“Huge amount of taxpayers’ money’ used for gagging orders at East Devon council”

Owl says: 10 people with some very interesting stories we will never know ….. and which will never be scrutinised.

“Figures obtained using a Freedom of Information request show that East Devon District Council has spent more than £200,000 on gagging orders over the past four years.

A total of £205,074 has been spent by East Devon District Council on gagging orders for former members of staff since 2014, according to figures obtained by the Journal.

The information, obtained through a Freedom of Information request, reveals 10 settlement agreements, or gagging orders, were agreed by EDDC between 2014 and October 31, 2018.

Gagging orders are often referred to as confidentiality clauses and are usually agreed when an employee leaves an employer due to redundancy, a work place problem or a disagreement.

A number of opposition councillors have said they are shocked by the amount of money spent on gagging orders.

Independent group leader at EDDC, Ben Ingham, said: “When any one of us is thinking about how we can afford to pay our latest council tax bill, I do not believe we expect one penny to be spent on gagging orders.

“If we did, non payment may become a real expectancy. As Leader of EDDC Opposition, I can tell you at no time has the current leadership contacted me to discuss this issue at all.

“This is not acceptable, but to me not surprising. Merely another piece of evidence against an exhausted regime.”

A spokeswoman for EDDC said: “Settlement agreements are legally binding contracts that waive an individual’s rights to make a claim covered by the agreement to an employment tribunal or court.

“The agreement must be in writing. They usually include some form of payment to the employee and may often include a reference. They are voluntary and have therefore been entered into on that basis by the individuals.

“Part of the agreement is that they must seek independent advice from an employment lawyer.”

Exmouth district councillor Megan Armstrong said: “I am extremely concerned at the huge amount of taxpayers’ money, which should have been used to provide services for the people of East Devon, which has been spent on gagging orders.

“The council has a duty to be open and transparent; yet over £200,000 – a vast sum – has been spent on suppressing information. Exactly what is the Conservative administration trying to hide?”


Councils face £500m bill after bank cash machine business rates ruling

“Councils face an estimated combined bill of up to £500m to refund supermarkets after the Court of Appeal ruled that cash machines should not be assessed separately for business rates.

Retailers Tesco, Sainsbury’s and The Cooperative Group, along with ATM operator Cardtronics Europe have won their challenge to a 2010 decision by the Valuation Office Agency to create separate entries for the sites of supermarket cash machines.

Property consultancy firm Altus estimates that the backdated bill which businesses will be due via rebates at £382m, while property consultancy Colliers put the figure at £496m. …”


DCC overspend jumps to nearly £10 million

“Phil Norrey, chief executive of Devon County Council, said he wanted to reassure councillors, staff and taxpayers about the impact of the savings strategy, saying it was ‘tight and good housekeeping’.

He said: “We are making sure that we have our house in order rather than panicking and walking over a cliff and the range of measures we are implementing we have looked at very carefully.

“There are pressures across the country and after around eight or nine years of extreme pressures on budgets, it has to come a point when we reach the end of the road on spending, and that will come in the next two or three years.”


Devon £8m overspend, Suffolk £11.2 million overspend – dominoes fall

Devon is playing its cards close to its chest about cuts:

Suffolk proposes:

A 2.9% council tax rise next year
A halt to road sign cleaning, with only mandatory road markings being maintained
Reducing housing-related support for people in their own tenancies
A review of arrangements with district and borough councils for grass cutting and weed treatment services
Removal of the Citizens Advice Bureau grant
Reducing the legal, training and equipment costs at trading standards
Streamlining running costs in educational psychologists service, although there will be no cuts to frontline services


Another company with local government outsourcing contracts hits the headlines

“Interserve, one of the biggest outsourcing companies serving the government, scrambled to calm market jitters yesterday, rebuffing claims that it was teetering on the brink and could follow Carillion into receivership unless it could raise fresh capital.

Shares in the group slumped by as much as 26 per cent to less than 29p, before retracing almost all of the losses and ending the day at 38.5p, down 2 per cent, when a positive statement was rushed out mid-afternoon. This said that the implementation of strategy “remains on track” and the group continued to expect a significant operating profit improvement this year “in line with management’s expectations”.

The latest flurry of investor nerves began last week after a joint venture partner, Renewi, disclosed that Interserve had missed a deadline on an important energy-from-waste project in Derby. They intensified yesterday when the BBC reported that it was planning to tap investors for more cash, citing sources close to the company.

The group provides meals for schools and hospitals, constructs and maintains government buildings and provides a string of other services, from asbestos removal to repairing flood barriers. It employs 75,000 people worldwide, 25,000 of them in the UK, and has a turnover of £3.2 billion.

The Cabinet Office has been on alert to be prepared for another outsourcer collapse after the National Audit Office said that the Carillion failure had cost taxpayers £148 million. Ministers were accused of mishandling that failure.

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said yesterday: “We monitor the financial health of all of our strategic suppliers, including Interserve, and have regular discussions with the company’s management. The company refinanced earlier this year and we fully support them in their recovery plan.

“It is in the taxpayers’ interest to have a well financed and stable group of key suppliers, so we welcome the actions that the company is taking as part of their planned strategy.” More than £900 million has been wiped from the value of the company, which now stands at just £56 million, since the share price high of 700p in April 2014.

In March, Interserve agreed a complex £800 million rescue refinancing with lenders, bondholders and pension trustees, which it said would provide sufficient capital to see it through to September 2021. Most of the £197 million in new cash was provided by Emerald Investment, the family office of the Punch Taverns tycoon Alan McIntosh.

Yesterday’s statement said nothing about the speculation that new capital was needed, however. Simon Jack, the BBC’s business editor, quoted a former shareholder saying that it would need £500 million in new capital — a huge amount that would all but wipe out existing shareholders.

At the half-year results in August, Interserve reported a slide from profits of £24.9 million to a £6 million loss, but promised £40-50 million per year of cost savings by 2020. Net debt was £614 million, up from £503 million a year earlier.

The company has previously said it aims to deleverage eventually, with most analysts assuming this meant a rights issue at some point, but it had hoped to make enough progress to get the share price higher first.

Stephen Rawlinson, an analyst with the research firm Applied Value, said: “Interserve has been failing at a trading level for some time. Now it seems to be failing at a financial level too. ”

Interserve’s biggest shareholders, according to Thomson Reuters, are Coltrane Asset Management, a New York fund, with 17.5 per cent, Goldman Sachs with 9.1 per cent and Valkendorf, a Danish hedge fund, with 8.2 per cent.

Memories of Carillion debacle still raw.

Behind the story

One big outsourcing company going bust on the government may be regarded as misfortune. Two would look like carelessness. Which, 11 months after the collapse of Carillion, is why the Cabinet Office is on red alert to ensure public services would not be disrupted if Interserve were to fail (Patrick Hosking writes).

The group is a large supplier to the public sector. Seventy per cent of its £3 billion of annual revenues come from government, whether it is cleaning and maintaining 1,100 offices and depots for the Department for Transport or building the Defence National Rehabilitation Centre in Loughborough — a £150 million project to help rehabilitate and care for injured servicemen and women.

It is also a significant supplier to the private sector. It provides the cleaners for Boots stores and the Walgreens Boots head office, as well as providing interior fittings for John Lewis department stores.

But it is its role in creating centres converting waste into energy which is at the heart of the latest concern about the group. These have fallen behind schedule and Interserve, after making a provision of £195 million, is still trying to extricate itself from the disastrous diversification.

That was the brainchild of Adrian Ringrose, the former chief executive, who shareholders blame for much of the group’s troubles. He and two other departing executives received a combined payoff of £1 million last year after presiding over several profit warnings.

His successor, Debbie White, a former executive at Sodexho, the French catering group, who joined in September 2017, is trying to cut costs, simplify the business, reduce the myriad services offered to clients and introduce more discipline in bidding for new work.

But the sliding share price suggests the market is sceptical about her progress. It also explains why, according to one source, civil servants, who are under pressure to make contingency plans after the Carillion debacle, have been quietly asking rival outsourcers if they could take on Interserve’s projects in the unlikely event of its failure.”

Source: The Times (pay wall)

Tory county council failing vulnerable children – task force sent in

“Ministers are to send in a task force to crisis-hit Northamptonshire county council after it emerged hundreds of vulnerable children were being placed at greater risk of harm because of rapidly deteriorating frontline child protection services..

The move follows publication of a highly critical letter by Ofsted inspectors revealing that children referred to council social services were not effectively supported or protected, with 267 young people waiting up to four months to be assessed and allocated a social worker.

The watchdog said political and financial turbulence at the Tory-controlled council, which declared itself effectively bankrupt earlier this year, had contributed to safeguarding services being in a position where they could not effectively meet the needs of at-risk children.

A joint letter to Northamptonshire by the communities secretary, James Brokenshire, and the education secretary, Damian Hinds, said the government was “minded” to appoint a commissioner in the next few days to stabilise and improve the council’s child protection services.

The ministers were responding to a request by the council’s existing commissioners for help to turn around the service. They wrote to ministers earlier this month saying they had no confidence the children’s services management team was able to deliver adequate safeguarding services.

The commissioner’s letter said: “Despite the production of action plans designed to tackle accepted shortcomings, we have witnessed the failure of the leadership within the service to address the fundamental problems facing it, including its operational stability, performance and finance.”

The council’s children services underwent government intervention between 2013 and 2016 after Ofsted declared them “inadequate”. The government sent in two commissioners to oversee the entire council in May after a separate critical inspection report declared its problems were so entrenched it must be abolished.

The Ofsted letter highlighted poor oversight and management as a key factor in the decline of safeguarding services over the past two years. “Senior leaders are aware of these serious weaknesses and have taken remedial action to respond. However, this has not been effective or with sufficient urgency or rigour,” it said.

Child protection social workers had told inspectors they were “overwhelmed” and “drowning” under the pressure of rising demand, the letter said. Some professionals were juggling caseloads of between 30 and 50 children.

The letter is the latest blow for a council reeling from half a decade of mismanagement and funding cuts that have left it on the verge of collapse. The local authority is currently setting out drastic proposals to cut services back to a bare legal minimum in an attempt to balance the books.

Victoria Perry, Northamptonshire’s cabinet member for children, families and education, said: “We know that our children’s services are not working well and we will put this right. It is clear from the findings from Ofsted that these failures in the system have taken place over the last two years, and we are now completely focused on recovering from these failures.”

Ofsted’s letter, published on Tuesday after inspectors visited child protection services in Northampton last month, said safeguarding services had “significantly declined” since the previous full inspection in 2016.

It highlighted poor leadership, poor decision-making and a failure to identify risk in individual cases referred to the council. “This lack of oversight and poor management leaves children at potential risk of harm,” the watchdog said.

Some cases where children should have received support were closed prematurely, while less serious cases were wrongly escalated to a first-response team, the letter said. “This level of inconsistency regarding the application of thresholds not only means that children do not consistently receive the right service to meet their needs, but it also leads to additional pressure on the service.”

Although the council had reduced the number of unallocated cases from 551 at the beginning of the year, the overall number remained between 200 and 300, the letter said. “Although senior managers had taken action to review these cases either shortly before or during the focused visit, in cases sampled by inspectors there was no evidence of risk being identified, managed or robustly reviewed.”

The council will not be in a strong position to invest heavily to turn around child protection services. It has drained reserves in recent years in order to prop up services and needs to make about £60m of cuts before April to stave off bankruptcy.

The letter will increase the pressure on Northamptonshire’s leader, Matt Golby, who is leading the rescue plan designed to stabilise the council. In August, he promised that no children would be put in danger as a result of the proposed cuts.

Opposition Labour councillors said the county was failing in its legal duty to protect children. “The children of Northampton and Northamptonshire are being placed into positions where the county council is failing to protect them,” said Jane Birch, the deputy leader of the council’s Labour group.

“The priority is saving money rather than protecting those who need it most; I shudder to think what may happen.”


DCC considering recruitment freeze due to massive cost of children’s services

Devon County Council’s considering a recruitment freeze to deal with its £10m overspend on children’s services.

There’s been an increasing number of children who need to be housed in residential and secure units.

For example there are five children who cost more than £400,000 each a year to look after but they need round the clock one-to-one care.

The council’s also responsible for 45 children who cost around £4,000 a week to care for and house.

On top of that, the council’s also funding a rising number of children with disabilities who attend independent special schools and further education colleges.

The council is considering delaying filling vacancies for two months after the post-holder leaves, banning all non-essential overtime and ending attendance at conferences and some allowances.

Plymouth and Torbay are also having to take special measures to deal with the higher than forecast costs of looking after vulnerable children.”