RT @cnnbrk: Pakistan Airlines flight bound for Manchester diverted to London airport, escorted by fighter jet, airport rep says.
I’ve been the Chair of Lewisham’s Audit Panel since 2010 and during that period we’ve done a lot of work to create transparency over how we use interim managers and consultants. Now every single interim consultant and their pay is available for the public to see. Previously, confidentiality agreements meant we needed permission to ask interims whether we could publish their pay online, but over the last two years, their contracts have been updated to stipulate this is a requirement of the council. No publication, no pay.
Political party “Lewisham People Before Profit” has accused the Council of wasting money on consultants.
Instead of actually doing their research and providing a critique of how we use consultants, they have resorted to base populism. The issue is, if you tell the public that the local council is wasting their money, it’s very difficult to then persuade them to support local public services. Lewisham People Not Profit have ended up doing the Tories job for them, resorting to quick sound bites that do little to illuminate a complex issue, but a lot to damage trust in our local Council.
Some of the consultants we use are very expensive indeed. This is not a fact lost on the Audit Panel as we’ve scrutinised the decisions of Officers. But there are projects that simply could not have been delivered without talented external expertise: we would not have rebuilt every secondary school in the borough in the past few years without people who had the experience to deliver projects worth hundreds of millions of pounds. We did not have this experience in house.
So here are the facts:
The number of senior interim posts has fallen from 19 in Jan 2011 to 17 by the end of July last year.
The number of paid consultants has fallen from 24 in Jan 2011 to 11 by the end of July last year.
The next report on this will come to the Audit Panel in the Summer, and again we’ll be asking questions on this and doing the work that People Not Profit simply aren’t.
In recent years, there has been a serious problem with street drinking in the Hither Green Lane area. Many local residents (unfairly, in my view) have associated this problem with the residents of St Mungo’s homeless hostel which has worked hard to tackle this problem. What is clear is that extending licenses in this area would exacerbate the problem. So it’s extremely galling to see ethical food trader, the Co-op (Hither Green Green Lane, SE13 6QH) apply to extend its license to sell alcohol at 7.30am in the morning.
Unfortunately it is too late to place an objection. The hearing at Lewisham Council is on the 17th April at 7.15pm and has been moved because of resident representations. Members of the public are welcome to attend but are not allowed to address the committee. To attend please fill in this form quoting reference PL0250.
I will be speaking to my fellow councillors on the committee as a matter of urgency.
Councillor Mike Harris, one of 3 Labour councillors for Lewisham Central said:
“It is beyond belief that the Co-operative, an ethical retailer, wants to sell alcohol at 7.30 am in an area next to a homeless hostel. Hither Green Lane already has a problem with street drinkers which we’re working hard to tackle. Selling alcohol earlier will only make matters worse. I hope they will withdraw this application before the 17 April.”
Blogger Jacqui Thompson is now £25,000 poorer after losing a libel action against the chief executive of Carmarthenshire county council, Mark James. The judge found the posts on her Carmarthenshire Planning Problems blog to be defamatory and that she was engaged in an “unlawful campaign of harassment, defamation and intimidation targeted against Mr James and other council officers”.
Yet while Thompson paid for the case out of her own pocket, the ratepayers of Carmarthenshire paid for the chief executive’s libel action. In these straitened times, is it really fair that taxpayer’s money is being used to fund a libel case?
Carmarthenshire council is not alone. South Tyneside council is paying for its chief executive and council leader to bring proceedings against one of its own councillors. In South London the Durand Academy, a primary school, has on multiple occasions funded libel claims. This is a live debate with the government’s Defamation Bill (the first wholesale reform of our archaic libel law since 1843 ) currently passing through parliament after a long fight by the Libel Reform Campaign. An amendment tabled in the House of Lords by the Labour party, with support from influential Tory Peer Lord McWhinney and Liberal Democrat Peer Anthony Lester will (if passed by the Commons) block corporations and public bodies from suing individuals for libel, unless the libel has caused “substantial financial harm”. However an important loophole remains.
Public bodies themselves cannot sue for defamation. Derbyshire county council vs. Times Newspapers Ltd (1993) rules out public bodies from suing for libel. Lord Keith’s judgement makes clear the importance of “uninhibited public criticism” of democratically elected and public bodies.
The remaining loophole is the judgement does not prevent public bodies from using taxpayer’s money to fund libel actions on behalf of their staff.
In the Carmarthenshire case, Mr Justice Tugendhat reiterated the importance of the bar on public bodies suing directly, and emphasised the greater latitude members of the public had in criticising public bodies, but did not believe that allowing councillors or officers of a local authority to sue for libel would infringe the right to freedom of expression. “The decision of the House of Lords is binding on me. But in my judgment there is nothing in the suggestion that it is contrary to Art 10 that a member or between officer of a local authority should be able to sue for libel,” he said.
He also refused to restrict the ability of public bodies to use taxpayer’s money to pay for libel actions on behalf of their employees saying that such indemnities needed to be challenged: “There are procedures by which the grant of an indemnity by a council to an employee in respect of the costs of litigation can be challenged.”
Yet the procedures to challenge are complex and only relate to whether the local authority is funding the libel action to circumvent the Derbyshire principle. The default position in law established by Mr Justice Sullivan in Comninos vs Bedford borough council is that councils can fund libel actions on behalf of their staff – unless challenged. Local bloggers can now find themselves sued by a council employee backed with the full financial weight of the local authority, and yet will only know whether this is legal or not if they challenge this funding separately. It’s hard to see how any blogger or citizen critic could fund such a challenge unless they have very deep pockets indeed.
These indemnities have a corrosive effect on local democracy. Local authorities, sensing the controversy over using taxpayers’ money to sue their own citizens, are not transparent about the costs of these claims.
I tabled a freedom of information request to Carmarthenshire to find out how much it had spent on the libel action. It refused to disclose this information, citing an exemption. From a wider request, I did find out that the council spent £891,433 in legal fees in 2012. This is the same county council that is making 450 people redundant and closing down training services for disabled people.
The defamation bill will continue the bar on public authorities directly suing their critics for defamation. Yet, without action to stop them directly funding libel actions on behalf of councillors or officers, the power and resources of the state can still be used to silence citizen critics.
It is self-evident that public servants should be able to sue for defamation if directly and unfairly criticised, but it is not fair to expect taxpayers in this period of austerity to pick up the bill.
This article was originally published on the Guardian Local Government Network on 2 April 2013.
As part of Lewisham’s Fairness Review, which I have been involved in as a member of the Public Accounts Select Committee, we’re trying to help more local businesses to successfully bid for contracts with the council. Currently only 14% of council suppliers are based in Lewisham.
Lewisham, like most local authorities, is under huge pressure to make drastic cuts of up to 30% of our budget. The Fairness Review recommended that the council should work closer with local businesses, rather than huge corporations, to meet this challenge. The Fairness Review has even led to a change in Lewisham Council’s constitution so that for all contracts under £40,000 it will be mandatory for the council to get a quote from a local firms. Lewisham will be adding all tenders to the “Supply4London” portal and publishing all payments to suppliers worth over £250 to show the opportunities available.
This builds on the work of the New Economics Foundation who have demonstrated that buying local is worth 400% more to local authorities due to the “local multiplier”. The multiplier means: –
· that every £1 spent with a local supplier is worth £1.76 to the local economy, and only 36 pence if it is spent out of the area. That makes £1 spent locally worth almost 400 per cent more.
This work by Lewisham Council will drive more money into the local economy with the aim of cutting local unemployment and giving home-grown businesses more hope for the future.
This article on pay day loans was originally published by the News Shopper.
I once borrowed from a legal loan shark. I took out a loan of £100 and a week later, for the privilege, I had to repay £120.
At the time, I was between jobs and the Nationwide had helpfully slashed my overdraft.
I was lucky enough to escape this debt trap and pay back my debt – but for families across Lewisham using a loan shark is an everyday reality. In fact, Lewisham has London’s worst pay day loan problem – according to the Step Change consumer credit counselling service.
If you walk down Lewisham High Street, these pay day firms offer loans at rates up to 4,000 per cent. That’s a rate over 200 times even what an average credit card charges. Rip-off Britain is alive and well.
Yet, it’s clear that people don’t realise how expensive these loans really are. Normally when there’s a lot of competition, the price of a product falls – but even as new shops have opened up in Lewisham, the interest rate charged hasn’t fallen and may have gone up. The market just isn’t working.
In Lewisham, the average person who uses these short-term loans owes £530 and has two separate loans. We’ve got to help these people out of their debts.
At the end of September, Lewisham’s councillors debated legal loan sharks. We heard evidence that made my blood boil. I told our meeting that one loan company had sent an employee out in costume to promote their loans during the Olympic torch relay through Lewisham; another councillor said employees of one firm had given out leaflets outside the job centre queue in Catford.
Unanimously, with cross-party support every councillor backed Labour’s motion to try and tackle these parasites.
There’s a lot we would like to do but sadly the government won’t let us. We want the ability to stop new loan shops opening in the same way we can stop too many late night bars from congregating in the same street, and we would like the government to set a maximum cap on the interest that can be charged.
But there’s a lot we can do. The council supports Lewisham Plus Credit Union, an alternative to the big banks that can provide low cost loans to people. The cost of a loan with the credit union could be up to 20 times less than with one of the legal loan sharks.
You can help too. Instead of the miserly rates offered by the high street banks, you can save with the credit union so they can lend more to families at a reasonable rate – you could even earn a better rate of interest on your savings!
This article on pay day loans was originally published by the News Shopper.
Local people need to pass this message on to their family, friends and neighbours, as credit unions don’t have big advertising budgets but rely on word of mouth recommendation.
I’m also calling for Lewisham’s residents to sign a national petition calling on the government to give councils the powers to hold back the endless spread of legal loan sharks.
The recession has made this problem worse, with more people relying on credit to make ends meet. But it’s a false economy as the unregulated wild west of legal loan sharks is shackling the UK’s poorest borrowers with the highest price for credit in Europe.
Yet, this industry doesn’t need to exist – for most people their local credit union or building society can lend them money cheaper. Together we can help people out of their debt traps, but as a community we need to take action, and now.
Lewisham’s Big Olympic Conversation
Now this looks really fun…. A message from your local council:
What are the people who live in your area really like? What’s important to them, and what are their fears? What might you find out about yourself by talking openly to someone you’ve never met before?
Lewisham residents are being encouraged to find out by coming to the Big Conversation on Wednesday 8 August at 7pm in the theatrical Spiegeltent at the Lewisham Big Screen on Blackheath.
The format is very simple – it’s a conversation over dinner. Guests sit with someone they’ve never met and are served a simple meal along with a ‘menu of conversation.’ The menu offers a choice of questions designed to help them open up and think about their life in new ways. The questions will be based on the Olympic and Paralympic values.
Since January 2011, Lewisham Council has been working with Theodore Zeldin, the philosopher and historian who pioneered conversation dinners. Zeldin will return to Lewisham on 8 August to host the borough’s biggest conversation dinner yet.
This is a free event. Seats will be allocated on the day, so it’s best to arrive early. Guests can bring friends along, but should remember that they will be seated with someone they don’t know.
Theodore Zeldin was awarded France’s Légion d’Honneur in May 2012 in recognition of his many works on French history and habits.
Sanctions against councillors who express an opinion are overzealous. Finally, a judge has stood up to such nonsense
This article was originally published in The Guardian on Wednesday 9 May.
This article was originally published in The Guardian on Wednesday 9 May.
Last year, I was reported to the standards board of Lewisham council for tweeting concerns that last summer’s riots were spreading to our area (which they did – you can read my tweets here). I was bizarrely accused of inciting riots.
The intervening weeks weren’t much fun. I wondered whether the board would publicly reprimand me, leading to my possible suspension from my political party, or whether I’d be banned altogether from the council chamber for six months – unable to vote on issues directly affecting my constituents. In the end, the claim against me was thrown out. But every year, claims are brought against councillors. One individual made 170 complaints about their local authority and elected members, at a cost to taxpayers of £160,000. Not a single one of their complaints was upheld.
You’d expect councillors would be encouraged to speak out on behalf of their voters. But over the past decade a new culture encouraging “standards” has deadened lively public debate in local government. In 2007-08 of 3,547 allegations investigated by the now abolished Standards Board of England & Wales, only nine ended up with sanctions applied against councillors. The investigations weren’t just a complete waste of £10m a year of taxpayers’ money; the threat of investigation and subsequent negative publicity had a negative effect on free speech.
The code of conduct, written by the dead hand of bureaucracy, pays little thought to the importance of free speech. Councillors are expected “not [to] conduct yourself in a manner which could reasonably be regarded as bringing your office or authority into disrepute”. And to “show respect and consideration for others”.
These clauses are so broad as to be meaningless. What they do is give your opponents a powerful toolkit to use against you. Across the country, where councillors have been reported to local boards, their opponents have printed mischievous leaflets saying that an “investigation” was under way into their behaviour. Many complaints taken through the Standards Boards don’t come from voters, but from other political parties that use these boards for their own advantage.
Since the abolition of the Standards Board of England & Wales by the coalition, local boards comprising of independent members and councillors have overseen the conduct of the elected. It has saved money and weeded out some of the most ludicrous cases, but confusion continued as to the boundaries of free expression. One of the most infamous cases concerned a tweet by former Cardiff councillor John Dixon while shopping in London: “I didn’t know the Scientologists had a church on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off.”
After being reported for a breach of the code of conduct (from a Scientologist living in East Grinstead, Sussex), Dixon was cleared as his tweet was made in a private capacity, not as a councillor. Yet, the public services ombudsman for Wales who referred the case to Dixon’s local board for judgment, said Dixon “may” have breached the code. The ombudsman’s witless judgment is worth quoting from: “I am, however, concerned that a member who has served his community for over 10 years and has recently attended training does not appear to understand the provisions of the code, particularly paragraphs 2(1)(b), 4(b) and 6(1)(a). I also note that Councillor Dixon has not shown any remorse for his actions.”
Finally, a judge has stood up against this type of nonsense. Mr Justice Beaton’s decision in the high court declared that elected politicians should “possess a thicker skin and greater tolerance than ordinary members of the public”. His ruling that political speech is protected under article 10 of the Human Rights Act is a judicial rebuke to these inquisitions.
This case concerned Councillor Lewis Malcolm Calver’s blog, which contained sarcastic comments on the council chairman. Hardly the most scurrilous blog written about local government, but it landed Calver in trouble with the Adjudication Panel for Wales, which ordered he undergo training and publicly admonished him for “snide comments” (no, really). Thankfully, Calver’s victory will now establish a higher threshold for cases against councillors to proceed at standards boards.
There has for years been an extremely effective way for citizens to express their concerns about a councillor’s language or behaviour: by not voting for them. And no one would question that there should be locally set standards for those in public office. However, enforcing the nebulous concept of “respect” is a charter for those who oppose a particular policy or party to drag local politicians through the mud of an official investigation. The sanctioning of penalties against elected officials, for behaviour that is not illegal, has gone on for too long. It has taken the judiciary to finally stand up for the free speech of those elected by the public.
The Young People in Lewisham report was commissioned by the Labour Group as part of our ongoing policy review. Lewisham is one of the most innovative Councils in the UK in its dealings with young people. As the first UK borough to have a directly elected Young Mayor with a significant budget, we are looked up to across Europe as a place where young people are taken seriously and given influence and power. This report attempts to build upon that radicalism. I chaired the report committee and we had fantastic contributions from: Kieza Silveira De Sousa and his advisors, Shiv Malik, Cllr. Alan Smith, Cllr. Alan Till, Cllr. Crada Oneugbu, Cllr. Jacky Addison and Ben Dixon.
The government of the United Kingdom’s annual budget is set during a moment of pure political pantomime. While drinking an alcoholic drink, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (akin to the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury) stands in the chamber of the House of Commons and reads out a list of statistics and figures meant to illustrate his command over the nation’s finances. Under the previous Labour government, Chancellor Gordon Brown’s set speech would be a marathon list of additional public spending. Yet times have changed. The fiscal restraint promised at the beginning of Britain’s Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government has morphed into a budget that would please grassroots Tea Party activists—with huge cuts to welfare to pay for a tax cut for the richest 1 percent of UK earners. The wildest fantasies of the Tea Party movement are being implemented across the Atlantic, in a chilling warning for U.S. progressives.
The British Tea Party?
George Osborne, Britain’s current Chancellor of the Exchequer, leaked almost the entirety of his speech in advance. Even so, the details have been truly shocking. Pensioners, children, and welfare claimants will all be hit to pay for tax breaks for the richest 1 percent. There will be a cut in the top tax rate (on incomes over £150,000, or about $235,000) from 50 percent to 45 percent and big cuts in corporate taxes. Middle-class pensioners will lose nearly $500 a year, and the 18 million people in the UK on some form of welfare (usually lower-income families) will lose $800 each. On average, workers earning $30,000 will lose $300 in welfare, with single parents working up to sixteen hours a week losing a staggering $6,300.
Yet Britain’s millionaire bankers will pocket nearly $70,000 a year each in tax breaks, and the corporate sector will see its tax rate fall from 28 percent to 22 percent by the end of this parliament—18 percent lower than the United States, 16 percent lower than Japan, 12 percent below France, and 8 percent below Germany. This is the total tax rate—there are no state corporate taxes in the UK.
Before the budget, the coalition’s mantra that “we’re all in this together” was found to be wanting. The previous budgets redistributed income away from the poorest 10 percent of the population. They lost out more than any other group—except the very richest. The graph below was produced before the top tax rate was cut from 50 to 45 percent. With the reduction, it’s likely that the poorest are paying the most for the economic crisis.
Welfare cuts in Lewisham
The welfare cuts are near fatal to the post-1945 consensus on health care, housing, and benefits for children. In the area I represent, Lewisham in South-East London (a borough with around the population of Stockton, CA), over 9,600 people who rely on rent assistance may have to move homes. People regularly call on me in tears wondering where they will live as their welfare payments are slashed. Public workers who have seen their pay frozen for three years may in certain regions such as the North-East see the freeze extended for another decade until their pay falls below the private sector average. Anger is mounting. Young people tell me they expect last year’s rioting to happen again as youth unemployment stays above 20 percent.
The worry for progressives is that while the majority of Britons are being clobbered to pay for a tax cut for the rich, 58 percent of respondents to a poll before the budget said that the spending cuts were necessary. A significant 36 percent of those polled blamed the previous Labour government for the spending squeeze, not the current government doing the cutting.
In these circumstances, asking corporations and the richest 1 percent to help contribute to Britain’s huge budget deficit is not a big ask. That public polling shows a wariness to do so should send alarm bells ringing in the United States. Democrats need to ask how they can make the case for public spending during the worse crisis since the Great Depression. That case has been lost by progressives in the UK. America has a Tea Party out of power, the British Tea Party is already dismantling the state.
This was originally published by Dissent Magazine on 23 March.