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News and Comment March 2012

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15 March (Part 4) - Finance and Corporate Services Scrutiny Committee

Stasi HeadquartersThere was a meeting at the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit yesterday evening and as already noted Olly Cromwell and his followers impacted on the arrangements. The six members of the public present were kept in check by the bouncers that Bexley council had hired for the occasion. The young men sat doing nothing for an hour and a half and were the soul of discretion, but their bemusement by the situation was not perfectly suppressed. Those six members of the public consisted of members of the Bexley Council Monitoring Group and me with my pen and notebook.

Chairman Don Massey is too rude to acknowledge the presence of the public, what else would one expect, ignoring six in the gallery must be a good deal easier than ignoring 2,219 as he did a month ago.

Council officer Maureen Holkham began proceedings by going forward with Bexley’s performance against targets. In essence she read from the agenda. Councillor Colin Tandy hoped he was not about to ask a silly question and asked her to define the terms “quite above average” and “significantly above average”. It was not a silly question but it may well have been a silly answer; Mrs. Holkham went forward by saying she didn’t know but she would be going further forward with trying to get councillor Tandy an answer.

Councillor Deadman asked why the report had “No data available” against a large proportion of the targets. Mrs. Holkham took the session forward by admitting she did not know.

Councillor Malik, always one for incisive questions, asked, among other things, what the term ‘Scores on the Doors’ meant as it was included in the report without explanation. Chairman Massey stepped in to save Mrs. Holkham from further embarrassment. Munir Malik’s questions strayed outside the remit of his committee he said, and he may well have been correct. But as luck would have it, Mrs. Holkham was anxious to take that one forward. Scores on Doors is a “food hygiene initiative”. Why can’t they speak plain English?

Next Director Paul Moore (£136,617 p.a.) told us how the vacation of Wyncham House would affect services and save money. Notably he did not mention its sale. Perhaps it was an oversight; maybe its maintenance costs are not attractive to organisations which cannot spend tax payers’ money.

Deputy Director Graham Ward gave an overview of how the Strategy 2014 savings were progressing; the old story of green (on target), amber (at risk) and red (in trouble) project categories. Councillor Malik asked if a total of the amount marked amber could be given. Mr. Ward did not pretend his answer would take us forward, for by his reckoning it was “too difficult” to quantify.

There was a discussion on the future funding of Council Tax Benefit led by the Head of Exchequer Services, Mark Underwood. The new scheme will be dependent on computer software which at best will be ready in the nick of time. A problem is the different tweaks required by different local authorities which causes delay and pushes up costs. In response to a question by councillor Malik, councillor Campbell said he had tried for a London wide solution but there has been no agreement. There may be some cooperation with Bromley and Croydon. Councils bicker. Residents pay.

Mrs. HolkhamMrs. Holkham then took us forward to the subject of Freedom of Information requests which have risen in number five fold since 2005. Probably because Bexley council keeps running foul of the Information Commissioner a new complaints system is to be introduced, and the costs are not helped by the clamp on questions to council. They love to shoot themselves in the foot.

The question of rising costs figured prominently and Mrs. Holkham said she had “come up with a figure of £53 an hour”. It all seemed very casual and after hearing several dubious statements from Mrs. Holkham councillor Mike Slaughter could stand it no longer. He asked why £53 an hour when the guidance said FOIs were OK up to £450 and 18 hours - which is £25 an hour. He didn’t like the fact that so many FOIs appeared to take exactly one, two three or four hours and railed that he “simply didn’t believe the figures” and felt “we are not telling the public the truth”. He went on about only 10% of FOIs being made by local residents and the claim that most requests come from the media. What media companies, councillor Slaughter wanted to know, somewhat taken aback by the applause from five pairs of hands - mine were too busy scribbling. Mrs. Holkham attempted to take the issue forward again but advanced only by her usual amount. She did not know.

If councillor Slaughter had not been distracted by the applause he may have managed the full house of questions. He missed “How many requests were turned down for hitting the £450 barrier because Mrs. Holkham had come up with an hourly charge of more than twice that specified for councils?”

Chairman Massey advocated putting more and more data on the website, which in principle is a good idea, but I guess he has never tried using Bexley’s search facility.

Maybe I am being far too picky again, but councillor Campbell has in the past advocated shaming those who make FOI requests by putting names and addresses on the council website. He was anxious to curtail the activities of the Bexley Council Monitoring Group who were accused of making the bulk of all requests. The statistics that became available last night show that claim up for what it is. When someone suggested to him after the meeting that the restriction on questions to council wasn’t doing the FOI budget any favours, I’m told he stormed off with the words “absolute rubbish’ hanging in the air.


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