An ‘In My View’ article – by Nigel Ward
IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST
ACTS OF CORRUPTION in public life occur in a wide variety of forms; from the large-scale, complex and sophisticated machinations of a group of influential elected members and/or paid public servants working in concert to systematically siphon off literally millions of pounds of the public purse (as in the John Poulson case), to the lone activities of the single individual exploiting an opportunity to obtain an advantage (pecuniary or otherwise) that may even be felt by that individual to be no more than the privilege that comes with exalted position.
It is a mistake to regard these latter corrupt acts as any the less reprehensible, because (in common with the former) they rest on a witting betrayal of the public trust.
The case of the ten SBC and NYCC ‘two-hatted’ Councillors presently facing charges of ‘double-dipping’ their Broadband expenses may be a case in point.
The Whitby Gazette of Friday 31st August 2012 features, on page 3, an article entitled “Councillor denies ‘double-dip’ claim”, which is not presently available on the Whitby Gazette website – which is unfortunate, but – on past form – unsurprising. No matter. The sharp end of the article states this:
- Coun Plant. Who is now seeking legal advice, says he uses SBC equipment and the paid allowance but doesn’t have any NYCC supplied equipment and doesn’t take advantage of that scheme. He said: “I deny the allegation and following legal advice can make no further comment, so as not to jeopardise the ongoing investigation.”
The statement is carefully worded.
Please note that in his denial, Councillor Plant only denies using equipment from NYCC; he does not deny that he gets an Allowance from NYCC in addition to allowance he admits receiving from SBC; nor does he admit that the NYCC Allowance includes an integrated Broadband component in the order of £500+ per annum. He does not admit it, but that is what has occurred.
Firstly, no part of the complaint concerns itself with “equipment”. This is a total – and very skilful – red herring, distracting attention away from the real issue – the money.
The complaint is, in fact, only concerned with receipt, from SBC and NYCC, of Allowances (not equipment) paid for Broadband connectivity.
Broadband connectivity. Nothing else.
Regarding Councillor Plant’s outright denial of the allegation, it is essential to start from a clear grasp of the distinct elements of the allegation.
The SBC part of the equation is not in dispute. SBC pays a discreet Broadband Allowance of £255 per annum, completely separate from, and in addition to, the SBC Basic Allowance.
Eight of the defendants in the ‘double-dipping’ complaint have admitted receiving this payment of £255 per annum. (Two accepted lesser amounts).
The NYCC part of the equation is slightly more complex – but only slightly. Allow me to explain.
All Councillors’ Allowances are subject to the recommendations of the Independent Panel on Members’ Remuneration, in order to facilitate regular updates to allow for inflation, changes in technology and the prevailing state of market fluctuations (including Broadband costs).
In the past, NYCC paid a Broadband Allowance separately from the Basic Allowance, as follows
2005/06 – £444
2006/07 – £462
2007/08 – £474
2008/09 – £489
From 2009/10, it was determined, on the recommendation of the Independent Panel on Members’ Remuneration, to integrate the Broadband Allowance within the body of the main Basic Allowance – which increased, proportionately, to reflect the inclusion of the Broadband Allowance.
For convenience, and looking at the annual increases in the NYCC Broadband Allowance as shown above, I think it is reasonable to suggest that the Broadband Allowance for 2009/2010, 2010/2011 and 2011/2012 must average out at circa £500+ per annum – an interpretation which is borne out by the overall increase in the Basic Allowance.
Let us be clear. This £500+ per annum from NYCC is to pay for exactly the same services as the Broadband Allowance of £255 per annum from SBC.
NYCC have made it absolutely clear that all Councillors – including Councillor Joe Plant – were informed, by means of a Guidance document, that they may elect to “renunciate all or any part” of the NYCC Basic Allowance, thus avoiding the pitfall of receiving money for the same Broadband connectivity twice (from NYCC and any other authority – in this case, SBC).
Some Councillors are claiming that they were “unaware” – (where have we heard that before? Oh, yes, in the case of the forged Companies House 288a document appointing Councillor Jane Kenyon as Company Secretary) – of the opportunity to “renunciate” the Broadband increment of their NYCC Basic Allowances.
In law, ignorance is never a defence. In any event, having been provided by NYCC with the Guidance document, they cannot plausibly claim to have been “unaware” that taking a total of £500+ from NYCC in addition to the £255 from SBC would be ‘double-dipping’.
In any case, four of the ten ‘two-hatted’ Councillors involved in the ‘double-dipping’ were present at the Meeting of 17th December 2008, at which the ‘new’ system was explained in detail – namely:
- Councillors Andrew BACKHOUSE, John BLACKBURN, David JEFFELS and Brian SIMPSON
Seven of the ten ‘two-hatted’ Councillors involved in the ‘double-dipping’ were present at the Meeting of 16th December 2009, at which the ‘new’ system was adopted (and presumably they actually voted on that Resolution) and therefore must be expected to have thoroughly understood the ‘new’ system on which they voted, namely:
- Councillors Andrew BACKHOUSE, John BLACKBURN, Bill CHATT, Mike COCKERILL, Joe PLANT, Peter POPPLE and Brian SIMPSON – and for any one of them to now deny that they were indeed aware of the opportunity to “renunciate all or any part” of the new composite Basic Allowance is plainly not credible.
(In fairness, Councillors Blackburn and Jeffels accepted only £54.96 of the £255 available from SBC).
- [Also present at that meeting, incidentally, was County and Borough Councillor Jane KENYON, whose innocence in the matter of the NYCC/SBC ‘double-dipping’ was underlined in the recent Scarborough News article (attracting well over 100 comments from readers – plus many more hastily deleted, presumably for having the audacity to mention that, though innocent of the NYCC/SBC ‘double-dipping’, many other issues remain un-investigated). The truth is that Councillor Kenyon is the subject of a similar allegation that she received the Allowance for her Broadband connectivity not only from the North Yorkshire Police Authority (2009/2010: £847.22, 2010/2011: £712.15, but, following the onset of my enquiries on this topic back in March, has made no claim for 2011/2012), as well as the £500+ per annum Broadband increment within the NYCC Basic Allowance.]
They must all have been completely aware they could avoid ‘double-dipping’ simply by opting to “renunciate” either the £500+ per annum Broadband increment of their NYCC integrated Basic Allowance, or to forego the SBC £255 per annum separate Broadband Allowance (or, indeed, the £700+ per annum from the NYPA) – or, conversely, to forego the SBC £255 per annum Broadband and accept only the NYCC integrated Broadband component of £500+ per annum. Under no circumstances was it right and proper to accept both.
Nevertheless, they all wittingly did accept both – totalling over £750 per annum (or, in the case of Councillor Kenyon, £1,250+ per annum) – knowing that it was in their power NOT to accept Broadband money from both sources
Some may consider that an unnecessary and superfluous payment to ‘two-hatted’ Councillors, each to the tune of a mere £500+ per annum, is too trivial to matter. Not so.
Councillors are elected for a four-year term-in-office. That £500 per annum aggregates to £2,000 per term-in-office, per Councillor
There are ten of them at NYCC/SBC alone. The £2,000 mentioned above multiplies out to £20,000 – to say nothing of the cost of the investigation and the damage done to the reputation of both Councils.
I have had no response to my request for information regarding ‘two-hatted’ Councillors from the other six District/Borough Councils within the NYCC area of governance. I can only guess at the total number of Councillors whose ‘double-dipping’ amounts to £2,000 each over the four-year term. Extrapolating from the example of SBC, it seems plausible that the grand total could be in the region of approaching £100,000.
And that accounts only for Broadband ‘double-dipping’, sometimes involving duplicated expense claims for travel expenses – as, for example, in the little-publicised matter of Councillor ‘Bill’ Miller’s double-entry book-keeping spree at Newby & Scalby Parish Council in February last year, when a “lack of information in minutes, in which those receiving awards were not named, was also discovered in the audit.” Our thanks to the Scarborough News for exposing the way in which the Public Record was manipulated, thereby concealing the wrong-doing even from other Councillors. No charges were brought.
I must make special mention, too, of NYCC/SBC/EPC Councillor Brian Simpson – one of the seven actually present when the ‘new’ system of integrating the NYCC Broadband Allowance into the NYCC Basic Allowance was adopted, and thus in no position to plead ignorance, even if a plea of ignorance held any validity, which, as I have explained earlier, it does not.
Councillor Brian Simpson, having recently published a ‘Personal Statement’ of denial on his own website, has now seen fit to remove that denial. I reproduce it here in the public interest:
A recent news story regarding internet allowances for Council members has caused both confusion and given a false impression of how things stand.I strongly refute any suggestion that I have acted either improperly or fraudulently in my role as both a member of the County Council or the Borough Council.
I would like to make it clear that I have never physically claimed any internet expenses from either Scarborough Borough Council or North Yorkshire County Council.
Both Councils paid an internet allowance automatically to their members be it part of basic allowance or a separate allowance.
I have NOT received any allowance that I am not entitled to. I have spoken to both the County Council and Borough respective legal services and I am confident of a positive outcome to recent concerns raised by a member of the public.
Cllr Brian Simpson
Clearly, Councillor Simpson is apparently so supremely confident that he has since thought better of his initial determination to deny any wrong-doing; again, one suspects ‘on legal advice’. Given that the Public Record shows that Councillor Simpson has indeed accepted Broadband money from both Councils, the sentence “I have NOT received any allowance that I am not entitled to” clearly asserts that he thinks that he is entitled to have done so – that ‘double-dipping’ is perfectly acceptable. Not to me, it is not.
Returning to Councillor Joe Plant (best known as Councillor Jane Kenyon’s protegé and co-host at her regular ‘surgeries’ at Whitby Library) and his outright denial of the ‘double-dipping’ allegation, it is difficult to imagine why he has not simply held up his hands to say “It’s a fair cop, Guv!”
The Public Record presents no ambiguity on the matter; the Councillors were either personally aware of the conditions attached to the Allowances system, or had been made aware through the medium of the Guidance document. Nevertheless, they took the money. That is ‘double-dipping’. Case made.
Like the other nine ‘double-dippers’ (ten, if one includes Councillor Kenyon), Councillor Plant could (and in my view, should) return the money and publish a open and contrite apology for having taken unfair advantage of his position – and pray fervently that the matter goes no further.
The NYCC, SBC and NYPA Monitoring Officers also face an unenviable situation. By rights, they should report to the North Yorkshire Police Major Fraud Investigating Team, whose remit it is (in conjunction with the Crown Prosecution Service) to determine whether or not the fact that the ‘double-dipping’ has indeed taken place constitutes a criminal offence, suitable for prosecution.
That said, the reader may feel it is difficult to imagine the North Yorkshire Police Major Fraud Investigating Team bringing charges against a figure so close to home as the Chair of their Police Authority.
In closing, readers who find my particular style of investigative journalism (exposing corruption, in the public interest, and holding to account errant elected representatives and paid public servants) are directed to the many other interesting articles and images available here on Real Whitby. Enjoy!