“Spending watchdog urges ministry to address weaknesses in local authority governance”

“The National Audit Office has sounded the alarm about local authority governance and audit for the second time in a week.

In its latest report, Local Authority Governance, the spending watchdog said the government should improve its oversight of the local governance system in the face of increasing financial pressures on councils.

It said councils’ responses to these pressures had “tested local governance arrangements”, as some had pursued large-scale transformations or potentially risky commercial investments that added complexity to governance arrangements.

But spending to support governance fell by 34% in real terms between 2010-11 and 2017-18.

The NAO said external auditors issued qualified conclusions for around 20% of unitary and county councils, and “several authorities did not take appropriate steps to address these issues”.

A NAO survey of auditors found 27% did not agree that their authority’s audit committees provided sufficient assurance about governance arrangements.

Some councils had questioned the contribution of external audit to providing assurance on their governance arrangements, with 51% of chief finance officers wanting to see changes, including a greater focus on the value for money element of the audit.

The NAO said the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) did not systematically collect data on governance, and so it could not assess whether issues that arose were isolated incidents or symptomatic of failings in aspects of the system.

Ministry intervention at councils was not always made public “meaning its scale and effectiveness is not open to scrutiny or challenge”, the watchdog said.

The report’s recommendations include that the MHCLG should work with local authorities and stakeholders to assess the implications of, and possible responses to, the various governance issues it had Identified.

This would include examining the status of section 151 officers and the efficacy of their statutory reporting arrangements, the effectiveness of audit committees, the effectiveness of overview and scrutiny functions, and the sustainability and future role of internal audit. …”

http://www.localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/index.php

“‘Secret’ £75m Brexit contracts [to management consultants] facing investigation”

“The government has quietly awarded £75m of Brexit-related contracts to some of the world’s biggest consultancy firms, Sky News can reveal.

The deals, uncovered today for the first time, were never publicly announced.

They were given to nine high-profile international companies, including familiar names such as Deloitte, Accenture and PwC.

Each company received a contract worth between £5m and £10m.

Three of the contracts – together worth £25m – went to the American firms Bain, McKinsey and Boston Consulting.

All nine agreements are described as contracts for “the supply of Cabinet Office consultancy support for EU Exit”.

Each is due to run until 30 April 2019, but with the option for them to be renewed for a further year at the same cost.

Details of the plans were placed on an unobtrusive part of the government website just before Christmas, eight months after they had come into action.

But despite each including contracts running to more than 200 pages, crucial facts were removed – such as who in the government signed off the agreements and what work was actually involved.

In addition, the contracts were awarded under a framework titled “Health and Community” – but are, in fact, entirely focused upon preparations for Brexit.

That process, which restricted selection to companies which had already passed a “vetting process” all but ended the chance of smaller, Brexit-specific consultancies winning any of these contracts.

The chair of the public affairs committee, Meg Hillier, condemned the secrecy and delay as “ridiculous” and said the contracts would now be referred for investigation by the National Audit Office. …..

…. Joe Owen, association director of the Institute of Government, is researching Whitehall preparations for Brexit. He told me that “febrile politics” had changed the way in which information is being shared.

He said: “We’ve not had a huge amount of transparency with regards to much on Brexit over the last few years, particularly not the kind of preparations that are going on for no deal.

“There’s definitely been an increase in secrecy more generally across the civil service as a result of Brexit, just because of how politically difficult it’s been for many reasons.

“There are the divisions inside the country, the government, parliament, the cabinet and that’s kind of fed into this level of secrecy.”

Sky News has contacted all the companies involved. So far six have replied – all saying they could not comment on matters involving clients.

These are the details of the nine contracts, each for consultancy support:

:: The Boston Consulting Group – £10m

:: Bain & Company Inc. United Kingdom – £10m

:: McKinsey and Company, Inc. United Kingdom – £5m

:: Accenture (UK) Limited – £5m

:: Deloitte LLP – £10m

:: Ernst & Young LLP – £10m

:: Mott Macdonald Limited – £5m

:: PA Consulting Services Limited – £10m

:: Pricewaterhousecoopers LLP – £10m”

https://news.sky.com/story/secret-75m-brexit-contracts-facing-investigation-11603001

BREAKING NEWS: Seaton Mayor Peter Burrows resigns after “bringing the office into disrepute”

The audio file below is taken from tonight’s Seaton Town Council meeting where Mayor Peter Burrows resigns after saying he brought the office into disrepute with an “offensive” remark (since deleted) where he criticised a local (un-named) business using his official title.

Seaton Town Council had advertised this as a public meeting and as such “it could be filmed or recorded by broadcasters, the media or members of the public” and the statement is therefore legitimately in the public domain:

Will we ever be sure how some Tory MPs voted on May?

Take, say, Hugo Swire. He has not said how he would vote. Say Mrs May wins – he can say he voted for her but could have voted against her as the ballot is secret.

Or, if she loses he can say he voted against her to be in with a chance with a new Leader.

Although Parish says he voted for her, he can’t prove that either – he might have secretly voted against her!

Doesn’t matter what those declared and undeclared voters voted for – it can never be proved.

Transparent? Of course not!

Effective scrutiny essential when councils fail – as they will do more often in future

“There needs to be a “thorough rethink” about how to approach failure in local government, think-tanks have warned.

Methods of addressing failure in local government are “no longer fit for purpose” according to a briefing paper published on 10 December by the Centre for Public Scrutiny and Localis.

They identified four main types of failure including: a failure of culture, a failure of service, a failure of function and a failure of duty.

CfPS and Localis said councils experiencing these types of failure often become less outward looking, more introspective and more defensive. The warning was timely, they said, because of the recent high-profile failures at Northamptonshire County Council, and increasing pressures on the sector more widely.

Jacqui McKinlay, chief executive of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, said: “Our recent experience of working with local authorities shows that it is time for a thorough rethink about local government failure.

“Failure in local government is not something that is going to go away – in fact, a range of looming pressures mean that the problem is likely to become more prevalent in the years ahead.”

McKinlay urged local government needs to prepare for increasing instances of failure in the years ahead.

She added: “We are clear that improved scrutiny processes at the local level will be crucial in this effort.” …”

https://www.publicfinance.co.uk/news/2018/12/call-rethink-councils-approach-failure

Fake news on Labour Party being manufactured by secretive group in Scotland funded by Foreign Office

Owl says: the UK becoming more like Russia every day!

“Secret Scottish-based office led infowars attack on Labour and Jeremy Corbyn.

Explosive leaked documents passed to the Sunday Mail reveal the organisation’s Integrity Initiative is funded with £2million of Foreign Office cash and run by military intelligence specialists.

A secret UK Government-funded infowars unit based in Scotland sent out social media posts attacking Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party.

On the surface, the cryptically named Institute for Statecraft is a small charity operating from an old Victorian mill in Fife. But explosive leaked documents passed to the Sunday Mail reveal the organisation’s Integrity Initiative is funded with £2million of Foreign Office cash and run by military intelligence specialists.

The “think tank” is supposed to counter Russian online propaganda by forming “clusters” of friendly journalists and “key influencers” throughout Europe who use social media to hit back against disinformation. But our investigation has found worrying evidence the shadowy programme’s official Twitter account has been used to attack Corbyn, the Labour Party and their officials.

One tweet quotes a newspaper article calling Corbyn a “useful idiot”, that goes on to state: “His open visceral anti-Westernism helped the Kremlin cause, as surely as if he had been secretly peddling Westminster tittle-tattle for money.”

A message from the UK Government-funded organisation promotes an article that states: “Unlike Galloway (former MP George Galloway) Corbyn does not scream conspiracy, he implies it,” while another added: “It’s time for the Corbyn left to confront its Putin problem.”

A further message refers to an “alleged British Corbyn supporter” who “wants to vote for Putin”.

It is not just the Labour leader who has been on the receiving end of online attacks. His strategy and communications director Seumas Milne was also targeted.

The Integrity Initiative, whose base at Gateside Mill is near Auchtermuchty, retweeted a newspaper report that said: “Milne is not a spy – that would be beneath him. “But what he has done, wittingly or unwittingly, is work with the Kremlin agenda.”

Another retweet promoted a journalist who said: “Just as he supports the Russian bombardment of Syria, Seumas Milne supported the Russian slaughter of Afghanistan, which resulted in more than a million deaths.”

The Integrity Initiative has been accused of supporting Ukrainian politicians who oppose Putin – even when they also have suspected far-right links.

Further leaked documents appear to show a Twitter campaign that resulted in a Spanish politician believed to be friendly to the Kremlin being denied a job. The organisation’s “Spanish cluster” swung into action on hearing that Pedro Banos was to be appointed director of the national security department.

The papers detail how the Integrity Initiative alerted “key influencers” around Europe who launched an online campaign against the politician.

In the wake of the leaks, which also detail Government grant applications, the Foreign Office have been forced to confirm they provided massive funding to the Integrity Initiative.

In response to a parliamentary question, Europe Minister Alan Duncan said: “In financial year 2017-18, the FCO funded the Institute for Statecraft’s Integrity Initiative £296,500. “This financial year, the FCO are funding a further £1,961,000. Both have been funded through grant agreements.”

Politicians and academics have reacted with fury to news a covert Government-funded unit had been attacking the official opposition in Parliament.

Labour MSP Neil Findlay said: “It would appear that we have a charity registered in Scotland and overseen by the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator that is funded by the UK Government and is spewing out political attacks on UK politicians, the Labour Party and the Labour movement. “Such clear political attacks and propaganda shouldn’t be coming from any charity. We need to know why the Foreign Office have been funding it.”

David Miller, a professor of political sociology in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol, added: “It’s extraordinary that the Foreign Office would be funding a Scottish charity to counter Russian propaganda which ends up attacking Her Majesty’s opposition and soft-pedalling far-right politicians in the Ukraine.

“People have a right to know how the Government are spending their money, and the views being promoted in their name.”

Source: Scottish Daily Record

“New homes ‘crumbling due to weak mortar’ : affected householders gagged about repairs

“Hundreds of new properties have been built using weak mortar that does not meet recommended industry standards, the Victoria Derbyshire show has found.

There are reports of homes with the fault on at least 13 estates in the UK.
The full extent of the industry-wide problem is hard to measure as some homeowners have been asked to sign gagging orders to claim compensation.

The industry says mortar performance is a complex issue and can be affected by a number of factors.

One of those homes was owned by Vincent Fascione, 70. He says he was watching football on TV one evening in 2016 when he heard a loud cracking noise from the external walls of his house.

The next morning, he found a sand-like substance all over his front path and driveway. Photographs and video from the time appear to show growing cracks in the mortar holding his bricks together.

Mr Fascione, from Coatbridge outside Glasgow, bought his semi-detached property in 2012 for £112,500.

He complained to the homebuilder, Taylor Wimpey, and to the NHBC, the industry body that signs off and provides the warranty for most new-build houses.

‘Disastrous’

Under NHBC guidelines, mortar in most areas of the UK should be made of one part cement to 5.5 parts sand.

In severe weather areas such as Coatbridge, there should be even more cement in the mix to make it stronger and more durable.

Laboratory tests on samples taken from parts of Mr Fascione’s home showed the amount of sand was almost three times higher than recommended.

“I’m the guy who retired and decided to buy a new-build house,” he said. “I’ll never buy a new-build house again – never. It’s just been disastrous for me.”

After 18 months of complaints, the NHBC bought back Mr Fascione’s home at the market rate and he is living in alternative accommodation.

The organisation said it had done so because the performance of the company it had employed to repair the property had not been good enough and “in consideration of Mr Fascione’s personal circumstances”, not because of the original issue with the mortar.

‘Widespread and serious’

The Victoria Derbyshire Programme has heard about new build properties in at least 13 estates from Scotland to Sussex, built by different companies, with what appears to be a similar problem.

In one single estate in the Scottish borders, it is thought Taylor Wimpey has agreed to replace the mortar in more than 90 separate properties. The homebuilder says an assessment by engineers found “no structural issues” with the homes.

“This is both widespread and serious,” says Phil Waller, a retired construction manager who has blogged about the problem.

“It cannot be explained away by the industry as a few isolated cases.”

Exactly why the weaker building material may have been used is unclear.
In some cases, the housebuilder may have simply used the wrong type of mortar. In other cases, errors may have been made mixing and laying the material on site.

Some construction experts also blame the switch to a new type of factory-mixed mortar, which might pass a different strength test in the laboratory but not always be strong enough in the real world.

Non-disclosure agreements

Faced with what could be an expensive repair bill, many homeowners have been told by their own solicitors not to go public until the issue is resolved.
In some cases, customers have ultimately had their houses bought back by either the homebuilder or the NHBC.

In others, it appears repairs have been made and compensation paid as part of a deal that involves the signing of a non-disclosure agreement or gagging clause.

One homeowner in the north-west of England told the programme: “The only comment I can make is no comment. I’d like to speak out but at the end of the day I have to protect my investment.”

A gagging clause may stop the property owner talking not only to the media but also to neighbours in the estate who may be facing similar problems.

“It’s going on, it’s just not being talked about,” says Mr Waller.
“Non-disclosure agreements should be banned full stop. If it’s all covered up, more victims are likely to be drawn into the net and make the same mistakes.”

An NHBC spokesman said it included a confidentiality clause in a “small number of rare circumstances” but declined to disclose the number.
He added: “We work with builders to help them improve the construction quality of the homes they build. However, it is the builder who is ultimately responsible for the quality of the new homes they build.”
Taylor Wimpey apologised to Mr Fascione for the issues experienced with his home.

A spokesman said: “We are committed to delivering excellent quality homes and achieving high levels of customer satisfaction. On those occasions where issues do arise, we endeavour to resolve those issues as soon as practically possible.”

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-46454844