Estonia and the risks of internet voting

Originally posted on the Open Rights Group Blog.

In my capacity as an ORG Advisory Council member I’ve been working with an independent team of election observers researching the Internet voting systems used by Estonia. Why should anyone in the UK be interested in this?

Two reasons: Firstly Estonia is regularly held up as a model of e-government and e-voting that many countries, including the UK, wish to emulate. Secondly, after years of e-voting being off the UK agenda (thanks in part to ORG’s previous work in this area), the chair of the Electoral Commission recently put the idea of e-voting for British elections back in play.

Before our or any other government leaps to copy the Estonian model, our team wanted to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of the Estonian system. So several of us monitored the internet voting in operation for Estonia’s October 2013 municipal elections as official observers accredited the Estonian National Election Committee. Subsequently the team used the openly published source code and procedures for the Estonian system to build a replica in a lab environment at the University of Michigan. This enabled detailed analysis and research to be undertaken on the replica of the real system.

Despite being built on their impressive national ID smartcard infrastructure, we were able to find very significant flaws in the Estonian internet voting system, which they call “I-voting”. There were several serious problems identified:

Obsolete threat model

The Estonian system uses a security architecture that may have been adequate when the system was introduced a decade ago, but it is now dangerously out of date. Since the time the system was designed, state-level cyberattacks have become a very real threat. Recent attacks by China against U.S. companies, by the U.S. against Iran, and by the U.K. against European telecoms demonstrate the proliferation and sophistication of state-level attackers. Estonia itself suffered massive denial-of-service attacks in 2007 attributed to Russia.

Estonia’s system places extreme trust in election servers and voters’ computers — all easy targets for a foreign power. The report demonstrates multiple ways that today’s state-level attackers could exploit the Estonian system to change votes, compromise the secret ballot, disrupt elections, or cast doubt on the fairness of results.

Abundant lapses in operational security and procedures

Observation of the way the I-voting system was operated by election staff highlighted a lack of adequate procedures for both daily operations and handling anomalies. This creates opportunities for attacks and errors to occur and makes it difficult for auditors to determine whether correct actions were taken.

Close inspection of videos published by election officials reveals numerous lapses in the most basic security practices. They appear to show the workers downloading essential software over unsecured Internet connections, typing secret passwords and PINs in full view of the camera, and preparing election software for distribution to the public on insecure personal computers, among other examples. These actions indicate a dangerously inadequate level of professionalism in security administration that leaves the whole system open to attack and manipulation.

Serious vulnerabilities demonstrated

The authors reproduced the e-voting system in their laboratory using the published source code and client software. They then attempted to attack it, playing the role of a foreign power (or a well resourced candidate willing to pay a criminal organization to ensure they win). The team found that the Estonian I-voting system is vulnerable to a range of attacks that could undetectably alter election results. They constructed detailed demonstration attacks for two such examples:

Server-side attacks: Malware that rigs the vote count

The e-voting system places complete trust in the server that counts the votes at the end of the election process. Votes are decrypted and counted entirely within the unobservable “black box” of the counting server. This creates an opportunity for an attacker who compromises this server to modify the results of the vote counting.

The researchers demonstrated that they can infect the counting server with vote-stealing malware. In this attack, a state-level attacker or a dishonest election official inserts a stealthy form of infectious code onto a computer used in the pre-election setup process. The infection spreads via software DVDs used to install the operating systems on all the election servers. This code ensures that the basic checks used to ensure the integrity of the software would still appear to pass, despite the software having been modified. The attack’s modifications would replace the results of the vote decryption process with the attacker’s preferred set of votes, thus silently changing the results of the election to their preferred outcome.

Client-side attacks: A bot that overwrites your vote

Client-side attacks have been proposed in the past, but the team found that constructing fully functional client-side attacks is alarmingly straightforward. Although Estonia uses many security safeguards — including encrypted web sites, security chips in national ID cards, and smartphone-based vote confirmation — all of these checks can be bypassed by a realistic attacker.

A voter’s home or work computer is attacked by infecting it with malware, as millions of computers are every year. This malicious software could be delivered by pre-existing infections (botnets) or by compromising the voting client before it is downloaded by voters by exploiting operational security lapses. The attacker’s  software would be able to observe a citizen voting then could silently steal the PIN codes required to use the voter’s ID card. The next time the citizen inserts the ID card — say, to access their bank account — the malware can use the stolen PINs to cast a replacement vote for the attacker’s preferred candidate. This attack could be replicated across tens of thousands of computers. Preparation could being well in advance of the election starting by using a replica of the I-voting system, as the team did for their tests.

Insufficient transparency to establish trust in election outcomes

Despite positive gestures towards transparency — such as releasing portions of the software as open source and posting many hours of videos documenting the configuration and tabulation steps — Estonia’s system fails to provide compelling proof that election outcomes are correct. Critical steps occur off camera, and potentially vulnerable portions of the software are not available for public inspection. (Though making source code openly available is not sufficient to protect the software from flaws and attacks.) Many potential vulnerabilities and forms of attack would be impossible to detect based on the information provided to the public. So while the researchers applaud attempts at transparency, ultimately too much of how the I-voting system operates is invisible for it to be able to convince skeptical voters or candidates in the outcomes.

To illustrate this point, the team filmed themselves carrying out exactly the same procedural steps that real election officials show innearly 24 hours of videos from the 2013 elections. However, due to the presence of malware injected by the team before the recordings started, their count produces a dishonest result.

Recommendation: E-voting should be withdrawn

After studying other e-voting systems around the world, the team was particularly alarmed by the Estonian I-voting system. It has serious design weaknesses that are exacerbated by weak operational management. It has been built on assumptions which are outdated and do not reflect the contemporary reality of state-level attacks and sophisticated cybercrime. These problems stem from fundamental architectural problems that cannot be resolved with quick fixes or interim steps.

While we believe e-government has many promising uses, the Estonian I-voting system carries grave risks — elections could be stolen, disrupted, or cast into disrepute. In light of these problems, our urgent recommendation is that to maintain the integrity of the Estonian electoral process, use of the Estonian I-voting system should be immediately discontinued.

Our work shows that despite a decade of experience and advanced e-government infrastructure Estonia are unable to provide a secure e-voting system. So we believe other countries including the UK should learn from this that voting is a uniquely challenging system to provide online whilst maintaining the fundamental requirements of fair elections: secrecy of the vote, security and accuracy. The significant costs of attempting to build such a system would be better directed at other forms of e-government which can provide greater and more reliable benefits for citizens without risking the sanctity of elections.

Read and watch more about this work at https://estoniaevoting.org

 

 

Press Release: Independent Team finds serious vulnerabilities in Estonian Internet Voting System

Ahead of European Parliamentary elections an International team of independent experts identifies major risks in the security of Estonia’s Internet voting system and recommends its immediate withdrawalEstonia’s Internet voting system has such serious security vulnerabilities that an international team of independent experts recommends that it should be immediately discontinued.The team members, including Jason Kitcat from the UK’s Open Rights Group, were officially accredited to observe the Estonian Internet voting system during the October 2013 municipal elections. These observations — and subsequent security analysis and laboratory testing — revealed a series of alarming problems.  Operational security is lax and inconsistent, transparency measures are insufficient to prove an honest count, and the software design is highly vulnerable to attack from foreign powers.

Estonia is the only country in the world that relies on Internet voting in a significant way for national elections. The system is currently used for Estonia’s national parliamentary elections, municipal elections and is planned to be used for the May 2014 European Parliamentary elections. In recent polls, 20-25% of voters cast their ballots online.

Independent security researcher Harri Hursti, who observed operations in the election data center during October 2013, said there were numerous security lapses. “We didn’t see a polished, fully documented procedural approach of maintaining the back-end systems for these online elections,” said Hursti. Videos published by election officials show the officials downloading essential software over unsecured Internet connections, typing secret passwords and PINs in full view of the camera, and preparing the election software for distribution to the public on insecure personal computers.  “These computers could have easily been compromised by criminals or foreign hackers, undermining the security of the whole system” Hursti said.

Assistant Professor J. Alex Halderman from the University of Michigan, pointed to fundamental weaknesses in the I-voting system’s design.  “Estonia’s Internet voting system blindly trusts the election servers and the voters’ computers”, Halderman said.  “Either of these would be an attractive target for state-level attackers.”  Recent reports about state-sponsored hacking of American companies by China and European telecoms by the NSA demonstrate that these dangers are a reality, Halderman explained.

To experimentally confirm these risks, Halderman and his Ph.D. students recreated the Estonian “I-voting system” in their laboratory based on the published software used in 2013.  They successfully simulated multiple modes of attacks that could be carried out by a foreign power. “Although the Estonian system contains a number of security safeguards, these are insufficient to protect against the attacks we tried,” said Halderman.

In one attack, malware on the voter’s computer silently steals votes, despite the systems’ use of secure national ID cards and smartphone verification.  A second kind of attack smuggles vote-stealing software into the tabulation server that produces the final official count.  The team produced videos in which they carry out exactly the same configuration steps as election officials — but with the system under attack by a simulated state-level adversary.  Everything appears normal, but the final count produces a dishonest result.

“There is no doubt that the Estonian I-voting system is vulnerable to state-level attackers, and it could also be compromised by dishonest election officials,” said Halderman.  These attackers could change votes, compromise the secret ballot, disrupt voting, or cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election process.

The team recently arrived at these results and were so alarmed that they decided to urgently make their findings public ahead of the upcoming European elections, explained Jason Kitcat from the Open Rights Group.  “I was shocked at what we found,” explained Kitcat.  “We never thought we’d see as many problems and vulnerabilities as we did. We feel duty-bound to make the public aware of those problems.”

While some of the problems can be corrected in the short term through changes to the system, others stem from fundamental weaknesses that cannot be fixed.  With the growing risk of state-level cyberattacks, the team unanimously recommends discontinuing Internet voting until there are fundamental advances in computer security.

“With today’s security technology, no country in the world is able to provide a secure Internet voting system,” said Hursti.  “I would recommend that Estonia return to a paper ballot only system.”

Maggie MacAlpine, a Post-Election Audit Advisor said, “While Estonia has an excellent e-government system, which they should continue to develop, they should take the Internet voting element of that off-line. Estonia has a well organized paper voting system which they should revert back to.”

The full report and videos explaining the key findings will be published at https://estoniaevoting.org

NOTES FOR EDITORS

For queries contact estoniaevoting@umich.edu or Jason Kitcat at +44 7956 886 508.

The report authors are:

J. Alex Halderman, University of Michigan*
Harri Hursti, Independent Security Researcher*
Jason Kitcat, Open Rights Group*
Maggie MacAlpine, Post-Election Audit Advisor*
Travis Finkenauer, University of Michigan
Drew Springall, University of Michigan

* Authors who acted as election observers for 2013 Estonian local elections

ENDS.

 

Flaws found in Estonian internet voting system – PRESS CONFERENCE by independent team on this Monday 12th May in Tallinn, Estonia

PRESS CONFERENCE 12th May 2014 11:00am — Hotel Metropol, Tallinn

International Team of Independent Election Observers to deliver report on Estonian Internet Voting System

TALLINN, Estonia — An international team of independent experts will deliver their findings on the security of the Estonian E-Voting System this Monday.

This team of renowned experts on computer security and voting systems observed the use of Internet Voting in the 2013 Estonian municipal elections. Ahead of the 2014 European Elections, which plan to use the same internet voting system in Estonia, the International experts will introduce a report in which they explain their observations from 2013 and the results of their security analysis. Their analysis has identified serious flaws in the systems and processes used in Estonian internet voting.

The entire team will be at the press conference and available for interview afterwards to present and discuss their findings.

NOTES FOR EDITORS

For queries contact Jason Kitcat on jason@jasonkitcat.com or +44 7956 886 508

* The Press conference will be in the Hotel Metropol, Roseni 13, 10111 Tallinn, Estonia at 11am on Monday 12th May 2014. The press conference will be in English.

* The report and associated information will be later available from https://estoniaevoting.org

* The team who produced the report and who will be present at the press conference are:
J. Alex Halderman, University of Michigan
Harri Hursti, Independent Security Researcher
Jason Kitcat, Open Rights Group
Maggie MacAlpine, Post-Election Audit Advisor
Travis Finkenauer, University of Michigan
Drew Springall, University of Michigan

ENDS.

Local Government’s challenge: Digital Transformation

I recently had the privilege of addressing the first LGA Digital Workshop for council leaders and cabinet members. Held at my alma mater Warwick University, the 2 day session attracted nearly 20 senior councillors. I was really delighted that the event had been put on, with a range of essential voices like MySociety and Emer Coleman participating.

I’d been partly responsible for this workshop happening: When I addressed the Local Government Association’s staff conference last December one of my challenges to them had been to lead the sector’s digital transformation. So I’m delighted that they are rising to that challenge.

Here’s a précis of what I said to the Digital Workshop in Warwick:

As a sector we have to be honest with ourselves, the truth is that we have underinvested in our staff and their training.  It has been too easy to trim training budgets every year and whilst focussed on just keeping going. That staff do have digital skills is more down to chance – either they’ve brought them from earlier in their career, or more likely is that their own curiosity has helped them develop skills at home, such as through hobbies and voluntary work.
The scattering of digitally literate staff we have just isn’t going to be enough. Local government, for perfectly rational reasons at the time, has long under invested in technical infrastructure and skills. But moving forward that just won’t do, digital talent won’t just be a ‘nice-to-have’ but critical to our future.
It is far too easy for our conversations on ‘being digital’ to focus almost exclusively on social media. Of course social media is exciting and important, especially for us politicians who are always keen to be seen, but it’s just one small element of the bigger picture.
There is huge potential for digital tools to be transformational for local government. Unfortunately we are behind the curve on this transformation. For example: My last two employers before I became a councillor full-time were completely virtual – no physical offices – we collaborated online daily with only the occasional meeting in person each year. By comparison I find many councils still not particularly comfortable with conference calls, but culturally committed to lots of in-person meetings.
Our citizens’ expectations for our flexibility and responsiveness is continuing to grow. And of course the extreme budget pressures we are under mean we must find new ways of working. I don’t believe we can maintain quality public services in the face of budget cuts without a digitally-led transformation for our councils.
This will require us to maintain skills and leadership on the digital agenda within the sector and individual councils. Many larger private sector firms are in the process of ‘in-sourcing’ their IT staff from external and often overseas suppliers. They recognise that their digital competency is such a critical competitive advantage that they need to keep it close by. Agility, including quick response to changing demands and technologies, are facilitated by in-house talent which you don’t need to spend ages agreeing a contract and detailed specification for. They can try things out, iterate based on the feedback and move on. We need to be able to do that too, whilst still using external support in targeted ways.
in Brighton & Hove our research shows that up to 70% of our citizens would be willing to self-serve online. That’s a huge opportunity for us to do things differently, release resources for those not able to go online and be more efficient. We’ve made some progress on those…
For example our environmental services call centre saw an average 30% drop in calls after strategically using social media and web to proactively inform citizens of service issues and offer advice in the face of weather conditions.
We are also trying to proactively push information out to reduce the demand for getting in touch. So we have launched the first council Freedom of Information site powered by MySociety’s What Do They Know. Responses are published on the site in the name of openness and to help reduce repeated requests for the same things. Also to help with openness I host a regular webcast called ‘Open Door‘ to discuss key issues for the city. These are archived and are regularly referred to online as sources of information.
It’s important to never assume that we know who the audience is for digital channels. In some of our user research a young male construction worker with an iPhone struggled to complete simple actions on the web because he didn’t know how to use it. He didn’t know how to get online from his smartphone. All ages can be struggling with digital or happily surging away, so we must keep that in mind.
Also don’t assume that just because someone put a page on the council website that it’s useful! We’ve removed hundreds of pages of content from the council website with no complaints. The site is now easier to browse and less of a burden to maintain.
Unfortunately the politics of local government and historical attitudes often mean we have a low risk appetite. This failure to support ideas that could end in failure undermines the experimental and agile approaches which are essential to successful digital programmes. We must overcome this, I believe the risks of doing nothing are far greater than of trying a few things that might not work out first time.
Once this workshop is over, we cannot all return to our town halls and scratch around on this alone. We must collectivise our digital action. We must build on existing tools like personal data stores and the government identity assurance programme rather than creating hundreds of isolated ‘My Councils’. We must also avoid ‘divide and conquer’ by suppliers.
The success of the Government Digital Service (GDS) gives some ideas on how to move forward as a sector, including finding ways to attract and retain talent, this will need to include pay. The Local Government Association must be pushed and supported to build the local government sectors’ GDS equivalent.
So in conclusion, the opportunities from digital transformation for our councils are huge. But we aren’t there yet, by a long way. We need to ensure we have the right talent and skills in our councils, we must boost our risk appetites to enable iterative experimentation and we cannot go it alone – we must work together.

Learning more about the challenges social care faces

As the debate continues around our plans for a social care referendum, lots are keen to learn more about social care. Which is good news and exactly what we have been hoping for.

Scope and Age UK provide some of the best online resources, I’ve included two of their videos here, but do visit Scope’s Britain Cares and Age UK’s Campaign for Better Care to find out more.

//www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/zqK9p6lu6KE?rel=0

//www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/Qaapjg1lEXI?rel=0

UPDATED 22/2/14 to add King’s Fund video.

The crisis in local government funding: Why now is the time for a referendum (Part 2)

This is the second and concluding part on why now is the time for the citizens of Brighton & Hove to be asked whether they will support a 4.75% tax increase to protect council social care services. Part One is here.

Here in Brighton & Hove we have tried to absorb as much of the budget pressures as possible through being more efficient, more flexible and by reducing our footprint – in other words fitting our staff into fewer, more sustainable and efficient offices. This has yielded significant savings, but it won’t be enough for the very significant drops in funding the government plans over the next two years. In July 2013, based on government statements, council officers made their best predictions on how our core funding will drop in the coming years. Here’s their graph:

Main BHCC grant reductions

So in the face of this we do need to find more efficient ways of working – we have no choice. But we also need to raise money. We are looking at new ways of generating income, but those will take some time to pay dividends. More immediately we could increase fees and charges, but this isn’t always desirable, could only go so far and couldn’t possibly raise enough.

So the last option we are left with is council tax. It is an option that Eric Pickles has done his best to undermine and control local decisions with gimmicks like a ‘tax freeze grant’ and by adding an ‘excessive tax threshold’ over which councils are forced to seek permission for the increase through a referendum which can only be held after tax bills have gone out.

However for all its many imperfections, those with the biggest homes do pay more council tax and the poorest do get help paying it through our discount scheme known as ‘Council Tax Reduction’.

First though we need to understand the recent history of council tax in the city. In the last year of the Conservative administration they originally proposed a -1% council tax reduction, but this was amended to a freeze. Labour had originally agreed with us to still refuse the overall budget and revisit some of the other options. Sadly in the end Labour reneged, and supported the freeze. The next year Labour passed an amendment, backed by the Tories, to our first budget reducing a 3.5% council tax rise down to a freeze. It was only the year after that Labour, at the last moment, decided to support a 1.96% council tax rise.

Even setting aside the scale of government cuts in relation to our budget, what do these successive freezes do for the council’s financial position when compared with the pressures of inflation. This graph shows the situation since Greens took administration in 2011:

Total Green Inflation + Council Tax

As you can see, in real terms one of the only sources of income the council has influence over, is hugely behind inflation. It’s so far behind that it barely scrapes the surface of growing demand and government cuts. The imposition of a freeze by Labour and Tories in 2012 alone means that we have £3.7m less in the 2014/15 budget. Indeed we have cumulatively had £8.5m less since 2012 when compared with what our 3.5% proposal would have done. This additional income would have quite probably meant that we could have kept to a 2% rise for 2014/15. Many warned that freezes back then would lead to higher tax increases later, and this is proving to be case. Smaller, regular increases as we proposed was responsible, long-term thinking. Sadly, as Eric Pickles knew, too many were unable to resist the temptations of the short-termist freeze approach.

Let’s put all this history and our 4.75% proposal into perspective. Firstly let’s look at the average inflation and tax rises during our term in office and Labour’s terms:

Average CT + Inflation Labour vs Greens

Clearly Labour’s tax rises were far above inflation, while ours have been significantly below, even if the 4.75% proposal was to be agreed. And this was during the time of plenty. So in real terms council tax bills have been declining in value under Greens.

Now let’s look at the whole picture of tax increases and inflation since the city council was formed:

By party Council Tax + Inflation graph
Click for full sized graph

It’s important to note that the first budget of each administration is actually set by the previous administration just before the elections. So the 2011/12 budget, which we had to implement, was set by Tories in February 2011 just before we became the largest party in May 2011.

Clearly no party represented on the council today was averse to tax increases at one point or another when they were in charge. That continues to be the case: Right now we see Conservative-led councils like Kent advocating 2% increases and Sussex’s Conservative Police & Crime Commissioner just approving a 3.6% increase to her precept. Labour councils are seeking tax increases too and we see Labour council leaders backing our referendum proposal including from Preston and Brent.

What would our proposal cost? Setting aside Police and Fire precepts, which we don’t control, for our 4.75% proposals the majority of households would pay an additional £4.53 or less a month. It would raise £2.75m more than in our draft budget from December 2013 when we planned for a 2% rise. The extra money raised would go exclusively to protecting Home Care, Community Care, the supported employment service ‘Able & Willing’, and third sector grants. The nature of the budget and referendum processes mean it will be cast iron that the additional money raised would have to go to those services.

***

So there we have it. Our population is ageing, adding significant additional pressures on council budgets as we strive to deliver the care our most vulnerable deserve. We have an unprecedented scale of government funding cuts – which councils and political parties across the country agree is setting us up for a huge funding gap. And lastly, we have in recent years locally seen council tax fall well behind inflation meaning that it is not really contributing to relieving our intense funding pressures.

Social care is the council’s biggest area of spending, and is responsible for the most vulnerable in our society. The picture I’ve painted above shows that carrying on, even with the most clever efficiency savings we can possibly deliver, will mean a severe reduction in what care we can offer. I hope that isn’t what we want for our society. But now is the time to have the debate. The referendum process defined by government is imperfect, but it’s all we’ve got right now.

Some in the media want to skip straight to whether people will vote for or against the referendum question. That’s premature, right now we need to debate the reasoning for the referendum as I have set out here. We must discuss the principle of letting the city decide at this critical juncture for the future our public services, otherwise we risk this precious opportunity being rejected out of hand by a few councillors.

I believe it is right and just to ask the citizens of Brighton & Hove, before it is too late, “What future do you want for our elderly, disabled and vulnerable?”

Debate continues on Twitter under #bhbudget #brightondecides and #LetThePeopleDecide – join in!

The Brighton & Hove Independent are hosting a free public debate on the social care referendum on Monday 10th February at 7pm. Free tickets can be booked here.

The crisis in local government funding: Why now is the time for a referendum (Part 1)

There has been much political analysis in recent days over the ‘real’ reasons why I announced the Green administration’s plans for a social care referendum on a 4.75% council tax increase.

Opposition parties have tried to throw as much sand in the eyes of the public with a colourful array of false and misleading claims. I won’t dignify them further other than to say how unedifying it has been to see political leaders doing everything they can to avoid debating the genuine issues at hand: the huge financial pressures councils are under and the growing uncertainty over how social care can be provided into the future.

Let’s be clear, the reason I’ve proposed a referendum on a 4.75% tax rise for social care is because I think it’s the right thing to do. Let me now explain why in more detail.

In 2011 we made a commitment to publishing early drafts of council budgets to facilitate the consultation and engagement process. Every year so far the final budgets have changed for the better as a result of this process. It’s the right way to do things when we have to decide on the future of important services for our city. We did the same again this year and the feedback from the public, service users, advocacy groups and unions was clear. They were very concerned about the impact of budget cuts on the third sector and social care in particular. They’re not alone – the majority responding to the council’s budget questionnaire wanted funding to be maintained or increased for local services. Yet because of government cuts and growing demand for our services , we will have to spend £23m less for the coming 2014/15 financial year.

Why is social care under particular pressure? Well the number of people who need social care is growing. This includes those with physical and learning disabilities as well as the elderly. It’s no secret that as we are all living longer, the cost of social care is growing. Here’s a snapshot – looking at centenarians as just one of many examples – of how the ageing population is expected to grow in the coming years:

Growth of centenarians in the UK

 

Let’s bring that into the local context. Here are the ONS’ predictions for our city until 2021 along side the change in council funding from Government in a similar period:

 

Future population & council funding changes
Future population & council funding changes

 

Yes, the graph really does show over 85s increasing in number by 20%  and at the same time our government funding declining by 61%. This is why the cross-party Local Government Association has been doing increasingly detailed work on making clear the huge pressures councils face as austerity continues and pressures on services grows. This graph shows their predictions for unitary councils like Brighton & Hove:

 

LGA unitary funding forecast
LGA unitary council funding forecast

 

The gap between funding available and funding needed for existing services is incredibly stark: This is not for new or extra services – but just to keep things going. In local government circles this has been debated, with increasing angst, for some time. But it’s sadly the case that too little of this reality  has entered public debate.

Some have claimed that this is special pleading by the Greens but that’s simply not true. The Local Government Association has a cross-party consensus on the issue and their chairman, the Conservative Sir Merrick Cockell, has led the charge. Sir Merrick, also the former leader of Kensington & Chelsea Council has said:

“We are being pushed into a position where either things will fail or the system has to change … we can’t cope unless someone takes that big step … to change the way we operate … Vital services are being damaged because councils do not have a seat at the table to negotiate a fair deal for their communities.”

Similarly the Labour leader of Birmingham City Council, Sir Albert Bore has said:

“Birmingham faces a severe financial crisis. Politicians in Westminster are systematically dismantling services that maintain the very fabric of culture and community here.”

“These cuts will mean the end of local government as we know it … but that does not mean the end of local government. We now need to build the new local government that will replace it. We call on the government to make radical changes to the way local services are funded and provided.”

The Independent Mayor of Bristol, George Ferguson, has said:

“…every city in the UK is facing a massive budget challenge… It will not be without pain… No number of negative headlines will change the fundamentals: we [the city council] must balance our books…”

The Conservative leader of Devon County Council has said to local government ministers:

“The impact of [the] spending review has not been accurately portrayed… We cannot make these extra savings without reducing substantially the services we offer to the people of Devon.”

And the Labour Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson has said:

“I believe community cohesion is being seriously threatened by the lack of funding to our city and others. I believe that the so-called ‘summer-of-discontent’ will happen again if we do not address this issue.”

So the problems of funding cuts are real, are being expressed loudly by all parties and are already hurting local services across the land.

In part two I will look in more detail at the particular situation we find ourselves in Brighton & Hove and why I believe our proposal is the right way to proceed. UPDATE: Part two has now been published.

Meanwhile debate continues on Twitter under #bhbudget #brightondecides and #LetThePeopleDecide plus comment pieces have been published by Local Government Chronicle editor Emma Maier, The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins and others as well as lots of excellent blog posts.

Why we want to let the people decide on social care referendum

A version of this article was first published in the Brighton & Hove Independent.

Readers will know that public services have for the last few years seen significant government cuts. Here in Brighton & Hove we have so far been successful in protecting essential services by saving tens of millions of pounds through genuine efficiencies. But darker storm clouds are on the horizon.

Councils are facing what many are calling ‘a cliff edge’ in funding, and as a result huge chunks of services could disappear. Simply put, we can no longer absorb all of the government’s cuts whilst also meeting the increasing demand for our services from a growing yet ageing population.

Nationally councils have seen a 38% reduction in funding compared to Government only 8% trimming of Whitehall departments. And sadly, per head of population, Brighton & Hove has been one of the worst hit councils in the country.

We want to offer you, the residents of our city, a choice: accept the full weight of austerity cuts imposed on Brighton & Hove by Eric Pickles or else cast a vote for a fairer and more compassionate society. Let the coalition cuts take their toll, or agree to pay a little bit extra each month to fund care for older and disabled people in our community and protect funding for the city’s charities.

The increase in council tax we’re asking of residents will not only save services this year, but will improve their security for years to come. If agreed, the money will specifically go towards supporting home care, residential community care, day services, support for those with learning disabilities looking for work – as well as protecting grants to the city’s third sector.

The elderly have worked hard all their lives and deserve our continued support in their old age. And the city’s charities, social enterprises and not-for-profit organisations also provide essential services across all our city’s communities. We know that investment in our third sector benefits the city and residents many times over. Without additional funding, the Coalition’s cuts will seriously impact upon some of the most vulnerable people in our city.

We think it’s right that we trust the residents of Brighton and Hove to decide what they want from local services – particularly given the financial situation is so different to that when they voted in 2011. So we want to hold a citywide referendum in May 2014 on whether we should raise council tax by 4.75% for the coming financial year.

We ask the people of the city to vote in favour; to reject austerity in Brighton and Hove and help us to preserve a more compassionate society, one which cares for older and disabled people, supports social enterprises and protects the not-for-profit sector that is so vital to so many in our community.

The full announcement of the referendum can be viewed here.

2013 in review

A version of this article was first published in The Argus on Saturday 28th December:

The past year has been a challenging, but good, year for our city. We continue to outpace the national economic recovery with rising employment figures, low levels of shop vacancies and visitor numbers continuing to do well. Our schools, colleges and universities are all growing and outcomes are improving, indeed this year saw record GCSE results against a nationwide downward trend.

2013 saw Brighton & Hove Albion and the city council, win the right to host 2015 Rugby World Cup matches in the Amex stadium. The city’s wonderful Festival and the Fringe both had record years, and our museums have been doing very well. Public art and photography have continued popping up across the city thanks to a diversity of projects. Pride was better than ever this summer, and has plans afoot to do even more next year. The Brighton Marathon also had a bumper year and announced exciting plans for 2014. And we saw a Royal visit to open The Keep, our new public archives in Falmer.

Nevertheless our wonderful retail sector faces challenges as shopping habits change to online and household disposable incomes continue to feel the squeeze. Sadly many have less in their pockets each week, not just in inflation-adjusted ‘real’ terms as economists say, but because of sustained government cuts to welfare. Whilst most agree the welfare system needs reform and simplification, little of that promised change has happened. So far we’ve just seen measures that by 2015 will have taken £15 billion out of support for the poorest. In many cases councils are picking up the pieces. For example the benefit cap costs the council £1m a year to keep families in their homes and prevent homelessness. The government is celebrating the reduced benefits bills, whilst we, the local taxpayers pay the price.

These years were always going to be challenging for local councils. With an ageing population and a baby boom, we have more demand than ever before. We are helping thousands more people each year through our 800 council services. This increase alone is a pressure of £10-15m a year. Yet, we have a government not just failing to recognise and help us with that growing demand – but cutting our funding, making the situation worse. By 2015 councils will have seen a 40% cut in funding just as their services are in greater need than ever.

Unfortunately the austerity consensus between Tories and Labour in Westminster means that this situation will only continue. We have to do the best for the city in the circumstances – so what has been happening?

Many readers will have noticed the major transport improvements completed this year, thanks to external funding from the Department for Transport and others. The Lewes Road and Seven Dials have been transformed, improving safety for all. Brighton & Hove remains one of the ten worst areas in the UK for road safety, so more work is needed. We’ve also been successful in rolling out 20mph limits where residents support it. Thanks to these transport measures we’re seeing walking, cycling and bus use all growing significantly – crucial when we have more and more people living, working and visiting the city.

We’ve taken made major progress on big developments in the city  We’ve moved forward with the University of Brighton on developing Preston Barracks, and announced our plan to sell our seafront headquarters, Kings House. Lots of building has been underway such as the old Co-op on London Road, ‘Block J’ behind Brighton station, Woodingdean’s new library, the Brighton Housing Trust container homes and the Amex stadium expansion. We’ve also completed a major refurbishment of the Withdean Sports Complex and a number of council offices. Part of this involves working more closely with other public sector organisations – for example we now share Hove Town Hall with Sussex Police. Our parks and open spaces have seen lots of work this year too including installing chalky ‘butterfly banks’ and the revamped facilities at The Level .

It’s been a busy year for negotiating with government. After winning money for ultrafast broadband in late 2012, this year has been spent pushing government to let us spend it as they wrangled with suppliers and the EU. This was finally resolved a few weeks ago so 2014 should be an ultrafast year for the city. We’ve also been negotiating with government for a ‘City Deal’ to support the so-called Greater Brighton region. Clearly our residents’ lives don’t stop at municipal borders – so it’s important that we work with our neighbours to make progress together. At the time of writing we are very close to sealing an agreement which will support key developments across the city region to unlock economic development and empower our area.

This year we also completed the long overdue process of ensuring equal pay for all council workers. This should have been done more than a decade ago, but the political and logistical difficulties of doing so meant it was never fully tackled.. I know how difficult and unpleasant the dispute and subsequent strile was for all involved. But the end result is we now have clear and fair pay and allowances for all council workers and we’ve avoided the risk of legal challenges which could have left the council bankrupt.

We’ve also had great success with the living wage campaign. The council was accredited as a living wage employer this year, and a few weeks back the campaign celebrated over 100 local employers providing a living wage or more to all their staff. The campaign is led by the city’s Chamber of Commerce with council support, the only campaign of this type in the UK. Thanks to its work, over a quarter of the living wage employers in the UK are right here in Brighton & Hove – a wonderful milestone.

In April we were recognised as the world’s first One Planet City by sustainability charity BioRegional. This means our plans to reduce our environmental impact have been independently assessed to be credible, but we’ve still go to do the work of implementing them. That work is well underway.

We as a Green Group of councillors published our mid-term report in the Autumn which showed our strong record of delivery since May 2011. Three quarters of our manifesto commitments have been done or are on course to be completed. Straight after that the city hosted the Green Party conference in the city, followed by the Labour Party conference – both great for the local economy.

Looking ahead to 2014, we’ll need to complete the very challenging annual budget process for the 2014/15 financial year and start preparing for the 2015/16 council budget. There are no easy choices left for councils. But I’m committed to doing the best we can for citizens with whatever government leaves us in our spending pot.

In 2014 I hope to be signing the Greater Brighton City Deal with government and seeing developments move quickly after that. Almost immediately we will be working with our Local Enterprise Partnership to negotiate a ‘Growth Deal’ between government and our region. This will be our main source of funding for transport projects in the city in the future, a successful deal is crucial.

Meanwhile we’ll be completing the rollout of communal recycling and pay by phone parking in the city. We also have major work to do on the seafront ,balancing our local economy whilst finding the £100m cost of maintaining the rapidly ageing structures holding up the promenade.

Another absolutely key task is transforming social care and the local health system overall. Almost everyone agrees that council social care and the NHS need to work better together to improve services for our residents and make sure it’s affordable.

Many challenges and opportunities lie ahead in 2014. We will keep supporting those in need, helping local businesses and charities while delivering services. Brighton & Hove moves into 2014 in a strong position, with a creative energy ready to surprise and impress as we continue to attract visitors from far and wide. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Two letters lobbying Iain Duncan Smith

I’ve not had the time to blog much lately, apologies. You can catch up with my weekly column on The Latest or Brighton & Hove Independent websites.

Below are two letters to Mr Duncan Smith highlighting serious concerns about how his department is treating local government.

To Iain Duncan Smith in the Department for Work and Pensions:

Dear Secretary of State,

We appreciate that the introduction of Universal Credit is no longer on the government’s original timetable. While delays that help ensure effective implementation are to be welcomed, I need to alert you that this creates additional financial pressures for councils.

You may be aware that the administration of housing benefit is funded by a specific grant from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). I am sure the original intention of this grant was to fully support local government in providing a service on its behalf. However unfortunately its costs have long outstripped its funding – in the latest national comparative figures available, 2012/13 national Housing Benefit Administration expenditure was expected to be 74% higher than the grant ( 102% in London and 69% in Unitary authorities) and for Brighton & Hove this was 98% – representing a subsidy from the council’s General fund of £2.938m. The administration grant continues to be subject to reductions, 10% for 2014/15 and yet the delays to the implementation of Universal Credit alongside reforms mean that efficiency savings of this magnitude are increasingly challenging. For example as individuals find they need to take more than one job or find themselves moving in and out of work more frequently so their circumstances require more frequent reassessing from a benefits perspective. This adds additional cost and complexity that will only be resolved at the point at which Universal Credit is introduced. In 2014/15 the gap between expenditure and income for Housing Benefits for Brighton & Hove is expected to be £3.397m – a direct subsidy from the council’s General Fund to deliver a DWP programme. While the council continues to review and benchmark its service against comparable local authorities, there is no evidence at the moment that this is out of line with others.

We appreciate that there is a desire to constantly improve efficiency and reduce costs to the taxpayer. We, like many authorities, have successfully driven down our costs while maintaining high standards of service. However there does come a point, when service effectiveness is a matter of having enough resource to meet demand and while we continue to strive to make our service more efficient the gap between funding and actual cost is an increasing burden that Local Government cannot afford to accept on the DWP’s behalf.

I therefore call on you to reconsider the funding position for HB admin subsidy to let our costs be covered. The money that has been taken out of the admin grant over the years makes it increasingly difficult of us to deliver this statutory social security benefit on your behalf. Other local services have had to be cut to fund our ongoing delivery of this national benefit. I do not believe taxpayers would consider this fair or justifiable.

I await your response.

Thank you
Cllr Jason Kitcat
Leader of Brighton & Hove City Council

—–

 

Dear Secretary of State,

Proposals to implement a Single Fraud Investigation Service (SFIS)

We are aware that the Autumn Statement 2013 has confirmed that government plans to implement a Single Fraud Investigation Service (SFIS) during 2014.

Brighton & Hove City Council is very concerned at the current plans to operate SFIS as an organisation wholly managed and operated by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). We believe current plans have been adopted without due consideration to local authorities’ views and without full consideration of the impact such changes would have on counter fraud activity outside of SFIS, especially those areas under the remit of local government. We would strongly urge you to reconsider how SFIS is implemented.

We recognise that SFIS could be a great opportunity to make a real difference to investigating welfare and related frauds and to work in a truly collaborative way. As it stands, we believe that local authorities will be left more vulnerable to fraud attacks if current proposals go ahead. We also believe that reported savings of operating SFIS could therefore be offset by wider fraud losses across local government.

In this council, not only do we operate a Housing Benefit investigation team but we also host one of two National Anti-Fraud Network (NAFN) offices that provides first class data and intelligence services to over 350 councils. Through these services, currently it is common for local authorities to link investigations together e.g. ‘blue badge’ fraud and benefit frauds; housing tenancy fraud and benefit fraud.  Under SFIS proposals, much of the benefit of this type of combined investigation will disappear, as will any links between local authority corporate fraud work and SFIS. This simply does not make sense.

Allied to this, there will be no or limited links between SFIS investigations and Council Tax Reduction Scheme investigations. Again, a collaborative approach would be our preferred solution rather than two separate investigations undertaken by different organisations with potentially two separate prosecutions being undertaken at the same time. There is potential for significant process duplication and preventable costs.

At Brighton & Hove, in common with a number of authorities, we have recently set up a Corporate Fraud Team to undertake fraud investigations across a wider spectrum of our activities. We are concerned that the current proposals do not provide sufficient time to develop this unit and also that any work it carries out in future will be in isolation from SFIS. Again, this would not appear to be well thought through, especially with the introduction of powers to make housing tenancy fraud a criminal offence.

NAFN is recognised as a centre of excellence in local government and its services extend well beyond local authorities. For instance, NAFN processes all of the DWP’s fraud related vehicle checks. The introduction of SFIS as currently proposed would be likely to reduce NAFN resources considerably and therefore the impact on the wider fraud community in terms of protecting public funds could be considerable.

We are also concerned about the impact on localism. Centralisation of welfare benefit fraud investigations would appear to go against the grain of the localism agenda supported by the rest of government.

We would strongly urge further constructive and meaningful consultation on current proposals so that we can identify a solution that would be beneficial to all areas of central and local government.

Should you have any queries or wish to discuss the matter any further, I would be most willing to provide further information or meet you to talk through these issues.

Yours sincerely,

 

Councillor Jason Kitcat                              Councillor Leslie Hamilton

Leader of the Council                                 Chair of the Audit & Standards Committee