When Northampton County Council went “bankrupt” – Inspectors’ comments on scrutiny an “how others see you”

…”The way that NCC went about its scrutiny function brought very strong words from the inspectors. They noted that a number of councillors told them that they had been refused information. They cite a specific example which I extract below:

Perhaps the clearest demonstration of this unnecessary secrecy during the inspection took place at the Cabinet meeting on 13th February 2018.

3.80 Agenda item 11 was titled Capital Asset Exploitation. This was in fact a proposal to sell and lease back the recently completed HQ building at One Angel Square. This disposal is a potential £50m in value so it would be reasonable to expect a full options appraisal and some clear professional valuation advice as to the likely quantum of proceeds and the ways in which a disposal might be handled to best achieve a best value result. It is likely that much of this information would be exempt information so that there would be a confidential paper appended to the agenda. If that information was not available then it could only be on the basis that it was not being relied on in taking a decision.

3.81 At the meeting a number of questions were raised on these very matters and Cabinet members stated that they were privy to confidential information which supported their recommendation but that it was not available to other members.

3.82 Even if there was a concern about the publishing of confidential information most authorities have protocols and practices which make it possible for key information to be shared and protect the authority. To refuse it outright is just wrong.

Again, during an inspection, it appears that a decision for members to take was incorrectly presented without the necessary evidence.

Lesson 6 – How others see you

A key measure of governance is how well does an authority deal with complaints. During the Inspection the Inspectors commented that most unusually the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman contacted them. He said that NCC was one of the most difficult authorities to engage with both in time to respond and also in terms of approach to complaints handling learning from mistakes and remedying injustice [32].

Here again the point emerges that services may well be worse than they superficially appear, but there could come a time when the council is on the ropes and at that point others come forward and say what they really think. It is always sensible to treat concerns by the Ombudsman as meriting a chief statutory officers’ agenda spot.”

http://localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=34806%3Alocalism-best-value-inspections-and-northamptonshire-county-council&catid=59&Itemid=27

Note: this puts Owl in mind of this what judge said when the Information Commissioner v East Devon District Council Knowle confidential information case was decided in court:

“Correspondence on behalf of the council, rather than ensuring the tribunal was assisted in its function, was at times discourteous and unhelpful, including the statement that we had the most legible copies [of the disputed information] possible. A statement which was clearly inaccurate as, subsequently, we have been provided with perfectly legible documents.”

http://www.midweekherald.co.uk/news/election/heads-should-roll-as-judge-criticises-eddc-1-4075293

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