Psst, can you keep a secret?

A York Council committee will be considering how to make settlement agreements – made when employees leave the Councils employment – more transparent.

They will also touch on the number of “Non-Disclosure Agreements” issued by the Council (over 60 in recent years) and whether these are in the interests of taxpayers.

The proposals are on the agenda of the, normally secretive, Staffing Matters and Urgency committee meeting which takes place on 5th August. Unusually all the items on the agenda will be discussed in public.

Although the new process will involve the appropriate Executive Councillor, it does fail to lay down clear rules limiting the scale of enhanced payments to a leaving employee. They may still be seen by some managers as an easy way to get rid of under-performing staff.

Non-disclosure agreements will still be possible.

There are no plans to routinely report the nature and value of settlements and agreements to a public committee.

There may still be a suspicion amongst taxpayers that enhanced payments are made solely to avoid the laborious processes and costs of an Employment Tribunal.

NB. The same meeting is being told that the Council has been unable to find a suitable candidate to fill the new post of Director of Governance and Improvement. Instead a Director of  Governance is to be appointed at a salary of around £90k.

So, wither natural justice at York Council?

There can’t have been many more publicised processes than the persecution of two York LibDem Councillors over the last 3 years.

 It has provided a field day for speculation and prevarication.

It was perhaps inevitable that the process would end this week – not with a statement of innocence and an apology from senior officials – but with a by-line in a report at a low key routine meeting.

The claim against one councillor, finally exonerated this week, was that he leaked confidential information to the media. He was named by a disgruntled former employee who turned whistle blower. Although the journalists who received the confidential reports (one of which concerned irregular payments to contractors) know who their sources were, they have understandable ethical objections to revealing them.

 The only evidence offered therefore was circumstantial.

The words used by investigating officials suggest that it was a “case not proven”.

The burden should not be on the accused to prove their innocence.

Now Council information leaks in York are not unknown. For 30 years and more, Councillors have passed on information to journalists. Usually this has been to gain some political advantage. Almost invariably it has stemmed from deep frustration that the York Council is amongst the least transparent in the country.

And that is where reform is urgently needed.

The culture of secrecy needs to be swept away.  There will be some information, for example during tendering processes, where the interests of taxpayers need to be protected. But the assumption from now on should be that a matter will only be regarded as confidential in extreme circumstances.

A start could be made by opening up the weekly Staffing Matters & Urgency Committee to the press and public

The Council should go further and ask what information and performance stats residents and the media would wish to see added to the “open data” web site. That would go some way to respect for the authority, its officials and Councillors

As far as “The York 2” are concerned, they deserve to have their reputations restored. The Council should issue a media release immediately to that effect. The Council should also commission a public report on how investigations into allegations of misconduct will be handled in the future. We can see no reason why such investigations should not be resolved within 6 months of an allegation being made.

The two Councillors have suffered financial loss of earnings because of the decision by the then Council Leader to remove them from their jobs. In a just world they would be compensated for that loss.

In the meantime, both Councillors would be wise not to try to use social media to press their case.

York “cold case” perpetrator finally named

Mr Redacted blamed for all Councils woes

Audit committee report April 2018

The long running saga, which started 4 years ago when the Council let consultancy contracts without going through a proper procurement process, is finally reaching its climax.

A report to a meeting next week gives an independent view of who did what and when at an audit committee meeting which discussed the issue a year ago.

Ironically that meeting descended into chaos when most members voted to discuss an internal audit report in public.  This caused a “walk out” by the Labour party committee chair.

The internal report was later leaked to the media causing more turmoil. The implicated “leakers” of the document (who denied the accusation) were later suspended from the Council’s Executive by the then Council Leader.  Hehimself was ejected from office a few weeks ago.

Apart from that, it has been a peaceful and harmonious 18 months at the York Council.

The report into the Audit meeting is heavily redacted. We can see no reason why the names of Councillors and officials should not be revealed WHERE THEY HAVE AGREED TO WAIVE ANY RIGHTS THAT THEY MAY HAVE TO ANONONIMITY.

After all, the meeting was web cast and is already in the public domain

It seems that the Council have not learned many lessons about transparency and accountability

York Council explains reasons for secret staff payoff deals.

After some delay, the York Council has explained why it has entered into 41 “Compromise Agreements” with axed staff during the last 5 years.Top-secret-stamp-006

We reported in June that the York Council had spent £82 million on redundancy costs since 2011. 546 staff (not including teachers) had left the Councils employment with an average payment of £15,000.

The Council has also confirmed that 41 “Compromise Agreements” had been signed with staff. Usually these involve some sort of compensatory pay.

A compromise agreement is a legally binding agreement made either during or following the termination of employment. It is recognised by statute and is the only way an employee can validly “contract out” of their employment law rights. It usually provides for a severance payment, in return for which former employees agree not to pursue any claim or grievance to an Employment Tribunal.

A leading law firm says that the major reasons for using the compromise agreement (other than to settle an existing claim) are to “remove an employee on the grounds of poor performance or misconduct, to avoid legal challenge in redundancy situations and to make it easier to remove senior staff without embarrassment”.

The number of secrecy deals increased markedly when Labour took office in 2011

Three months ago, the Council were unwilling to specify why compromise agreements had been reached in so many cases.

Now, following an FOI appeal, they have lifted the veil a little.

Compromise agreements at City of York Council

Compromise agreements at City of York Council

Clearly the Council has come to several agreements to avoid the costs, and adverse publicity, often associated with claims that run through industrial tribunals.

The legal nature of the agreements means that they can’t be probed further.

Taxpayers may remain a little uneasy about the process and the robustness of the decisions that led to compromises being needed in the first place.

Hello York…. Hello… Hello… anyone there?

Occasionally projects kick off in York which seem like quite a good idea until enthusiasm gradually wanes.

Campaign against secrecy started 5 years ago

Campaign against secrecy started 5 years ago

One example is/was York TV. Announced in 2014 the service was supposed to be on air in the spring of 2015.  A competition was run in June 2014 to find a name for the station which rather alarmingly seemed to result in a parody of the film title  “Good Morning Vietnam”.

Then, despite concerns about the funding sources for the initiative, everything went quiet. The TV station didn’t launch and all that is available is a web site which is very thin on content and an accommodation address and telephone number at the University’s Ron Cook centre.

The York Council – which claimed to be a “partner” in the project – has made no statement on the progress being made. Another partner was “One&Other TV” The founder of independent York publisher One&Other Stuart Goulden had left that company in early 2014 “in order to focus on launching York’s local TV station”.

The Council’s Chief Executive had appeared in a promotional video for “One and Another”Gauden

In a separate development, a Freedom of Information request has now revealed that several contracts were allocated to a public relations company in 2014 which were not subject to proper procurement procedures. Council regulations require competitive quotes to be obtained before contracts are allocated..

In total almost £200,000 appears to have been mis-spent.

It took the Council a very long time to produce the answers to what were perfectly legitimate questions posed by a concerned local resident.

It was as recently as 6th June 2016 that the Council finally provide a comprehensive response detailing the work that they had paid the PR company to undertake

On 6th July the Council admitted that procurement rules had not been followed when letting the contracts. While they rightly said that action had been taken to tighten up procedures, they remained tight lipped on how the maladministration had occurred in the first place.

The Council has now been asked to publish details of all invoices submitted in connection with the PR work in question.

It is unclear whether the Councils auditors will take formal action or whether a reference will be made to the Local Government Ombudsman on a maladministration charge.

The new information does confirm what most people already knew. By 2014 governance processes at the York Council had broken down.

All decisions on the contracts were taken at behind closed doors meetings. The Council claims that Councillors were not informed about what was being done.

Strange case of the missing £18,000 report

Occasionally Freedom of Information (FOI) requests throw up some interesting answers.

That’s one of the reasons why we believe that the increasing numbers of QUANGOS in York should voluntarily accept and respond to FOI requests. After all, most depend heavily – some exclusively – on funding from taxpayers. The Council’s Executive had an opportunity, when discussing governance of these bodies yesterday, to increase transparency. Unfortunately it failed to take the necessary action.

The York Council should itself set an example in providing information in a candid and comprehensive way.TOR for Council central services report 2

One resident asked recently for a copy of a report commissioned by the Councils Chief Executive from PWC (Consultants). The objective of the exercise was  to improve the Council’s efficiency.

The consultancy cost taxpayers £18,000.

The Council claims that it has not kept a copy of the report (received just 12 months ago!)  and goes on to say that,

This work was commissioned by the then Chief Executive of the Council, who left the authority in July 2015. The interim Chief Executive who was in post from July 2015 determined that this particular work would not be taken forward and therefore no further discussion or action has taken place on this matter.

The Council says that it doesn’t know whether any Councillors saw the report.

This seems, on the face of it, to be a very cavalier approach to the use of taxpayers money.  

The Council’s Leadership, and incoming Chief Executive, should make sure that the report – even if unsuitable for implementation – is made publicly available.




York Council still in a muddle over local QUANGOs

The York Council’s Executive is to consider its relationship with agent bodies and companies tomorrow.Quango list

The move comes in the wake of criticism of several bodies not least York City Trading where audits revealed that inappropriate payments had been made.  Other problems arose in relations with the York Museums Trust over charging arrangements and Make it York where apparently unilateral decisions angered residents

The organisations concerned depend on Council taxpayers for a lot of their income

One common criticism was a lack of transparency shown by the organisations (they are not subject to Freedom of Information legislation).

Concerns were also expressed that performance indicators – where published – were inappropriate or “soft”.

Campaign against secrecy started 5 years ago

Campaign against secrecy started 5 years ago

The expectation was the new Council would shake up the bodies and inject more democratic accountability.

Instead a disappointing report concentrates only on governance issues. Steps are being taken to separate executive and customer functions but little else. We will still have a bureaucratic muddle with little consistency and no new commitment to openness.

If approved without change, the Council will stand accused of ignoring many of the concerns expressed by taxpayers over the last five of years.

Important decisions affecting the City will continue to be taken “Behind Closed Doors”