Tag Archives: Robin Wales

Repairs and Maintenance

15 Jan

This morning Newham Council published the papers for its extraordinary meeting next week on the mismanagement of the repairs and maintenance service.

Anyone who takes the trouble to read the report will be appalled by the scale of financial and project mis-management, which has resulted in a loss of AT LEAST £8.78 million.

The vast majority of this was in the RMS Highways Services, in particular after it started to undertake the work on the Council’s Keep Newham Moving programme in early 2016. Poor practice was also found in other areas, but RMS was – overall – financially viable; the £8.78M overspend was caused by using external contractors to deliver the Keep Newham Moving programme at a higher cost than the price agreed with RMS.

Keep Newham Moving was one of the previous mayor’s flagship initiatives, supposedly a ‘prudent investment’ of the council’s resources to improve the lives of residents. It was a ten year, £100million capital programme to “improve the quality of roads, footways and street lighting in Newham…”

The council decided to put the work through RMS, on the grounds that this would deliver “efficiencies of around 25-30% as compared to the previous contractor.”

Clearly, this was a risk, but it was agreed that a Risk Register (a common tool in project management) would be compiled with the Cabinet Member for Building Communities, Public Affairs, Planning and Regeneration (Cllr Ken Clark) and the Mayoral Adviser for Environment & Leisure (Ian Corbett, who is no longer a councillor). This would be monitored and updated throughout the life of the project.

So £100 million was allocated to RMS despite there being no evidence they could manage the work and no serious assessment of how they could outbid Conways by 30%. It turned out they couldn’t:

[The] significant overspend of £8.78m was a result of RMS under-pricing its Keep Newham Moving Highways activity and then failing to manage contractor costs resulting in increased capital costs to that originally budgeted for. This was a very serious and significant mismanagement of public money. None of the investigations found sufficient evidence of criminal activity to bring proceedings but the Council remains willing to consider any further evidence brought to its attention.

The report describes how RMS managers avoided proper financial controls by splitting invoices so they fell below the procurement threshold and within the level of authority granted under the Scheme of Delegation. The accounts were seriously misrepresented, so that it appeared RMS was making a profit, when in fact it was running a substantial loss.

It is worth noting that although RMS was an in-house service it was being considered for outsourcing under the previous administration’s Small Business Programme or (CSSB, as it was known). This programme looked to outsource Council services into Council-owned companies.

RMS operated with significant autonomy over the management of its accounts, payments to staff and contracting with external businesses ostensibly for it to work on a “commercial” basis as part of Mayor Wales’s CSSB outsourcing programme.

Whether their ability to operate in this fashion was explicitly supported or encouraged by very senior officers and by a Mayor / Cabinet member decision or whether it simply evolved through weak internal controls is unknown. It is also possible that this was an element of the CSSB outsourcing programme encouraging services to begin to operate with a more commercial mind set as they were progressing towards outsourcing.

On 2 February 2017, approval was given by Mayor Wales to outsource RMS following an options appraisal. This was later suspended and RMS didn’t rejoin the programme. Rokhsana Fiaz abolished the CSSB programme following her election in May 2018.

Timeline

  • 2011 RMS was brought in-house. It carried out repairs to Newham’s housing stock. 
  • 2014 (Oct) RMS started taking on highways work from external company Conways on a two year pilot (no evidence of evaluation/review of pilot being carried out)
  • 2016 (Feb) Cabinet commits to (mainly) borrow £100m to ‘Keep Newham Moving’ delivered by RMS which it states is 25/30% cheaper than Conways. Cllr Clark and Corbett are lead members and named as agreeing and monitoring risk register (this is before two year pilot due to end)
  • 2016 to 2018 RMS is unable to deliver work itself and is subcontracting out work resulting in it being charged more than they were receiving per job (and definitely not making 25/30% savings)
  • 2017 RMS misrepresents 2016/17 accounts
  • 2017 (June) Whistleblowers make allegations, resulting in an internal investigation
  • 2017 (July) External auditors (Mazaars) appointed
  • 2017 (Aug and Dec) Mazaars reports does not find any criminal fraud
  • 2018 (Jan) QC advises insufficient evidence to meet criminal fraud
  • 2017/18 RMS overspent by £8.748m in 2017/18 accounts (in highways contracts; housing repairs is profitable)

So, where in all of this was the Audit Board?

In the 2017/18 financial year RMS was only discussed once. As appendix 1 (Chronology) makes clear, requests by councillors for an update were regularly fobbed off. Finally, inNovember 2017

Briefing and documents presented by internal Audit in closed session [of the Audit Board]. Chair LH [Lester Hudson] declined requests for further discussion at meeting. Concerns raised and recorded in minutes by Cllr’s Paul and Fiaz that item could not be debated

Lester Hudson was both Cabinet member for Finance and, simultaneously, chair of audit board. This is generally not regarded as best practice in local government finance.

Audit Board finally got to discuss RMS in March 2018 and the minutes have now been published, with some redactions to protect whistleblowers. They show councillors were absolutely furious about what had gone on. As a footnote to the minutes notes

At this stage in the proceedings, Cllr Paul resorted to expletives and offensive language to underscore the point he was making, informing the clerk he could minute his comments “in any way you like”.

and Cllr Julianne Marriott stated that

… in her view, the Audit Board was complicit in the failings of the Council as there had not been a meeting of the Audit Board since November 2017. If the Audit Board was not meeting on a regular basis, the public could not have any confidence that Members of the Board were holding the Council to account on their behalf, as residents.

It is hard to argue with that assessment.

In May the new mayor commissioned the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) to conduct a financial health check on the council (report). It found

There is a lack of Member involvement in financial reporting and budget control; Audit Board is non-decision making. Overview/Scrutiny has had almost no impact

This is no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention over the past few years.The Olympic stadium ‘investment’, the unbudgeted cost overruns on the East Ham Town Hall campus project, Newham Collegiate 6th Form, the London Pleasure Gardens fiasco, sleight of hand over the funding of ‘free school meals’… the list goes on.

Despite attempts to distract attention elsewhere, all of £8.748m overspend happened during administration under Sir Robin Wales – which included his cabinet member for Finance (and chair of audit) Cllr Lester Hudson and the Statutory Deputy Mayor and lead member for the £100m Keep Newham Moving Cllr Ken Clark. If either of them has any sense of shame or decency they’ll stand up next Tuesday, apologise for their failure and resign.

I’m not holding my breath.

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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.

How to get an iPad mini for just £130

27 Sep


Apple’s iPad mini is one of its best selling products. In the UK these retail at prices starting from £269, going up to £529 for the top of the range. Huge demand and Apple’s wholesale pricing policy mean even the high street chains won’t offer discounts.

But you can get one at a knock-down price if you just follow these five easy steps:

  • Get elected mayor of Newham
  • Go on a trip to China to visit possible investors in a new business park in the Royal Docks
  • Receive an iPad mini as a gift from your hosts, Advanced Business Park (China) Holdings Group Ltd
  • Return home and declare the gift, stating it has a value of just £130
  • Announce you wish to keep the gift for your personal use and that you will reimburse the Council to the equivalent value – that’s the £130 you told them it was worth.

And now the iPad mini is yours. Easy!

It’s not easy being green

13 Sep

muppetscropped

A couple of days ago the Independent published a story headlined Newham: The borough that’s Britain’s greenest – without any effort by its residents. The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research had calculated that the carbon footprint of the average Newham resident was the lowest of any municipality in the UK.

The footprint – defined as the total amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere as a result of the goods and services used – comes to 10.21 tonnes of CO2 a year. It includes emissions generated by the manufacture and transport of products such as iPhones, even if they have been made abroad.

Newham’s footprint is 18 per cent below the national average of 12.5 tonnes and a third less than the 15.51 tonnes emitted in the area with the highest carbon footprint – the City of London.

Cue champagne corks popping at Building 1000 and much tweeting of this fantastic story by councillors and the 2014 cohort of Labour candidates. Even the council’s official Twitter account got in on the act.

Sadly, these muppets had fallen into the classic social media trap – retweeting a link and a catchy headline without actually reading the story behind it.

Had they done so they would have kept quiet. For the reasons behind Newham’s green status are no cause for celebration:

The research… showed a strong correlation between the amount people earned and their carbon footprint, with each additional £600 in weekly income resulting in an extra tonne of annual C02 emissions.

The carbon footprint is also correlated to car ownership, partly because private vehicles produce more emissions per capita than public transport and also because car ownership “is likely to capture broader aspects of lifestyles”, the report noted.

The report also found that, everything else being equal, the more educated a person the greater their carbon footprint will be, although it could not say why this was.

House-size was the other main determinant of people’s carbon footprint, with emissons per head falling as household size increases and relative energy bills declined.

But if The Independent’s trip to Newham is anything to go by, income is by far the biggest determinant of carbon footprint.

So we emit less carbon because we have lower incomes and are less well-educated; we are more likely to live in crowded households; less likely to own a car; and less likely to own electricity-hungry devices like flat-screen TVs and smartphones.

In short, Newham is green because its people are poor.

Next May Sir Robin Wales, who has led the borough for the best part of 20 years, will be asking residents to give him another 4 years in office. We should be asking him why on god’s green Earth he thinks he deserves it, given this dismal record.