Counter fraud team saves taxpayers £328,275 in York

Counter fraud work by the York Council saved taxpayers over £300,000 in York during the last year.

The figure is revealed in a report which will be considered by a Council committee next week.

The report reveals that it received 345 reports of possible fraudulent activity.

42% of the cases related to fraud in social care. 22% in Council tax/Rates, 18% related to housing fraud and 11 concerned benefit claims.

Officials also investigated the misuse of blue badges for parking. Officials claim that 84% of investigations were successful with two people prosecuted and a further 10 cautioned.

Three false applications for school placements were also halted.

In 2018/19 the team identified over £201,000 of losses to the council, for social care fraud. This was a 19% increase from the previous financial year. Over £137,000 of savings were produced which represents a substantial rise compared to 2017/18 (£38k).

Two people were prosecuted for fraudulently claiming monies, from the York Financial Assistance Scheme, that they did not require.

So who will be York’s next Lord Mayor?

It’s not just the political future of he York Council which is up in the air.

With the defeat of Keith Myers in the Acomb poll on Thursday, the City is desperately seeking a replacement to be the next Lord Mayor.

George Hudson was Lord Mayor of York

It is still the Conservatives turn to nominate. However, They are down to only two remaining members. To become Lord Mayor a Councillor must have at least 4 years service on the Authority. Many former post holders will feel that many more years of experience are required if someone is to make a success of the office.

.. and there is the first problem. Only Tory Paul Doughty from Strensall qualifies. He may, or may not, want to take on the exacting full-time role. If he does, then he will face the decision whether to nominate his partner as his consort or find another volunteer.

The Sherriff of York – nominated by the Lord Mayor – also forms part of the Civic Party. The holder does not have to be a Councillor. Given his interests in conservation, this might be an ideal role for Keith Myers, if he can get over his disappointment in not achieving the top job.

But suppose the Tories turn down the post. What happens then?

This has happened in the past. Groups unwilling, or unable, to nominate lose their accumulated qualification points.

Qualification points?

Points totals are reported to a meeting which takes place each November

The Council uses a points system which allocates each group on the Council a point for each Councillor that they have (at the end of May each year). The group with the largest number of points nominates the Lord Mayor for the following year. When a party nominates, they lose 47 points (equivalent to total the number of Council seats) and must start to accumulate points again.

The system has worked well. In non election years the likely incumbent has had plenty of time to prepare for the office, while smaller groups do qualify to provide the city’s figurehead.  The Green party nominated the Lord Mayor for the first time a couple of years ago.

So, if the Tories turn it down, what happens then?

The Group with the next highest points total would be asked to nominate. That means someone will get only 3 weeks to prepare to take on the role from 23rd May. Many dates will already be in the prospective Lord Mayors diary .

The Labour group have the next highest points total. However only one of their number – their current Leader Janet Looker, who is also a previous Lord Mayor – has over 4 years experience. There are others who may qualify under a rule change agreed last year which allows those who have served for 4 years and who were re-elected on 2nd May to be nominated.  However, that means an inexperienced Councillor being thrust into a new role with minimal time to prepare.

The task might be less daunting if the nomination goes to a former Lord Mayor.

All should become clear when the invitations to attend Lord Mayors Day are issued.

Good luck to whoever is passed the chains of office.

So where next for the York Council

The LibDems emerged from Thursday’s elections with the most seats. …..but they are short of an overall majority.
The York Council HQ at West Offices

The onus will be on their Leader Keith Aspden to negotiate a programme which will guide the City through, what are likely to be, 4 challenging years.

He would be wise to pause for thought. The immediate aftermath of a successful election – and the hyperbole that surrounds it – doesn’t always provide the best environment for considered decision making.

There is, however, an element of urgency. Towards the end of the last coalition administration growing tensions were evident. They weren’t restricted to the, rapidly disintegrating, Tory group members. Decisions were put on the back burner while some long held LibDem polices were jettisoned.

That needs to change quickly.

If a coalition arrangement is to continue, then the only two groups which could together commend a majority in the Council chamber are the LibDems and the Green Party.

 The latter are not famous for their tight discipline and consistency. But it could work if a policy programme could be agreed. If they are to negotiate, then the Greens must not overplay their hand. They remain a small party with limited electoral appeal. They need to identify a small number of policy areas where tangible change – and improvement – is deliverable. It will mean some realism about what is possible given the financial constraints placed on the Council.

There are two areas where there may be common ground between the two parties.

The first relates to the way in which the Council does its business.  The “Strong Leader” executive model may work efficiently where there is a party with an overall majority. It is markedly less successful where the Council is “balanced”. It reached its nadir when, two years ago, the then Tory Council Leader summarily sacked two (LibDem) members of the Executive. It later turned out that the justification for doing so was entirely bogus.

A return to the committee system may be a potential area of agreement. The system allows for all members of the Council to participate directly in the decision-making process. No party, after all,  has a monopoly on wisdom

The Committee system might also help to address the second major failing of the Council – a lack of transparency. The Greens said in their manifesto that there should be a presumption in favour of disclosure (of information).

They were right.

At the moment the Council hides behind an opaque wall of silence. Freedom of Information requests flourish. The costs of answering them are greater than would have been the expense of voluntarily publishing information routinely.

With openness people would come to trust the Council more.

There are other more specific policies which would signal that change had taken place.  

Public service standards in the poorer wards continue to decline. Life expectancy is lower there and obesity levels – and lack of attractive active leisure facilities – are higher.

The LibDems could address their growing “Middle England” image by prioritising a programme focusing on improving public services in the poorer neighbourhoods

The voting patterns on Thursday revealed that the electoral turnout was as much as 15 points down in neglected wards when compared to the leafy suburbs and villages.

That can’t be good for democracy and may explain why some extreme politicians have seen success over recent years. Extremism feeds on disillusion and neglect.

Action now may be the best way for the politicians of the centre to consolidate their influence on the reins of power in the future.

Of course, it takes two to tango and there may not be a majority for discursive decision making on the new Council.

If so, the LibDems may try to establish a minority administration.

If they do, they would be wise to spread power around the Council chamber as far as they are able. Scrutiny committees should be chaired by opposition Councillors, as should the influential Audit committee.

There are experienced independent Councillors who could contribute by taking senior roles in the planning process.

Whatever happens an early statement of intent will be expected by the residents of York.

Council election manifestos compared

7. Transport

It is said that there are 200,000 transport experts in York. Unfortunately none of them seem to have got near the party policy manifestos this year

Transport is always a controversial area. It is important that parties put forward clear policies. This didn’t happen in 2011 when Labour omitted to mention that they intended to sell off City centre car parks (they tried to sell off Union Terrace car park within weeks of taking office), introduce a universal 20 mph speed limit at a cost of £600,000 (which actually saw both vehicle speeds and accident levels on some roads increase) or draconian access restrictions on Lendal bridge. They also halved the amount spent on road resurfacing.

The Coalition has fared a little better with road repair expenditure increasing (albeit, so far, with little obvious effect). Passenger approval ratings on most bus services have improved. The number of bus passenger trips has increased from 16.2 million to 16.8 million.

There have been mistakes. The decision to scrap the ResPark discount for low emission vehicles, and make it available only to drivers of electric models, was ill-judged. There are no electric vehicles charging points on York streets ( those in car parks are unreliable). “On street” and “on line” systems also fail to display the number of free car park spaces (a facility which was available 10 years ago). The Council resolutely refuses to publish bus service reliability stats (despite the facility being available since “next bus” technology was rolled out a few years ago).

None of the parties say what their policy is on the number of, and charges for, central area parking spaces. They also fail to offer any policies on taxis in general and whether UBER should operate in the City.

All parties offer more investment in resurfacing footpaths and roads. Labour quote £1 million pa. Given that the resurfacing of Stonegate this year will cost £1/2 million, the scale of the problem will be apparent. The LibDems promise to “reconstruct” all adopted highways. Reconstruction involves providing a new base as well as a wearing layer. It is much more expensive then either surface dressing or providing a bitmac overlay. The promise looks optimistic to say the least.

Similarly the Greens hopes for a discrete “off road” cycle network “as exists in some places on the continent” seems to ignore the constraints of an historic city layout… ..and the relative lack of success of the Baedeker raids!)

Although the manifestos avoid the usual mistakes (promising a central bus station, river buses, linear cable cars etc), there will be a feeling that none of the parties is yet ready to embrace the rapidly changing transport technologies which are becoming available.

So how hard does your York Councillor work for you?

The York Council has published a prompt response to our annual request for information about Councillor issue raising numbers. This allows residents to see how many issues have been raised during the last 4 years by individual Councillors.

The information is published at the end of each year. All Councillors have access to the central complaints handing service at the Council. Some have claimed in the past that they choose not to use it. One or two say that they use the report it on line system, although this is limited to certain types of issue.

As well as monitoring public service standards and pursing local problems, Councillors have other roles. These include attendance at a range of meetings.

Either way, York enjoys the services of some hardworking local representatives who will legitimately hope for re-election on 2nd May.

Number of issues reported by local Councillors in York

Poor take up for York Council’s “on line” reporting system

Only 4652 residents have signed up to use the Councils “on line” issue reporting system. “Report It” was heralded as a local successor to successful commercial systems like “Fix my Street”

Unfortunately the Council system lacks functionality. Many issues still can’t be reported using the system and it has provide to be difficult to associate the reference numbers, which are emailed to complainants, with the original complaint.

Only litter and street lighting fault reports generate a confirmation when the issue has been dealt with.

The FOI response also reveals that the authority spends around £1.5 million a year on software licensing.

202 candidates for 47 York Council places in 2nd May poll (Updated)

By the close of nominations, 202 people had put themselves forward to be councillors for York. All wards are being contested by the LibDems, Greens, Tories and Labour.

There will be 10 independent candidates including former Councillors Brian Watson (Acomb), John Galvin (Bishopthorpe), Suzie Mercer (Wheldrake), Sheena Jackson (Westfield), Mark Waters (Osbaldwick), Tony Richardson (Haxby), Hillary Shepherd (Hull Road) and David Carr (Copmanthorpe)

There are also 2 UKIP candidates (one each in Dringhouses and Huntington), 1 “Socialist Alternative” and 1 Womens Equality Party (both in the Heworth ward)

Biggest surprise is that 56 of the candidates have refused to reveal on their nomination forms in which part of the City they live.

Instead they just say that they “reside in the City of York Council area”

This could be a significant issue in some wards where electors may feel that they want a local and accessible Councillor.

Another existing Tory Councillor, John Gates from Haxby, is standing down. This means that, of the 14 Conservatives elected to the Council in 2015, only 5 will offer themselves for re-election (as Tories) on May 2nd.

We will publish details on this site, where we have them, of which ward a candidate lives in as part of a more detailed analysis of issues, personalities and policies over the next few weeks.

Haxby Hall elderly persons home plan hits buffers

Haxby Hall

The Haxby Hall home currently has a total capacity of 49 care beds. Within those 49 beds there is provision for approximately 35 residential care beds, eight beds for people living with dementia and up to six step down/short stay beds which are used interchangeably.

Services at the home are delivered by 51 staff (31.58 full time equivalents). When last inspected by the Care Quality Commission it was given a “good” rating 

It’s a year since the Council decided to pull out of Haxby Hall. The expectation was that a third party would take over the running of an enlarged, modernised home.

A feasibility study conducted in 2016 showed that a care home of up to 70 beds could be delivered on the site. One key issue for development was access to the site, which is constricted by the adjacent ambulance station. The plan for Haxby Hall was agreed by the Council on 7th December 2016.

A well attended supplier engagement event was held on 6 September 2017 to promote the opportunity and receive feedback on the proposal. Residents and their families were also consulted.

12 months later the proposal has been withdrawn from the Councils forward decision making programme. Difficulties in negotiating the new access are blamed for the project being shelved.

In January 2018 the then Director Martin Farren outlined the position

“The future of Haxby Hall is a key part of our Older Persons’ Accommodation Programme which looks to address the needs of York’s fast-growing older population by expanding and modernising care provision across the city.

“This report looks at options to safeguard the future of Haxby Hall older persons’ home and procure a provider who will deliver and operate improved, modern care facilities”.

The bids for the takeover were due to be received in September 2018. It was likely that residents would be decanted to other homes while work took place, with the new home scheduled to open in 2020.

No update has been given to any public meeting since then.

The latest delays follow problems at Oakhaven Elderly Persons home which has been empty for two years.

A facility scheduled to be provided at Burnholme is also understood to be delayed.

No detailed planning application has been submitted by the Council for the development of elderly persons facilities at the Lowfields site (although a, much more controversial, commercial housing development did get planning permission there a few months ago)

The Council is also pressing ahead with closing Windsor House which has specialised in providing support for those with dementia

All in all, we think that there is a need for some public reassurances about the timescales which now apply to the Councils Elderly Persons Strategy!

Aspden cleared but everyone now counting the cost

Cllr Aspden (left) with Cllr Carr who was the Council Leader when the allegations were made. Cllr Carr summarily sacked Keith Aspden from his Executive role.

A York Council “standards board” committee has found that allegations against Cllr Keith Aspden have not been proven. The case centred around a claim that job application papers had been circulated prior to a discussion with third parties in a York pub in 2016.

The committee took over 10 hours to sift through evidence before throwing out the claims.

The committee did however, rightly, say that job applications should not be discussed with third parties and ordered that additional training be given to those involved in job interviews.

The decision ends a 2-year investigation which was instigated by a “whistle-blower” who had himself been sacked by the Council. The claims were first raised some 2 years after the alleged events had taken place.

The investigation is believed to have cost the Authority around £100,000.

The cost to Cllr Aspden, in legal fees and loss of earnings, is thought to be around £20,000.

Attention is now likely to turn to the possibility of compensation.

Two other related cases, involving different Councillors, now need to be resolved quickly.

The Council faces some difficult budget choices in a few weeks time. This case has been an unwelcome and costly distraction

Damp squib as York Councillor allegations are published.

After 2 years of agonising the York Council’s Chief Executive has finally published details of the claims of “misconduct”  faced by the former Deputy Leader of the Authority; Cllr Keith Aspden.

He was sacked as Deputy Leader in September 2017 by the then Tory Council Leader David Carr amidst dark allegations of “serious offences”.

David Carr was himself subsequently sacked by the Tory Group.

There had been claims in 2017 that Cllr Aspden had been responsible for leaking an audit report which looked into contract irregularities in 2014 when Labour were in control of the Council. It subsequently turned out that a paid official was responsible for that leak. That same official, when faced with the prospect of dismissal for his action, then muddied the water with a series of claims about Councillor and officer conduct at the Council.

Most of the allegations were quickly disproven but two – concerning the appointment of a junior officer in 2015 – have remained unresolved.

Cllr Aspden vigorously rejects the two remaining charges.

It is this allegation that will be subject to a Standards Committee hearing on 3rd January. The hearing is being held in public and all the background reports have been published “on line” at the request of Cllr Aspden. The names of those involved have been redacted.

It turns out that the issue is less “James Bond”, more “Coronation Street”.

Why the Council should have spent nearly 2 years ponderously investigating the bogus claims, and in the process spent nearly £100,00 of taxpayers money on solicitors and investigators, may remain a mystery, whatever the outcome of the hearing.

The substance of the complaint relates to the appointment of an assistant, for each of the 3 main party leaders, following a decision taken after the last Council elections in 2015.

The authority also decided to centralised complaint handling and continued the employment of 3 “political researchers” who had been in post for over two decades.

All in all, the decisions meant that Councillors enjoyed an unprecedented level of support.

It was never clear precisely what the “Executive Assistants” would do. It was said that they would be non-political appointments.

It is claimed that Keith Aspden sought to influence who might be appointed to the post that would work for him. He was understandably concerned that someone should be appointed who was discrete and sensitive to the political environment (the LibDems were working in a coalition with the Tories). The Labour and Tory Leaders made similar appointments.

The claim being investigated is that copies of job application forms were made available when the merits of the candidates for the post were discussed between four people in a York pub in the summer of 2015. Keith Aspden apparently favoured the appointment of someone that he knew.  The recollections of the 4 involved differ on what was said but an independent investigator has chosen to believe the word of the “whistle-blower” Hence a charge of bringing the Council into disrepute,.

 

Hints of political patronage do leave a bad taste. When the York Unitary Council was formed in 1996 it fell under Labour control. Two of the new Directors, appointed to senior positions, were card carrying members of the Labour party. One was a former Labour Councillor.

That made relationships awkward.

But those were senior roles and the Executive assistants have a much more mundane and low profile work remit.

What happens next depends on the outcome of the hearing. If the case is found not to be proven, then those who have relentlessly – and at great expense to the taxpayer – harassed a hardworking Councillor, may themselves find that they are next into the public dock.

NB. Cllr Ayre has had a complaint, about leaking information to the media, outstanding for over 18 months. Cllr Carr may also face the prospect of censure for actions when he was the Leader of the Council.