Pickles’ Tower Hamlets takeover: a sad affair all round

Chris Game

He kept Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, waiting until almost literally the 23rd hour of the 14th day of his two-week deadline. In the end, though, Tower Hamlets’ elected mayor, Lutfur Rahman, having last Friday lost his second, and ill-advised, application for a judicial review, was left with little choice.

With forced smile and through gritted teeth, he was willing to accept and “welcome” the minister’s ‘intervention package’ and his three commissioners, who until March 2017 will take over specified mayoral and council responsibilities. About the only proviso he could muster to cover his mayoral modesty was that the solutions they offer should be “proportionate and workable” – which is about as low as climb-downs go.

The fortnight deadline had been conceded by Pickles when he made his intervention statement to the Commons on November 4, following a critical Best Value report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) into the borough’s governance arrangements. He could afford to be briefly conciliatory, because he knew Tower Hamlets’ fate had been effectively sealed in the summer, when the mayor’s first application for a judicial review was dismissed in the first line of the judgement as “hopeless”.

By one of life’s pleasing coincidences, that judgement coincided almost precisely with PwC’s regulatory advisory services unit being fined $25 million (or roughly Tower Hamlets’ annual transport budget) and suspended from consulting work for watering down a money laundering report.

I doubt if even Pickles suspects Tower Hamlets of money laundering, but, having also received hefty fines in recent years for failing to safeguard client assets – and “failing to comply with some of the most elementary auditing standards and procedures” – PwC must have seemed the ideal choice for someone who evidently reckons, like the ancient proverb, that an old poacher makes the best gamekeeper.

These PwC cases are, I suggest, more than mere debating points. The fines – and there are several easily searchable others – were for more serious and hugely more self-profiting misconduct than anything its report finds Tower Hamlets guilty of, and the company’s been violating best practice years longer than Mayor Rahman has been in office.

When the PwC report was published a fortnight ago the immediate response of the mayor and council was that it contained “no evidence of criminality or fraud”.

Unrefuted though it was, Rahman’s use of the F-for-Fraud word was (a) at least questionable, (b) a potential hostage to fortune, and (c) somewhat disingenuous. The questionability is that the report does refer (p.28) to “evidence of possible fraudulent payments” of grants to third-sector organisations (emphasis added), but, with the evidence now in the hands of the police, it is not examined further in the report.

The hostage to fortune is that many, probably most, of the fraud accusations levelled at Rahman concern the conduct not of council business but of elections – particularly his own 2014 mayoral re-election, which he won by only 4% from Labour’s John Biggs – and the investigations into these are still very much ongoing. There’s been a detailed judicial scrutiny of ballot papers, and an election fraud trial will take place in the High Court probably in January.

In relation to PwC’s Best Value Inspection report, the fraud reference is also disingenuous, because, as Rahman obviously knows, fraud is not what Best Value is primarily about.

BV was the concept introduced by New Labour in 1999 to supplant the Thatcher/Major policy of Compulsory Competitive Tendering. A council’s duty of BV is “to make arrangements to secure continuous improvement in the way in which its functions are exercised, having regard to a combination of economy, efficiency and effectiveness” (emphases added). The 3Es are quite carefully defined, but “arrangements” aren’t.

The point is, though, that BV is about the existence and satisfactory operation of arrangements and processes. To demonstrate failure to comply, therefore, it isn’t necessary to demonstrate that money has been spent fraudulently, or even in a manner that has failed to achieve an appropriate standard of the 3Es; merely that satisfactory arrangements either haven’t been in place or haven’t operated satisfactorily.

Eric Pickles directed the PwC inspection to focus on the arrangements in four specific areas – those about which there had been most allegations, and essentially those that the commissioners will now take over: payment of grants, transfer of property to third parties, process and practices for entering into contracts, and spending and decisions on publicity.

The PwC report is roughly 200 pages long and by no means a hatchet job. Contracts, for example, were found unproblematic, and publicity received less criticism than Pickles personally would probably have liked.

On the other hand, three of the four property disposals examined were judged BV failures, and grant allocations were found to be all over the place – or rather, the very reverse, disproportionately concentrated on Bangladeshi and Somali groups and areas.

Best Value is a statutory duty and some of PwC’s findings showed serious deficiencies in “arrangements” and processes – much more serious than the mayor at first seemed to acknowledge, as he tried to downplay them as easily remediable “regrettable flaws”.

The really sad thing about this whole affair is the message it sends about local democracy. A Conservative minister, for whom most Tower Hamlets residents would never dream of voting, commissions a report from a bunch of highly-paid professionals, which finds that locally elected politicians have had the temerity to question and even override the advice of more highly paid, unelected officials, probably living outside the borough. And finally, a third set of highly paid unelected officials is sent in to take over. At least some of those voters must surely be wondering why they bothered.

Chris Game - picChris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

The role of social value outcomes in commissioning services

William Jabang

A contract culture has become widespread in public services, but the question often asked is: is ‘price’ alone a satisfactory mechanism for deciding what is done and by whom? The very meaning of ‘value’ has been dominated by the notion of price. In many organisational settings, price is seen as the most obvious way of gauging contract performance, as well as the means by which to judge efficiency.

However, many have questioned this approach and successive governments have sought to widen the debate by bringing forward policies that go beyond price as a mechanism for deciding what has to be done and how. This could be best illustrated by the ‘Best Value’ regime that emerged in the latter part of the twentieth century and still places a duty upon public services to seek best value – where price alone is seen as restrictive in ensuring that services match with what the public actually wants and needs.

This has brought with it certain difficulties and challenges that many public sector managers and elected members have experienced. However, the search goes on for policies and legislative instruments that help bring the public’s needs and requirements closer to an institutional decision-making mechanism that looks beyond price to ensure that what the public value is in line with what they get. Few citizens take the time to investigate the actual cost (in price terms alone) of contracts that are led by public bodies. Eric Pickles took the lead in expressing his desire to have an ‘army of armchair auditors’ scrutinising the books of public bodies after the 2010 General Election, though little evidence beyond the activity of the Tax Payers’ Alliance exists to support this desire.

Many public service managers will have been exposed to the debate introduced by Mark Moore some years ago on the concept of ‘Public Value’ – an interesting line of thinking that has occupied academics for some years now. The next step in this journey has now been taken. On 31st January 2013, the Public Services (Social Value) Act came into force in Engaldn and Wales (although its application to Wales is limited). The Act provides a new statutory requirement for public authorities to consider the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of the local area when commissioning or procuring services.

Consideration of social value is generally not promoted in the existing design, process and delivery of procurement. A recent survey carried out by Guardian Professional indicates that many procurement and commissioning staff feel they don’t even have the skills and training needed to carry out social value commissioning and procurement effectively.

Given the relatively short time for which the Act has been in place, it could be argued that it is too early to assess its full impact on procurement design, process and delivery. However, an appraisal of the level of awareness and degree of implementation of the Act by the public and voluntary/community sector could be important, providing a useful pointer to the potential effectiveness of the Act and the outcomes it could deliver.

In view of this, INLOGOV is working together with the Society of Procurement Officers (SOPO), the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action (NAVCA) and the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO) to carry out a survey. The survey aims to:

  1. Examine the awareness and perception of the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012
  2. Identify changes (if any) which organisations are making as a result of the Act
  3. Establish whether or not the Act has opened up (or is likely to open up) more contract opportunities for voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations (VCSEs)
  4. Establish whether cost is a deterrent to pursuing social value outcomes.

We would appreciate it if you could provide us with your views by completing one of our survey questionnaires. The survey findings will be published jointly by the four organisations named above. It is the aim of the researching organisations that the information from this survey will help to improve existing practice and will enhance the sharing of knowledge between organisations.

The survey is likely to take approximately 15-20 minutes and all information provided will be held in strict confidence – and will be recorded and stored in accordance with the Data Protection Act 1998.

Please click to complete either the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise organisations questionnaire; or the Public Sector/NHS organisations questionnaire.

Thank you for taking part.

William Jabang is a Doctoral Researcher at INLOGOV. His PhD research is focused on commissioning and procuring social value.