FOI shows council was wrong over Dale Farm eviction support

Last year’s Dale Farm eviction // (Photo: The Advocacy Project – Flikr/CC)

When Basildon council evicted travellers from Dale Farm in October, it did so with the support of the borough’s residents. So said Tory council leader Tony Ball, just weeks before bailiffs turned up at the site.

“I’m absolutely clear,” he claimed, “the overwhelming majority of emails, letters, phone calls I’ve had, not only from people in Basildon, but up and down the country and some from abroad, support the council’s position.”

But the council’s own records suggest otherwise. According to figures released following a Freedom of Information request, Basildon council received a total of 5,472 letters and emails condemning the eviction. This compared to just 768 messages in the council’s favour.

Top bosses cash in as Hackney’s famed privatised education authority prepares to end contract

Michael Gove visits Mossbourne Academy, Hackney - part of The Learning Trust

Michael Gove at Hackney's Mossbourne Academy // Photo: usembassylondon

In 2002, Hackney council became the first authority to be ordered to privatise its education services. Now, as the 10 year contract comes to a close, directors at The Learning Trust have pocketed huge pay increases – while dishing redundancies to their staff.

Bosses at The Learning Trust have seen their salaries rise by up to £74,269 since 2005, with the highest paid director now earning £217,102 a year.

But cuts at the education authority led to more than a hundred teachers and staff leaving their jobs last year after a series of redundancies. And 30 more jobs are set to be cut, including two primary school teacher posts, according to union sources.

One specialist primary school teacher, who works with gypsy children, has been told he will lose a day and a half from his working week. The change would cut his salary by about £20,000 a year.

Meanwhile, almost exactly the same sum of money was used to boost the total salary payments for Trust directors last year.

The National Union of Teachers is set to meet officials from The Learning Trust, but a source said it was their policy to strike when compulsory redundancies are made.

The private company, which is responsible for education in Hackney, is headed by Richard Hardie, Vice Chair of Swiss bank UBS. When the company transfers power back to the council this summer, directors will get to keep the high salaries they have awarded themselves because protection provided by employment laws – leaving the council to foot the bill.

Figures show that The Learning Trust paid out more than £600,000 to its directors last financial year.

Transfer

Hackney council lost control over education management after it was branded the worst in the country back in 1997. The American-style school board system forced on to the borough by New Labour has overseen the setting up of the famed Mossbourne Academy in one of the most deprived areas of London. The school has been rated “outstanding” by Ofsted, with Education Secretary Michael Gove describing headteacher Michael Wilshaw a “hero”.

But the dramatic improvements have largely been credited to the new system and Wilshaw himself, rather than the removal of the old one that was failing to meet its statutory responsibilities. And, while press reports have tended to focus on the successes of Mossbourne, other schools in the area have seen standards slip.

Contrary to the efficiency of private companies Tory politicians speak of, The Learning Trust managed to spend more that £121m on “administrative expenses” in just one year. Financial details were outlined in the latest accounts published.

The company also manages to dodge transparency and accountability laws that public education authorities are subject to. Although Freedom of Information requests are accepted, the company is not obliged to comply with legislation, meaning that any complaints about transparency cannot be investigated by the Information Commissioner.

The authority has said: “The Learning Trust is not bound by the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.  However as a body exercising public functions The Learning Trust is committed to doing so openly and transparently.  The Learning Trust has developed a policy which, so far as its constitution allows, complies with the provisions of the Act.”

Education services are set to be handed back to Hackney council in August as the 10 year contract comes to a close.

 

Update:  The Learning Trust have claimed that the term “administrative expenses”  is just an “accounting description”. A press officer said that it “covers all of our expenditure and so includes grant payments and government funds paid to school via the Trust.”

£750m of unpaid tax written off by English councils

EXCLUSIVE

Unpaid taxes totalling more than £750m have been written off by local authorities over the last five years, figures have revealed.

Last year £147.7m of council tax was wiped from accounts in England, following a £168m write off the year before.

The figures, released by the Department for Communities and Local Government, included debt incurred from previous years which councils had given up chasing. Reasons for not collecting council taxes include absconding, bankruptcy and death where no assets exist.

Local Government Minister Grant Shapps said: “Every penny of council tax that isn’t collected means higher council tax for the law-abiding citizens who do pay up on time. It’s vital that councils do all they can to support their residents and by having efficient collection services, they are better placed to keep bills down for everyone.

“Of course councils should not be heavy-handed, should protect the vulnerable, and should use bailiffs as a last resort. Councils should instead look at ways to better improve collection rates and ensure better value for money for all taxpayers.”

Separate figures released last year in response to a parliamentary question named Manchester City Council as the local authority with the most unpaid taxes. More than £11m was owed to the council by the end of March 2010 with 9.1% of taxes unpaid.

Salford, Stoke-on-Trent, Bradford and several London boroughs were also in the top 10 of councils with the highest proportion of council tax due.

Councils that managed to collect the highest proportion of taxes included City of London and the Isles of Scilly where less than 1% of taxes was unpaid by 2010.

Revealed: How local democracy is policed by private security companies

In March, local London newspaper Ham & High reported that the Tory-run Barnet Council were paying a private security company to secretly film residents at open meetings.

MetPro private security: paid by Barnet Council to spy on residents in public meetings

The farcical “MetPro Rapid Response Ltd.”, which described itself as an “alternative to 999”, were paid almost £1m over two-and-a-quarter years before they went bust this year.

Now, documents uncovered by accessdocs.wordpress.com have revealed how private security firms are regularly used by other councils across England and Wales to “control the public”.

In one case, Portsmouth Council called in a private security company to a total of 31 public meetings between 2009-2010. They explained it was because “Protesting and placards etc are not allowed at public meetings”.

Elsewhere, Shepway Council paid out £840 for a firm to police a single public meeting about the expansion of Lydd Airport. The council stated: “This company was hired to control the public outside the building”.

The full number of councils using private security companies in public open meetings is hard to pinpoint exactly as many councils have ongoing security contracts, regardless of specific meetings or events. However, other councils which appear to have paid for meetings to be policed include Basildon, Bassetlaw, Craven District, Oxfordshire, Sheffield, Somerset, Surrey Heath and Crawley Council who paid a security company £2,475 for a single “Planning Development Control” meeting last year.

UPDATE:  It has been pointed out, quite rightly, that the story of MetPro in Barnet was almost entirely exposed by bloggers, rather than the local paper, Ham & High. This blog by former Guardian journalist David Henckle seems to be one of the best and has lots more info on the subject (and other stories) – http://davidhencke.wordpress.com/ . Have a look. And this one – http://wwwbrokenbarnet.blogspot.com/

NB: This post has been subsequently published on the Liberal Conspiracy website here.

Record number of misconduct hearings for health professionals

A report which is due to be published in September will show that a record number of health professionals have been called to fitness to practice hearings. Allegations against health professionals in the last year have included cases of fraud, rape, theft and possession of child pornography.

The report, by the Health Professions Council will reveal:

  • There have been 677 final hearings over the last year – up a staggering 214% since five years ago.
  • There were 533 new cases in ’10/’11, an increase of 34 from last year.
  • 111 were struck off or suspended, including 21 physiotherapists and 19 paramedics.
The report was drafted following a council meeting last week and is now available online.

View the draft report here:  http://www.hpc-uk.org/assets/documents/100035CBEnc10-FTPannualreport2010-11.pdf

Find more documents on the Health Professions Council website here: http://www.hpc-uk.org/index.asp

How councils are quietly attacking students

Back in 2007, legislation was passed that allowed councils to introduce what is called an ‘Article 4 Direction’.  This allows them to control the location and numbers of ‘Houses in Multiple Occupation’ (HMOs). Almost all HMOs are student houses.

Warwick District Council explain:  “The effect of the Article 4 Direction will be that a planning application will need to be made to the Council for the change of use of a building from a dwelling house to a house in multiple occupation.  Currently, this change of use is permitted development and no planning application is required.  The purpose of the Direction is to give the Council greater control over the location of new shared houses.”

The impact on students is expected not only to limit the choices of where to live, but also the cost of living as rent prices in popular areas could rise considerably.

Surveys shown in this document from Exeter City Council demonstrates that the people who this policy will most effect (students) are against the policy, but consultation always concludes that most people are in favour of it, because most of the population are not students. http://www.exeter.gov.uk/CHttpHandler.ashx?id=15219&p=0 .

Leeds City Council claim that it is “recognised” that “high concentrations of HMOs can result in numerous harmful impacts including… anti-social behaviour, noise and nuisance… increased crime…”. Strange, then, that York City Council bothered to investigate such claims and were forced to admit that “Information collected to date does not indicate any significant deviations from the average across the city across a wide range of indicators such as crime, littering and noise.” In fact, the evidence they found suggested the opposite – that student areas had lower crime and anti-social behaviour levels. The report also warned that “a single characteristic of the idea of a ‘student’ is no longer possible”.

Nonetheless, York City Council, in line with dozens of other councils, went ahead and implemented the Article 4 Direction!

The report is here: http://democracy.york.gov.uk/(S(ldbrg245jv1hgo551yoldb45))/mgConvert2PDF.aspx?ID=42691

Other cities which are implementing the policy include Oxford, Newcastle, Leicester, Portsmouth, Sheffield and Bristol.