Tag Archives: politics

Thoughts on whips and collective responsibility

Whipping, for the uninitiated, is the British term for party discipline. Essentially the party leadership decides if a vote is ‘whipped’ and if it is then all party representatives in the council or Parliament have to vote along the agreed line of the leadership. If they don’t then various forms of discipline are used from simple threats to taking away plum jobs including the extra payments they attract. There have been many tales of the extraordinary and terrible lengths some Whips (those ‘whipping’ their colleagues into voting along party lines) have taken to impose party discipline. This has led to some taking a view that the whipping system is ‘part of the problem’ and should be avoided. Perhaps, but it depends on what purpose you believe parties and elected representatives serve.

Having spent 8 years as a councillor in a party which constitutionally doesn’t allow whips I have some thoughts on this whole issue. I should note that I am no longer involved in party politics and these are just my personal reflections.

So on the matter of purpose – I don’t believe that parties and elected representatives (councillors, MPs, MEPs) are simply delegates of their electorate, party selectorate nor party machinery. Their role is to be representatives who use their best judgement and considered deliberation to come to decisions in the best interests of the collective good for their city, county or country. But of course parties stand for election on a platform, a manifesto of principles and policies. If elected then they are expected to deliver on those promises. So party discipline is understandable in furthering the cause of progressing the promises made to the electorate. There is a natural, unavoidable tension between this need to deliver the party’s platform versus the individual judgement of each representative from a party who may not have entirely agreed with the party’s electoral platform in the first place.

Unfortunately, as I alluded to earlier, party discipline such as through whips, is open to abuse – it can be used to impose ‘government business’ which is in no way a manifesto promise, it can also be used to protect a leader’s position. Whips are not infallible by any means though, parties with the most terrific whips offices still see rebellions happen.

Top-down leadership typified by whipping works in a crisis, for example it’s essential for the emergency services. But in considering the big issues facing public services a more collaborative approach is needed for success. Yet on the other hand no organisation nor political party works if it is merely a collection of individuals. There must be some sense of collective – the greater good, which can logically lead to some way of maintaining that collective through discipline. Tensions abound!

The intentions were good for the system I had to work with in the Green Party: Nobody could be forced to vote against their conscience, a party line couldn’t be imposed. The implication was that deliberation would lead to collective views. Indeed that was what we usually did in the Brighton & Hove Green Group of Councillors. While I was Leader of the Council, I was quite separately the Convenor of the Green Group which I felt to be an important and helpful distinction. I had a clear task to present key issues for the group’s deliberation, to convene colleagues over the big decisions. We would deliberate openly amongst colleagues before taking a vote on what our view was.

Unfortunately, while some felt that they should follow the group’s collective view even if they personally didn’t agree (which was my approach), some felt that the party’s constitutional position allowed them to always break the group’s collective position. Technically I’m sure this was allowed and we had a protocol so that people would let me know they were going to do this. However it made for appearances of a group that was divided and disagreed on too many issues.

Having pondered this at length I think we saw a clash between individualism and collectivism in how colleagues approached our decision-making. Indeed I think we are now seeing this played out in all political parties: Across the political spectrum I see those who feel their personal ideological and political purity trumps a collective party position in pretty much all circumstances. My personal view is that politics and public policy are inherently collective so the individualistic approach holds some irony. But I also understand the pressures to individualism that politicians face when lobby groups challenge each and every vote, towing a party’s collective view can be thankless especially if you don’t understand or agree with the party’s decision-making processes.

Despite the pressures of being without the simplicity of a whip to impose the party line we did manage to deliver over 85% of our manifesto promises in Brighton & Hove. All the same I’m sure one of the challenges of the next decade has to be find ways to avoid politics descending into self-indulgent individualism, to find models and tools for reinforcing the idea of the collective in decision-making and party discipline.

Is past performance a guide to the future? The Brighton & Hove Green council’s end of term report

I happened to hear a bit of BBC Radio 4’s World at One yesterday. Presenter Martha Kearney was trying to explore the issue of manifesto promises: Does legislating on them help (as per the Conservative’s announcement on taxation yesterday), how often are they broken and do people actually trust the promises made. In service of this topic she interviewed Labour’s Rachel Reeves and the Conservative’s Michael Gove, both senior national parliamentarians for their respective parties. Rachel Reeves spent most of her interview mentioning reams of the promises Labour are making in their 2015 manifesto, while avoiding the questions on her party’s past performance. Meanwhile Michael Gove kept wanting to rehearse in detail his party’s past achievements while avoiding Kearney’s exhortations to expand on the promises they were making for the future.

It seemed a rather odd and unsatisfying set of encounters for a rather key point central to electioneering: the manifesto pledge. Apparently we are seeing huge pledge inflation, more pledges are being made and manifestos are getting fatter than ever. But what value are pledges when future circumstances are likely to change? And can we make any judgements for their future governing based on parties’ past performance? Mr Gove justified his desire to rehearse his party’s record in government on this very basis, that because (in his view) they had delivered on previous promises their future ones could be trusted. Then why legislate your tax pledge was Ms Kearney’s rebuttal.

I don’t think manifesto pledges can be the only part of electioneering, one should also be considering for example the personal values and judgement of future representatives. But past performance, where available, is also a useful metric if not a guarantee of future progress.

So in the spirit of openness I published the Green minority administration’s record last week. On election four years ago we almost immediately began tracking the 195 pledges we’d made in our 2011 manifesto. By our own judgement we are on course to deliver over 85% of those pledges. I think that’s pretty a good result for a minority administration running a council for the first time in our party’s history during a period of unprecedented austerity cuts to our budgets. But I might be biased!

What’s interesting is how few administrations locally or nationally produce such end of term reports, nor do independent bodies provide such analysis either. If we are seeing ever more pledges being made, then that does give ever more opportunity for such progress reporting to be done. Perhaps something for FactCheck, IFS and others to consider for 2020?

You can download the full PDF Brighton & Hove end of term report here.

My farewell speech to Full Council

Here are my remarks this evening to my last meeting of Brighton & Hove City Council after having been presented the LGiU Judges’ Special Award for Contribution to Local Government by the Mayor.

Dear colleagues

It has been a huge privilege and honour to serve on this council for the past eight years and as your leader for these past three years. I believe I leave the city and our council are in a better condition than it was four years ago.

We don’t always agree, nor should we, it is in debating our differences that we have represented our city as the tough decisions have been made.

But I am in no doubt that you are all here because you want to make a difference. I very much hope that continues with whoever the next 54 councillors of this city will be in May. I also hope that the good grace and humour with which we usually treat each other can continue – our common passion for the city, in putting city before politics is what should unite us.

The next council faces an incredible prospect, bittersweet in many ways. Budget cuts continuing beyond what any modern councillor has experienced. No councillor would have wished to deal with such significant and unrelenting budget pressures. Yet at the same time few could have dreamed that finally devolution could be moving so quickly after such a long wait. Juggling those two changes will I’m sure be challenging, exciting and hugely important for our future.

As your leader I have had the privilege to attend a number of events and conferences in the UK and Europe which have always left me with a clear impression: Brighton is a global city, one which has a fantastically good and strong reputation around the world. Every mayor I have met knows Brighton and most have visited. Treasure this, few cities our size have anything like the reputation or recognition we do.

Also we are all fortunate to have an incredible cadre of officers working for us. True public servants who work so hard with such passion, integrity, creativity and talent. Let’s keep nurturing them and showing our appreciation.

I’m extraordinarily grateful for the privilege you have bestowed on me in being your leader these past few years. I have done my best to serve this city and the council in all that I have done. Any achievements and progress I have made for our collective endeavour has only been possible due to one person who very fortunately is here with us today: My wife Ania who through her endless love, advice and support has made me able to do what I have done. Thank you.

Colleagues, I wish you all the best, thank you once again. Good luck for the future. In me you will have a lifelong champion for the great city of Brighton & Hove.

Thank you.

Starting the 2015/16 budget process

The Coalition Government’s relentless cuts to councils, led by Secretary of State Eric Pickles, has created an extraordinary situation: Councillors of all parties across the country are united in their disgust at the way in which councils are being treated.

In recent days alone we’ve heard the Conservative Chair of the Local Government Association, Sir Merrick Cockell, warn once again of the devastating effects of the continued austerity measures imposed on councils. Sir Merrick’s successor as LGA Chair, Labour’s David Sparks, has also this week spoken out against the unsustainable funding situation facing council services. Meanwhile similar warning’s are being issued by the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS), the Rowntree trusts and many more.

There is a great deal of unity in expressing our deep concern about these national policies. We know we are only halfway through the government’s austerity programme, one which is set to continue regardless of who forms the next government after the general election.

But when it comes to the local decisions of how to best cope with these cuts, the differences start to emerge. Even experienced opposition councillors, who know options are few, can’t help themselves but blame the situation on whoever the incumbent party is. Local voters are too busy leading their lives to notice that across the country council administrations of every political hue are being forced to cut back.

All councils face the same crunch: Huge year on year reductions in government funding whilst service demand grows as the population increases, ages and health needs grow more complex.

In Brighton & Hove we face a £25 million hole in our budget for the next financial year, £18 million of that as a direct result of government cuts and the remainder due to increased pressure for our services.

As a Green minority administration we are committed to protecting the essential public services that our citizens depend on. So we will continue with a ‘value for money’ efficiency programme which has saved tens of millions so far. But that won’t be enough so we are also proposing a 5.9% council tax increase for next year. This is equivalent to £1.48 more per week for the usual comparator of a band D household, though the majority of homes in Brighton & Hove are in bands A to C.

This increase won’t plug the hole completely, but it will give us enough breathing room to retain public services, particularly social services for adults and children. We know that by making such bold proposals there is much greater engagement by residents in the realities of the huge challenges facing council finances. As the debates developed we’ve seen many agree that a greater contribution through council tax is needed to protect the services they value.

Opposition parties will continue to utter empty platitudes about the need to be more efficient and cut down on management, but citizens deserve better than such comments which could never plug our budget gap. We’ve saved tens of millions in efficiencies already, and reduced management spend to its lowest ever. Rather than having a go at each other, residents need their councillors to work together on the huge challenges ahead.

As a Green I’m committed to protecting public services, reducing inequality and improving my city’s wellbeing. These are particularly tough challenges at a time when budgets are being squeezed so hard. Yet I do believe that by backing a 5.9% tax increase we can keep supporting those in need while keeping Brighton & Hove great.

My plans for the future

In 2010 as a family we agreed that, if re-selected for the 2011 council elections, this would be my last term on the council, and so it will be. It has been a huge honour and privilege to serve the residents of Regency ward since 2007, it’s a wonderful area to represent. To have been able to serve my second term as a councillor in administration, leading our city, has also been an immense honour.

In dealing with the challenges we’ve faced, I’ve done all I can to contribute positively to our city for the benefit of all who live, work and visit here. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to achieve as a Green administration that I have led since 2012.

However at this stage in my life I am ready for a new challenge. I won’t be pursuing active politics any longer but do want to continue public service in some way. I have no firm plans as yet and intend to continue in my current role until the council term ends as there’s lots still to do.

This has been my decision, taken with my family.

My passion for our city is undiminished and I wish all those involved with continuing to support our city’s wellbeing the very best. You have my support and admiration.

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.

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