Proceed with Care
Before I begin, I would just like to say a big ‘thank you’ to the members of the Audit Committee who took time out to chat with or exchange e-mails with me on this issue.
I do not usually get involved in discussing local politics, apart from my local election coverage on my personal blog, so this is a departure from my usual column as my subject is the care proceeding costs issue brought up at the last Audit Committee meeting that I covered in a news item for this very site a few weeks ago.
There has been, over the last four years, an apparent wastage of funds on care proceeding cases to the tune of approximately £2 million. Looked at in this superficial way, this is a large sum of money being flushed down the toilet at a time when Thurrock Council, like every other council in the country, is being asked to make savage cuts to their spending.
On further investigation, however, the money is not necessarily being wasted, despite the human errors that have proved costly due to incomplete or missing paperwork, inconsistent legal advice and poorly prepared lawyers. The Audit Committee heard testimony that, in some way, mitigates any criticism and highlights the often forgotten or ignored facts of political life.
Sometimes, the committee was told, a case is so urgent that paperwork is of secondary importance to the welfare of the child or children involved. Put simply – there are instances in which the potential human cost outweighs the economic cost.
This is a powerful message and a reminder that there are actually two sets of accounts a politician has to balance – the economic accounts that deal in the cold hard realities of cash flow and the human accounts that deal with the impact of decisions on the public.
There is no economic decision made that does not also have a human cost attached. Sometimes the costs in one area have an adverse effect on the other and sometimes the costs compliment one another. Yes, it is true that mistakes were made in relation to care proceedings, however, rather than dwelling on the economic costs, perhaps we should be more interested in the human cost to the mistakes.
How did the mistakes that were made impact on the lives of the people involved? In the haste to protect the children involved, did they actually cause more harm? If the answer is yes, then the money expended was indeed wasted. If the answer is no, then the economic cost was not wasted.
In a world filled with unbacked currency, making banknotes worthless pieces of paper, should we not pay more attention to the human accounts? We live in an age of enforced austerity with our country borrowing money from other countries to pay for our public spending, but from whom are we borrowing when it seems that every country in the world is in debt to another?
The economic accounts seem to be indicating a massive problem based on what is nothing more than a monetary will-o’-the-wisp, a string of meaningless ones and zeroes on a computer. Money makes the world go round, so they say, but if the money is worthless, what then makes the world go round? Humans do. So, is it not time to prioritise the human accounts? Is it not time to minimise the human cost of decisions currently taken on an economic grounds?
Recommendations have been put forward by the report’s authors that are to be implemented as a matter of urgency to prevent further apparent wastage but are they robust enough to prevent it? Prior to the meeting, I e-mailed the councillors who were registered on the council website as being members of the Audit Committee to ask them for a chat after the meeting to talk about what was raised in the meeting; however, the meeting finished too late to have any meaningful responses although I did have an interesting, if short, chat with Cllr Martin Healy and Cllr Mrs Catherine Kent. I was hoping to catch up with Cllr Healy at his regular ward surgery but I was unable to attend.
As my regular readers will know, my estimation of politicians is not very high; however, it was greatly improved by the response to my initial e-mail I received from Cllr Healy who showed great concern more for the human cost rather than the financial cost of this issue. Indeed, my brief discussion with both Cllr Healy and Cllr Mrs Kent after the meeting was on the very subject of the human cost of the care proceedings issue. Cllr Healy said in his e-mail to me that he hoped that the human cost was going to be covered in the meeting although I am left wondering if lack of time really allowed that part of the debate to be followed through on.
For those who could not chat with me after the meeting, I sent out e-mails to all members concerned asking a series of questions or at least asking for some kind of comment. Surprisingly, I received quite full replies from two of the councillors – Cllr Tunde Ojetola, Chair of the Audit Committee and Conservative councillor, and Cllr Diana Hale, Labour councillor.
For various reasons, I have been unable to catch up with the other councillors but, as I tend to say a lot these days, life gets in the way sometimes. Below are the responses I received, verbatim, and, for Cllr Ojetola’s response, I have also included the questions I asked.
What are your general feelings about the report and its recommendations?
”Unfortunately the Audit Committee looks at historic issues and in my view we did not have enough time to review this report properly due to the pressure of other work. I however think that Members asked the right level of questions and there was cross party concern over the expenditure.” Some critics may say that, due to issues of human error, approximately £2 million of council funds was wasted. How would you respond to such charges? ”Without examining the ins and outs of it, it is difficult to say whether human error was excluded, despite what the officer said at the meeting.
It is surprising that the lead Cabinet member had not seen the report especially as the overspend will impact on a lot of services the Council provides for Thurrock tax payers.” Bearing in mind that some cases are needed to be handled quickly, as a matter of child safety; do you feel that it may be inevitable that costly errors and omissions may happen? If so, in your own personal opinion, does Thurrock Council simply have to accept that there will always be a high degree of ‘wasted’ expenditure in care proceedings? ”Thurrock staff should provide value for money. There is no excuse for wastage, especially in this time of tight public expenditure. The Cabinet member should have prioritised this area and provided the assurance that the service is not overspent. I am disappointed that such expenditure has gone on without such high level supervision.” One of the reasons given for the high cost of a small number of cases in 2010/11 was the complexity of the cases. Do you feel that there are times when the human cost outweighs the economic cost? If so, do you feel that the safeguards in place are enough to prevent illegitimate economic costs?
”Children are very important and the LA has a responsibility to protect them. Where the cost of ensuring their safety is necessary, then officers are justified to ensure their protection. However, this does not give liberty for an open tap in the department. This is why the cabinet member should ensure that safeguards are in place to assure residents that the Council is providing value for money.” A number of recommendations made in the report will be implemented in the near future. In your opinion, are the recommendations robust enough to prevent further wastage in care proceeding costs or do you feel that they do not go far enough? If they do not go far enough, what additional recommendations would you like to see added? ”My committee has asked the independent auditors for an update at our January meeting.
We will then have the opportunity to examine the control measures in place and how efficient they are.” Bearing in mind that the people who will be working to the implemented recommendations in the future may well be the same people who made the mistakes in previous years, what safeguards will be put in place to ensure the recommendations will be followed through? ”That is down to the director, the cabinet member and the administration. The Audit Committee will examine these in January and see if they hold up.” A follow up report will be presented to the Audit Committee in January to feedback on how well the recommendations will have been implemented.
Are you confident that that period is long enough to get a clear picture?
”By January we will be 10 months into the financial year. It should be adequate time for the Cabinet member to monitor the safeguards and report back, giving assurance that he has controlled the spiralling budget. If he hasn’t had a grip on it by then, there is no chance of the department being on budget by the year end. This will mean a severe impact on other services provided for the tax payer.”
The chance to score major points against the Labour administration was, as one can see, mainly put to one side whilst still holding them to account for certain failures, something that is the duty of a member of the opposition . This shows that, on this issue at least, cross-party working is much more important than partisan politics. A refreshing change, I would say.
Cllr Ojetola’s answers also raise the issue of a lack of time needed to review the report and, from my own observations of being at the meeting, there was also a distinct lack of time for proper full discussion of the issue. I will admit though that, despite lack of time, the questions asked by the committee members were pertinent to the issue. More time, however, would have been extremely welcomed by this commentator.
The other major issue raised by Cllr Ojetola’s answers was the fact that the lead Cabinet member had apparently not read the report. The fact that the portfolio holder was not copied into the distribution list of the report is incomprehensible on such a delicate issue, especially when the portfolio holder may well be held to account for wasting public funds about which there has been no briefing given to him on the matter.
“If the item on the Audit Committee agenda had not been written in “accountant speak” (the Internal Auditors confirmed this) it would not have attracted much or any attention at all.
As the former portfolio holder for CEF I was privy to much of the background of very upsetting cases; where the children were “at risk of significant harm”. The cost of proceeding to a court order is high but we wouldn’t stop the proceedings on the grounds of cost because we have a duty of safeguarding children.
All caseworkers have been acutely aware of budgets and legal costs and their need to ensure, where possible, that all the paperwork is in place. I’m anticipating that the merger of legal departments with Barking and Dagenham will open up opportunities around specialisms such as child care orders that will keep costs in-house.”
Cllr Hale’s comment raises an important point concerning the language used in the report. If a report is going to be discussed in a public forum as this was, being covered in the media, should the language being used be plain English? It has been my experience throughout my different voluntary work that whilst service commissioners, senior leadership teams, etc. wish to engage with people who may not have the expert knowledge they have, the reports they produce and the language they use tends to be incomprehensible to the lay-person.
This, of course, leads to hysteria or misunderstandings based on faulty understanding. It is now, more than ever, that reports that will be, in any respect, publicly available, either through the press or through Government publicity, should be written in a language that everyone can understand so that the public can make a reasoned decision on whether they should be worried or not by the content of the report.
In the case of the care proceeding costs report, I think that there should have been included some background information from someone like Cllr Hale who could have provided some contextualisation of the issues faced by the relevant department. No names need have been given in such a background piece but some information would have indeed been helpful. If the public has no idea of the issues faced by a department, how can one make up one’s mind based on just “accountant speak” reports?
On the whole, I have been impressed with the way the parties are working together on this issue and it makes me think that, perhaps, local politicians are the ones who may well make a politics devoid of partisan ideological differences workable. The local councillors are, perhaps, the ‘missing link’ between the public and career politicians. Our councillors certainly have the interests of the community more to heart as most of them have jobs in the ‘real world’ unlike the Westminster variety of politician. They seem more willing to work together although, having been to some full council meetings, I can honestly say that there is still a long way to go. Local politicians also have a hard time working when their hands are tied so much with central Government edicts. I would like to think that, even though my dream of a non-partisan politics may never work at the national level, perhaps it might just have a chance at the local level.
One thing is certain – I will be back in the committee room in January to see what progress has been made as regards the implementation of the safeguards to prevent further apparent financial wastage and the errors that cause it. I hope that the news will be good but, being the professional cynic I am, I will not be holding my breath for such a result.
Until next time…
If you would like to comment on any of my columns, please send comments and death threats to firstname.lastname@example.org or you can check out my personal blog at http://valen1971.blogspot.com. You can also find me on Twitter (@valen1971).