Thursday, 21 November 2013

"Mounting risks for corruption in UK local government"

There are concerns on several fronts that process at local government leaves much to be desired.

1) Over-representing parties through the voting system:

Whose Mandate?

As it didn’t appear on any party manifesto and no one actually voted for it at the last election there is no political mandate for the relocation of the EDDC HQ. Ignoring public concerns and evidence this is just a typical example of how local politics at the secretive Knowle operates. As a political institution the EDDC policy making committees are overtly partisan failing to represent diverse opinion across East Devon. Dominated by a single party the district council is made up of 43 Conservatives, 10 Liberal Democrats and 6 Independents. While we have a council leader who no-one in his Yarty Ward voted for and three uncontested seats in Sidford we clearly have a faltering democracy. With nine seats uncontested, EDDC is listed second in a national table compiled by Transparency International. Nothing against the individual Sidford councillors but how do we achieve a more balanced representation which reflects the cross-section of the constituency?

Without tackling the complexities of proportional representation one ballot procedure which is particularly flawed is the current system of multiple voting. In the Sidmouth Town Ward for example because there were three council places available, each elector was allowed up to three votes. In the 2011 local elections there were 4452 electors, producing a 56% turn out with up to 13356 votes available. Due to the tactics of repetitive voting all three places were won by Conservative candidates with a combined 3475 votes, only 26% of the possible total. In other words each of the three Tory councillors was elected with 8 or 9% which is a very low threshold. To obtain a clear mandate a councillor ideally requires over 50% of the votes. With the triple vote, the maximum share is 33.3% which falls well short and devalues the status the councillors. The question is what happened to the vast majority of the remaining 9881 elector’s votes in the pool which were potentially available? 

To redress the above anomaly a more simple and statistically sound principle is to return to a single vote for each elector which will prevent repeat voting, - a process which is unfairly loaded towards a democratic deficit. This would provide the majority of voters with a greater chance of obtaining electoral accountability and a fairer result which might even increase the turnout. Moving away from party allegiances to the merits of the individual, this means the most popular councillors may be able achieve a mandate allowing them to perform with confidence in the knowledge that they have the support of their electorate unlike at present.

Had such a single vote ballot operated at the last local election it is highly probable that the councillor profile in Sidmouth would have better reflected the views of the community. With uncontested seats and low approval rates at the ballot box, a council making decisions behind closed doors is not fit for purpose.

Graham Cooper 

Home - Sidmouth Herald

2) Restricting public speaking: 

Restrictions set to be imposed on public speaking at EDDC

I am baffled and angry this evening to read the cabinet papers for next Wednesday (27 November) and discover that recommendations agreed by the standards committee in October relating to public speaking rights, have been subtly altered, which if rubber-stamped, will result in considerable restrictions on what questions residents can put to committees.
If the recommendation below is rubber-stamped next Wednesday it will mean that all questions not related specifically to agendas will have to be submitted in writing two clear working days in advance.
Currently, there is no requirement for any question to EDDC committees to be in writing, nor is the subject of the question restricted.
See the full recommendations on page 138, which all tie in with the recommendations from the standards committee meeting on 9 October, except this paragraph:
This new rule of course would conveniently avoid any embarrassing questions that committee chairmen would rather not answer.  An explanatory note on the change on page 140 states:
“Note: Officers have made a more detailed recommendation at c) to differentiate between questions relevant to the agenda and those which do not relate to agenda items. The reason is to allow Members preparation time – this will be of greater benefit to the public as responses given will be well considered and researched.”
“c) Where the public wish to raise a question on an issue which is not included as an agenda item for the meeting, this to be submitted in writing to Democratic Services in advance (two clear working days before the meeting) to enable a considered response to be given in writing at the meeting if time permits. The speaker who has submitted the question two clear days in advance to be able to ask a supplementary question relevant to the original question. Two days’ notice is not required if the question being put to the Committee relates to a subject already included as an agenda item.”
Compare this paragraph with the paragraph below that was actually AGREED at standards committee on 9 November -http://www.eastdevon.gov.uk/standards_committee_mins_091013_with_appended_social_medial_use_policy.pdf  - see page 4 for the relevant minute.
“c) Where possible, questions to be submitted in writing to Democratic Services in advance (two clear working days before the meeting) to enable a considered response to be given in writing at the meeting if time permits. The speaker who submitted the question to be able to ask a supplementary question”
The “where possible” clause here meant that this was not a hard and fast rule and was simply a preference.
How is it that clear recommendations agreed by a committee can be overturned and subtly changed, but with significant detrimental implications for democracy at EDDC? 
Who pushed for these changes?
Ironically, the cabinet report on public speaking, which starts on page 137, begins with the following sentence: “At the Annual Council meeting on 22 May 2013, Members agreed for the Standards Committee to consider public speaking issues further and make recommendations to Council. There was no suggestion that public speaking would be stopped but rather reviewed with the potential for increasing the contributions and improving the current arrangements.
I hope that many members of the public will attend next week’s cabinet meeting and object to the completely unreasonable and unjustified speaking restrictions, which are contrary to the recommendations agreed by the standards committee.
Cabinet starts at 5.30pm on Wednesday 27 November.  Here’s the link to the agenda papers -http://www.eastdevon.gov.uk/cabinet_combined_agenda_271113_-_public_version.pdf 
1. At 01:25 pm on 21th Nov paul johnston wrote:
EDDC would be wise to consider at length any moves which might be construed as stifling public commentary. In this age of fast moving debate made possible by new media, then they may well find that far from enabling them to control discussions ( defining control in the widest possible sense of the term) a failure to respond quickly and immediately to freely and openly asked questions may well lead to them to have less input into various important debates themselves. On the basis of the responses that I have observed to various perfectly legitimate (though often inconveniently penetrating) questions EDDC seem to be truly frightened of open and transparent government. The central question must be: Why should this be so?

Claire Wright - Your Independent East Devon District Councillor for Ottery Rural

3) Limiting recourse to judicial review:

Improve public body decision making rather than cut JR, says Law Society

Thursday, 14 November 2013 00:00
Undermining recourse to judicial review will in time erode acceptance of public authority in this country, the Law Society has warned.

Local Government Lawyer - Improve public body decision making rather than cut JR, says Law Society
Make local authorities improve rather than cutting ability to go to judicial review says Law Society | Sidmouth Independent News

4) Ensuring safeguards against corruption:

Anti-corruption (SWAP) report on agenda at Knowle meeting, today Thursday 14th November at 2pm.

A reminder that this report by South West Audit Partnership was called for as a direct result of the Graham Brown affair, which continues to tarnish East Devon’s reputation Browngate poster (1) (1)
The SWAP report’s purpose was to check that East Devon District Council has robust safeguards against such a situation re-occurring. Background research would naturally have looked at how the compromising position of Mr Brown as a Councillor and Chair of East Devon Business Forum, was allowed.
However, the report seems to have missed its target. Inexplicably, it does not mention the latest stringent recommendations by the Local Government Association about how to avoid breaches of Probity and Planning by Councillors.
Penetrating questions are expected from the public this afternoon. To register, simply add your name to the list (on the table just inside the Council Chamber) before the state of the meeting.

Anodyne report published on governance of EDDC councillors

The long-awaited previously confidential report by EDDC’s internal auditors on governance of councillors has been published today, after a refusal to make it public under the freedom of information act last month.
Part of the reason it was so sought after, was because it assessed whether adequate systems were in place to counteract any possibility of bribery and corruption - an issue of considerable public interest currently.
EDDC has now published the report with next week’s audit and governance agenda papers because myself and Cllr Roger Giles argued hard for it be made public at the last audit and governance meeting in September.  See details of discussions at that meeting here - http://www.claire-wright.org/index.php/post/confidential_audit_report_on_graham_brown_to_be_published/
Given its scope and the events of March this year, which saw ex councillor Graham Brown sensationally exposed by undercover Daily Telegraph reporters, you might think that the report would be in-depth analysing deeply the systems, with a view to making meaningful recommendations.  But actually, it is remarkably anodyne, draws simplistic conclusions and makes some very strange connections indeed.
Here’s a key paragraph from the audit report
“During the course of this year the activities of one Councillor was drawn to senior management’s attention by an outside source. The Council took appropriate action in relation to this matter and the
Councillor has now resigned.
This review included a review of Councillor’s declared interests and of the complaints procedures.Internal Audit can confirm the Council holds a complete set of Councillor’s declared interests; it can demonstrate exempt and sensitive information is well managed; and a robust complaints procedure is in operation.”
We are told as members that it is down to us to be honest and comply with the code of conduct. This is reasonable because officers cannot go checking the land registry on the offchance we might own more land than we are declaring, nor can they check our bank accounts.
The council relies on councillors to be honest and open.  Instead there might be a question about what checks and balances are employed when there is reasonable suspicion that a councillor is not declaring all their interests.
The report goes on to make points about ensuring that participants at meetings are clearly defined on agendas.
Most bizarrely, the risk relating to the risk of the possibility of “using their position unfairly for personal gain” is thought could be remedied by a personal development review, offered annually to councillors!
The key controls recommended by internal auditors are:
 The Council comply fully with their statutory responsibilities, including the Constitution .
 The Council have a suitable Officer (Democratic Services) who ensures the Council adheres to the latest statutory requirements.
 A register is maintained of all associated decision making forums and is subject to scrutiny.
 All Decision Making Groups, including outside bodies, have clear Terms of Reference.
 All Councillors receive clear guidance and training on their roles and responsibilities in decision making, including a Code of Conduct.
 All personal interests of Councillors are declared and the responsibilities and decisions they make reflect this.
 Transparency of Council meetings is maintained.
 A robust complaints procedure is in place
Considering that there is a police investigation ongoing into the fallout of that Daily Telegraph expose of 11 March, which also names an officer of the council, the report is remarkably lightweight and takes much for granted.  It does not ask pertinent questions designed at catching potential problems. Rather it seems to make assumptions (sometimes strange assumptions) and draws simplistic conclusions.
The agenda (below) for EDDC’s next audit and governance meeting on Thursday 14 November, starts at 2pm and will be held in the council chamber.  There will be 15 minutes at the beginning of the meeting for members of the public to ask questions.
http://www.eastdevon.gov.uk/combined_agenda_141113.pdf  - see page 24 for the start of the internal audit report.


1. At 11:54 am on 06th Nov Sandra Semple wrote:
I sure hope EDDC (i.e. you and me) didn’t pay the auditors extra for that report!  It was not worth the minimal effort made.
2. At 07:55 pm on 06th Nov Tim wrote:
I can just imagine that a councillor who might have been inclined to use his or her position for illicit personal gain would have a moment of enlightenment if offered a personal development review!  That such a suggestion is made shows that EDDC is either naive, party politically biased and/or plain incompetent.
EDDC accepts it relies exclusively on councillors being honest- seehttps://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/notification_of_councillors_fina#outgoing-263632  for confirmation.
Having looked at most declarations of local councillors it is quite clear they are not all receiving appropriate guidance and advice as to what should be declared. We don’t need them to say that they have RAC membership but we do need them to declare what directorships they hold.
I am quite sure the greater majority are honest people but the fact is that whilst some were shocked at certain recent developments, many others said they had long held such suspicions.
What EDDC does not provide is a procedure where concerns can be raised, by councillors and the public, where such concerns will be addressed by a competent, impartial and above all, trusted investigation process.
We have heard of recent investigations where the investigator has refused to speak to some witnesses - that cannot be right. We also wonder what investigative skills those appointed to such tasks have.
That there is little or no trust in the present system, which has all the appearances of political bias, should have been properly addressed by the auditor. SWAP is itself not truly independent but made up of members of local councils and may have senior EDDC staff on its board. Some may think it lacks true independence.(http://www.southwestaudit.co.uk)
Did it not occur to SWAP that declared interests can be vastly different to declarable interests? It seems not.
And here is something else to think about. Should council staff be obliged to declare potential conflicts of interest - such as having previously worked for a company that is seeking to be awarded an EDDC contract?
3. At 10:37 pm on 06th Nov Conrad Black wrote:
Any system that relies solely on the absolute honesty of people in positions of power is fundamentally flawed.  Of one thing we may be certain - that the dishonest will be dishonest.
The work of the auditors is deeply disappointing because it fails to be robust.  You cannot test a single instance of a measure to find out if it is working.  No auditor in the country would sign off accounts on the basis of one single check!  Let us say, for instance, that they were to test if/when membership of the EDBF, clearly a lobbying forum, was declared as against when membership occurred, and for which councillors and officers.
Suppose that they were to find that councillors had ‘forgotten’ to point out their membership, or not not considered it necessary, and what would they say about permanent staff in that position?  Would they examine all the decisions made before a declaration was made, and bring that to the attention of who exactly?
Clearly that would be an issue of conflict of interest, and it would have to be addressed by an authority that was not political and not council staff.  So exactly what would be/is the mechanism?
In my view, the system proposed is both deeply flawed and inadequate.  It is deeply flawed because there is no mechanism for dealing with deliberate failure to disclose.  And it is inadequate because it clearly failed to allow the detection of a councillor who had not been entirely open and clearly intended to profit from his position (as demonstrated by the Telegraph).
So far from working well, the system is badly broken and in need of fixing.
I wonder what the terms of reference actually were for the auditor’s report?
4. At 12:42 pm on 07th Nov Graham wrote:
Always supporting development, he was the Chair of the DMC Planning Committee and a regular attendee of the Local Plan panel meetings. Although he was a founder member promoting the lobby group chaired by ex Cllr Brown, over the years the councillor avoided making any reference of his involvement with the East Devon Business Forum in the EDDC members Register of Interest Form. This consistent disregard and failure to declare an interest until last year, clearly conflicted with the EDDC code of practice. It is very revealing how complacent EDDC’s Governance procedures were when it came to the behaviour of their council leader.
5. At 03:18 pm on 07th Nov Jessica Bailey wrote:
The register at Companies House shows which senior officer at EDDC sits on the board of SWAP. Presumably each local authority which owns/runs SWAP has a director sitting on the board. I would be really interested for someone from SWAP to explain (a) how the public can sure that SWAP carries out sufficiently robust audits when senior officers from the local authorities its auditing sit on its board. In the private sector I doubt a director of a company which is being audited would also be permitted to work for the accountancy firm which is carrying out the audit.

SWAT-South West Audit Travesty

14 November
A dozen or so members of the public turned up at today’s EDDC Audit Committee meeting which considered the “anti-corruption audit” produced for them by South West Audit  Partnership (SWAP) following the resignation of Graham Brown.
They will have been deeply disappointed by  a mediocre piece of back-covering ‘reassurance’ about the “robustness” of the council’s controls against councillors behaving badly.
According to the Report there was a “low risk” of any serious problems with councillors’ behaviour, and “no findings” of any conflicts of interests in councillors’ – and officers’- involvement with organisations such as the (now disbanded) East Devon Business Forum.
The depressing conclusions to take away?
1.       The “independent” audit was  a box-ticking exercise based on paperwork provided by officers , proving that controls exist. What they don’t seem to have investigated was whether the controls have been effective.
2.       SWAP acknowledged that it hadn’t looked at evidence from the public about alleged councillors’ activities, nor at  the formal complaints to the Monitoring Officer before the scandal erupted.
3.       The remit of the audit was decided between senior officers whose work was being inspected,  and auditors, with no reference to concerned councillors or –God forbid!- members of the public.
4.       The auditors felt that criticism of the report from some councillors and public resulted from ignorance of the sophisticated methods used in auditing!
5.       A SWAP senior auditor was indignant that any suggestions could possibly be made that his organisation which includes EDDC as a partner, and has Council people on its Board, could be anything less than totally independent.
6.   The committee members were quite happy with this anaemic audit , and with one or two honourable exceptions, had nothing searching to ask about a report whose “recommendations” are almost risibly inadequate to the task of restoring trust in a Council whose reputation is seriously tarnished .
Any positive impressions?
Full marks to the Man from SWAP who attempted to answer public  criticisms, even if he couldn’t turn a pig’s ear into silk purse. And to Chairman Ken Potter who treated public questioners with courtesy and indulgence. A pity that Cllr Tony “Diviani-is- too-transparent” Howard, persuaded him to curtail a dialogue between auditor and public.
In conclusion the Monitoring Officer, said she thought that the report ,which praised her role, was “good”.

3 Responses to “SWAT-South West Audit Travesty”

  1. ChilcotNovember 14, 2013 at 10:03 pm #
    Please may I ask your excellent correspondent this – since the “legal advice” currently in force at EDDC Planning meetings is that to mention Mr Brown and the EDBF is likely to cause a rupture in the structural integrity of the universe (and so is strictly verboten) how on earth was any meaningful discussion had at today’s committee on this subject?
    Did any councillors dare use his name at any point, flouting their own “legal advice”. Or did the elephant in the room remain unremarked?
  2. Media MandyNovember 14, 2013 at 10:20 pm #
    The dirty business just got even dirtier. Perhaps the police should widen their investigations. And is ‘t there an offence of abuse of public office?
  3. TimNovember 17, 2013 at 1:36 pm #
    This would be the same monitoring officer who oversees EDDC’s duties under the Freedom of Information Act, an Act that EDDC are constantly breaching on a number of grounds as anyone can see by looking athttp://www.whatdotheyknow.com

Transparency International’s report 'Corruption in Local Government: The Mounting Risks' warns that an unintended consequence of changes such as the Localism Act and those proposed in the Local Audit and Accountability Bill may be to create an enabling environment for corruption.

The report notes that experts hold widely different views about the scale and prevalence of corruption in local government, but there was general consensus that recent changes would increase the risk of corruption happening in future.
It identifies sixteen recent legislative changes which increase the risks, as well as other trends such as the decline in scrutiny by local press and the move to more private sector out-sourcing. This report includes twenty-two recommendations, including that the Government should conduct a corruption risk assessment and strengthen whistleblowing procedures.
For a visualisation of some of the statistics, please visit our Pinterest page here.
Corruption in UK Local Government: The Mounting Risks

On 9th October 2013 TI-UK published a new report 'Corruption in Local Government: The Mounting Risks'. What is the impact of recent legislative changes on the level of corruption risk in local government?

On 9th October 2013 TI-UK published a new ... | Corruption in UK Loca…

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