Out of the blue, another Cabinet Member resigns. This time is was not over a leadership ‘change’ but due to a method used when Cornish residents were being called to check if they are eligible for the single occupancy discount.
The Cabinet (now ex) Member in question is Fiona Ferguson, the former Finance Portfolio Holder. This could not come at a worse time as the council is going through its 2013/14 budget proposals, and tomorrow, the Cabinet meets decide on further recommendations post the defeat of its proposals on the new Council Tax Benefit Scheme.
The resignation letter is as follows:
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.
It is certainly going to be an interesting Cabinet meeting tomorrow, as the Cabinet will be discussing parts of the budget, but without a Portfolio Holder for Finance. Unless of course someone gets a phone call from Jim tonight. It is certainly a dwindling pool within the Conservative Group to pick from.