Outgoing audit chief tells government some home truths

“I still get angry – and that is the word for it, angry – 10 years into the role, when I see badly-thought-through programmes and wasted public money,” says outgoing watchdog chief Sir Amyas Morse. “And the reason I’m angry is because the citizen ends up picking up the tab. They are the ones who end up suffering.”

For almost a decade, as comptroller and auditor general – the head of the National Audit Office – it’s been Morse’s statutory duty to keep an eagle eye on the spending of central government departments, holding ministers and civil servants to account for cost overruns, project mismanagement and profligacy with taxpayers’ money.

He doesn’t have far to look. As he prepares to leave his post in May, Morse’s final public speech at the Institute for Government last week included a damning list of failures: Crossrail costing £2.8bn more than forecast; changes to probation costing £467m to put right; the smart meters fiasco that will cost at least £500m more than originally estimated; and the Ministry of Defence’s latest unaffordable and unsustainable 10-year equipment plan going over budget by at least £7bn. And that’s just a selection from the past few months.

Morse looks back in anger at the billions that could have been spent on vital services, wasted instead through what he calls “inappropriate bravado” on the part of government ministers, lording it over cowed civil servants, behind an increasing amount of secrecy and spin. “We don’t need people jumping out of an aeroplane in the dark with a parachute of taxpayers’ money,” he says.

A proud Scot – his only meeting with Theresa May was a “brief conversation” at a No 10 Burns Night last year – Morse cares passionately about public services. While his upbringing has contributed to his concern for fairness, it’s his decade at the watchdog, to which he came from a senior position in consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers via the MoD, that has fuelled his rage over the wasteful ways of too many government ministers. “I really realised that society belongs to us. We’re all paying for it.”

Public money is finite, he points out. There is no magic money tree. When money is lost in one place, it’s taken away from another programme, usually one that’s easier to cut. Every wasted £1bn, he says, is enough to run NHS England for three days, fund 625m A&E attendances, 135m day cases in hospital, or 4m ambulance attendances.

Morse has warned the government that it needs to invest more in the NHS and social care, to meet the needs of an ageing population. In 2016-17, the UK spent just over £170bn on health and social care – more than 10% of GDP, but less than the 11.2% of GDP Germany spent in 2015 on health alone. …”

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/mar/20/amyas-morse-head-national-audit-office-ministers-waste-taxpayers-billions

No anti-corruption move on property ownership since promised in 2016

“More than £100bn of property in England and Wales is secretly owned, new analysis suggests. More than 87,000 properties are owned by anonymous companies registered in tax havens, research by the transparency group Global Witness reveals.

The analysis reveals that 40% of the properties are in London. Cadogan Square in Knightsbridge, where the average property costs £3m, hosts at least 134 secretly owned properties. Buckingham Palace Road is also home to a large number, with a combined estimated value of £350m.

The revelation comes as parliament’s joint select committee on the draft registration of overseas entities bill meets on Monday to hear evidence on the impact of property ownership by anonymous companies.

The government committed to introduce a register of UK property owners at its anti-corruption summit in 2016, but since then progress has been slow.

“It’s increasingly clear that UK property is one of the favourite tools of the criminal and corrupt for stashing and laundering stolen cash,” said Ava Lee, senior anti-corruption campaigner at Global Witness.

“This analysis reveals the alarming scale of the UK’s secret property scandal.”

The combined value of the properties was at least £56bn, according to historical Land Registry data at the time of their acquisition. Once inflation is factored in this would exceed £100bn.

Some 10,000 of the properties are in Westminster, while almost 6,000 are in Kensington and Chelsea. Camden is home to more than 2,300 of the anonymously owned properties while almost 2,000 are in Tower Hamlets.

Global Witness says its investigations have shown how criminals and corrupt politicians use the UK property market to hide or clean dirty cash, and to secure safe havens for themselves and their families.

In 2015 it revealed how the mystery owner of a £147m London property empire owned via a network of offshore companies could be linked to a former Kazakh secret police chief accused of murder, torture and money-laundering.”

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/mar/17/100-billion-of-uk-propert-secretly-owned-anonymous-firms-tax-havens

“Public Accounts Committee calls for ‘step change’ in transparency in local public bodies”

“There is a need for a step change in transparency by local public bodies and particularly those in the NHS, MPs have said.

In a report, Auditing local government, the Public Accounts Committee noted that in 2017-18, auditors found that more than 1 in 5 local public bodies did not have proper arrangements in place to secure value for money for taxpayers.

“The numbers are worst for local NHS bodies such as clinical commissioning groups and hospital trusts, where 38% did not have proper arrangements,” it said.

The MPs added that some local bodies were not putting enough information in the public domain about their performance, including reports from their external auditors.

The report called on central government departments to make clear their expectations, “not only for what is made publicly available, but also for making the information accessible to users and so helping citizens to hold local bodies to account”.

The PAC said there appeared to be few consequences for those local bodies who did not take auditors’ concerns seriously and address them promptly. “Even where local auditors use their additional reporting powers to highlight failings, this does not always lead to the bodies taking immediate action.”

The report also recorded the MPs’ concern that, as partnership working becomes more complex, accountability arrangements will be weakened, and the performance of individual local bodies will become less transparent.

Meg Hillier MP, chair of the committee, said: “Taxpayers must be assured that their money is well-spent but in too many cases local bodies cannot properly safeguard value. Particularly concerning are NHS bodies such as Clinical Commissioning Groups and hospital trusts: last year almost two in five did not have adequate arrangements.

“As we reported last week, many CCGs are underperforming and this must improve as they take on responsibility for commissioning services across larger populations.”

Hillier added: “It is vital that local bodies take auditors’ concerns seriously, address them swiftly and ensure meaningful information on performance is made accessible to the public.

“Our report sets out ways central government can help to drive improvements at local level and we urge it to respond positively to our recommendations.” …”

https://www.localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/governance/396-governance-news/40088-public-accounts-committee-calls-for-step-change-in-transparency-in-local-public-bodies

Knowlegate “Flog it” – some “answers”

Response to Freedom of Information request”

“Thank you for your request for information. Please find the response to your query below.

“Recently an email from a Conservative councillor was released into the public domain regarding the purchase of a “very large table in the members room” as a result of “an auction of council furniture, chattels, etc” to the benefit of members and EDDC staff. The email went on to state “I have been told that I have been successful in my bid so the table along with the 8′ extension is heading back to Exmouth to sit in (address of councillor), Exmouth in its rightful town (some may say)” and then stated arrangements for its removal date in order that it could be used for the Councillor’s Christmas dinner for 22 family members. Subsequently on 21st December 2018, the Leader of the Council made a statement about the disposal of a range of items, including this table. He said the large table “attracted little professional interest with one valuer estimate of just £50”. I would like to know:

1. If one valuer’s estimate was £50, what were the other estimates?
Other valuers viewed but were not interested in estimating for the table due to its low value

2. What are the names of the valuers who gave estimates for the table?
The other agents who attended to provide estimates were;
Potburys
Whittons
Lyme Bay
MST

3. Does EDDC audit not require a range and record of estimates for the disposal of council assets, as well as a record of disposals?
It is not clear what specific information is being requested here. Bids and disposal receipts will be recorded.

4. EDDC, like other councils, should have a written policy and procedure for the disposal of assets such as used equipment, furniture and other plant, What is that policy and procedure?
There is a link below to the ‘Property Matters’ section of the Council Constitution which is on our website, specifically items 15 & 16;

15. Authority (after consultation with the relevant Portfolio Holder) to dispose of property assets which have a market value which does not exceed £30,000.
16. Sale of vehicles, equipment or machinery surplus to the Council’s needs where the consideration does not exceed £30,000.

http://eastdevon.gov.uk/media/2537547/cj…

5. Who was the Councillor that successfully bid for “the very large table in the members room”?
This information is exempt from disclosure under s40 of the Freedom of Information Act as being personal data.

6. How much did the Councillor pay?
The bid was £400

7. Was the ornate clock on the mantel piece (as shown on the cover of the Residents Magazine, December 2018) part of this disposal process?
The clock in question originally belonged to Honiton Rural District Council and has been offered to Honiton Town Council.
If so, what was the valuation given? ? See above
What price was paid? ? See above
Who bought this clock? ? See above

8. How much money was raised from this sale of “items of sentimental interest or practical use”?
The items have not been sold yet so no information is currently held. We anticipate that a figure in the order of £2,000 will be raised which will be ring-fenced in the Civic Fund.

9. What are the “other sales” Councillor Thomas refers to?
The vast majority of items are office furniture (desks, chairs, cabinets). Items will be disposed of in a number of ways. These include via public auction, items given to local groups, town and parish councils in return for donations and income from bulk clearance.

10. How much money was raised from each of these “other sales”?
No information held

11. What is the total now of the Chairman’s Civic Fund?
The Civic Fund is a budget and therefore there is no ‘total’ fund as such. The ring-fenced fund is currently £0 as the items have not been made available for collection / payment.

12. Information about the Chairman’s Civic Fund is not easily accessible on the EDDC website; a word search on the site produces “no result”. Where can details of this fund and its administration be found?
Civic Fund and Civic Expenses are agreed as part of the Council’s annual budget: this is identified in the Councils approved Budget book for 2018/19:
http://eastdevon.gov.uk/media/2413383/re…
The relevant items can be found on page 7 and page 24.

I hope this information is helpful but, if you feel dissatisfied with the way we have responded to your request, please contact our Monitoring Officer, Mr Henry Gordon Lennox, to request an internal review [email address]

You may also approach the Information Commissioner for advice at http://www.ico.org.uk

https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/auction_of_council_furniture_cha#incoming-1300789

Has the Grenadier contract been signed or is Councillor Stott confused?

According to Cllr Stott who has now stopped any more comments being made on her post on the Exmouth Community page the Grenadier EDDC agreement has already been signed although she appeared to correct herself as the post went on:

Pauline Stott to Deborah Russell
Yes was signed this week

Deborah Russell to Pauline Stott
This is interesting to know because according to Devon Live an agreement has not yet been signed. Please advise where you have your information from?

Pauline Stott
We were told at the Cabinet meeting that it would be sign (sic) this week

Deborah Russell to Pauline Stott
Great news when do we get to see a copy of it?

Pauline Stott Of what?

Deborah Russell to Cllr Pauline Stott
the agreement.

Pauline Stott
What for do you ask (sic) to see all agreements the Council make

Deborah Russell
So that in an open and transparent democracy everyone is privy to how and why this community asset was gifted.

Pauline Stott You can ask the Council under freedom of information

Deborah Russell Pauline Stott Will do and thank you.

Clinton Devon Estates: Director with too many fingers in too many public body pies?

Owl has been pondering the potential for conflicts of interest between some of Clinton Devon Estates’ (CDEs’) more environmentally sensitive development plans and the activities of its Estates Director, John Varley.

On the CDE website, at the time of going to press, Estates’ Director, John Varley is described as follows:

“John’s current non-executive positions include Board Member of the Environment Agency (EA) and Natural England (NE).”

Clearly he is a very influential man.

Owl remembers him being appointed to the Environment Agency Board in 2012 (£21,002 per annum). [This coincided with CDE’s their first planning to extend their cow sheds in the Otter flood plain at the bottom of Colaton Raleigh – something we will return to]. Owl finds John is still on EA’s Board.

But he seems to be a bit confused about his role with Natural England. Owl doesn’t see his name listed as a current Natural England Board member. So Owl has had to call in the Ferrets.

They report that John Varley, whilst on the Environment Agency Board, was also welcomed onto board of Natural England on 29 April 2015 (remuneration £10K-£15K). They also have discovered that he was reported as being “sad to depart before the end of his term” at the meeting of 22 March 2017.

They also note that he has popped up again as chair of the review which will consider all aspects of Network Rail’s approach to vegetation management 12 July 2018.

There is no suggestion whatsoever that John Varley has ever failed to declare an interest. Indeed, the Ferrets find that, quite properly, he had to leave the room during discussion of the agenda item on the reintroduction of beavers on the River Otter at the Natural England Board in September 2015.

What worries Owl is the conflicts, real or imagined, this might pose to the local staff of the Environment Agency and Natural England as they comment on CDE planning applications “without fear or favour”. Owl is also concerned about how it looks in the daylight.

In the old fashioned world Owl was brought up in any potential conflict would have been avoided. Those in a position to wield influence would do the “honourable” thing of either resigning or at least ensuring any applications they could be associated with were made in exemplary fashion.

Owl is not convinced that CDE’s recent planning applications could be described in this way. For example, consider the controversial 2012 applications to extend the cow sheds at Otter Farm, Church Road, Colaton Raleigh (application 12/0400 superseded by 12/2660).

One aspect of the controversy concerns whether or not either of these applications should have had a flood risk assessment. The fact is that Otter Farm is in flood zone 3, but it was claimed that the adjacent cow shed site, literally only yards away, would only lie in Zone 1 (1 in a 1,000 years risk). This was confirmed by EA on 6 February 2013:

“We have had a look at this one and feel, due to the nature of the development that a Flood risk Assessment would not be necessary. Of course we would still expect the applicant to demonstrate a commitment to SUDs in the design of their surface management for the site.”
[SUD – Sustainable drainage system]

However, this was queried by many on the basis of local knowledge including the Parish council, which, in February 2013, asked “for a better assessment in view of recent flooding incidents in the area”. The details were spelled out rather more graphically by one resident who expressed concern that “recently slurry was allowed to escape into the river (Otter) and into Railway Cottages”.

EA wrote again later in February: “Regarding the above, we have been advised that the site is over 1ha, if the new access road is included. If this is the case we are happy to review the application if accompanied by a Flood Risk Assessment”.

Eventually a detailed Environmental Management and Waste Management plan was submitted in April along with a Sustainable Drainage System Design of 66 pages. In May the Environment Agency recorded its thanks to: “you and your colleagues for meeting on site with [ ] to consider measures that could reduce flooding risks for the nearby Railway Cottage.”

Owl now flies forward to a more recent, even more controversial, case that of CDE’s application 17/3022 to extend the Blackhill Engineering works on Woodbury Common, submitted in December 2017.

It is clear from NE’s first comments that the Visual and Environmental Impact Assessments accompanying the application were still not up to scratch. NE’s comments 6 February 2018 read: “As it stands, we have significant concerns regarding the potential impacts of these proposals. We will provide more detailed advice once we have reviewed the additional information.”

Planning troubles in Torbay ….

“Interesting news from Torbay – a private investigator has been hired to look into the planning decisions of Torbay Council. A fat file of evidence has been passed to the investigator based on dozens of interviews of local residents, existing and former council employees.

The investigator who has taken charge is a journalist with twenty plus years of experience with national newspapers, including the Daily Mail. She has a passion for local history and has thwarted numerous campaigns in the past relating to listed buildings and parks. Her connections across Westminster and the media are extensive.

The plan – sponsored by local residents and not by any particular organisation or body – is to publish all the evidence that is collected in a safe place online. Mainstream media outlets are already interested in documentary production and stories emanating from this body of evidence. The investigation is not solely directed against Torbay Council, as other entities have been found wanting, notably the local press.

An email address to send evidence to the investigator has been published. It is thetorbayinvestigation@gmail.com If you have information that you think might help them then please feel free to email it across to them.

So far £900 has been raised privately to help pay for the investigator who has travelled down to Torbay from London. A GoFundMe campaign was launched yesterday and can be accessed at the following URL:

https://www.gofundme.com/torbay-investigation

An independent investigation by this respected and renowned investigator and journalist must surely be welcomed.”

The Torbay Investigation