Archive | October, 2013

A question of priorities

15 Oct

This year’s exam paper for prospective Labour party candidates in Newham has come light. Here is one of the questions:

You have a choice about where to spend council taxpayers’ money. Do you:

  1. Invest £40 million in the already publicly-owned Olympic stadium so that the multi-millionaire owners of West Ham United can move their football club, which competes in the world’s richest league, into swanky new premises; or
  2. Spend £41,000 to support an innovative hostel for single mothers that provides tailored help as well as shelter to homeless young women in the borough?

Candidates who answered (1), congratulations! You clearly understand the Mayor’s priorities. Your prize is a place on the ballot in next year’s elections and a tidy £10,800 a year in allowances.

If you answered (2), please leave your party membership card at the door on your way out. Newham Labour is no place for the likes of you.

The Brighton College Mystery – part 2

10 Oct

Following up my post last month about the curious business of Sir Robin wrongly declaring himself to be a governor of one of England’s most expensive independent schools, I asked Newham for an explanation.

That request got passed to Information Governance. They asked me to confirm if I wanted to file an FOI request and to state what information I wanted. My reply was to the effect “Are you serious? Wouldn’t it be easier to just send me an explanation?” They ignored that, so I filed an FOI. That prompted an extraordinarily rapid response. The following day I got this:

We can confirm that Sir Robin Wales was approached to become a member of the Board of Governors of the London Academy of Excellence in October 2011. Although he accepted this appointment in November 2011 he stepped down shortly after – in April 2012 – due to diary pressures.

The invitation to join the London Academy of Excellence Board of Governors was received on Brighton College letterhead. Unfortunately, officers incorrectly recorded on the Council’s Register of Members Interests and subsequent Mayoral Proceedings minutes as “Board of Governors at Brighton College”.

Sir Robin Wales has never been invited to join the Board of Brighton College.

So some hapless junior clerk was at fault, not the Great Man himself.

Perhaps understandable for the register of interests, but in the minutes of a meeting? You’d have to be especially cloth-eared to record the Mayor saying “I’m a governor of the London Academy of Excellence” as “I’m a governor of Brighton College” when the agenda item under discussion is about the London Academy of Excellence. And shouldn’t the Mayor at least check the minutes of Mayoral Proceedings? If he had done so he would instantly have spotted the error.

I looked up the annual report and accounts for the London Academy of Excellence for the period 23 May 2011 to 31 August 2012, which covers the time Sir Robin now says he was on their governing body.

On page 4, under ‘Constitution’ it says, “Details of the governors who served throughout the period except as noted are included in the Reference and Administrative Details on page 3.” (my emphasis added)

The list of governors on page 3 does not include Sir Robin Wales.

I contacted the London Academy of Excellence directly and yesterday they very kindly responded:

We invited Sir Robin to join the Board of Governors in mid-Oct 2011. He replied on 20 Dec 2011, saying that he could not take part in the interviews on 13 Jan 2012 but that he would be happy to be a governor. He formally resigned from the governing body prior to the meeting on 27 Sept 2012.

Although the dates don’t quite tie up with the entries in the Mayor’s register of interests or with the statement the Information Governance team provided, it seems that Sir Robin was a governor, albeit briefly, of the London Academy of Excellence. The omission of Sir Robin’s name from the school’s annual report must simply be an unfortunate oversight which the school needs to correct.

But even if this whole Brighton College nonsense turns out to be a cock-up rather than a conspiracy we should be no less concerned. This shows a very casual attitude to record-keeping and accountability by Sir Robin and those working closely with him. The register of interests is a significant public document: it’s how we can tell if our elected representatives are looking after our best interests or theirs. Minutes of council and committee meetings should be faithful records of what actually happened. The public must be able to rely on their accuracy.

In Newham, that is clearly not the case.

Nosey Parkers

8 Oct

Auditors from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency were so concerned last year about Newham’s misuse of its online database that the council’s access was suspended for 12 months.

This was the third time that the council’s access had been blocked since 2010.

The DVLA provides a Web Enabled Enquiry (WEE) link to Local Authorities solely for the purpose of finding out who owns a vehicle suspected of “offences relating to the environment.” These include abandoned cars, untaxed vehicles, driving in a bus lane and causing a nuisance.

Information released under the Freedom of Information Act shows that during audits carried out in January and October 2012, DVLA inspectors found:

  • Newham’s operators were unaware of the correct data retention period.
  • Not all accesses to the WEE link were being properly recorded and cross-referenced to the appropriate case file.
  • There was evidence that “fishing” was taking place to try to establish the correct identity of vehicles reported to the Local Authority. The inspectors noticed that similar registration numbers were repeatedly queried with only one character or digit changed from one enquiry to the next
  • No internal reference numbers were recorded, making file retrieval difficult. As a result, some files could not be located or retrieved during the audit. Theses missing files should have contained a record of the alleged offence and, crucially, the evidence that warranted the collection of personal information.
  • Sufficient evidence of an offence often did not exist or was not seen by the operator prior to accessing vehicle keeper information
  • The correct date of event was not being used in all cases when requesting data. In one case it was wrong by 6 months.
  • Data was being requested outside the prescribed 7-day limit, contrary to Newham’s agreement with the DVLA
  • There was evidence to show that witness statements quoting differing vehicle registration marks were not being returned to the reporting officer for clarification before requesting keeper details.
  • Where an erroneous record had been accessed a hard copy of the record was being retained. This held personal information of the vehicle’s keeper, and was kept on file by Newham despite the person not having committed any offence.

This is incredibly disturbing.

Newham council believes it is entitled to stick its nose wherever it wants. It already spies on residents with the most extensive network of CCTV cameras of any local authority in the UK. Now it thinks it is acceptable to have officers hoover up personal information from other government databases, playing fast and loose with the rules.

People who have committed no offence are having their details searched for by council officers and kept on file. The council’s failure to keep proper records means that we have no idea how extensive this activity was. But we know about the mindset that led to it.

When the Mayor is interviewed he often talks about “his residents.” This is no mere rhetorical flourish. He really believes it: we are his.

The year-long suspension will be lifted later this month. It comes to something that local residents have to rely on the DVLA to keep their information safe from the nosey parkers at Building 1000.

Jobs for the boys

7 Oct

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the allowances paid to Newham councillors and the extraordinary gender imbalance at the top of Sir Robin’s regime. There was, I noted, only one woman in his cabinet.

Now there’s none. Last week Councillor Kay Scoresby was relieved of her responsibilities.

So not a single cabinet member or executive advisor is a woman. Not one. How does Sir Robin get away with it?

The cabinet page on the council’s website glosses over this grotesque state of affairs by placing our own Ellie Robinson at the top of the membership list, but she is not actually a full cabinet member nor an ‘executive advisor’. She is “Deputy Executive Member for Community Affairs”, as is Plaistow councillor Forhad Hussain. Quite why Richard Crawford, the highly-paid executive member for Community Affairs, needs two deputies to help him out at meetings is altogether a different question.

I know there are members of Newham Labour party – including candidates for next year’s election – who are publicly committed to equal representation. Yet Sir Robin carries on unchallenged. Either these people are not paying attention or are too afraid of the consequences (deselection!) to speak out. In either case it is shameful.

UPDATE (14 October 2013):

Sir Robin could not live for long without his name being at the top of the list, so Ellie Robinson now appears about halfway down, sandwiched between the cabinet members and the executive advisors.

Of the 16 people listed as attending cabinet, she remains the only woman. And the gender imbalance at the top of the council remains a disgrace.