Cornwall Council Shared Services: Companies with a shadowy past, Pt 2

Yesterday’s blog on the past dealings of Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC), and their involvement with the process of Rendition was certainly an eye-opener. It maybe in the past, but a massive concern is CSC have not ruled out doing the same in the future. Which as I said before, should be of interest to Cornwall Council.

I decided to contact Reprieve asking for further information and there have been more than helpful in answering my questions and request for further information. So much so, they told me they had even written to the Leader of Cornwall Council highlighting CSC past. They did this on the 4th of August, and got an acknowledgement reply. Though over three-weeks later no further letter answering Reprieves questions has been forthcoming. You would think the council would be quick to respond to such an important letter?

It is of further concern, that the full council will be debating the issue of shared services this coming Tuesday (4th) and you would think this information would be relevant to the debate. Sadly, I have seen nothing in any of the documentation that would show one bidder has this history. Though it could be argued the debate is on the principle of shared services, not the companies that might be involved. However, I still this it is relevant to know who you are getting into bed with.

It leads me to think there is far more that is being kept from backbenchers in this process. I wish just once, backbench Councillors would be kept inform of important facts. After all, 123 Councillors have been elected to Cornwall Council to serve the people. It is only right all Councillors are given the facts.

Furthermore, questions must be asked to how much checking Cornwall Council did when short-listing the two bidders? A simple search online highlights CSC past, surely Cornwall Council carried out a more detailed search than using Google. Sadly, it does not look like it, or if the council did, decided to ignore that fact CSC had these past dealings.

The only sensible thing that now should be done is the entire share services agenda should be pulled, or stopped completely.

Below is the letter to the Leader of Cornwall Council and details of three ‘rendition missions’

Letter to Leader:

 

And here are three Rendition Missions:

Rendition Mission: N982RK, 8-11 June 2004

CSC’s Romania Missions

Rendition Mission: N982RK, 25-29 May 2004

 

Cornwall Council Shared Services: Companies with a shadowy past

The Cabinet’s recent decision (I would like to say folly) to start the process of Invite to Tenders (ItT) with two companies, British Telecom and Computer Science Corporation (CSC), both multi-billion pound companies. But how much do we really understand about these companies. Do they have any skeletons in their wardrobe? Well, Computer Science Corporation has one or two.

A little digging around on the internet for research on other councils who have gone down the process of shared services, I came upon Reprieve. A few clicks on their webpage and I came across an article on CSC. In that article it shows a company brought by CSC  became involved with the renditions, secret detention and torture programme through its purchase of DynCorp in March 2003. Reading this, I let out a few expletives. The link to the whole article is HERE.

Granted this was many years ago, and from the Reprieve article, CSC sold DynCorp in 2004.  However, again in the article, CSC continued dealing with security organisations until 2006. You could argue this was a long-time ago and has no relevance to the possibility of Cornwall Council going into ‘partnership’ with this company.

The real worrying part of it all, and should be of concern to Cornwall Council, is CSC stance when Reprieve wrote to them in March 2012 asking them to sign a Zero Tolerance for Torture Pledge. Sadly, CSC has refused to do this, and sent a letter to confirm this.

So if Cornwall picks CSC as the preferred suppler of  providing services, the council could find the company it is in partnership with takes an active part in renditions, secret detention and torture.  It certainly take the whole argument of ethical investment to a whole new level! In fact a whole new stratosphere!

My question is; does Cornwall Council know about CSC past. Furthermore,  what inquiries/investigations has Cornwall Council carried out to make sure the council is protected from any fallout ‘if’ CSC gets involved again with renditions? If Cornwall Council knew, why have Councillors not been informed? As from the paperwork I have read, there is no mention of anything like this!

A huge and special thank go to Reprieve for their good work in highlighting this issue!

Old Police non-emergency number to be switched off

In this weeks Helston Packet, there an article on a very important change to the Police non-emergency number. Currently, you can contact the police for non-emergency reasons on either, 08452 777444, or a more easy to remember number of 101.

Now, from Sunday 2nd September, the 08452 number will be switched-off as a means of contacting the Police. If you do happen to call the this number, you will just hear an answering machine message asking to use 101. Furthermore, and I personally did not know this, you can email the Police with non-emergency crime. The e-mail address for this is 101@devonandcornwall.pnn.police.uk.

It is a pity people who contact the 101 number will have to pay 15p for each call. At least this is a standard rate no mater what time you call.

Just remember 101 for non-emergency and 999 for emergency.

Proposed changes to the planning call-in protocol for Councillors

Recently, I was sent an email asking for my views on the proposed changes to the protocol that is used for a Councillor to call-in to committee certain types of planning application. I had until the mid-September to reply, but I thought I might as well do it sooner than later.

I am certainly glad I did, as the changes are far-reaching. Currently, the protocol is if the Councillor disagrees with the application, it goes will go to the next planning committee. This I feel has worked very well, and most Councillors will use this function when there are planning reasons to do so. It gives the planning process some democratic oversight, which in turn allows for public confidence in the system.

Now, with the new proposed protocol, this could change. And a change no for the better either! Granted a Councillor still has the ability to call in certain applications like those classed as major and minor:

  • New dwellings
  • Offices / research and development / light industry
  • General industry / storage / warehousing
  • Retail distribution and servicing
  • Gypsy and Traveller pitches
  • All other large scale major developments
  • All other small scale major developments
  • All other minor developments

At face value, it still looks like there is still a fair amount of applications that can be brought to the planning committee. However, it is those that have been removed from the call-in procedure that has cause for concern. Furthermore, it could  further undermine the public’s confidence in the planning process. Those types of applications that are proposed to be removed from call-in are:

  • Minerals Processing (ie ancillary mineral operations defined under the GPDO)
  • Change of use (no significant building or engineering work involved)
  • Householder developments – Included in householder developments are extensions, conservatories, loft conversions, dormer windows, alterations, garages, car ports or outbuildings, swimming pools, walls, fences, domestic vehicular accesses, including footway crossovers, porches and satellite dishes.
  • Advertisements
  • Listed building consents to alter / extend
  • Listed building consents to demolish
  • Conservation area consents
  • Certificates of lawful developments
  • Notifications (where no planning application is required)
  • Discharge of planning conditions
  • Non-material amendments
  • Works to trees in a conservation area
  • Works to trees covered by a Tree Preservation Order

You might think it is much about nothing, but I will disagree. As in my experience, anyone of these types of applications can be controversial as placing 100 homes in a hamlet. I see no point in these types being removed from the protocol because as long as the rules on call-in are followed with proper planning reasons like –  Highway safety and traffic levels; design, appearance and layout; flood risk; effect on the level of daylight and privacy of existing property; planning case law and previous decisions; the planning history of a site: there should be no reasons for their removal.

Currently, nearly 95% of all applications are dealt with by delegated powers and with this change could be even more dealt with this way. Where does that leave democracy in the planning process? You do not have to answer that one, because we all know the answer.

Backbench Cornwall Councillors will debate Shared Services

The next meeting of Cornwall Council’s entire membership takes place on the 4th September. For this meeting I have submitted a Motion that has cross-party support from Independents, MK, Lib Dem’s and Labour. The Motion is on the recent decision by the Council’s Cabinet on Shared Services. My previous blogs on this topic are HERE. The Councillors who have put their names to the Motion in support are Graham Walker, Andrew Long, Geoff Brown and Jude Robinson.

The Motion is as follows:

“In view of its far-reaching consequences, including its potential impact on Council governance and elected Member accountability, this Council believes that it is not in the best interests of the people of Cornwall for the Council to enter into the proposed Strategic Partnership for Support Services.”

There are two main points to this Motion. The first is my unhappiness on the whole process and recent outcome at Cabinet. Only eight Councillors voted in favour of this at the recent Cabinet with one voting against, the Portfolio Holder for Finance abstained, after making his views pretty clear on his unhappiness on so much of the proposals.

The second part is to allow those outside of the Cabinet the ability to debate this fundamental change to how Cornwall Council provides services. As many Councillors feel these changes are so far-reaching for Cornwall, but are not given the ability to debate this issue and give their individual views. After all, 123 Councillors are elected to Cornwall Council!

The number of services that are being fully/part-privatised is staggering, and it is full of risks. In fact I believe massive risks. You only have to Google shared services to see how many other local authorities have run, or are running into trouble with these ‘partnerships’. Only last week, Mouchel has gone into administration, and they have a multi-million deal with Bournemouth Council.

I have also asked for all the information that has been provided to the Cabinet to be made available to the entire Council. I am pleased to say, this request has been accepted and the full membership will be able to see everything which the Cabinet had access to. I am sure there are a few nervous people on the amount of information that will be made available. A lot of it is very sensitive. A least the debate will be conducted with all the information available. This is only right and proper. That information is HERE at item 22.1

I should point out that even if the Council votes and decides to this Motion, it does not mean the plans for shared services are stopped. This is because the Cabinet has the executive functions for this type of decision. Like it or not, these are the current constitutional rules at Cornwall Council. However, if the Motion has overwhelming support, the Cabinet will be in a difficult position to carry-on with the plan.

Let’s hope if the support there is not for the shared services plans to go ahead they will be dropped. Much like when the Leader asked the Council for their views on the stadium. The decision of the Council was not to support the principle of using tax payer’s money. The Leader made comment the Cabinet would respect the view councils view, and Cabinet would not progress with the stadium plans. Think it will happen again if the vote goes against shared services??

Personally, I am looking forward to the debate

Councils have to be more open from the 10th September

New rules are set to become law in early September (10th) on Councils being more open and transparent in their day-to-day business.  The details can be found HERE and HERE from the Department of Communities and Local Government. The news rules do not stop all meeting from being held in private, as certain items are still allowed to be dealt privately.

If a meeting has to be held in private, the council has to give notice and reasons as to why. The new rules say where a meeting is due to be closed to the public, the council must now justify why that meeting is to be closed and give 28 days notice of such decision. On the whole I welcome these changes as I have found meetings have gone into closed sessions simply because of the controversial nature of the subject. This is wrong.

A real change a council will face is on recording of a meeting. Cornwall Council carries out a webcast on the main committees. Now it seems an individual can film, blog, tweet, or use some other social media in a meeting to report that meeting.  Furthermore, Cornwall Council’s new policy on filming/social media in a meeting might now be partially defunct because currently you have to ask permission to film/blog/tweet etc. Post the 10th September, it looks like you will not need permission. I wonder if we will see citizens filming at meetings?

The Key points are:

  •  New legal rights for citizen reporters: Local authorities are now obliged to provide reasonable facilities for members of the public to report the proceedings as well as accredited newspapers.This will make it easier for new ‘social media’ reporting of council executive meetings thereby opening proceedings up to internet bloggers, tweeting and hyperlocal news forums.
  • Holding private meetings: In the past council executives could hold meetings in private without giving public notice. Where a meeting is to be held in private, the executive or committee must provide 28 days notice during which the public may make representations about why the meeting should be held in public. Where the notice requirements for a private meeting and an agreement of the chairman of the relevant overview and scrutiny committee or chairman of the relevant local authority has been obtained, the decision-making body must publish a notice as soon as reasonably practicable explaining why the meeting is urgent and cannot be deferred.
  • Less red tape for councils: Removing internal bureaucracy introduced by the last Government about ‘key decisions’, quarterly reports and ‘forward plans’. Instead, a document explaining the key decision to be made, the matter in respect of which a decision would be made, the documents to be considered before the decision is made, and the procedures for requesting details of those documents, has to be published.
  • Special urgent decision: Where it is impossible to meet the publication requirements before a key decision is made and an agreement has been obtained from the chairman of the relevant overview and scrutiny committee or the relevant local authority to make the key decision, the decision maker must publish a notice to explain the reasons why the making of the decision is urgent.. Previously no notice was required.
  • Stronger rights of individual councillors: Where an executive has in its  possession a document that contains materials relating to a business to be discussed at a public meeting, members of the local authority have additional rights to inspect such a document at least five days before the meeting . Previously no timescale existed.
  • Stronger rights for scrutiny members: Where the executive decides not to release the whole or part of a document to a member of an overview and scrutiny committee as requested by a councillor, it must provide a written statement to explain the reasons for not releasing such a documents.

I welcome these changes and have no problem with anything I say being filmed or recorded. However, will others feel the same?

Lastly, it should be pointed out, Cornwall Council has made massive strives in the use of social media, webcast and filming at meetings, thus making the council more open. It has not fully travelled the road, but it is seen as a tend-setting authority in this area.

Agency and Consultant Staff at Cornwall Council

Browsing through my emails on a Saturday to make sure nothing important has come in is a regular function I carry out with a mug of coffee. Today, I was later than normal, but I am glad I did. As all Councillors have been sent an email post a FOI request from the Sunday Times. Their request was on the number of temporary/agency staff the council uses. This includes the total cost of these type of staff.

No matter which way you want to dress it up, Cornwall Council has and still continues to use these type of staff. The cost is not a few thousand of pounds either; It is many millions. An often used line of ‘you have to pay to get the right people’ is a little hard to swallow when some of the temporary staff are paid nearly three-times the amount an average Cornish worker gets paid a year. And this is only for a few months!

Take for instance, a person hired to be the Commercial Lead Strategic Partner in one of the biggest service sell-offs Cornwall Council has ever undertaken. From April 2012 – Mid July 2012 they were paid £67,349.35 if you add in the agency fees and other associated costs the true cost is £70,173.17 for 14 weeks work. That is nearly £5,000 per week a week. Granted, this is the top paid consultant, but many more are paid £40k plus for a similar time frame of employment.

In fact, Cornwall Council over the last 22 months a staggering £21,411,368 including all the associated costs. When I added it up, I certainly took a big gulp. The Leader has often said the Council is reducing consultants/temp/agency staff, but spending over £21m does not look like it.

Let’s just wait to hear the excuses that will come out in the next few days.

Porthleven Town Council held to ransom on Public Toilets

At the August meeting of Porthleven Town Council the issue of the two Public Toilets in the Port was discussed. My view is Cornwall Council is off-loading these facilities in a rather tactless way. In simple terms Cornwall Council is saying; ‘take them over or we will close them’. It is pretty hard for a town or parish council to negotiate with both hands tied behind their backs while having to hop.

I should say in fairness to Cornwall Council, they have agreed to give a two-year grant to Porthleven Town Council to ‘help’ with the running. This is the running costs of one toilet, plus 50% of the cleaning cost. It should be noted that this is only for one toilet, as the other gets no grant.  They will hopefully refurbish the toilets to a standard that is agreeable to the town council, and not just Cornwall Council. There will be a yearly rent of £1, too.

The two options of take them over or one will close is a hard one for the town council. If the town council takes them over residents will see an increase in the town council precept to fund them, while not seeing a reduction in the overall Council Tax set by Cornwall Council. A double tax. If it does not take them over, one will shut for good.

To combat this difficult situation I have been talking to various people at Cornwall Council to try to highlight the importance of both these toilets remaining open, and pointing out it should not be the town council who has to run them. The response I got was ‘there is no money to pay for them’ or the often wheeled out  justification is ‘they are not statutory’. Car parking is not statutory, but you do not see a rush to off-load these!

I wish it was simple just to call Cornwall Council bluff and see if they will close them. However, that would not achieve anything but seeing a toilet close. That will harm Porthleven for both residents and visitors. The one earmarked for closure is the Harbour Road toilet. A Petition could be started, but again that will be most likely treated with a ‘thank you and next….’

The town council is now trying to get the best grant and refurbishment it can. Once this has been agreed in principle, the town council will be holding a mini-referendum on the proposals to the residents and business of Porthleven. That way, the town council will know it has either the backing or not. Then the town council can decide accordingly.

What should the town council to do? Take them both over or allow at least one to close?

Changes to Cornwall Council’s Community Events Traffic Management Charges

Back in November 2011, Cornwall Council’s Cabinet approved a revised set of charges for Traffic Management at community events (and other). This is the process someone who is organising an event has to go through if the event has some impact on a highway. Now, several months later, this proposals are out for public consultation which includes the town and parish Council’s.

The good news is a small street party on a residential street is remaining free. This is very welcomed as charging for these types of events will make it unaffordable to hold a simple street party. The real changes come for larger events. For instance, a Village Fete (< 5000) is currently free, but the proposal is to charge £130. A Town Carnival (< 5000) will see a charge of £260; currently being free. A large Agricultural Show will remain the same at £800. National events like Remembrance events will not be charged.

A big change to the system is signage. In many cases now, you can get the signage from the council for free. Now under these proposals signage will not be provided by the council. You will now have to source your own. However, for a town council, there is a proposals for Cornwall Council to give you a grant, or even fully fund a stock of signage. This then will be used by community groups, but held and maintained by the town council.

So what do you think of these new proposals? Want to make a comment? Well you can, by clicking HERE for the full consultation paper and how to submit your views. And HERE for the Consultation Form. You have until 31st October to respond.

The Committee and Cabinet Systems

I have been pondering how to start this blog on the different administrative structures a Local Authority can have. It is not easy, and I have tried to start this blog several times. So bear with me, as I will not try to bore you to death in what I have to say. I will start with the basics and the current arrangement at Cornwall Council.

Since Cornwall Council’s formation in 2009, the council adopted the ‘Strong Leader’ model under the Executive System (Cabinet). Under this model, the Leader of the Council is appointed by the full council in one of its first acts post an election. Then, the Leader appoints a Cabinet of between two and ten Councillors (no less, no more). The Cabinet will make just about all the major financial decision apart from the council’s budget, and Councillor’s allowances. So in essence, ten will make most of the decisions affecting the whole of Cornwall. There are also various other types of Cabinet system, but the principle is the same.

To keep the executive ‘in-check’ a series of Scrutiny Committees is set up with various powers of call-in. The main job of the Scrutiny Committee is to scrutinise the Cabinet’s policies. It can also make policies for Cabinet to approve. The power of call-in is an interesting one; as a Scrutiny Committee can make further recommendations for the Cabinet to adopted, but these are not legally binding on the Cabinet, and it could and has, ignore those additional recommendations. Still with me?

The Committee System of old was disposed of in 2000. Apart from small Local Authorities with a population of fewer than 84,000 who could carry on using the Committee System under something call the ‘Fourth Option’? In Cornwall, only one Local Authority ran this system, and that was Restormel Borough Council. Now, under the Localism Act,  a Local Authority could reintroduce a Committee System as one of the models of local government.

So what is a Committee System? Well, it is a style of governance involving councillors sitting on committees which make decisions, receive briefing and commission reviews to develop policy. This means more than ten Councillors can make a decision, or be part of that decision. I should also point out, that if you are not on that committee; you will still not have a vote. Thinking all Councillors will suddenly have a voting say in all decisions is rather naive.

If a Committee structure is introduced at Cornwall Council, I believe the Committees has to be supreme (makes the final decision). I say this because if every decision had to go to full council for a final decision, then nothing would ever get done, and the whole system would grind to a halt. This poor and slow decision-making process was one of the reasons the committees were disposed of in 2000.

Believe it all not; Cornwall Council has panels that report directly to the full council. I have seen it far too often months of work have been thrown out, leaving nothing. Or decisions have been made with no relevant information being present.

All the different administrative systems have their faults. I personally would like to have a system that does take into account the majority of the council’s view in big decisions. The recent Cabinet decision on Shared Services left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. Such a large decision, which did not undertake a view from the whole council is not good for democracy.

There are two other options a Local Authority could adopt. These are a Mayor system; much like the executive system’s  strong leader model. The Mayor really is all-powerful, so if you don’t like the Strong Leader model, you are not going to like the Mayoral system. The other system is a hybrid. In theory, you could cherry pick all the best (or worst) bits of the Cabinet and Committee systems and make a new type of administration. This is an interesting concept, but one fraught with danger. Also, any new system has to be approved by Mr Pickles MP.

Any clearer? Want to have your say on which system should be used at Cornwall Council? Here is the LINK  for further information on the review, including the form for your views.

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