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An ‘In My View’ article – by Nigel Ward
In The Public Interest
Readers will be familiar with the long-running saga of the NYCC/SBC Councillors who have been receiving up to £750 per annum – more than three times their actual outlay in respect of their out-of-pocket Broadband connectivity charges (widely available for less than £200 per annum) – and yet have evaded censure with the assistance of the very same Monitoring Officers charged with the task of policing their conduct.
They are known as ‘DOUBLE-DIPPERS’.
The ‘in-house’ ruling (pre-determined by NYCC Monitoring Officer Carole DUNN) was that the acceptance by Councillors of threefold their expenditure was an “entitlement”. That would appear to be a euphemism for a “perk”.
SBC took the identical view, (having conferred with NYCC throughout) but recognised the need, in future, to pay out only against produced receipted invoices, as a protection against further abuses of the public purse. At first glance, that would appear to improve matters. But in fact it would still not prevent Councillors from receiving Broadband payments from both Councils, because NYCC are not insisting on receipted invoices, which can be used to claim from SBC on top of the NYCC payment. Absurd.
And remember that our ‘double-dipping’ investigation has thus far concerned itself only with Broadband overpayments; travel, accommodation, hospitality etc are coming under scrutiny next.
But the Broadband matter remains unresolved. Legal opinion is that charges should be brought under the Fraud Act of 2006. That begins to look inevitable.
Other serious aspects of this issue have emerged and will be addressed in a future article.
Consider also the indefensible conduct of the Monitoring Officers, who have so blatantly disregarded their duty to the taxpayer to ensure the highest standards in public life, in favour of covering up for the defendant Councillors – presumably with a view to keeping a lid on further scrutiny of their own inappropriate actions. That, too, remains to be addressed.
Having conferred with a considerable number of Councillors, former Councillors, former Council Officers, retired Police Officers and active political journalists, I decided to write, on 4th January 2012, to NYCC Chief Executive Officer Richard FLINTON, to lodge a Formal Complaint against the ‘double-dippers’ in respect of a clear breach of several Articles of the Code of Conduct; in particular, that their conduct had brought themselves and their Councils into disrepute.
When he was appointed, in May 2010, Richard FLINTON had this to say:
“The coming years will be very challenging for local government and I look forward to facing these challenges alongside all of the dedicated county councillors and staff who together are committed to working to the utmost on behalf of the communities of North Yorkshire .”
A “Highly Commended” second place in the Private Eye “EXPENSES FIDDLER OF THE YEAR” Annual Awards is more of a challenge than any local government CEO wants in his entire career, never mind three drubbings in Private Eye in a matter of six months). More to come.
I drew Richard FLINTON’s attention to the allegations published by SBC Councillor Colin CHALLEN (Lab) on the Scarborough & Whitby Labour Party web-site. (I think we all know that Richard FLINTON was already painfully ‘aware’).
I also drew his attention to the parallel scandal unfolding at Leicestershire County Councillor, where former Council Leader, Councillor David PARSONS, has been dumped by his party (the Conservatives), thereby losing the Leadership, and is currently under investigation for fraud by the Leicestershire Police. (I think we all know that Richard FLINTON was already painfully ‘aware’ of that disgrace, too).
I reminded him that his Council’s corporate position on ethical matters is quite clear:
North Yorkshire County Council believes in a strong ethical organisational culture. It aims to promote the highest levels of conduct by its members and officers, to increase public trust in the delivery of its vision and its objectives, by:
A number of safeguards are in place, through the ‘ethical framework’, to ensure that when Councillors make decisions, they do so in the public interest and without regard to personal advantage. The requirements relating to local Councillors are tighter than those for Members of Parliament.
I expressed the view that his Council was failing on all of those points.
I expressed the widely-held view that the ‘double-dippers’ are in flagrant violation of the Council’s ethos; that much is beyond dispute, and that the way in which the ‘double-dippers’ (and the Officers who have contrived to exonerate them) have comported themselves flies in total contempt of the above-quoted passage.
In particular, these Councillors can certainly NOT be said to have “made decisions in the public interest and without regard to personal advantage”. Quite to the contrary, they have, with the active assistance of the Officers, contrived to set in place an Allowances system that not only fritters the public money, but pours it surreptitiously into their own pockets.
I requested him to identify the Officers who prepared the defendant Councillors’ defence statements for cinsideration by the Standards Committee.
I then concluded my email with the usual formalities regarding the acknowledgement of my Formal Complaint and a request for an acknowledgement thereof. I attached a copy of the present Code of Conduct.
Over the weekend, I received a stream of emails from informed local people – amongst them Councillors, former Councillors, former Council Officers and local businessmen and women – who, having been copied into my email to Richard FLINTON, had taken it upon themselves to write to him in support of my Formal Complaint. I have heard that others, too, had more privately done the same. So the pressure on Richard FLINTON was mounting. I was interested to see how he responded – or. Rather, if he responded.
Over the next forty-eight hours, I was intrigued to receive significant information from sources beyond the Borough of Scarborough, but within the NYCC boundary. It appears that the ‘double-dipping’ game has been around a long time, and is played with considerably more aplomb in some authorities than others.
This wider ‘double-dipping’ has been thoroughly documented and it now becomes clear that NYCC Monitoring Officer Carole DUNN has, in the past, fended off other attempts to rein in exactly the same premeditated abuse of the public purse.
So on Monday 7th January 2012, disappointed at having (of course) received no acknowledgement or response from Richard FLINTON, I wrote to him again.
With complete transparency, I provided him with bona fide new information concerning allegations of ‘double-dipping’ activities at Craven District Council.
I called upon him to identify, by name, all of the Councillors of both NYCC and any of its second-tier Councils, who have accepted Broadband Allowances from both NYCC and their respective local authorities and requested him to add their names to the Formal Complaint lodged by me and well over a dozen others.
I invited him to come to Whitby to discuss the matter with a view to some honourable resolution that would protect both the public purse and the Council’s good standing in the public perception.
On Monday evening, the full extent of the ‘double-dipping’ and associated cover-up became even more apparent. It became clear that NYCC Officers have behaved utterly disingenuously in concealing the shocking extent of what I can only describe as systematic embezzlement of the public funds – at a time when the Council is enacting swingeing cut-backs.
So on Tuesday 8th January 2012, I found myself writing yet again to Richard FLINTON (though I still had received neither acknowledgement nor response to my earlier emails), offering him a clear insight into the fact that the game really was up.
I repeated my invitation to Richard FLINTON to come to Whitby on Friday 11th January, in the hope that reason might have a chance to prevail.
By close-of-play on Thursday 10th January 2012, I had still received neither acknowledgement nor response to any of my earlier emails, or my invitation. So I emailed him one more time.
I told him that I was disconcerted to find that he was unable to step up to the plate and deal with this disgraceful and scandalous set of circumstances; it was clear that his window of opportunity was now closed.
I informed him that continuing analysis of the data seemed to indicate an unjustifiable burden on the public purse of around £100,000 across the County during the current term.
I pointed out that his failure to accept the responsibility and deal with the situation would inevitably have a negative impact on the electoral prospects of any of the ‘double-dippers’ who may yet be so brazen as to seek re-election.
And I sought his guidance on how, in the face of his non-responsiveness, I might progress our collective ‘disrepute’ Formal Complaint to a higher authority.
9:20am. Friday 11th January 2012.
Well, well, well. In popped an email from Richard FLINTON.
His sole substantive remark was to correct me on the most insignificant trifle imaginable; apparently Carole DUNN is not his Deputy Chief Executive, as I had written; she is his Assistant Chief Executive – and, of course, she carries his every confidence. His Council is looking for all the world like a nest of vipers and he wants to be certain that I grasp the to-all-intents-and-purposes inconsequential distinction between ‘Deputy’ and ‘Assistant’.
I am picturing a sly Dickensian scrivener called ‘Dick Pettifogg’:
- insignificant; petty: pettyfogging details.
- dishonest or unethical in insignificant matters; meanly petty.
In fairness to Richard FLINTON, I am prepared to concede that he may be completely genuine in his assertion that he has every confidence that Carole DUNN has been flawless in the execution of her duty to the Council. I would contend that Carole DUNN has not acted faithfully in the execution of her duty to the public – and that, in a democracy, the latter countermands the former. This is why Carole DUNN has been ridiculed in the national press for upholding the same view that Richard FLINTON now supports.
So is this guy one coffee short of wide awake? Of course not.
He is a very important man in a very important position of authority. He is very far from stupid; he is only playing dumb.
Why? Because he is playing for time.
Why, then? Because that is the tried and tested dogma of local authority. ‘Eat your rice slowly’. And the County elections are on 2nd May.
Local authorities do not grow old and die gracefully; they do not retire or become too ill to continue; they do not decide that it is time to “spend more time with their families”.
Like Ol’ Man River, they just keep rollin’ along.
They know that we mere humans do grow old, retire, become ill and give up genuinely to spend more time with our families – and die gracefully,
And after a couple of generations, they metamorphose into whatever new constellation of local governance Parliament ordains. At that point, the current incumbents all receive new titles and new stationery, and retain the same salaries, pensions and perks.
So local government always plays the longest possible game. Historically, it has never failed.
Meanwhile, Richard FLINTON is playing “Waiting for Godot” to save his Council’s sorely damaged reputation, and the ‘double-dippers’ are left to ponder their election prospects in the face of an ever-mounting barrage of local and national public condemnation.
Some of them are already considering the wisdom of even standing in May. After all, they have given many years service to the public. They are not as young as they once were. Health becomes less certain with advancing years, and the prospect of spending more time with one’s family waxes ever more appealing, blah, blah. They are looking for an exit strategy. They are creatures of the dark and they are dreading the glare of exposure. So why run the gauntlet of a tortuous pre-election period, only to let the clock wind down to a graceful (or graceless) exit. Why be humiliated at the polls? Why be all over the newspapers like the MPs were a couple of years ago (and, no doubt, will be again, in the future)?
Some may even be contemplating resignation. There were some intriguing Tweets between Christmas and the New Year.
The funny thing is that the Chief Executive Officer of NYCC is paid to work for them; which, of course he always does – immediately after he has completed his work for Richard FLINTON.
And the sad thing is that 72 County Councillors and the entire NYCC Executive cling to the belief that, come what may, they can still rely on what, historically, has been the fundamental safety-net of public service:
For hundreds of years, the buck stopped nowhere. Corruption has been a growth industry. But that was before the internet; that was before the digitally archived Public Record; that was before hundreds of people watched Councillor Gareth DADD make a complete jerk of himself on Real Whitby and on YouTube.
That was before leading national television investigative teams could rely on the minutely documented and professionally synopsized case-histories, arriving by email, from an increasing number of very determined anti-corruption activists all around the country, without them needing to step out of the office.
It is a new game now, and Richard FLINTON’s preferred option of playing “Waiting for Godot” will soon be as much use as a square wheel.
Local government has offered easy pickings for unscrupulous mediocrities since at least the end of WW2. Populated, as it is, by too many of that sort, it has been wasteful, imprudent, negligent, unimaginative, hopelessly incompetent and remorselessly corrupt.
That has to change. So, out with the bad apples, eh?
Some readers have requested a series of hi-res, deep-scan profiles on each of the ‘double-dippers’, by way of offering a far more balanced insight into each of the candidates than the customary twaddle that appears, unsolicited, in one’s letter-box as election day approaches.
That strikes me as a very worthwhile public service, chiming perfectly with the 21st-century “Age of Surveillance”.
We might do worse, as an hors d’oeuvres, than start with North Yorkshire County and Craven District Councillor Polly ENGLISH (LibDem) and her Craven District Coucillor husband Paul Albert ENGLISH (LibDem) of Burnside Avenue, Skipton.
Readers may remember Councillor Polly ENGLISH from her service alongside County Councillor Jane KENYON with the now-defunct North Yorkshire Police Authority, nationally criticised following a string of financial scandals. The LibDems are the party who were very glad to let ‘double-dipper’ Councillor Brian SIMPSON resign quietly after his ‘double-dipping’ became such an embarrassment.
County Councillor Polly ENGLISH has been in receipt of what you and I might call a lot of money in terms of her allowances from her three authorities (NYCC, CDC and the NYPA) over the last four years – very close to six figures. Who could hope for more?
Apparently, the English family, because a cursory investigation reveals that, for the four years 2008/09, 2009/10, 2010/11 and 2011/12, Councillors Polly and Paul ENGLISH have together received a total of almost £6,000 (actually, £5,992) – for a single Broadband connection that cannot have exceeded a grand total of around £1,000.
So there it is – ‘double-dipping’ to the tune of a cool £5,000 over the odds, in this hopefullyr atypical English household. Add that to the circa £24,000 profit siphoned off by the NYCC/SBC ‘double-dippers’ and . . . it goes on and on.
With twenty-six Councillors still to be audited, the total already exceeds £100,000 and could easily reach £150,000 – and that is only the past four years.
But ‘Dick’ FLINTON is fine with that. (He just keeps rollin’ along).
I am not fine with it. How about you?
O’ man river,
Dat ol’ man river,
He mus’ know sumpin’
But don’t say nuthin’
He jes’ keeps rollin’
He keeps on rollin’ along.
Long ol’ river forever keeps rollin’ on…
He don’ plant tater,
He don’ plant cotton,
An’ dem dat plants ‘em
Is soon forgotten,
but ol’ man river,
He jes’ keeps rollin’ along.
Long ol’ river keeps hearing dat song.
You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain,
Body all achin an’ racked wid pain.
Tote dat barge!
Lif’ dat bale!
Git a little drunk
An’ you land in jail.
Ah, gits weary
An’ sick of tryin’
Ah’m tired of livin’
An’ skeered of dyin’,
But ol’ man river,
He jes’ keeps rollin’ along!