Council behaviour standards falling – says Society of Local Authority Chief Executives

“The risks of standards in local government being breached have increased since 2010 while many of the mitigations that were in place have been weakened or removed, Solace (the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives) has warned.

In its submission to the Committee for Standards in Public Life’s Review of Local Government, Solace said that since 2010 much had changed in local government which it believed was likely to have had a significant impact on the risk of poor ethical standards.

“For example, the financial environment has, over time, raised the stakes of councillors’ decision-making. Pressure on individuals has significantly increased as the consequences of their choices have become stark and more difficult. This pressure leaves individuals more vulnerable to inappropriate influence themselves or subjecting others to that type of behaviour. In a broader political environment which, as the work of the committee has already identified, sees increased intimidation of politicians and the demonization of experts, these risks are only heightened,” the submission said.

Solace also pointed out that local government was now operating in a significantly more complex operating environment.

“Every council has a wide range of strategic partners, commercial contractors and arms-length bodies. The governance picture is incredibly varied with individuals often required to act within different legal structure performing different roles.”

Solace highlighted how the simple client/contractor model of commissioning had been replaced by a multitude of business models operating in different services, to different geographies with different governance arrangements.
“While these innovative approaches are to be welcomed, for example, in the way they have enable additional investment to be unlocked or more system-based approaches to be utilised, this does risk arrangements becoming unclear, less transparent and blurred. Without continuous and consistent advice and counsel, innocent individuals can be left susceptible to crossing the ethical line, while others can take advantage of such ambiguity to operate inappropriately and unseen.”

On the weakening or removal of mitigations, Solace said the most significant change was the abolition of the Standards Board and the national Code of Conduct as part of the Localism Act 2012.

At that time the organisation recommended that its members worked with their elected members “to ensure a robust and proportional local systems were put in place, that the local codes of conduct which underpin each regime are clear, unambiguous and appropriate to local circumstances. Such an approach should ensure any code is practical while able to minimise the risk of external challenge.”

Although it has not conducted detailed research, Solace said a short review suggested that many local codes of conduct stuck tightly to the Nolan Principles but in a way that left little room for further explanation or context setting.

The submission continued: “In addition to a local code of conduct, a clear and transparent local process should be in place to administer complaints relating to the code. During the Localism Bill’s consideration in Parliament, Solace argued that a councillor panel with independent involvements was the most appropriate model for this. While the legislation has removed the requirement for such a body, Solace see no reason to change its view and would recommend a member panel should support the statutory ‘independent person’ in performing their duties.”

Solace also noted that the abolition of the Standards Board was not the only significant change that removed checks and balances relating to local government standards. “The abolition of the Audit Commission and a reduction in the ‘public interest’ activities of local external auditors have also removed an independent mechanism through which standards issues had historically been identified and dealt with.”

It meanwhile argued that the campaign to remove protections for senior officers, remove employment rights and recent senior figures undervaluing professional leadership in council had “eroded individuals’ ability to effectively speak truth to power”.

Solace argued that without adequate protection, senior officers in local authorities were “less likely to feel able to raise issues of governance and hinder openness and transparency within their authority, and that it was an erosion of the balance of local accountability which ensures high standards in local government on behalf of local tax payers”.

It suggested as an example that it was unlikely that successful criminal proceedings for corruption, as in the 2004 Lincolnshire County Council Cllr Speechley case, would have been successful if employment protection had not been afforded to the chief executive or monitoring officer.

The submission claimed that England had been left with a light touch approach to local government standards reliant on local codes, implementation and sanction. “Unlike the rest of the UK, there is an absence of national oversight, an inconsistency of sanction and a weakening of a range of mechanism that might reduce the risks of a decay of standards in other ways.”

However, Solace said it would not like to see a return to the “pernicious and over bureaucratic approach” of a national Standards Board. It did argue, though, that greater independent monitoring was required. “In an environment where evidence is unclear or anecdotal it is too easy to turn the other way and allow important challenges to remain out of sight.”

It argued that that inconsistency between different levels of Government was also unhelpful. “Parliament has done a great deal of work exploring the appropriate sanctions for elected politicians and it would seem appropriate that powers, including the power of recall, within local government mirror those introduced in Westminster.”

Council auditors forced to audit!

Nowhere in this report is the question asked: how come internal and external auditors failed to spot this before it was too late?

“Auditors say that the quality and transparency of financial reporting at Northamptonshire County Council has prevented effective decision making.

In its interim audit report for the 2017–18 financial year, KPMG says that finance reports to the council’s cabinet are a barrier to proper financial governance.

The report follows intense scrutiny of the council’s financial problems which led to the issuing of a section 114 notice earlier in the year followed by the appointment of commissioners by central government to run the council.

KPMG said: “We reviewed the authority’s financial reports submitted to cabinet in 2017–18.

“We note that the reports are unclear and lack details, including in the accompanying appendices.”

In particular, it said, the council reports a forecast outturn variance of nil, despite this being the position after accounting for one-off measures.
This, it said, clouds the authority’s underlying performance.

“The full position can only be ascertained by piecing detailed outturns of individual directorates; even so, the inconsistency in reporting within each individual directorates makes this a very difficult exercise,” the report said.

KPMG said the budget report does not provide members with a clear view of the variances and overspends within each directorate.

“The narrative is often vague and written in dense management speak; the style does not promote clarity of reporting. This style of reporting is consistent across all directorates,” its report concluded.

The auditors criticised the authority for describing slippages in its savings plans as “budget delivery pressures”, language they said was “vague and does not truly reflect the issue”.

The report went on to criticise inconsistencies within budget books submitted by budget holders to the finance business partner teams.

These books, it said, allow the authority to keep track of expenditure and challenge overspends and underspends as necessary.

KPMG said: “In some cases it was clear that variances to the budget have been investigated as the budget books contained comments to support this.

“These variances were reported in the quarterly finance reports. In other cases there was very little detail in the budget books to support large variances, and in some cases these variances were not reported in the quarterly finance reports.” …

What a surprise! “Outsourced public services ‘still not adopting ethical standards’ “

“Little significant progress has been made on reinforcing ethical standards in outsourced public services, a Lords committee has cautioned.

It also suggested a consultation be set up looking at whether the Freedom of Information Act should apply to private sector providers working on public sector contracts, the Lords committee on standards in public life also said in report out yesterday.

Chair Lord Bew noted “very little progress” had been made on implementing the recommendations of the committee’s 2014 report, aimed at enhancing the ethical standards of contractors commissioned by the public sector.

“Disappointingly, very little progress has been made on implementing these recommendations and evidence shows that most service providers need to do more to demonstrate best practice in ethical standards,” Bew said.

He called for services providers to “recognise that the Nolan Principles apply to them, for moral courage among key financial and other professionals in securing and maintaining high ethical standards”.

The Nolan Principles were drawn up in 1995 and are seven ethical standards people in public office are expected to uphold: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.

Bew added: “Some [service providers] remain dismissive of the Nolan Principles or adopt a ‘pick and mix’ approach which is not in the public interest.”

The committee noted one-third of government spending is on external providers and that “the public is clear that they expect common ethical standards”. But some providers were not applying these public sector ethical standards in their work, the Lords concluded.

Bew said the committee called for a “consultation on the extension of the application of the Freedom of Information Act to private sector providers where information relates to the performance of a contract with government for the delivery of public services”.

The committee recommended that service providers should acknowledge the Nolan Principles applied to them.

Bew also said: “The committee remains of the view that more must be done to encourage strong and robust cultures of ethical behaviour in those delivering public services.”

The CSPL report suggested commissioners of services should include a ‘statement of intent’ in addition to contracts to set out the ethical behaviours expected by the government.

In the light of the collapse of Carillion, the committee suggested it is “essential” that ethical standards are reinforced for those delivering services with public money.

The report released yesterday is one in a series being done by the committee on ethical standards of providers of public services.”

“Consult on extending FOI to private sector providers of public services: watchdog”

Owl says: can’t come a moment too soon for EDDC, Ccou table/Integrated Care System companies and our Local Enterprise Partnership!

“The Committee for Standards in Public Life has called for a consultation on whether the Freedom of Information Act should apply to private sector providers where information relates to the performance of a public service contract.

In its latest report, The Continuing Importance of Ethical Standards for Public Service Providers, the CSPL said there had been little real progress on measures to enforce ethical standards in outsourced public services.
It urged the government, service providers and professionals to do more to encourage robust cultures of ethical behaviour in public service delivery.
Lord Bew, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said: “From waste disposal to health care and probation services, all kinds of public services are routinely supplied to many of us by private or voluntary sector organisations, paid for with public funds – accounting for almost one third of government spending in 2017.

“The public is clear that they expect common ethical standards – whoever is delivering the service – and that when things go wrong there is transparency and accountability about what has happened.”

Lord Bew said that, “disappointingly”, very little progress had been made on implementing the recommendations in the CSPL’s 2014 report, Ethical standards for providers of public services. He added that evidence showed that most service providers needed to do more to demonstrate best practice in ethical standards.

“In particular, we remain concerned over the lack of internal governance and leadership on ethical standards in those departments with significant public service contracts. Departmental and management boards spend little, if any, time considering ethical considerations and tend to delegate such issues ‘down the line’. Those involved in commissioning and auditing contracts remain too focused on the quantitative rather than the qualitative aspects of their role. And departments lack clear lines of accountability when contracts fail,” the CSPL’s chair said.

He added: “While many service providers have developed a greater awareness of their ethical obligations in recent years, partly due to the high-profile failure of some organisations to adhere to these standards, some remain dismissive of the Nolan Principles or adopt a ‘pick and mix’ approach, which is not in the public interest. And many service providers continue to expect that setting and enforcing ethical standards remain a matter for government alone.”

Lord Bew said the committee remained of the view that more must be done to encourage strong and robust cultures of ethical behaviour in those delivering public services. “To that end, the Committee reaffirms the recommendations made in its 2014 report and has made a further set of more detailed, follow-up recommendations to address particular issues of concern.”

East Devon Alliance Conference, 26 May 2018 – details and how to book a free place

Blog of Councillor Martin Shaw – East Devon Alliance, Devon County Council:

Time for a Change’ in East Devon

East Devon Alliance holding conference to bring together everyone fighting on health, environment, planning and other issues

Saturday 26th May, 10-1.30, Beehive, Honiton. A must-attend event for everyone who would like to see a change in local politics. If you’d like to come, please book your place via this link (there is no charge). I hope to see you there.

All across East Devon people are worried about their HEALTH, their HOMES and their JOBS. Never has it been more important to involve yourself with local democracy in your district.. YOU CAN MAKE THE DIFFERENCE.

The EAST DEVON ALLIANCE is trying to help with all of this, an umbrella group of Independent people, who since 2015 have won 7 district council seats and 1 county seat. The EDA is free from the negative influence of national parties who – at East Devon District Council – have acquired the arrogant habits of a Conservative one-party state.

This conference is for YOU. Speakers will include County Councillors CLAIRE WRIGHT and MARTIN SHAW, and PAM BARRETT, Chair of the Independent Buckfastleigh Town Council and regional expert on transforming democracy from the bottom up.

In two sessions you will be able to hear our experience and then CONTRIBUTE your own personal views:

a) how did the democratic deficit in East Devon happen? Or – the problem.

b) what can we do about it through democracy in our parishes, towns and district. Or – the solution.

Please come. We are all volunteers but if we band together now to fight for hospitals, homes and jobs we have a chance to change how our local area is run.

Parking: nearest is Lace Walk. 2 minute walk. If full, New Street, 5 mins.”

‘Time for a Change’ in East Devon – @EDevonAlliance holding conference to bring together everyone fighting on health, environment, planning and other issues

THIS is how you hold a CCG to account!

“The NHS will face calls from leading county councillors to publish a comprehensive plan for public consultation on its controversial proposals for a major shakeup of health services in Lincolnshire.

Concerns have been raised by the county council over the lack of progress on the Lincolnshire Sustainability and Transformation Plan since an initial draft was first published in December 2016.

At the time, the plans outlined a required £205 million investment to improve the facilities at Lincoln County Hospital, Boston Pilgrim Hospital and Grantham Hospital.

The proposals revealed that Grantham A&E could be downgraded to an urgent care centre and maternity services centralised to Lincoln.

Over 500 jobs are also set to be lost by 2021 under the plans.

Lincolnshire County Council unanimously voted against the STP at a Full Council meeting in December 2016, just over one week after the report was first leaked to the press.

County council leader Martin Hill wrote to NHS chiefs in March 2017 adding his criticisms, claiming that “making things better for most people, at the detriment of others, is not good enough”.

Since then, the county council said that there have been delays in publication of the STP plan, with further concerns raised about the lack of answers to the financial struggles of the NHS in Lincolnshire as well as fears about the changes themselves.

United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust, which covers the three main hospitals in the county, was put in special measures by the Care Quality Commission for performance failures and in financial special measures by NHS Improvement in 2017.

Even this month, ULHT has forecast an end of year deficit of £82.4 million, £5 million more than its deficit control target agreed with NHS Improvement.

In addition to asking the NHS to publish a plan for public consultation “without delay”, Lincolnshire County Council will also call for a review of governance arrangements for the STP to provide clarity over decision-making, accountability, democratic engagement and oversight of the process.

Glen Garrod, Executive Director of Adult Care and Community Wellbeing at Lincolnshire County Council, said in a report to councillors: “The county council has a long and successful track record of working with NHS partners in Lincolnshire. More recently and with the development of the STP programme the nature of the relationship has changed and, given the quality, performance and financial imperatives facing NHS services in Lincolnshire, more profiled.

“Disappointingly little progress has been made to address underlying budget deficits, performance continues to be poor at ULHT and successive inspections by the Care Quality Commission have reported on serious quality issues.

“This has been the picture for a number of years with little sign that ‘the tide has turned’ and these critical issues are getting better.

“Change is likely, indeed necessary and improvements critical if Lincolnshire residents are to receive NHS services that they deserve.”

In response, John Turner, Senior Responsible Officer for the Lincolnshire STP said that Lincolnshire County Council is a key partner for the NHS in the county but refused to be drawn on when it would publish its plans for public consultation.

He said: “We are fully committed to working together with Lincolnshire County Council in the best interests of patients and the people of Lincolnshire. The level of our integrated services between the NHS and Lincolnshire County Council already compares well nationally.

“There is much to be proud of in our local NHS, with our dedicated staff and partners working to provide the best care for our patients. At the same time, it is widely recognised that health and care services in Lincolnshire are very challenged – we struggle to provide consistent care and meet all quality standards, to recruit clinical staff in key areas, and we are currently overspending by £100 million a year.

“In recent months the STP has reported progress in areas such as mental health, GP services, integrated community services and operational efficiencies and improvements have been delivered for patients.

“In addition, the STP is also undertaking an acute services review which is examining what would be the future configuration of acute hospital services for the population of Lincolnshire.

“We look forward to discussing this openly across the county in due course.”

Councillors on the council’s Executive will consider the next steps to take at a meeting in Lincoln on Tuesday, May 1.”