Posts Tagged ‘local government’

The use of consultants and interims by Lewisham Council

Written by Mike on . Posted in Lewisham Council

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.

Item 7 Consultants Audit Report Oct 12 Final Version Nov12 by m8149

Should public servants be able to use public money to sue for libel?

Written by Mike on . Posted in Free expression, Lewisham Council

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.

“Made in Lewisham!” Supporting business in Lewisham

Written by Mike on . Posted in Lewisham Council

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.

How my riots tweet landed me in hot water – at taxpayers’ expense

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, Lewisham Council

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.

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.

Should councils be using public money for libel actions?

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, Free expression

Several local authorities are spending huge amounts of money on legally dubious grounds pursuing libel actions

In early February, Carmarthenshire county council confirmed that its chief executive Mark James will sue local blogger Jacqui Thompson for libel. The decision was made by the council’s executive board, and indemnifies James from the costs associated with the legal action.

The same local authority that is switching off 5,000 street lights as a result of cuts to its central government grant is pursuing a libel action that is likely to cost a six, maybe even seven, figure sum. The case is symptomatic of a wider trend where local authorities are becoming increasingly intolerant of local bloggers and using their legal, press and even security teams to hit out at vocal critics.

The Carmarthenshire dispute is long-running. It began with a libel action between Kerry and Jacqui Thompson from Llanwrda and the local authority’s director of planning Eifion Bowen, after the couple were sued for circulating defamatory letters, though they were never published in the wider media. The Thompsons apologised to Bowen at a hearing in October 2007, when they were given 12 months to pay legal costs totalling £7,000.

In 2008, the county council controversially changed its constitution so that public money could be used in future libel actions; an FOI request revealed its total legal costs from external organisations (solicitors and counsel) shot up from £364,369 to £711,832.

The legal authority for using public money for libel actions is questionable. The Derbyshire county council v Times Newspapers Ltd judgment of 1993 specifically rules out local authorities from suing for libel. As Lord Keith said in the judgment: “It is of the highest public importance that a democratically elected governmental body, or indeed any governmental body, should be open to uninhibited public criticism”.

This ruling was derived in part from earlier case law, which asserts the fundamental importance in a democracy of citizens being able to express their views – even offensive or distressing views – about their government, at national or local level.

While elected members and officers can use local authority funds to defend themselves if sued for libel in the course of their duties under the 2004 Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) parliamentary order, it specifically does not allow members to bring actions as claimants. And though Derbyshire specifically rules out local authorities and elected members suing for libel, it is less clear on councils funding libel actions brought by individual officers.

Wesley O’Brien, a solicitor at Bevan Brittan, pointed out in Local Government Lawyer magazine that local authorities can fund a claim brought by an individual officer and assist them if it can justify this expenditure. He said: “As the law currently stands, a local authority can fund a claim brought by an individual officer [council staff member] and it can also assist an officer in defending such a claim, where it considers such public expenditure to be justified.

“The position is, however, different for members where a local authority is only entitled to fund a defence, but not a claim … the only condition is that the statements made must refer to and be defamatory of the individual concerned.”

This isn’t the only case where taxpayer-funded local authorities are using their resources to take on vocal critics.

South Tyneside council, while making £35m worth of cuts in its 2010-11 budget, has admitted to Index on Censorship that it has used in excess of £75,000 worth of public money to launch a legal action by the council’s leader Iain Malcolm, fellow Labour councillor Ann Walsh and independent David Potts, alongside borough regeneration boss Rick O’Farrell.

Originally, South Tyneside told us that total case costs would not rise about £75,000, but the council has since admitted costs have rocketed into six figures. “The legal costs of this case have passed the £75,000 as a result of additional costs incurred to defend an ‘anti-Slapp’ motion … our American lawyers have advised that these costs total $64,370 and they have submitted a claim for this amount to the court in California. We are advised that the claim will be considered by the court at a hearing in February 2012,” it explained.

South Tyneside’s constitution requires cabinet sign-off for items over £75,000 – which of course creates a direct conflict of interest as Malcolm is a claimant in the case. However, the press office declares cabinet sign-off is not required.

As the case is being pursued in the Californian courts, it seems that the Derbyshire principle does not apply. But the council would find it hard to argue in the English courts that funding a case brought by an elected member did not breach either the Derbyshire principle, or the 2004 parliamentary order, leading to serious questions as to why the legal action has been taken.

These troubling recent cases, demonstrate the need to include a prohibition on all public bodies from suing for libel, as recommended by the Libel Reform Campaign, a coalition of Index on Censorship with English Pen and Sense About Science. The government is currently considering including the draft defamation bill in the next Queen’s speech, with thousands across the country writing to MPs to urge them to do so. If it does, ensuring that the resources of public bodies cannot be brought to bear against vocal opposition should be a serious priority.

Local authorities that open up access to information and learn from their critics will in the long-run build trust with their citizens. Councils that use public money to silence local voters are on a hiding to nothing – thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, we know what they’re spending, and how their decisions are being made. The old control impulse is strong, but it’s hard to justify to taxpayers in South Tyneside that their money is being thrown at lawyers in a Californian court so one councillor can sue another.

This article originally appeared in the Guardian on 14 February 2012.