

I'm incredibly proud of Stephen and all the MPs who supported this, as I am of the UK Youth Parliament and British Youth Council who currently run the coalition I helped to found and led the lobbying campaign.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Cornwall cabinet confirms they want £250 council tax increase for poorest

It's sad, but not a surprise, that Cornwall Council's cabinet today reiterated their decision to recommend the ending of the current council tax benefit scheme and the imposition of a £250 or more tax rise on 26,000 of the poorest families in Cornwall.

In advance of the meeting they put out a list of the cuts that they said would have to be made if they did not follow the path they have. As I have argued before, this is scare-mongering of the worst sort.

The list was produced by officers acting on behalf of the cabinet and if they really were the only options available then I certainly would not be promoting the option that I am.

But these are not the areas that would really be hit if the council was required to make additional savings. They are merely the straw men being set up to justify a wholly unpalatable decision.

And there are many other areas of discretionary spending which have not been listed.

This council does not have to spend more than a million pounds a month on consultants and agency staff - but they do. This council did not have to give £50,000 to Plymouth to support its world cup bid nor hire taxis to ferry tea and coffee between offices - but they did.

However the cabinet refused to listen or consider alternatives and chose to repeat their recommendation to full council next Tuesday. The Liberal Democrats will, once again, be seeking an alternative.

Lance Kennedy responds to lie detector concern

Cabinet Member for Community Safety Lance Kennedy has added his thoughts to the debate over Cornwall Council using lie detector technology in phone interviews with people claiming single person council tax discount:
"It's not water-boarding"

Cameron adopts the Lib Dem position

Prime Minister David Cameron this morning gave his long-awaited speech on Europe and the UK's position in the EU.

In essence, he said that he would seek to renegotiate the EU's constitution and offer the British people a referendum based on the outcome. He said that if he gets his way then he will be campaigning for the UK to stay in the EU but the public would be offered the option of leaving. He laid out a number of ideas about how the EU would change. But he also said that, whilst members of the Euro-zone might want to keep the pledge of an 'ever closer union', there should be an outer ring of the remaining members (the UK included) who would have a different relationship with the EU.

Which is (almost) exactly the same as the position the Liberal Democrats have held for many years.

The Lib Dems might hold a bit of a different view as to the details of how we want to see the EU structured, but the fundamental principles are the same. We are happy to let the Euro-zone countries get on with forming the rules for their own club as they wish. But on the matters that affect the UK, we believe that some change is needed. And we have said for many years that the people of the UK should be offered and In-Out referendum based on any fundamental change to our relationship with the EU.

Just look at the Common Agriculture and Common Fisheries Policies. Tony Blair claimed to have renegotiated these so that everyone would play by the rules. He gave up a chunk of the UK's rebate in return. But the farmers and fishermen I speak to say that little has changed in reality. We need to make sure that the rules are right for the long term sustainability of the industries, but we have to make sure that everyone is playing by the same rules.

We have many things to be thankful for in Cornwall with regard to the EU.
  • It was the EU that recognised that Cornwall was one of the poorest regions, not only in the UK, but in Europe too - even after the expansion to the east. And so we have seen structural fund investment through Objective One, Convergence Funding and we will see post-2013 support too.
  • It was the EU that classified the pasty as a food worthy of protected status, helping to safeguard Cornish jobs.
  • And it was the EU that created the Europe-wide arrest warrant to help bring criminals to justice when they flee the UK. (Something that UKIP and many Tories want to scrap).
The news coverage of Cameron's speech has been full of hypothetical questions about what if the PM gets none of his desired changes through the re-structure negotiations. But it is pointless speculating about what might happen somewhere down the line. I don't think anyone believes that the EU will resist all change. Neither do I think that Cameron will get everything that he asks for.

At the end of the day, the British people will have to make a decision based on the outcome of the negotiations. I don't think anyone but the most hardline from each point of view can make up their mind until that time. But I think that Cameron's strategy - the Liberal Democrat strategy - is the right approach at this time.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Launceston Town Council seeks community asset protection for town car parks

Following on from yesterday's news that Cornwall Council have put two of Launceston's car parks up for sale despite no consultation with the local community, tonight the town council voted to seek legal protection for the car parks. The council will seek to have the sites (and all other CC car parks in our town) listed as 'assets of community value' under the Localism Act.

The Localism Act is one of the best pieces of legislation passed by the coalition government. It does various things including allowing local communities to have much more say about what should be built and where. But in this case it allows town and parish councils and community groups to have buildings and land which play a key role in the local community listed as assets of community value. Should the owner of the site want to sell then the local council or community group can have to sale put on hold whilst they put together a bid to buy it.

It doesn't mean that the local council or group will automatically win the bid - they still have to offer more or put together a better bid in another way than anyone else that makes an offer. But it allows the time that local organisations or town councils need to raise the funding and write a decent business plan. It also means that Cornwall Council cannot asset strip a local area in record time and behind closed doors.

I thoroughly support this move by Launceston Town Council. It cannot stop the decision to sell the car parks. But it can delay the process and give the local community the chance to put together a bid to continue to run them as car parks if that is their wish.

The lie detectors behind the fig leaf

It may be widely regarded as a fig leaf as a reason for Fiona Ferguson's resignation, but that doesn't mean that the issue of Cornwall Council commissioning lie detector tests isn't a genuine concern. And I am certain that it is an issue on about which Cllr Ferguson is passionate.

The story is this:

Anyone who lives on their own (or with other people who are not liable for council tax) receives a 25% discount in the council tax that they pay. Cornwall Council is concerned that some people might be claiming the discount even though they are not entitled to it. And so they commissioned a review.

That's fair enough. None of us wants to see people defrauding the council. But there are concerns about the manner of the review.

I first raised problems with the process when I learned that Capita would be conducting the review on a 'no win, no fee' basis from Kent. Why couldn't a Cornish firm do the job, I asked, and wouldn't the bounty hunter basis lead to pressure on Capita to over-report

All of these points were made to the Chief Executive of the council but it seems nothing was changed.

What was unknown to the rest of us, until now, was that Capita would be using lie detector technology in their phone interviews with some of the discount claimants. It has been suggested to me that this should not be a concern - that if you have done nothing wrong then you have nothing to hide. Except that, as Cllr Ferguson pointed out in her resignation email, the technology is viewed as unproven by no less a source than the Department of Work and Pensions. If you have an unreliable system - particularly if that system throws up false positives - then it becomes a real concern.

And what about the attitude of Cllr Currie?

If Cllr Ferguson is to be believed, he did not want this issue becoming public and threatened to sack Fiona if she told anyone about it. Is that really the sort of attitude we expect? That controversial issues will be swept under the carpet on pain of dismissal.

We now know that Cllr Currie is refusing to review the use of the technology. His email to all councillors today makes that clear. He says:

"While I am aware of Fiona’s views over the issue of voice recognition software, the use of this technology is a key part of the review of council tax single person discount which is being carried out by CAPITA. 

There is tremendous pressure on the Council’s budget and we need to do everything we can to prevent fraud. This will not affect people making genuine claims but we estimate that identifying and removing inappropriate claims could save the Council at least £1m.  This money could then be used to support essential services.  On balance, therefore, I am not prepared to place any restrictions on our contractor at this late stage."

Personally, I am not reassured by that statement. I believe that councillors should have been told that this sort of system was in use and that it was considered unreliable by the DWP (among others). I will certainly be signing the petition that Cllr Ferguson plans to present to stop its use.

It was only a matter of time...

Anyone who has been following recent events at Cornwall Council will not have been overly surprised by Fiona Ferguson's resignation from the cabinet today.

Many of us were slightly disappointed by the manner of it, however. I was sitting in the same scrutiny meeting as the Leader, Jim Currie, when Cllr Ferguson sent her email. I, and others with laptops or iPads, therefore knew about the move long before the Leader. He had to wait for an officer to come in with a printout of the email. It's disappointing, even discourteous, not to at least make sure the addressee of a resignation gets it before everyone else.

Whatever your view of the reason given for Cllr Ferguson going (I'll blog on that in a bit), we all knew it was coming. One Tory backbencher described the lie detector issue to me as a 'fig leaf'. She has been at war with the leadership ever since she was appointed to the role back in November. After admitting that she was under instruction from Tory central office as group leader to try to seek a council tax freeze, on Tuesday last week she announced she would be doing so at the budget cabinet meeting. But when that took place the next day she seemed reticent to propose the move. Perhaps she had realised that a freeze was unlikely to be possible without front line service cuts. Perhaps it was because she knew she didn't have the votes behind her. As it turned out, only one other cabinet member backed her stance and the majority (the majority of Conservatives even) voted for a rise.

And so we now have three Conservative groups at County Hall - the Currie Cabal; the Ferguson Faithful and the Robertson Rebels, if you like. What you don't have is a strong cabinet all pulling in the same direction trying to do their best for the people of Cornwall at a very difficult time for the authority.

What we won't be getting is a replacement for Fiona. Cllr Currie has announced that he will be taking on the role himself, rather than trying to find a third finance portfolio holder in just over two months.

Fiona Ferguson resigns from Cornwall Cabinet

I've just received this email which was sent by Fiona Ferguson, the Cornwall Cabinet member for Finance, to Council Leader Jim Currie:

Jim,
As you know, it came to my attention that the contract let to Capita (before I took up my portfolio duties) to survey claimants of the single person’s council tax relief will include the use of “Voice Risk Analysis” (VRA) techniques when making phone calls to claimants.
These techniques are sometimes called “lie detector” tests.
It is clearly right that Cornwall Council takes a strong line against people who deliberately mis-claim tax benefits but in this case I am more concerned about the impact on the vast majority of honest claimants.
In passing, although this does not deal with my fundamental ethical objection, I note that the techniques used by Capita were trialled by the Department of Work and Pensions in 24 local authorities on the processing of Housing Benefit between August 2008 and December 2010.
Their report issued in September 2010 said: “From our findings it is not possible to demonstrate that VRA works effectively and consistently in the benefits environment. The evidence is not compelling enough to recommend the use of VRA within DWP.”
I have discussed this matter with the Monitoring Officer.  He has advised me that, as this is an operational matter in relation to a contract that the Council has already entered into, he strongly advises me that I should not require  that this software is not used.  If, contrary to his advice, I maintain my stance that we must not use this software then officers will comply provided you also agree.
You have made it clear to me that you will not agree.  Indeed, you have said that I will be ‘sacked’ if I inform members that this software will be used.
That will not be necessary.  Please accept my resignation with immediate effect. 
May I say that I have no reason whatsoever to believe that you were aware of this aspect of the contract before I drew it to your attention.  I also appreciate that you are in a difficult position in view of the Monitoring Officer’s advice.  But, I do not believe that his advice is correct and I cannot accept it on ethical grounds.  I also do not believe that it will help the Council to pursue fraud (which we must surely do) if the public think we are using this software.  Finally, I fear that it will be extremely damaging to our reputation.
Therefore, I am launching a petition to require any use of this type of technology to be approved by Full Council.
Fiona


Cornwall Council scare-mongering over council tax benefit impact

Cornwall Council has put out a press release claiming that if council tax benefit is to be fully funded in the future then a wide range of high profile services will have to be cut. They list libraries, leisure services, localism and street lighting in their hit list.

I've got a couple of thoughts on this issue:

First, they seem determined to ignore the vote of the council last week which decided against the imposition of an automatic 25% council tax benefit cut on recipients of working age. The cut to council tax benefits imposed by the government is wrong but Cornwall Council should be seeking to protect the poorest families from being forced into the arms of foodbanks and bailiffs.

Second, their latest idea of how to fund council tax benefit is scare-mongering of the worst sort. They have cherry-picked some of the most high profile services and declared them to be vulnerable to cuts.

The truth is that Cornwall Council currently spends more than £1 million per month on consultants and agency staff. Why are the Tories not suggesting that this amount could be cut by a third to fund the continuation of the full council tax benefit scheme?

The truth is the Cornwall Conservatives are wedded to splashing the cash on expensive consultants for their pet projects. The people who suffer are the poorest households. Council tax benefit is entirely means tested and is given to keep the least well off out of abject poverty.

Neither the Leader of the Council nor the Cabinet member for Finance have bothered to talk to people who rely on council tax benefit and they don't understand the impact their proposals will have. If they did, they would not be proposing such a change. 

Monday, 21 January 2013

Cornwall Council set to sell off Launceston car parks

Cornwall Council has put the Cattle Market car parks in Launceston up for sale.

The authority is trying to sell the site to a supermarket and claims that this site is 'sequentially preferable' to any others around the town. They don't say so directly, but it is clear that they mean the Link Road site which is the subject of a Morrisons application.

I have a number of problems with this proposal:

  1. The council has not bothered to consult with local residents, the town council, the chamber of commerce or formally with local councillors. I had an informal chat with one officer over the phone and I told him I thought this was a joke. I know that Sasha Gillard-Loft, the councillor for the area including these car parks has also said she thinks it is a bad idea. Yet again this seems like a few people sitting in the top floor bunker of County Hall dictating what they think is best for the whole of Cornwall. It is Stalinist central planning at its worst.
  2. I don't see how a supermarket on the site would work. The council admits that access via Race Hill is very difficult and suggests that an alternative would need to be provided. The only option appears to be via a direct exit into the middle of Prouts Corner - which seems bonkers.
  3. Any scheme would be likely to lose car parking spaces in the town. Although the marketing document suggests that the re-provision of parking spaces would be needed, there is no requirement for these and no suggestion of how many might be required. The scoring scheme on which the bids will be judged says that only 10% of the marks will be given to design issues (presumably including parking spaces). There might be a few empty spaces in these car parks at the moment but there is no way that the town could afford to lose them altogether. And what would happen during the construction phase when they would be lost entirely?

I accept that there might be different views on this issue. That is why I have asked the council to put this whole idea on hold until they have formally consulted with local residents and organisations and held a public meeting in the town.

You can read the council's marketing brochure below:



Council set to move Carn Brea running track to Par?

It seems that Cornwall Council is once again trying to asset strip a community and get rid of valued sports and leisure facilities.

Two weeks ago, the communities scrutiny committee was meant to be discussing plans relating to the Carn Brea leisure centre. We postponed the discussion because the papers were only tabled at the last minute. The debate will now take place later this week.

It appears that the Council wants to sell off the land around Carn Brea leisure centre, including the land currently occupied by the running track.

Although I think it is regrettable to separate the running track from the leisure centre, I could understand the case for doing so if the land is the subject of a huge bid from a developer and there was a commitment to re-provide the lost facilities in the same general area within a very short period of time of the land being sold (ideally provide the new track before the old one is ripped up). In such a case, the local community would still have the same facilities but Cornwall Council would also have a profit from the sale.

Except that Cornwall Council has been caught out. They are admitting that they might take the cash from the sale and use it to upgrade the facilities at the only other public running track in Cornwall 29 miles away at Par.

Cornwall Council's Conservative led cabinet has a history of abandoning local leisure facilities in Camelford, Bude and Penzance. It seems Carn Brea is just the latest example.

Michael Winner RIP

The death has been announced of Michael Winner, film director and restaurant critic.

Michael Winner used to write a column for the News of the World and would ring me up at the Electoral Reform Society for advice whenever he was writing a piece on anything to do with voting.

I'm not entirely sure he ever really had much interest in elections and voting. On many occasions he would hint that he was only writing on the subject because that is what his editor suggest was current. But the column, when it appeared on the Sunday, was always clear as a bell. And, above all, he was always unfailingly cheerful and polite.

Cornwall Council seeks new Chief Executive (or does it?)

With the announcement that Kevin Lavery is off to New Zealand, there is a vacancy at the top of Cornwall Council's officer class. The search will be on to find a successor on both an interim and permanent basis - although what form that new role takes is open to debate.

(This will probably be my first and last post on the process as I will be one of nine councillors sitting on the decision making and interview panel for the interim post. We haven't had our first meeting yet, but once we do it would probably be inappropriate for me to comment until the process is finished.)

One of the keys to the debate is over whether we need a chief executive at all. Legally, the council need only have a 'head of paid service', but this role can be combined with another. Such a move would save the salary and on-costs of the chief executive role (about a quarter of a million pounds a year) and so is nothing to be sniffed at.

But it is also the case that Cornwall has a history of no overall control of its councils and this may well be the situation after May. In circumstances where there is not a firm political direction, it is helpful to have a clear lead from the top of the 'civil service'. This need not take the form of Kevin Lavery making policy - as was often perceived in Cornwall. Instead it could be that the chief executive forces the administration to take the lead.

Come the end of March, Cornwall will also be without permanent office holders in three of the top jobs that existed until recently. There will be no permanent Chief Executive, no Director of Environment and Economy and no Director of Communities - the last of which is a position that is being deleted.

There is also the Isles of Scilly factor. That council too is currently without a chief executive and it may be that both they and Cornwall feel that sharing the position would be a sensible and cost-effective way forward.

The decision on appointing a permanent chief executive (or another permanent solution) won't be taken until after the elections in May. But there needs to be someone at the head of the council from the end of March when Mr Lavery leaves. That is the role of the nine member panel which will be seeking applications from within the current workforce.


How do we fund council tax benefit?

Last week Cornwall Council debated the issue of council tax benefit. As posted here, the debate was inconclusive.

  • The council narrowly voted that it did not want the Cabinet's proposal to impose the full cost of the government cut on working age council tax benefit recipients;
  •  The council also said (even more narrowly) that it did not want an open-ended commitment to continue with the current scale of benefits if that would mean cuts to front-line services;
  •  Finally, the council voted heavily against the idea of a hardship fund with the money taken from the new higher education bursary.

So there will be a new debate next Tuesday at which a firm conclusion must be reached. I'd like to hear the views of the public as to what we should do. As a starting point, it is clear that we have to have a solution. I agree with those who say that the government was wrong to impose this cut on Cornwall (and other authorities), but hand-wringing is not enough. We have to come up with a proposal.

I also believe in democracy and accept that the ideas put forward and voted on last time should not be put forward again simply because we hope that the mathematics of who is in the chamber at the time of the vote will have changed. But new ideas do not have to be fundamentally different. I suspect that the Cabinet will be looking for a solution based on the hardship fund, but possibly tweaking the total amount and definitely looking for a different source for the money.

I would like to put forward the concept of continuing with the current scheme but I accept that we need to find a definitive source for the money.

So I would like to invite ideas for what Cornwall Council should do.

  • Do you think that expecting working age recipients to pay 25% is right if there is a hardship fund (given that the benefit is means tested, this fund is likely to be over-subscribed)? If so, how big should the hardship fund be and where should the money come from?
  • Do you think we should carry on with the current scheme? If so, where do we find the £4.2 million to make the books balance?
  • Or do you have a different idea?

I'd be keen to hear any and all ideas as soon as possible. Either leave them in the comments section or email me direct - alexfolkes@gmail.com


Friday, 18 January 2013

Hapless Fiona blunders into another row - UPDATED

Not content with falling out with half her Conservative colleagues, Cllr Fiona Ferguson is now at war with a group representing people with disabilities in Cornwall.

In the debate on council tax benefit on Tuesday, a number of councillors raised the issue of the effect of the cabinet proposal on disabled people in Cornwall. They quoted an email that councillors had received from Disability Cornwall. In rebuttal, Cllr Ferguson played the man not the ball and launched an extraordinary attack on the credibility of the group. She claimed that the chief executive was paid £60,000 per year and expressed doubt about the work that the group does.

In response, Steve Paget, Chair of Disability Cornwall, sent an email correcting the claims that Cllr Ferguson had made. He stated categorically that the benchmark for a chief executive of a group like theirs was £46k per year but that they could not afford to pay that amount and do not do so.

Far from taking Mr Paget at his word and apologising for misleading councillors, Cllr Ferguson renewed her attacks on the organisation. She claimed that the group's annual report had made the £60k claim and attacked the 'glossy magazine' produced by the group.

Mr Paget responded again to point out that the reference to £60k salaries is one required by the Charity Commission and had no link to any pay rates offered by his organisation. He also corrected Cllr Ferguson to tell her that the 'glossy magazine' is funded largely by adverts and only appears when the group has enough adverts to cover the costs.

Of course, all this row could have been avoided if Cllr Ferguson had bothered to talk to Disability Cornwall and find out the facts before launching her ad hominem attack. But even if she didn't do so, it would have been the decent thing to do if she apologised when first corrected. As things stand, it's yet another example of why the Lib Dems don't believe that she is fit to hold a position on the cabinet.

UPDATE - Cllr Ferguson has now issued what amounts to an apology to Disability Cornwall. Let's hope she will also make the same apology at the next council meeting.


Thursday, 17 January 2013

Meeting with Commissioner Hogg

Today saw the first meeting for the new Police and Crime Panel with Commissioner Tony Hogg - the person elected to set the strategic direction for the police and to oversee their budget and work. It's a complicated relationship. Mr Hogg oversees the police and we scrutinise his work.

The main business was the first look at the Commissioner's draft crime and policing plan for the coming year. In this plan he will set out what he believes the key strategic focus should be and he will set performance targets.

Mr Hogg told us that his key priorities would be support for victims, listening to residents, putting more effort into 'hidden crimes' such as domestic violence and dealing with hate crimes. I cannot fault him on these priorities. But the draft document that he talked through seemed to indicate that everything was a priority so I asked him what was less important to him. He refused to answer this directly but indicated that if it was not listed in the document then it was probably less of a priority. My concern is that there are some pretty big areas which I could not see listed and I would have liked a direct answer on what level of focus he would give to them. The police (and the commissioner) cannot focus on everything, but I think there should be transparency about what is more important.

But much of what was in the draft plan is admirable. I like the fact that the commissioner believes he can influence change in the economy, health and wellbeing, business and to help young people reach their potential. It's a tough ask, but it is good that he is looking that way.

Mr Hogg was also asked about his office and support network and whether he would be appointing deputies and other staff - an issue that has been controversial in other areas. To date Mr Hogg has directly appointed a chief adviser and his office has taken on a Communications Manager. Mr Hogg told us that he would be appointing other advisers, including a victims adviser as a first priority. My notes say that he said he would consider appointing a Deputy in due course although his office have subsequently said that he has no plans to appoint a deputy.

A question was asked about the appointment process and whether this would be through open advertising and recruitment. Mr Hogg gave a commitment to advertising the victims adviser position but not necessarily other posts. I am concerned that public money (typically £60k for a Deputy) should not be spent without a proper appointment process and will be following this up. The people appointed should be the best available, not just people the commissioner knows or has recommended to him by his chums.

Finally, I asked the commissioner about the leak of the name of his proposed candidate for Chief Constable. The acting Chief Constable, Shaun Sawyer, was announced by Mr Hogg on Tuesday morning at 10am. However there had been a leak to the BBC who were running the story much earlier. Mr Hogg assured me that the leak did not come from him (and I take him at his word) although he said he could not give the same guarantee about his staff. I think it is very unfortunate that there is already a culture of leaking somewhere within the new set-up and hope that it stops.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Blue on Blue - Cornwall Council cabinet at war

It was war at Cornwall Council's cabinet this morning as Conservative and Independent members rowed among themselves about their budget proposals. Chief target was Fiona Ferguson, Cabinet Member for Finance, who announced that she would not be supporting the budget proposals for which she is responsible. Liberal Democrats have said that Cllr Ferguson's position is untenable.

As I have blogged before, Cllr Ferguson says that she is taking her national party's line and wants to see a council tax freeze. This appears to have been the outcome of a Tory group meeting last week. But today she admitted that such a freeze might not be possible.

Independent cabinet member Mark Kaczmarek was not impressed that Cllr Ferguson was toeing the party line:
"We should not be seeking to impose Westminster political party priorities on Cornwall Council" 
Asked why she disagreed with her own budget, Cllr Ferguson said:
"It can't be said that I agree with the budget because I was on holiday when it was sent out"
Apparently the idea that a local authority might be compiling a budget in December and January came as a shock to the finance cabinet member.

Cllr Ferguson has also angered her cabinet colleagues by announcing the areas where she thinks savings could be made (economic development, tourism and the chief executive's department) on the radio without discussing these with the relevant portfolio holders.

Even without a council tax freeze, Council Leader Jim Currie admitted today that the Conservative-Independent administration:
"will be leaving a £21m black hole and 5% council tax rise next year"
The Council's cabinet eventually agreed by seven votes to nil with two abstentions to approve the draft budget for recommendation to full council. That budget proposal includes a 1.97% increase in council tax. The two abstentions were Finance portfolio holder Fiona Ferguson and Economy and Regeneration portfolio holder Steve Rushworth.

Lib Dem group leader Jeremy Rowe said this:
“We are forced to ask how Cllr Ferguson can remain in the cabinet when she disagrees so completely with major aspects of Cornwall Council policy, including those within her own portfolio. Given that it is the Leader himself who is now writing and promoting the budget it may be that he could save some money by sacking Cllr Ferguson and using her special responsibility allowance to avoid some of the cuts.”

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Street sweeping and litter picking is working fine... says the Leader - UPDATED

According to the Leader of the Cornwall Council, street sweeping and litter picking services are working well and he is confident that the council is monitoring the contract properly.

This will come as a surprise to the residents of Launceston who have seen the contractor, Cory, fail to deliver the service they are paid to and fail to keep proper records. In addition, the council cannot provide even the most basic information in a reasonable time about what work is being done in each area.

I think it is time that the Leader (and the cabinet member responsible) paid a bit closer attention to such a core service.

UPDATE - Following a comment from Paul (below), it's worth re-iterating that the town of Launceston is split into two zones for street cleaning. The town centre (zone one) has a daily clean and is being done very well indeed. The areas where cleaning is not being done well are the remaining residential parts of the town which are known as zone two which are meant to get a six weekly clean.

Council rejects all options on council tax benefit

It was a case of good news / bad news at today's Cornwall Council meeting where council tax benefit cuts were on the agenda.

The good news was that the Conservative proposal to impose a 25% rise in council tax on the poorest families in Cornwall was defeated by 43 votes to 37.

The bad news was that the Liberal Democrat alternative to continue with the current scheme was also, very narrowly, lost by 44 votes to 41. A number of councillors were controversially excluded from the meeting because of their relationship to people who receive council tax benefit.

That means that there is currently no proposition on the table and councillors must reconvene before the end of January in order to seek a solution.

My argument was that it is wrong to expect families which have no spare income to pay anything between £250 and £1000 a year. Most simply cannot afford to do so and if they cannot pay, they won't. The council will therefore be tied up with endless court procedures, summonses and bailiffs. Instead, I argued that we should be using the new income from closing the loopholes on second home and empty homes council tax - which is the same amount as the cut to benefit funding.

My colleague, Ruth Lewarne, asked the Leader whether he had met with any groups representing people affected by his proposals - or any individuals likely to be affected. He confirmed that he hadn't, saying that he was too busy to do so. In a similar vein, Cllr Ferguson said:
"I don't know anything about these people"
when asked about people who would be affected by her proposal.

Cllr Ferguson, the cabinet member for finance, proposed a hardship fund of £1 million to be found by cutting the higher education bursary. This idea was heavily defeated, partly on the basis that any scheme that requires a hardship fund of around a quarter of the total amount has not been properly thought through.

The council will seek a fresh alternative before the 29th January but Liberal Democrats will be seeking to ensure that this on the basis that the poorest families who cannot afford to pay should not be made to.


Saturday, 12 January 2013

So why is the Conservative Leader's budget not the same as the Leader of the Conservatives' budget?

It seems like Cornwall Conservatives are bidding to out-omnishambles George Osborne with their budget.

On Wednesday, the Leader of the Council - Conservative Jim Currie - published his administration's finance proposals for the coming year. They are looking to find about £6.3 million of front line service cuts (despite the promise made last year that there would be no need for additional savings this year). They also propose a rise in council tax of 1.97% after two years of freezes.

But last night it emerged that there will be a different Conservative budget which will seek a further year of council tax freeze. We don't yet know any more details of this proposal and might not do so until just before the formal council tax setting meeting in mid February. That's because amendments aren't subject to formal scrutiny (but do have to be signed off by the chief finance officer of the council).

What is most strange about this whole scenario is that the cabinet member for finance is Fiona Ferguson, the Leader of the Conservative group on the council. So it appears that she is set to vote against the budget she is responsible for.

I'm inclined to think that her position on the cabinet (at least in the finance role) is untenable if she continues to oppose her own budget. Surely she must back the administration's official budget, persuade her colleagues to adopt her budget as the official one or resign from the cabinet?

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Grant Shapps should get his own house in order

This morning, Tory Party chairman Grant Shapps took to the airwaves to claim that Labour MPs had written a report calling for councillors to get higher allowances simply because the party would get more money from the tithe they operate.

Of course, there are any number of things wrong with his premise. The tithe is a voluntary donation - it has to be by law - and all parties do it to one extent or another. The report by the Commons Local Government Select Committee was written with unanimous cross party support and the Government parties have a majority on the committee.

But what's this? It seems IPSA, the organisation responsible for MP pay, has commissioned a survey of MPs and members from all parties think that they should be paid more themselves. And Conservative MPs are the the greediest of the lot, calling for a 50% pay rise.

Perhaps Mr Shapps should look to get his own house in order before trying to lecture others.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Tories propose cuts to community chest funding of more than half

The Conservative led Cornwall Council has just published its draft budget for the coming year. I'm going through the details and I'll blog the key bits as I come to them.

One of the first cuts that jumps out at me is the proposal to cut by more than half the community chest funding that each councillor gets to give to good projects in their local area. The plan is to cut this money from £2195 to £1037 each year. That's a cut of 52.8%.

(The £2195 figure was itself a cut. It was meant to be £3000 a year with a lower figure for the first year because councillors took up their posts part way through the year. But, in typical Conservative fashion, once the cut was made, it was never restored.)

So what is likely to be the result of such a cut? Each councillor uses their community chest money slightly differently.

I have used mine to help start new projects like the Love Launceston Loyalty Card, Launceston Foodbank, the new Debt Advice Service and to start up the residents association at Kensey Valley.

I have helped organisations with new projects including buying new headguards for Launceston Boxing Club, helping a group of people with learning disabilities to learn gardening with the help of the Eden Project and buying basic materials to help a group of older people take up art.

And I have stepped in to help plug the gaps when things our town relies on have been short of money including putting money into Launceston Christmas lights and ensuring that grit bins were filled up after a developer left them almost empty.

So if the Conservatives get their way, much of this sort of thing won't be possible in the future either in Launceston or other parts of Cornwall.

Labour confirm they have given up on Cornwall

It's just confirming what everyone in Cornwall suspected, but the Labour Party have today announced that they have given up any hope of winning an MP in Cornwall at the next general election. The real battle, as always, will be between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

It is unusual for any political party to make public their list of target seats - those they think they can gain at a general election. But today Labour did just that - listing 106 seats across the UK that they will be trying to add to their current total in 2015. It is almost certain that they won't win all of these of course and they wouldn't need all of them to form a majority in any case. But these are the seats they think they have a hope in.

But what stands out for me is that there are no Cornwall seats in the mix - and only one in Devon that they hope to add to the two they already hold in that county.

So despite claiming to be in with a chance in Camborne, Redruth and Hayle last time, Labour have now admitted that they cannot win there. That seat, like the other five, will remain a close battle between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives. Each party currently holds three of the MPs.

Launceston Hospital - still no date for full re-opening

There is still no date being set for the re-opening of all the closed beds at Launceston hospital. That was one of the messages from the Chief Executive of Peninsula Community Health, Kevin Baber, when he spoke to councillors this morning.

As many as ten of the twenty beds in the hospital have been closed for some time and Mr Baber told councillors towards the end of the last year that his organisation was hoping to get some of them re-opened by the end of January. And the report he produced for the committee today indicated that they would have five of the ten reopened by January 21st. Except he indicated that there had been a slight hold up and this target might not be met.

But the intention is still there and I believe that PCH are working towards re-opening the beds.

But when I asked about the remaining five beds, Mr Baber was unable to indicate when these will be back in use. He said that he would continue to try to recruit staff and would re-open the beds as soon as it was safe to do so. I believe that is the case but I'm disappointed that there is no date in the mind of PCH for achieving this aim.

As things stand, Launceston Hospital has 95% bed usage. That's high and well above the average. It goes to show that there is a strong demand for these beds and I hope that PCH will do everything they can to make sure that all the beds at Launceston Hospital are re-opened as soon as possible and, crucially, that they remain so in future.

Monday, 7 January 2013

New Year - New Win as office wedding proposals get the heave ho

Back in November I blogged about the proposal from Cornwall Council to refuse to allow ceremony rooms to be used for basic weddings and civil partnerships. The authority wanted to force less well off couples to use offices for these ceremonies and to restrict the use of ceremony rooms to much more expensive events.  In the case of Launceston, this would have meant that civil weddings and partnership ceremonies would have been held in a windowless office at the back of the library.

I'm delighted to hear that the Council has backed down on this proposal following strong condemnation from myself and other councillors. The new proposal is that all ceremonies will take place in proper ceremony rooms.