A Letter to the Editor

The Leader of Cornwall Council has decided to send another letter. This time it is to the Editor of the Daily Telegraph, and it is in reference to their article on Credit Card spending. It seems the Leader is still miffed about this article and feels Cornwall Council got slated wrongly, even though the Council supplied the information in the first place. 

Here is the very letter that has been sent to the Daily Telegraph:

When did FOI become Freedom of Misinformation?
20 June 2011
Dear Sir
An article in your paper criticised Cornwall Council for using “credit” cards and for spending council taxpayers’ money on inappropriate items.  Both statements are wrong.
The Council does not use credit cards.  These are purchase cards which save an average £33 per transaction.  Over the past two years we have saved £2.8 million of taxpayers money – the equivalent of employing 70 children’s social workers, running two primary schools, eight leisure centres or 24 average sized Cornish libraries for a year or maintaining our rural road network in Cornwall.  Far from being criticised for being the highest spender, Cornwall deserves praise for being the best in this area.
Your article suggested that Council staff had wasted money eating in Rick Stein’s Seafood restaurant and on lavish Council trips abroad – wrong again.  The payment to Rick Stein was not for a meal – but was part of the Future Jobs Fund project, a Department for Work and Pensions European funded scheme to provide jobs for people in Cornwall.  The much criticised foreign travel related to educational visits involving teachers from schools in Cornwall which were fully funded by the British Council. 
I am also extremely disappointed that you chose to use information you knew to be wrong.  We informed the journalist the day before you published the article that the costs of foreign travel and meals were expressed in local currency and not sterling but you still chose to publish inaccurate information. 
I have been a loyal reader of your paper for more than 30 years and am disappointed you decided to publish misleading information which unfairly  damaged the reputation of local government in general and Cornwall in particular.  Such action does not meet your normal high standards.
I am also concerned that having championed open and transparent government in Cornwall and provided you with our data without trying to hide anything, this has been abused.  Dealing with FOI applications has cost the Council £339,000 over the past two years – money which would be better spent on essential services for the public.  Your action means that we will now have to put additional resources into this process to ensure that the public are protected from such Freedom of Misinformation.
I hope you will now take this opportunity to put the record straight by printing this letter.
Yours sincerely
Alec Robertson
Cornwall Council 

There is however a word of caution and a quote by Mark Twain sums it up: Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel

Cardgate Questions Answered

Many will know I asked a series of questions taken randomly from the information provided by Cornwall Council to the Daily Telegraph. I am pleased to say that all these questions have now been answered. Most are down to a ‘simple’ currency mix-up. You can click HERE for those answers and explanations.

Is this the end of the subject? No, is the honest answer as I know there are people (who have contacted me) who are very unhappy that names were released with this information. I think the Council may have further questions to answer under various data protection issues.

Cardgate – The End?

Today, Thursday was always going to be a very interesting day for Cornwall Council because it might be able to draw a line under the whole debit/credit card fiasco. I know a few staff who have literally gone without sleep trying to make sense of all the figures, invoices and currency conversions. They are to be thanked for doing this work.

No matter what spin the Council puts on it they must take some of the blame for originally releasing these details. The saving grace is the Council did try and clarify the wrong points, but for reasons not known to me these points never made it into the paper.

At the Corporate Resources Scrutiny Committee a lot was said on how misleading the story was in the Daily Telegraph (DT). Also raised was communication to Councillors and how many got ambushed on the morning the story broke. At least if the Councillors had some idea this was going to happen they then might have been able to deal with angry residents.

The result of this is there will be a review on the details sent and how it had so many errors. The Councillors present were told this review would be completed by the end of June. I welcome this and will look forward to the findings of that review.

Hopefully, a lot of lessons will be learnt from this fiasco and I really hope something like this does not happen again. Lets hope this is now put to bed and there will be no further skeletons jumping out of the wardrobe.

Cornwall Council Debit Cards – A Clearer Picture?

There might be light at the end of the tunnel on the whole debit (formally known as credit) card fiasco. The details in the Telegraph article were breath-taking and there no getting away from the fact it made people angry.
However, a few days later there is now some clarity emerging on these published figures. These figures might not be ‘as bad’ as first thought. In fact, it seems a lot of figures listed in the Telegraph are completely wrong because they are still in the native currency and/or the cost was met by someone else. All these are perfectly good reason. I am also not saying that there are no worrying/wrong/excessive areas, and if there is, these will soon come to light. It is just a shame that the right figures were not sent out in the first place.

I was further invited by the Head of Corporate Resources to ask any question on any item listed. I picked a selection from the list and here are those questions and answers.

Hotel Anna (29 May 2010) listed cost: £33,090 Real cost: £105.10
Response:  This payment relates to a meeting in Hungary about the Resgen project (Research Infrastructure to Sustainable Energy and Reduction of Co2 emissions).  This is a totally European funded project and so the costs were not met by the Council. The costs shown have not been converted from the original currency of Hungarian Forint and the correct amount is £105.10  
Hotel Matus (27 May 2010) listed cost: £16,698 Real costs: £53.14
Response: This payment relates to a meeting in Hungary about the Resgen project (Research Infrastructure to Sustainable Energy and Reduction of Co2 emissions).  This is a totally European funded project and so the costs were not met by the Council. The costs shown have not been converted from the original currency of Hungarian Forint and the correct amount is £53.14

Radisson SAS (Jan 10) listed cost: £4,880 Real Cost: £546.56
Response: This payment relates to the attendance at a meeting of the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Meetings in Norway which was attended by Carolyn Rule and a member of the Council’s Economic Development service.  The costs shown have not been converted from the original currency of Norwegian Kroner and the correct amount should be £546.56

Sailors Arms (17 Feb 2009) listed cost: £750 
Response: This payment relates to an event run by the Youth Service as part of their ‘Positive Activities for Young People’ project. It was funded through external grants and not by the Council

Hotel Opera (Jan 2009) listed cost: £60,327 Real Cost £204.41
This project is grant funded, not core costs. This was not converted from 60327 HUF, actual cost £204.41. 

This relates to hotel costs for an officer attending a Regions for Sustainable Change meeting.
Hotel Lorensberg (3 Oct 09) listed cost: £6,380 Real Cost £599.46.
This was not converted from krona, and this relates to hotel costs for 2 people attending the C.P.M.R. General Assembly. The C.P.M.R. is Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions

Holiday Inn (7 Oct 2009) listed cost: £1,372.51
This relates to Hotel (Holiday Inn) costs for 5 people attending European Week of Regions and Cities Open Days in Brussels. No currency error here. 

Various invoices for NQ cafe (16 March 10) listed cost: £1366.89
This relates to payments made on behalf of Newquay Children’s Centre to purchase stock for resale in their café – NQ Café.

DS Lite (Game Digital) listed cost: £999.90
This expenditure was covered by external funding. The purchase was made in line with the E-Guide training which one of the Family Learning staff had undergone and she was eligible for a grant to purchase this and other items of equipment.  Family Learning is part of Adult Education and work with parents of young children to teach them to be able to understand and help their offspring with technology.

Ritazza Cafe (21 Jan 09) listed cost: £3,165 Real Costs £10.73
This project is grant funded not core costs. This was not converted from 3165 HUF. This payment relates to subsistence costs associated with attending Regions for Sustainable Change Project

There you have it, all my questions answers. As you can see most are down to errors on the currency exchange and not people having a ‘good old time’ at the tax payers expense. 

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.