Debit Card – Cornwall Council Explains

Would hate to be accused of being biased on any subject I write about. I am always willing to clarify any point on this blog. An hour or so ago the Leader of Cornwall Council issued a statement on points of where the money has been spent on the debit/credit cards.

The Council currently has 509 cards (of which 154 are allocated to schools) and there are very strict financial (their words) controls in place to regulate their use. Individual cards have a maximum limit on them which depends on the seniority of the individual member of staff. This is normally around £1,000. All payments are checked and countersigned.

The following statements are the Leaders words – I would also like to provide the facts behind some of the specific items which have been highlighted over the past few days.

Silk ties – – this payment relates to the purchase of 100 Cornwall Council ties which Councillors are now being invited to buy. They were designed and produced by a local company in Cornwall.

£1,080 – to the One Eyed Cat restaurant – this relates to a dinner (not a lunch) to mark the formal launch of the Unicreds project. This is a €2 million project looking at how different models of higher education can benefit regional economic development. It is a three year project funded by the EU involving partners from Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, Sweden and the UK. The cost of the meal, which was attended by 43 people, including representatives of all the project partners, was paid for by the Unicreds project and not by Cornwall Council.

£1,080 –to the Rick Stein Sea Food restaurant – this payment does not relate to a meal at the restaurant. It is part of the Future Job Fund project which is a Department for Work and Pensions European funded project to provide jobs for people in Cornwall. The Council makes payments to each partner based on the number of jobs they deliver and then reclaims 100% of these payments back from the Department for Work and Pensions

£3,000 for phone charges – this payment is the monthly mobile phone cost for 265 mobiles for the Cornwall Fire and Rescue service. These mobiles cover the entire Service including: the crews for 65 fire appliances, , the officers in workshops (mechanics etc), Training Dept, Emergency Management Team, All Mobile Officers, all Station Managers and Senior Managers. This works out at approximately £11 per phone.

Fish tank – this payment relates to a fish tank which was brought for one of our children’s centres. The use of such equipment to help engage with young children, particularly children with complex needs, is recognised as good practice and is often used in hospitals and GP surgeries.

Computers/ hi fi and musical instruments – the items were purchased for use by schools, children’s homes and respite centres and the youth service.

The point on One-eyed-cat and Seafood Restaurant is interesting as listed in the accounts online it is money spent. At least now (we hope) we know these two restaurants bills can be explained. What about all the other ones listed? Are they all paid by others and not Cornwall Council?

A lot of spending on travel is from schools and I thought this would be the case as the coding was marked as SCH. Saying that, there are still many that are not coded to schools. Are these all value for money, and essential?

As for the fish tank, wii, computers and entertainment systems no one will complain if there is a genuine reason like being used in Children’s Centres or children’s homes. In fact, children’s homes should be kitted out like this if it makes the children’s stay at these places more bearable.

The real damage has been on the reputation of the Council. Many of these stories could have been handled much better or even killed off. A lesson to be learn from this is how we as a Council put out information, especially on our own web-site. You can hardly expect much sympathy if the details put out are wrong.

A Few Days On – Council Credit (Debit) Cards

The outrage over the spending on corporate credit cards shows no sign of being swiped away. The sheer scale of it has astounded many. The Council has released a short press statement that is nothing more than a holding exercise. The publication of the details probably came at the worst time with a Bank Holiday and half-term leaving many key in the know people away.

In response to the details in the Telegraph I sent an email with various questions to the Head of Corporate Resources. I am grateful for his quick reply to those questions. I got the clarification on the types of cards in use, and if any interest is paid. The cards in use are not Credit Card but a Payment Card (technically a deferred debit card). These are organised through the Office of Gov’t Commerce arrangements and more importantly, there are no interest payments.

Cornwall Council’s stance is to encourage the use of the Debit Card (procurement card in Council speak) for low value transactions because it is a very efficient payment and processing methodology. Suppliers like it because it is fast. Cornwall Council like it because the transaction costs are negligible (supplier pays) and transactions are processed into our systems electronically. This roughly saves around £33 per transaction in processing cost.

The topic of Silk Ties is one that has made most headlines, and this issue has also been clarified. Even though I am not a tie wearer these ties are in fact Cornwall Council Ties; which are available to purchase by Councillors. So it seems apart from the initial outlay there should be no long term cost to the taxpayer.

Not all my questions have been asked, but they will be as they just needed further details (ledger codes) before I will get those answers. I have also been told that further details will be available at Thursdays Corporate Resources Scrutiny Committee.

This whole episode has further harmed the reputation of the Council, even though many of the areas of spending do have a reasonable answer. As I said before, it is the restaurant bill and excessive travel spending that is my greatest area of concern.

Stay tuned for the next instalment of Cardgate

Council Credit Card – Your Flexible Friend

Breath-taking is the two words that I would use on reading the Daily Telegraphs investigation into spending by councils on credit cards. Sadly Cornwall Council has in many areas been singled out for excessive spending in areas like restaurants, hotels and gadgets. The investigation covers three years, so it not only covers Cornwall Council, but the now defunct County Council.
Since this morning I have been going though the figures to make sure these figures are not made up. The more I studied it soon came apparent of the sheer scale of spending. I was, and still am, dumbstruck. Granted a lot of the spending I can understand as it is normal council business. I do wonder why we pay South West Water by credit card. They are not the only utility service that is paid this way, so this must be standard practice.
The total spend for the last three years is £8,973,444 which includes £1,145,160 spent on Hotels, £26,543 on food, £31,734 on drink, £82,127 on hospitality and £905,384 on travel. To be fair, it is not all Cornwall Council’s spend, as a further breakdown reveals they are only responsible for 598 days which equals to £5,968,716. The former County Council is responsible for 489 days, totalling £3,004,063. It is a small consolation to the current administration, but I thought it was worth pointing out.
The use of Hotels is staggering, but I can’t believe all are down to staff or Councillors, as a lot of the costs are coded to SCH, which I believe is schools. I mean would we really be spending £6751 on a Bangkok hotel, or £60,000 on the Hotel Opera in Madrid? Still, there are numerous charges from different departments to the Sands Resort, Atlantic Hotel, Lanhydrock Golf Club, Bedruthan Steps Hotel and Alverton Manor which are not down to schools.
The tourist attractions of the UK have also been well used with destination like Thorpe Park, Longleat, and the London Eye being paid for by the corporate credit card. In November 2010 (billing date) £11,545.65 was spent on various theatrical tickets which included Bristol Old Vic, Royal National Theatre, Hall for Cornwall and London Theatre Directory. Again, I am sure there is a perfectly plausible explanation.
The one area that there is no excuse or possible explanation is for restaurant bills. For instance in March this year a whopping £1,080 was spent at the Sea Food Restaurant of Rick Stein fame and in May, £1269 was spent at the One-Eyed-Cat. The Plume of Feathers and Victoria Inn also had the corporate card swiped though their card machine with £500 and £748 spent in the two establishments. There are many other forms of catering charges listed. A lot of these are at the very same Hotels as I listed before, and the totals amounts to many thousands.
When I am next over at County Hall I will be looking for people wearing silk ties, as £1000 was charged for ties to the credit card, or the home cinema system which is no doubt next to the wii consoles. I might even look for the fish-tank which if the current spending indicates will no doubt be full of rare and exotic fish.

I could go on, and list many other things, but if you’re like me it will just make you angry. I am reminded of the old advert for the Access credit cards – Your flexible friend. That saying sure has meaning at Cornwall Council.

The other point to note is all these details are only for spending OVER £500. Just imagine what was spent under this threshold.

Want to be a Torch-Bearer?

The Olympic Torch will be passing through many areas in Cornwall on its journey to light the fire at the opening ceremony in the London 2012 games. It will take 70 days for the Olympic Torch Relay to be completed. The problem is, it needs people to carry that torch.

So, If you know someone who you think is worthy to be a torch-bearer you can nominate them by clicking this link: Nominations 

You have 33 days to complete this form

The Caviar Train Keeps Rolling

The fallout in the continuing saga of consultants at Cornwall Council continues to roll on like the preverbal snowball rolling down the hill. I am really getting really fed up with amounts we are still paying. On one hand I was asked to support cuts to the budget because of the difficult times we live in. In the end I reluctantly supported these cuts because of the severe reduction in grants from central government.
Now, I am wondering why I did, especially when you find out that we are spending millions (10s over the year) in a few short months on consultants. People are losing their jobs, not just at the council, but in all public sector jobs in Cornwall. Last year 256 people lost their jobs at Cornwall Council (outside of schools). This year a further 360 posts are to go. This might not seem a high amount until you add the 1657 post currently vacant. Near two-thousand posts lost or not filled. This shortfall of staff adds more pressure to the remaining staff.
Consultants no matter what skills they bring hardly contribute to the Cornish economy. Most will live outside of the county (and country), therefore the majority of fees paid to them will not be spent in the Cornish economy. At least by employing staff the money stays in Cornwall.
It seems the only growth sector at Cornwall Council is consultants. It is not as much as a gravy train, but caviar trains.   

Highways – Credit Where Credit is Due

Cornwall Council’s Highway department has gained praise from the Audit Commission. The have highlighted the Council’s work by saying ‘driving consistent levels of service and road condition across the whole county’. I would like to add my praise to this department for the difficult job they do in all weathers.

From my experience Cornwall Council’s Highway Dept has been quick to response to any request I have made concerning issues like potholes and other faults. In most cases as soon as I report a problem they are out within a few days to rectify that problem. I have even had a few major stretches of road resurfaced.

Sadly spending on highways has not seen the increase like others areas of the Council, but the money they have received they have done their very best with it. Especially as they are responsible for around 4536 miles of highways in Cornwall.

Near Seven Million for Three Months on Consultants?!

Graham Smith of the BBC has blogged about a staggering amount of money that has been spent by Cornwall Council on consultants in January, February and March. It is a eye watering £6,873,635. It is broken down by the following: January £1,774,978, February £1,858,619 and in March £3,240,038.

You have to ask yourself why these payments were made and who received these payments. What justification is there, and more importantly, where are the improvements that have come to about by hiring these consultants.

These question need to be answered, and I have written to the Head of Finance asking for answers to these and other questions.

Street Cleaning in Doubt?

We all know Cornwall Council is under extreme pressure to save money. The Council is looking into various areas where it could save money. This is to be welcomed as long as it does not affect the service which has seen a budget cut. One of the latest areas that is ear-marked for change is street cleaning.
Street cleaning like waste collection is a fundamental service provided by Cornwall Council. It should carry out this duty to the highest standard. It is what people expect from paying their Council Tax.

A proposal that is being banded around is to carryout only a very basic street clean. But, if a town or parish require a top-up or a premium clean it will have to pay extra for it. It reminds me of the options at a car-wash. The very basic service barely cleans your car, but the super-duper (and costly) option makes your car look like new.

This proposal is just plan wrong. It will lead to a two-tier system where the larger town could have the means to pay for it, but the smaller towns will struggle to precept the money for any ‘extras’. Furthermore, it will look to the public like a double taxation.
I hope that before anyone is even thinking of introducing this all town and parishes must be consulted for their views. The town and parish views are important because they will be the ones who will have to deal with the fallout if this proposal comes into force.

Why Oh Why?

They say a week is a long time in politics, and for the Leader of Cornwall Council this week must seem like an eternity. Tuesday’s defeat of the recommendation of looking into allowances for the newly created Cabinet Support Members must have hurt. Aside from the loss of face, the leader now has to contend with two ex-cabinet members who now will be asked to do a Cabinet job, but for zero allowance.

Yesterday, another bombshell exploded in the face of the leader. It turns out that the leader has written to the Sec of State for Local Government, Eric Pickles MP asking for the incinerator at St Dennis is approved. This is despite the fact that Cornwall Council’s own planners and legal team mounted a defence of a decision of refusal that was made by the former County Council. The cost of mounting the appeal is in seven figures, so hardly small change.

This has upset many (if they could be any more upset) backbenchers on this course of action. Especially as this letter would not have come to light unless Dick Cole had found out about it and asked (before a FOI request was made) for the letter. Of course the spin will be all about costs and how much more money Cornwall Council will have to pay in terminating the contract if the decision is upheld.

I believe it is wholly unacceptable for the Leader to behind the scenes write a letter that asks for planning to be approved. Especially when the public stance is to mount a defence which includes substantial costs that defends a democratic decision. The action of sending this letter has a great bearing on the credibility of the Council by saying one thing in public, but carrying out the complete opposite behind the scenes.

I now sit on Strategic Planning, and would hate to think any decision we the committee make is being undermined behind the scenes. For me, it is an affront to democracy, and furthermore undermines the planning process.

Finally, I checked the minutes of the original decision taken by CCC, it lists amongst others, the now Leader of Cornwall Council voting against permission when he was a County Councillor.

Stadium, Planning and the Month of September

The plan for ‘A Stadium’ in (or for) Cornwall moves a step closer as today I received the proposed work plan for Strategic Planning Committee. The stadium and roads have been earmarked to be submitted to Strat Planning in September (subject to change).

As yet, there are no other details on costs and who will pay for it, but then again these costs are not material planning reasons and therefore should not be part of the decision making process.

I think my e-mail in box might get  more busy now this a date has been earmarked.

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