Sunday 28 February 2010

Loadsamoney Tories reject Independent Remuneration Panel’s call for a cut in allowances

At the full council meeting on Tuesday, the Conservatives will ignore a call from the Independent Remuneration Panel that councillors consider reducing their basic allowance by 1% in recognition that “the coming year will be a time of severe financial stringency in all sectors of the economy.”

At their Group meeting last week, the Conservative councillors voted overwhelmingly to ignore the Panel’s plea and have decided instead to keep their allowances the same as last year. Even this lot aren’t so stupid as to vote themselves another inflation busting increase just 9 weeks before the elections!

As the Panel correctly noted: “Many employees in the private sector are already subject to a wage freeze and some are being asked to accept reductions in salary”, but as all long suffering residents know, Barnet councillors are never willing to share our pain themselves.

The suggested reduction would cost each councillor a mere £99.74 off their basic allowance. Is it really asking too much to expect them to show some restraint when the warden service is being axed to save £400,000? A more warped sense of priorities you would be hard pressed to find.

By a very slender majority, the Conservatives voted to accept the Independent Panel’s recommendation to scrap the special responsibility allowance (SRA) paid to committee vice chairmen. There has never been any justification for these payments. As the Panel rightly pointed out:
“The only essential function of a Vice-Chairman is to chair a meeting or to be consulted on draft reports/minutes when the Chairman is unavailable – these are usually quite rare eventualities. Comparison with other local authorities’ SRA schemes reveals only a few cases of Vice-Chairmanships being recognised by SRAs.”
But it is unlikely that the scrapping of these allowances will result in any savings for the taxpayer. A high ranking official has told Don’t Call Me Dave that council leader Lynne Hillan would like to use this money to reward the cronies who are keeping her in power, by paying a new special responsibility allowance to assistant cabinet members - even though they have no official council function.

As author Vernon Coleman put it so succinctly in his book Bloodless Revolution:
“Our politicians live in a vacuum: isolated from honour, integrity and ideas; they are a product of circumstances rather than creators of circumstances; they are without dignity, imagination, honour or respect for themselves or anyone else.”

Wednesday 24 February 2010

Barnet Chief earns more than the Prime Minister

A report published by Barnet Council reveals that Chief Executive Nick Walkley is paid a basic wage of £200,000 a year - £20,000 more than the salary paid to his predecessor Leo Boland, and more than Prime Minister Gordon Brown is entitled to receive.

Mr Walkley’ s deputy, Brian Reynolds, is paid a staggering £180,000 a year - no doubt as a sop for missing out on the top job.

It is worth remembering that Mr Walkley was Barnet’s Executive Director for Resources when £27.4 million of taxpayers money was deposited in failing Icelandic banks and the Aerodrome Road bridge project went £11 million over budget. To reward him with a basic salary of £200,000 (plus pension) is grossly offensive to Barnet’s hardworking taxpayers - many of whom have lost their jobs in the recession.

In December 2008, the then Shadow Community Secretary Eric Pickles announced that the next Conservative government would purge the fat cats from Town Halls and Officers earning six figure salaries would lose their jobs.

A Party spokesman said at the time: “There is super-inflation of chief executive pay that bears no correlation to the level of services they provide. There is a bureaucracy and self-feeding hierarchy of senior officials that are completely unaccountable to the local community...This urgently needs to be addressed.”

In 2002, when the Conservatives won control of the council from Labour/LibDems, the Chief Executive was paid £113,100 a year - a salary which most people would still consider very generous today. Yet despite the Conservative Party’s clearly stated policy with respect to chief officer pay, Barnet’s ruling Tories are happy to keep splashing the cash with absolutely no regard for the taxpayers who have to pay the bill.

Tuesday 23 February 2010

Freer’s £933 phone bill. Paid for by us.

Following Don’t Call Me Dave’s recent accusation of a cover-up, Barnet Council has now released limited information regarding councillors’ expenses for the period 2008/09. Click on the image below for a larger picture or here to download the file as a PDF.

The most striking feature is the massive difference in the amounts claimed for telephone calls and line rental charges.

Some councillors did not claim anything at all, but of those who did, the telephone call claims range from £6.64 Terry Burton (Conservative) to £553.98 Mike Freer (Conservative).

The line rental claims range from £26.25 Wayne Casey (LibDem) to £379.21 for Mike Freer, whose total phone charges amount to £933.19 - far more than any other councillor. Nice to see Cllr Freer leading from the front again.

But why are some councillors claiming so much for line rental, compared to others? Fiona Bulmer (Conservative) was not far behind Mike Freer at £328.83, followed by Andrew Harper (Conservative) £290.51, Matthew Offord (Conservative) £269.88, Anita Campbell (Labour) £267.66, Barry Rawlings (Labour) £262.63, Helena Hart (Conservative) £253.82, Anne Hutton (Labour) £240.01, Jack Cohen (LibDem) £239.95 and Alison Moore (Labour) £231.85.

When you look at the cost of the phone calls, it is not unreasonable for the leader of the council to have a higher bill than the other sheep councillors, but how has backbench Labour councillor Gill Sergeant managed to run up a bill of £369.31, which is not only more than former deputy council leader Matthew Offord’s claim of £310.23 but also significantly higher than her own party leader Alison Moore’s claim of £275.27?

Backbench councillor Wendy Prentice (Conservative) spent a massive £311.45 on calls as did Jim Tierney (Labour) £274.67, Jack Cohen £250.64 and Daniel Webb (Conservative) £237.46.

With so many telephone calling plans available costing just a few Pounds a month, it does appear that Barnet taxpayers are not getting very good value for money.

Although the publication of these figures was long overdue, it does now beg the question as to what, if any, scrutiny of this expenditure takes place? Councillors claimed a total of £5,360.93 just on phone calls. Were they all made on official council business or did some unscrupulous councillors claim for party political and/or personal calls as well?

Whilst Mike Freer’s telephone claims were high, his £29.07 claim for stationery was very modest when compared to Wayne Casey £407.67, Brian Gordon (Conservative) £268.84, Sachin Rajput (Conservative) £234.82, Ross Houston (Labour) £196.85, Andreas Tambourides (Conservative) £193.17, Monroe Palmer (LibDem) £181.75 and Charlie O-Macauley (Labour) £172.79.

Additionally, Sachin Rajput claimed £686.25 for office furniture & equipment, making him the second most expensive councillor (excluding allowances) in the London Borough of Barnet with a total expense claim of £1,671.55 - just a fraction behind Mike Freer’s £1,687.74.

These claims pale in comparison to the claims made by Barnet’s three Members of Parliament but, as with all expenses, they should only be incurred wholly, exclusively and necessarily in the course of conducting official council business. Councillors must demonstrate to taxpayers that they have complied with this principle.

It is worth noting that Brian Salinger, who secured victory for the Conservatives in 2006 before being ousted by Mike Freer - under whose watch £27.4 million of taxpayers’ money was deposited in failing Iceland banks - is missing from the above list. That is because Cllr Salinger’s claims were, er, zero.

Monday 15 February 2010

The £18 Million Icelandic Black Hole

+++ This Article has been updated. See below +++

Last month, the Barnet Press reported that Barnet taxpayers’ stood to lose £9 million of the £27.4 million the council deposited in failed Icelandic banks.

This was in stark contrast to the preposterous and, frankly, deluded claim by former leader Mike Freer that the council would get all of its money back.

Don’t Call Me Dave is grateful to reader Johnny on the Web who has spotted two paragraphs (9.50 and 9.51) buried in the report to next week’s meeting of the Cabinet which suggest that the council’s losses will be a minimum of £10.4 million and could be as high as £18 million.

This is an almost incomprehensible loss of taxpayers’ money, yet still nobody in the council can bring themselves to apologise to residents left to pick up the bill for their borderline criminal behaviour.

The figures in the cabinet report appear to refer to the £27.4 million capital only. For the financial year 2007/08, the amount of interest due, but not paid, was £1.037 million*. For 2008/09, the figure increased to £1.513 million and for the current year it is likely to be another £1.5 million - more than £4 million in total since the Icelandic banks went into administration.

So taxpayers are actually facing the dire prospect of a £22 million black hole in the public finances. The council admits that these losses will have to be found from reserves and balances. No shit Sherlock!

Former Private Eye Banker Of The Year, Mike Freer, is standing down from the council in less than three month’s time. His enduring legacy will be to leave Barnet in a far worse financial position than the Conservatives inherited from Labour in 2002. Indeed, such will be the state of the public finances that generations will face increased council tax bills and/or cuts to frontline services.

Mike Freer is the Conservative Party's candidate for Finchley & Golders Green at the forthcoming General Election. Oh well, Barnet Council’s gain is Finchley’s loss.

* Due to Barnet adopting Enron style accounting practices, the accounts for 2007/08 were overstated because the council had included the receipt of this money even though, er, it hadn’t actually been received!


Speaking to the Barnet Times, council leader Lynne Hillan said:

“We are very confident we will get most of the money back, and although we have to account for some losses, hopefully the losses will be minimal.”

The council now acknowledges that the loss will be at least £10.4m and could be as high as £18m. Since when is £10 million "minimal"?

“There is no way it is going to increase any more. The very worse case, if everything fails, is reflected in the files.”

The technical term for this is “absolute bo**ocks”. On what rational basis can Hillan say "no way"? The council is looking at recovering just 31% of the money, but who can say for certain that the percentage won't fall further?

As all the people owed money by Hillan’s now defunct company Ashurst Direct Marketing Ltd recently found out, the dividend paid to creditors was precisely nil. £120,000 worth of debts and not a penny repaid. Where exactly did that money go, Lynne?

“It is very important we emphasise this will not effect the council budget and no front line services will be affected.”

Hillan is either deluded or thinks that we are if she expects us to believe that the council can lose £18million without it affecting council tax or services. Sure, Hillan can do a Gordon Brown and delay the pain by using a smokescreen and mirrors, but the black hole in the council’s finances will have to be filled eventually and the longer it is left, the higher the final cost will eventually be.

Saturday 13 February 2010

More Chiefs Than Indians

Rog T is running a quiz on his blog today with a big cash prize, so Don’t Call Me Dave thought he would hold a quiz as well - except without the prize.

Unlike Rog’s quiz, which has 25 questions, this has only one.

Why does Barnet Council need a Chief Executive, two Deputy Chief Executives and an Assistant Chief Executive?

Answers by e-mail to Cllr Lynne Hillan.

Friday 12 February 2010

Barnet Council Expenses Cover Up

Possibly the worst aspect of the MPs expenses scandal was that for several years so called “Honourable” Members tried to keep the full details of their grubby claims secret from those of us who have to pay the bill. But in the end, the truth prevailed.

Barnet Council is fighting a similar rearguard action to prevent taxpayers from knowing how much its 63 councillors claim in expenses. Despite former leader Victor Lyon stating publicly that the Conservatives would run an “open and honest administration”, there is still an obsessive culture of secrecy which permeates through every fibre of the council’s being.

Don’t Call Me Dave submitted a Freedom of Information request to Barnet Council on 19th May 2009 asking for the details of payments made to councillors. By law, such requests should be answered within 20 working days, yet nearly 9 months later DCMD continues to be fobbed off with various excuses:

1st June, 2009: “I have been allocated this request to deal with and am co-ordinating a reply. This will involve a certain amount of research into the records going back to 2006 but I expect to be able to respond to you by 15 June.”

8th July 2009: “On the allowances I need to get to grips with the system that records these, and will get back to you shortly - apologies for the delay.”

5th October 2009: “Apologies and thank you for your patience. My accountancy colleagues tell me they are working urgently to produce the information. There have been some software problems lately but the information should be available in the next few days.”

4th November 2009: “My renewed apologies for the delay. I am pleased to say that I do now have the information. On the other hand I am now required to run it past the members concerned for them to check and challenge if appropriate, and I am obliged to give them some days to respond. With great regret therefore I am estimating another week before I can forward this to you.”

11th November 2009: “To update you on the "notional allowance" expenses, I have sent the details to all members and have now received some dozen queries which I am ploughing through as quickly as I can.”

8th December 2009: “The position on the allowances saga is that I have received answers to the numerous queries received and am relaying these to the members concerned - I'm sorry for the continuing delay.”

8th January 2010: “I am devoting some time next week to bringing this saga to an end.”

11th February 2010: “I have revised details which I am now discussing with my superiors and I hope I can release something to you soon, but other than that I must reiterate previous apologies for the way this has dragged on.”

It is totally unacceptable to permit councillors to “challenge” details of the expenses already paid to them before releasing the information to the public. The payments are a matter of fact and council clearly knows how much each councillor has received. Perhaps, like MPs, some councillors have made claims to which they are not entitled?

It is also unacceptable that the council continues to withhold this information at the behest of unelected senior officers, oblivious to the requirements of the law.

The continuing refusal to publish full details of councillors’ expenses begs one simple question. What have they got to hide?

Thursday 4 February 2010

Freer’s Phoney MBA

Giving an interview to The Guardian yesterday, former council leader Mike Freer was clearly playing to his Socialist fan base audience when he called for the creation of “a common database on individuals that would prevent people being approached time and time again by different arms of the state” - even though Conservative Party policy is to oppose such databases.

But far more interesting than the interview was Freer’s c.v. It seems that the Tory candidate for Finchley & Golders Green studied accountancy and business law at Stirling University but flunked did not take his finals. No wonder Barnet taxpayers lost all that money in Iceland!

Astonishingly, however, Freer is claiming to have been awarded a “BT Vital Vision executive MBA, Harvard, Stamford and Berkley US” [sic]. To receive an MBA from one of America’s finest universities is a magnificent achievement, but from three? Outstanding!

As regular readers will recall, in 2007 Mike Freer spent £5,000 of taxpayers money attending the Vital Vision conference organised by British Telecom. But that is all it was - a conference. A spokesman for BT told Not The Barnet Times:
“BT’s Vital Vision programme does not offer a recognised qualification in educational terms however it is recognised by the Public sector as a distinguished programme. Berkeley University gives out a completion certificate to prove they have attended the full course.”
So there we have it. Mike Freer spends two weekends in America at our expense, receives an attendance certificate and then tells the world he has an MBA!

In the days when politicians were honourable, being caught telling an untruth on your c.v. was a resigning matter.