How Argyll & Bute Works: Senior Education Posts

I am trying to establish alternatives to the current budget proposals so I have been looking at areas that are either out of scope for cuts or areas which appear to be relatively unaffected. My post of yesterday, 29 November, gave details of the cost of senior staff as a group.

The education budget is the largest in the council and below you will see the costs of staff above the level of the head teachers. As far as I can see these are all out of scope in the current council administration proposals Again, if you read this and know any of the individuals, this is about the posts and the cost of them, not about people or personalities. Note also that the figures quoted include employment oncosts such as NI and pension.

More on this to follow.

1 Head of Service                     @ £93k

3 Education Managers           @ £74k each

1 Principal Psychologist         @£71k

10 Education Officers              @£66k to £75k each

1 Administrative Officer            @£29k

The total cost of the above posts comes to £1,131,720.

How Argyll & Bute Works: Senior Staff Costs

In an earlier post today (Sunday 29 November) I mentioned the cuts to the Additional Supports Need service in our schools. You may have worked out that the poorest paid staff are the ones losing their jobs. The average full time salary appears to be in the region of £13,500.

You may be interested to know what the top 3 tiers of management cost us. Ignore the people involved because this is all about posts, not the folk in those posts. The costs below are the employment costs, ie salary plus employer oncosts such as NI and pension etc, but these let you see what these posts really cost us.

Chief Executive                              £158,235

Executive Directors                      £126,000 (times 3)

Head of Strategic Finance         £92,706

Heads of Service                             £92,700 (times 11)

In total, if you add up the top 3 tiers plus their immediate administrative and clerical support, the costs come to £2,052,730.

More to follow.

 

How Argyll & Bute Works: The ASN cuts

There has been a lot of misreporting of what really happened about the cuts to the Additional Support Needs (ASN) at Thursday’s council meeting.

As was widely expected, the council’s administration pulled the proposed 45% cut in ASN work from the Service Choices options. But, and this is the big but, they imposed an immediate full year cut of £280,000 on ASN work. In addition, this is not subject to any consultation. Worse, they have imposed this without having completed their review of ASN and they do not know what the impact will be. This £280k cut equates to 21 full time equivalent jobs.  This was described as “operational efficiencies”.

The SNP put up a motion proposing the same £280k cut but as part of Service Choices, ie this would be added to the public consultation.

The Reform Group comprising myself and Cllrs Marshall and Dance put up an amendment to remove the 45% cut and to defer any decision on ASN until the review was completed. Our amendment also wanted to see some reasons for what looks like an alarming rise in the number of children with hearing impairments. Cllrs Iain Angus MacDonald and Iain Maclean, both SNP councillors, supported our amendment and good on them for having done so.

Anyway, Cllr Walsh’s administration held the day yet again with not a single one of his troops voting against him. What loyalty they have but then they know that if they defy him, they will be in big trouble, losing their additional pay or by being thrown out of his administration.

It doesn’t get any better, yet.

 

 

 

 

How Argyll & Bute Works: A New FOI

In my last blog I told the story about Cllr Walsh paying for the hire of the Queen’s Hall, Dunoon, for Dunoon Community Council. The article is here: https://blog.breslin.scot/2015/11/16/how-cllr-dick-walsh-works/

I have subsequently been told by the secretary of the community council that my assertion that the meeting was an anti-wind farm meeting was inaccurate. I am more than happy to reflect his alternative view this meeting was a public meeting to ascertain all views and that it wasn’t an anti wind farm meeting. Everyone is entitled to an opinion and I am happy to do this on his behalf.

I attended a very upbeat meeting of the Dunoon Gourock Ferry Action Group (DGFAG) and their hard work has seen progress in finding real interest in operating a vehicle and passenger service when the route is tendered again. They deserve commendation for what they have done and I plan to write with some more detail on this in the near future.

An interesting point came up at the DGFAG meeting last week and that was that the council appears to have been paying for the costs of the meetings the group has had over this past few years in the Queen’s Hall.

In addition, the council appears to have been paying the group’s postage costs too. I was subsequently told that this was arranged by Cllr Walsh, which would mirror the way he organised the community council meeting as per the previous blog.

A number of people have since called me about this issue and a Freedom of Information request was submitted this morning by Mr Alan Stewart. An FOI should establish the facts about this, which I will publish, because it has since emerged that there were other instances where Cllr Walsh allegedly had the use of council facilities paid for.

There are many groups in this area who find the costs of letting council premises a real burden to them so it will be interesting to see the facts and what criteria were used to justify free use, if that is indeed what happened.

The FOI is as follows:

Dear Sirs

I have been informed that at a recent meeting of the Dunoon Pier Action Group, it was announced that all costs pertaining to the rental of the Queens Hall for meetings of this group had been waived on the instructions of Councillor Walsh. Furthermore, assistance in the form of postage costs was given to this group.

Given the above, under the freedom of information (Scotland) Act 2002, and for the period 01/01/2010 to 01/10/2015, please supply the following information:

1                     The number of lets of council premises that were given to groups or organisations within Argyll and Bute at no charge to that group or organization, and where the let and that loss of revenue was authorised by Councillor Walsh.

2                     The number of lets for council premises where the cost was charged to Councillor Walsh’s office and not to the group or organisation using the premises.

3                     With reference to item 1, the number of these lets where the decision to remove the charge was taken by the relevant local area committee, as opposed to a decision taken by Councillor Walsh alone.

4                     The total revenue lost to the council by allowing these groups or organisations free use of council premises.

5                     The total cost to the council of the postage costs where this was offered as assistance to any group or organization.

6                     A detailed list of all organisations in receipt of this discounted rental or assistance.

Many voluntary and community groups struggle to fund the costs of meeting rooms and communicating with their communities, therefore there is considerable public interest in seeing this information. There is also possible misuse of public funds by a very senior councillor. There is an in-built presumption in FOISA that it is in the public interest to disclose information unless a public authority can show why there is a greater public interest in withholding the information.

FOISA does not define the term “public interest”, but it has been described as “something which is of serious concern and benefit to the public”. It has also been held that the public interest does not mean what is of interest to the public, but what is in the interest of the public. Potential misuse of public funds is not only of considerable interest to the Argyll and Bute community, but it is in the interest of the Argyll and Bute community that this information is released.

 Regards

Alan Stewart

 

How Cllr Walsh works, part 2

Yesterday, I posted a piece about the issue Cllr Marshall and I had over Cllr Walsh arranging to pay from council funds for the let of the Queen’s Hall in Dunoon, a let that was clearly one that should have been paid for by the party hiring the hall.

At 1805 yesterday, 16th, I got an email from Mr Hendry, the council’s monitoring officer. He said he had been passed a copy of my blog and went on to say: “I will consider this fully, and then come back to you.”

Quite what this means I have no idea, but we’ll see.

Meanwhile, Mr Alan Stewart has raised a Freedom of Information request to the council about Mr Hendry’s report, ie the one he won’t allow me to publish even though the issue is widely known about and even though I consider it to be in the public interest. It’s also in Cllr Walsh’s best interests too because it allows his side of the story to be told in full, along with the analysis of the issue by council officers, the one that took 6 months to conclude. Alan’s FOI is as follows and I make no comment on it whatsoever.

Under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 please supply me with the information contained in the response to the complaint to internal audit lodged by councillors Breslin and Marshall dated 25th April 2015

This response has been marked as: Strictly Confidential, and : This report is considered to be legal advice and as such is exempt from release to a request for information on the basis of Section 36 (1) of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

Section 36 (1) of the act does not apply in this case for the following reasons:

1                     Legal advice was not requested in the complaint, therefor the response can only be considered legal opinion at best.

2                     The presenter of the report was acting in his capacity as Executive Director of Customer Services, and not as legal advisor to the councillors, therefore Legal Advice Privilege exemption cannot apply.

3                     The information contained within the document cannot be considered confidential as it refers to actions taken publicly by a councillor in the course of his duties.

There is considerable public interest in seeing this report, given that it refers to possible misuse of public funds by a very senior councillor. There is an in-built presumption in FOISA that it is in the public interest to disclose information unless a public authority can show why there is a greater public interest in withholding the information.

 FOISA does not define the term “public interest”, but it has been described as “something which is of serious concern and benefit to the public”. It has also been held that the public interest does not mean what is of interest to the public, but what is in the interest of the public. Potential misuse of public funds is not only of considerable interest to the Argyll and Bute community, but more importantly it is in the interest of the Argyll and Bute community that this information is released.

Given the above I would appreciate sight of the contents of this report.

 Regards

Alan Stewart

 

How Cllr Dick Walsh Works

I’ve sat on this story for 6 months but the time is right to publish it now. Unfortunately I can only publish it in part,  as will be seen later, because the council’s monitoring officer has forbidden me to make public the report he produced on it.

The story starts with Dunoon Community Council deciding to hold a public meeting on the proposed windfarm on the hill above Dunoon and Innellan. This meeting was to be held on 13 March 2015 in the Queen’s Hall Dunoon. The community council had a fairly strong anti-wind farm position, which they had every right to have. The meeting was widely  seen as an anti-wind farm meeting and the developer had indicated they would not attend it.

All fine and dandy so far but here is a summary of what happened before and after the meeting:

  • I was asked on 17 February to book the Queen’s Hall for the community council.
  • I replied the next day saying that if there was an assumption that by me doing this there would be no charge, that wasn’t correct.
  • That had been their assumption because “Dick booked it previously” for them.
  • I asked the officer concerned and the immediate reply was as I expected: community councils need to pay for all council lets. I knew that as a relatively rookie councillor but Cllr Walsh later said he didn’t know.
  • This was passed on by me and I heard no more about it till, a few days before the meeting, I was passing the Queen’s Hall and called by to check to ensure the booking had been made.
  • I was told that indeed it had been made and that the costs “were to be re-charged to Cllr Walsh’s office”.
  • Cllr Walsh didn’t attend the meeting but, rather oddly, he was thanked at the end of the meeting.
  • Cllr Marshall and I discussed this and we were concerned about Cllr Walsh’s involvement because he appeared to have broken a well-known rule and had denied the council the income which would have been around £100 or so.
  • He had also rather fallen out of favour with the local community councils over his obstinate opposition to the community buyout of Castle Toward so we felt he was using his position to be pals again with them by getting the hall paid for on their behalf. We used the word “ingratiate” in the complaint which you can download below.
  • We submitted a complaint to internal audit in April this year. Despite our misgivings, internal audit passed the matter to the council’s monitoring officer, Mr Hendry. I am unable to say why we both had misgivings as I am unable to say anything that could be construed as public criticism of council officers.
  • 6 months later, would you believe, and after several queries about why it was taking so long, a report was produced. Let’s just say Cllr Marshall and myself “disagreed with the conclusions in their entirety”.
  • What really got to us was the fact that Mr Hendry had marked the report “Strictly Confidential” and had stated the following:
    • This report is considered to be legal advice and as such is exempt from release to a request for information on the basis of Section 36 (1) of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.
    • He had also stated that the report “should not be shared with any third party without my express agreement”
  • We have responded vigorously about the attempt to keep the report confidential but he has refused to change his opinion. We do not believe the report does contain any legal advice and we have good grounds for saying this.
  • He has also forbidden me to pass it on to either Audit Scotland or the Standards Commissioner. I have made it clear he cannot stop me from passing anything on to Audit Scotland.
  • We are at an impasse but he does know that intend I to publish our side of the story, as I do now.
  • By not allowing his report to be made public, I am unable to let you read Cllr Walsh’s defence, absurd as I think it is. Part of the absurdity is that Cllr Walsh compared this public meeting to a councillor’s surgery. The only problem is he didn’t attend his own surgery ! What I can also tell you is that as part of that defence, he has tried to implicate me in this irregularity.

The full complaint can be found here: complaint to internal audit april 15 reduced

The report by the monitoring officer has to remain in the background, at least for the moment.

The community council, by the way, has said on several occasions they are willing to pay this account which would have the effect of reversing the charge that was coded against councillors’ expenses. That shows clear willingness to resolve the issue correctly, so they have offered to do the right thing.

This is indeed how Argyll & Bute works and,  in particular, how Cllr Walsh works.

Make of it what you will but one thing is sure: if he had held his hand up and said he should not have done this, then apologised, this article would not have needed to be written.

Here are just a few of the comments Cllr Marshall and myself made on this secret report. Some may appear to be out of context but that is because I can’t let you see the report:

Why should this be strictly confidential? What happened is in the public domain and so should this report

We did not ask for legal advice. We raised a concern about a clear procedural irregularity. We consider that defining this report on that irregularity as being legal advice has been done for the sole purposes of keeping it out of the public domain. We see no legal advice within it. It was written by a member of legal staff but that does not make it legal advice.

But perhaps the issue of the Innellan War Memorial should now be investigated because Cllr Walsh apparently managed to get substantial works carried out that no other councillor had been able to; the works were not scheduled in any programme of works; all previous efforts at getting this done had been rejected on the grounds of lack of money; money appears to have been found for these works from various sources once Cllr Walsh became involved and, again, Cllr Walsh has pulled strings no other councillor could do, or would wish to do.

It is correct that the matter of holding the meeting was discussed but Cllr Breslin has absolutely no recollection of any discussion on who would pay for this. Had there been such a discussion, he would have objected there and then because even as a first time councillor, he knew what the rules were. It is simply not credible that Cllr Walsh did not know. What is irrefutable is the fact that Cllr Walsh knew Dunoon CC had plenty of funds to pay for this themselves because he, like Cllr Breslin, attended most meetings and knew their financial position.

This is remarkable. A “Central Governance Manager” doesn’t know the rules; doesn’t consider any governance issues; doesn’t ask and just puts the charge through. Again, it simply shows that most staff would not question anything Cllr Walsh wants to happen.

There is nothing to be added to this. The quoted words say it all: Dick will fix it.

This is utterly untrue. Cllr Breslin was never in agreement with this and Cllr Walsh knows that. As for the apparent support of Cllr McQueen, this is Cllr McQueen who has never attended a community council meeting and who did not attend the event in question so why he would be asked by Cllr Walsh is beyond belief.

And that is reason enough to substantiate the charge that he was trying to ingratiate himself. The motive is now clear: Cllr Walsh knew he wasn’t in a good position in the eyes of both community councils.

How Argyll & Bute Works: Budget Cuts Again

I am aware that some of the subjects I blog about may seem to be a bit repetitive to the reader but the sad fact is the same old repetitive nonsense keeps happening to me.

Most will know my views on the budget cuts and the secretive Service Choices Project Board that was set up by Cllr Walsh to ensure that secrecy was the order of the day. This group didn’t have to let anyone outwith the group know when the meetings were nor did they publish papers or produce minutes. I asked on numerous occasions for access to the papers and was refused. Officers said it wisnae them and that it was a political decision. Walsh said it wisnae him.

The man in the moon was clearly the culprit. He’s not owned up yet mind you.

Anyway, the Reform Group comprising myself, Cllr Dance and Cllr Marshall decided we needed to get all the information that was available if we were to produce a properly costed, alternative budget. The 3 of us agreed on our questions and we had a meeting with 2 very helpful officers on 28 October. We went through our questions then submitted them in writing the same day. We agreed with the officers that we would accept the answers as and when they had them to hand and they have been coming to us bit by bit.

One of the questions was quite simple: given that the Service Choices options are in the public domain, can we now see the papers that went to the project board. These would give us context, impact, consequences and perhaps what alternatives were considered and rejected. We believe we need this information to allow us to do our job as councillors and to try and come up with alternatives.

The reply we got was almost word for word what we got before, summarised as NO.

The Project Board is not a meeting of the Council, or a Committee or Sub-Committee of the Council but is, rather, a members working group. Papers/information considered by the Project Board is now in the public domain, via recommendations to the Policy and Resources Committee, and Council, but other papers, such as notes of meetings etc remain confidential.

We asked who made this decision. We have not yet had a reply but it’s probably going to be a wisnae me one like we had before.

So, this evening a motion has been prepared by us to go to the November council meeting. That is reproduced below. We await some developments with interest. More to follow but I have to ask you all: how long are you willing to put up with this nonsense?

The device used by the administration in setting up a Service Choices Project Board, which did not need to operate within the council’s standing orders,  has meant that the choices now on offer are limited, ignore other possibilities for savings and, in so doing, have excluded 2/3 of the councillors from the detailed discussions and papers.

Meanwhile, the administration keeps other issues of financial significance away from the budget issues entirely, notably the last 2 items on the agenda of the last Policy & Resources Committee meeting. These items dealt with issues relating to the council’s Employability Team and the sale of Castle Toward. As these were exempt items, this motion cannot mention any points of detail but it is fair to say that between these 2 items council expenditure of £1m+ was involved. The proposers of this motion believe that the bulk of these costs were avoidable.

The issue with the Employability Team was known at the time the council discussed the Service Choices options at the October council meeting but was never mentioned by the policy lead, Cllr A Morton. Nor was it mentioned by Cllr Dick Walsh Leader of the Council & Policy Lead for Strategic Finance. The costs of keeping Castle Toward empty continue to be a drain on this council’s resources.

The £1m+ in question is approximately the same in value as the total of the following Service Choices cuts:

·       2016/17 proposal to cut the ASN budget

·       2016/17 proposal to cut the school attendance officer budget

·       2016/17 proposal to cut instrumental instructor budget

·       2016/17 proposal to cut classroom assistant budgets

Other examples could have been used but the underlying message would have been the same: waste needs to be cut before services and jobs.

The administration presents itself as a model of financial governance but this may be far from the reality. The proposers of this motion have consistently been refused access to the papers issued to, and created by, the project board so testing the administration’s financial competence is not possible without access to this kind of information.  This motion moves that this council should agree that the project board papers referred to above are made available immediately to the 2/3 of elected members who were excluded from the process.

The proposer and seconder of this motion, as members of the Reform Group, will use this hitherto secret information to propose an  alternative set of budget proposals, aimed at reducing waste and minimising the damage the current proposals will create in abundance.