Tag Archives: Rokhsana Fiaz

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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Season of Goodwill

14 Jan

Back in December the Newham Recorder reported that a number of senior managers in Newham council’s repairs and maintenance service (RMS) have been suspended and sacked for gross misconduct amid a catalogue of claims about financial malpractice.

It’s worth reading the Recorder piece in full, but some of the ‘highlights’ include:

  • Staff claiming allowances of up to £14,000 and separately for overtime which they may or may not have worked, including one claiming for up to 66 extra hours a week
  • One person caught making payments of £800 a day to an external consultant
  • Companies being issued fuel cards for Newham’s Folkestone Road depot to fill up with, leading to fuel costs soaring into the millions
  • Bonus and incentive payments dished out to plumbers and carpenters worth three times their basic salaries
  • One supplier carrying out bathroom fittings at triple the expected rate
  • Allegations of parts and equipment, including expensive pumps, being bought by RMS employees with council money and given to external contractors who would then re-charge the council to deploy them
  • An £8.7m overspend in just one part of RMS in the 2017/18 financial year
  • £423,770 paid in bonuses and incentives to 10 operatives in six months

This all happened on Sir Robin Wales’ watch and, entirely predictably, the former mayor tried to deflect the blame onto his successor, saying

“I am surprised that, seven months after taking office, and a full year after she became aware of the problem, the current Mayor has not commenced criminal prosecutions or announced that there is insufficient evidence to proceed.”

Equally predictably, Sir Robin’s supporters wasted no time in attacking his successor. Cllr Ken Clark, who was his statutory deputy mayor and held the cabinet portfolio for ‘Regeneration, Planning, Building Communities and Public Affairs’ emailed Rokhsana Fiaz, copying in all councillors:

Thank you for your email on the coverage of the RMS in the Newham Recorder.

Indeed the Recorder seems to know more about this situation than anything councillors are being told by this administration. Why do councillors find out via a third party when you should be reporting to labour members in the first instance and not as an afterthought.

Your constant blame of the previous administration – of which you were part – is noted. You blame the previous mayor for not sharing in full the historical details of this matter but in this same email you state you are unable to share full information with all of us due to ongoing investigations. Can’t you see how hypocritical this is. Don’t you realise that the same restrictions you are under now applied to the previous mayor during his tenure or are you just being deliberately obtuse.

It’s no good blaming fellow members for holding back information when you are in the same boat yourself. It seems unbelievable that your fellow cabinet member for finance, Cllr Paul, who held the housing brief in the previous administration and who would be likely to know the most about this matter did not bring you fully up to speed months ago.

As a former member of the audit board you were privy to confidential information not in the public domain or available to other councillors.

Indeed I don’t know what officers have told you since you took office but I do know that as information is finally being released by officers into the public domain there seems little reason to avoid a police enquiry. Why don’t you call for one now?

I hear you are in the market for blunt emails at the moment so why don’t you put your money where your mouth is, stop pretending that the former administration is to blame for officer fraud, stop pretending that as a previous member of the audit and scrutiny boards you didn’t have a voice on council matters, and start taking responsibility in the job you now have. It’s time to call for a police enquiry into RMS and the way officers have behaved.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

His fellow Manor Park councillor, Salim Patel, also chipped in with his own seasonal message to all councillors:

Dear colleagues,

It is with deep concern for us all to learn of the massive scale of alleged corruption at Newham Council which has only been revealed as a result of the persistence of journalistic investigations by the Newham Recorder. Many of my residents have now raised this issue with me directly, so I wish to make my position on this matter very clear.

The revelation that over £9m of Newham tax-payers money was fraudulently siphoned off by some corrupt Council officers is completely unacceptable. It is also unacceptable that elected Councillors only found out about the sheer scale of this through the local press and that Council officers were investigating themselves. All these issues have been rightly highlighted by Councillor Clark and I understand that RMS has been discussed for some time at the Audit board but in private session, and with no visible outcome.

It is clear that over the past 18 months, Councillors have not been fully briefed on the scale of the allegations and the internal Council investigation. It is also clear that some Council officers have chosen to deliberately keep the full details hidden from members, even though we are the democratically elected representatives of the people of Newham. It also brings to light the question as to whether Council officers should have been allowed to investigate themselves in the first place when the crime was so huge.

Therefore and due to the severity of the matter, I am asking that the Metropolitan Police and the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) be asked to intervene immediately to properly investigate, charge and bring to justice the perpetrators of this massive fraud of local residents money.

We know that Councillor Terry Paul had direct involvement with and executive responsibility for housing which covered this service area, during the time when this huge criminal endevour is alleged to have taken place. That’s why its important that Councillor Paul immediately step aside from any current executive responsibilities, to ensure public confidence in the investigation and that it is totally free from even the perceived threat of any interference.

In the meantime, as elected Councillors we have a duty to work together to ensure the Repairs and Maintenance Service continues as a fully reliable public service, that the backlog of repairs are completed and that the service is fully protected from any threat of fraud in future.

Finally, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

All of which overwrought and hysterical nonsense prompted the mayor to respond (link added):

Comrades – thanks for your respective emails which I have noted, alongside today’s anticipated Newham Recorder article which followed the unsurprising email sent last night.

You’ll have received my previous Members briefing sent a short while ago, so please refer to the CIPFA report and its comments about RMS (slide 24) – namely: ‘Major issue over financial control in the repairs and maintenance division, RMS; Led to an overspend of £9m in 2017/18 due to poor pricing of highways work’.

What that means is that the majority of overspend actually happened in Highways NOT housing Services. Yes, the role of all executive members at the time yes should be examined; but be clear precisely whom; alongside the role of the then Statutory Deputy Mayor who would have been privy to issues emerging with RMS (including private executive discussions) and the non-statutory Deputy Mayor who was lead finance and chair of the Audit Board at the time.

Instead of the histrionics, I’ll remind colleagues of the old adage that before jumping to conclusions get the facts right.  That has been the process that we have undertaking since May: a judicious and exacting process of interrogating information being provided by officers including independent experts, during which period a live investigation relating to the range of allegations has also been taking place. The final phase of investigations are near conclusion and any ‘jumping ahead of that’ could risk any future legal proceedings we may be able to proceed with. Rest assured we are on top of this and as I said previously a major announcement will be made about this in the New Year as well – which was always the plan because this was an area being looked into by CIPFA. This will include providing members with a full briefing and an opportunity to discuss the issues.

That aside, I will address other points in the two emails in the New Year, but large parts of what you both set out below are inaccurate. The issues relating to RMS happened before May 2018 and rightly serious questions should be raised and action should be taken to ensure that this never happens again. This is precisely what is happening now because we have and are putting measures in place in a service area that has always been part of the council  – just badly managed like a lot of things we have discovered eight months in and which we are keeping members updated on.

All – kindly note that I’ll be asking Cllr John Gray who is now leading on RMS oversight; plus Cllr Zulfiqar Ali as the cabinet lead responsible for shaping up Highways with Cllr James Asser to help me coordinate the RMS briefing session on my behalf in the New Year. So keep an eye out for details and direct any further questions about RMS to Cllr John Gray in the first instance from here on in.

Thanks.

So, despite an obviously coordinated effort to fit up Cllr Terry Paul due to his brief tenure as mayoral advisor for Housing, it turns out the biggest part of the problem was in Highways. And who had that in their portfolio, including the £100 million ‘keep Newham moving’ programme? Cllr Ken Clark. Whoops.

One person we haven’t heard from in all of this is the former cabinet member for finance and audit board chair, Cllr Lester Hudson. If anyone should be able to shed light on the massive failure of financial governance and control it would be him.

The police are now involved and an extraordinary meeting of the council has been called for 22 January, with a single agenda item: RMS. I am told councillors have already been briefed and that the report which will be discussed is due to be published tomorrow. 

The meeting will be at the Old Town Hall in Stratford, and theres’s plenty of seating for the public. I’ll be there.

 

Note: the original version of this post incorrectly said Cllr Terry Paul was briefly the cabinet member for housing; he wasn’t. He was Mayoral advisor for Housing and responsible for housing repairs. He was not a member of Sir Robin’s cabinet.

Itchy feet

19 Nov

Having finally got rid of Sir Robin Wales, some Labour councillors are itching to ditch the directly-elected mayoralty altogether. A motion is being put to Labour Group tonight (Monday 19 November):

Motion for a change in Newham governance arrangements 

Since 2002, the London Borough of Newham has been governed using the directly elected Mayoral model of executive arrangement to determine how decisions are made in the Council.

This Council recognises that democratic engagement should be continually promoted and Newham’s system for local governance must always reflect the ongoing need for strong democratic engagement and accountability. It should also ensure that it has a model of governance that best ensures scrutiny and a rigorous series of checks and balances on the exercise of power.

The Council notes the Localism Act 2011 which permits the holding of a binding referendum on the abolishment of the directly elected Mayoral model and replace it with a Leader and Cabinet model.  

Therefore this Council commits to hold a binding referendum by May 2020, on a change of governance from a directly elected Mayoral model to a Leader and Cabinet model.

The motion is being proposed by Cllr Suga Thekkeppurayil, who is chair of the Labour Group, and seconded by Cllr Hanif Abdulmuhit.

Obviously, I fully support having a referendum and will campaign for abolition of the directly elected mayoralty. But this is already the policy of the new administration. At the election in May Rokhsana Fiaz promised to hold a referendum on the directly-elected mayoralty, saying:

The Directly Elected Mayor model of governance is broken in Newham. We will hold a referendum on its future before the end of my third year as Mayor.

Despite some councillors might think (or hope), holding a referendum in May 2020 instead of 2021 won’t end the directly-elected mayoralty any sooner. Whatever happens, any change to Newham’s governance arrangements won’t come into effect until the next local elections. Rokhsana Fiaz will be the mayor until 2022.

What might happen if a referendum is held in May 2020 is the election of a Tory mayor of London. Whilst Sadiq Khan is a popular mayor his re-election is not guaranteed. Every vote will count and there’s a lot of Labour votes in Newham. Do local campaigners really want to be distracted by having to spend part of their time canvassing to get rid of the Newham mayor while at the same time trying to get votes to re-elect the London Mayor? That’s a recipe for confusion.

Labour Group should amend the motion to read ‘by May 2021’ and pass it. Then, after (hopefully) re-electing Sadiq Khan they will have a year to plan and execute a successful campaign to return Newham to a more sensible form of local government.

UPDATE:

An amendment has been submitted by Cllrs John Whitworth and Daniel Blaney removing the specific date and replacing it with

in good time for any consequent constitutional changes to be factored into the 2022 Local Elections.

Greens call on council to back a People’s Vote

7 Nov

Newham Green Party has written to Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz, calling on her and the council to publicly back a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal, with the option to Remain in the European Union.

Research from Survation/Channel 4 has today shown that in a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal, more than 65% of Newham residents would vote to Remain in the European Union, representing an almost 15% shift towards Remain, the largest shift towards Remain of any local authority in the country.

The campaign for a People’s Vote hopes to give the public the chance to vote again on the final Brexit deal, between leaving on the deal the government makes, leaving with no deal, and staying within the EU.

Newham Greens Convenor Frankie-Rose Taylor, who stood for the party in the recent Boleyn by-election, said:

“As one of the poorest and most diverse boroughs in London, Newham is exactly the kind of area that would be hurt most by leaving the European Union. It is no surprise to me that Newham has swung towards Remain by nearly 15%, in the largest shift of any borough in the country. We saw through the lies of Brexit campaigners when we voted to Remain in 2016, but since then their lies have only become clearer and support has only grown.

“I call on Newham Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz and her 100% Labour council to express their support for a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal. Newham deserves to be protected from the hurt that we know Theresa May’s Brexit plan will bring.”

At the same time, the grassroots Remain Labour campaign is calling on its party’s MPs to vote down the Withdrawal Agreement and back a People’s Vote. Research that shows a majority of Labour voters in every single Labour constituency backs staying in the EU. In both Newham seats 77% of Labour voters now back Remain.

Head to head

21 Feb

RoksvsRobin

Out with old, in with the new?

The Labour Party has written to local members to confirm the shortlist for the mayoral selection:

Last night, the selections panel for the process to select Labour’s candidate for Mayor of Newham interviewed candidates to decide the shortlist that members in Newham will select from.

Their decision is that the shortlist will comprise of:

Rokhsana Fiaz
Sir Robin Wales

Voting starts on 1 March and there will be at least one hustings event – details of which have not yet been confirmed.

In the meantime, party members can get a flavour of the two candidates by reading the in-depth Q&As each has had with London blogger Dave Hill:

Q&A with Rokhsana Fiaz

Q&A with Sir Robin Wales

Challenger

29 Jan

RF small 306Image

Councillor Rokhsana Fiaz OBE has announced that she will challenge Sir Robin for Labour’s mayoral nomination should the trigger ballot result in an open selection.

She broke the news in an interview with the Newham Recorder over the weekend, which they published this evening.

The Custom House councillor has thrown her hat into the ring ahead of the first wards casting their votes tonight in the re-run of the process.

She said: “I’m putting myself forward for this because I want to offer a fresh start for this council and a new ambitious alternative for Newham.”

Cllr Fiaz, who was born and brought up in the borough, was first elected as a councillor in May 2014 and currently sits as chair of scrutiny as well as a member of the council’s audit board and strategic development committee.

She explained that she was passionate about the issues facing a lot of people living in the borough, including affordable adult social care, the safety of young people and investment in early years education.

“I’m passionate about making sure there are genuinely affordable, quality homes for people,” she added.

“I’ve been working closely with an organisation called Peach, who are in my ward of Custom House, to allow residents to have their say during the regeneration.

“Uniquely, I’m also the only councilor who does regular youth surgeries for young people to come and meet me.”

The trigger ballot, also known as the affirmitive nomination process, is being held to decide whether to automatically select incumbent mayor Sir Robin Wales as Labour’s candidate for May’s election or whether to open it up to other prospective candidates.

Ward meetings in the re-run trigger ballot start tonight.