My apologies for being relatively quiet over the past few weeks. Normal service will resume pretty soon.
In the meantime, here’s an update on the PwC report.
Earlier this week, Jim Fitzpatrick asked Eric Pickles in the Commons for an update.
Jim Fitzpatrick: The Secretary of State commissioned PricewaterhouseCoopers to conduct an examination of the finances of Tower Hamlets council. Tower Hamlets council will be paying for that audit. Will the Secretary of State update us on how long it will be before the auditors report?
Eric Pickles: We are talking in terms of a matter of days. I understand that the consultants have finished their report, but the facts will have to be checked with Tower Hamlets, and only when that process has been completed will I be briefed on it. I shall then have to make a “minded” statement, because Tower Hamlets will obviously have the right to respond before I make a final statement to the House.
Actually, Eric “misspoke” slightly when he said a “matter of days”.
The Department for Communities and Local Government has just issued a statement detailing the next steps.
As the council’s head of paid service, Steve Halsey, announced to staff this week, PwC’s team of up to 25 inspectors have now “withdrawn” from the town hall.
Their fieldwork was completed on September 8. They are now into the fact-checking phase. This means extracts of the facts contained in PwC’s draft report are being sent to interviewees (ie Mayor Lutfur Rahman and officers etc) for fact-checking.
It is expected this process will take 10 working days. Responses and comments will have to be returned to PwC by September 25.
The report might then have to be amended; while this phase has in theory no time limits, it’s unlikely to take more than two weeks. The report will then be sent to both Eric Pickles and the council.
Pickles will then consider what action, if any, he will take. He’ll probably make his decision within 24 hours before issuing a statement to the Commons. The PwC report will also be published at that point.
It is expected this statement and publication will take place in the week beginning October 13.
What actions might Eric take? Well, certain “direct functions” might be removed from the council and instead placed under the direct control of the Secretary of State, or independent commissioners appointed by him.
In other words, special measures. This might well be the grants or procurement processes, for example…but that’s purely my speculation.
Many in Tower Hamlets, including within Lutfur’s camp, believe Eric will at least impose a new council chief executive and relieve the clearly overworked Stephen Halsey from his head of paid services duties.
Camp Lutfur, and some senior Labour figures, also doubt whether the PwC report will, beyond installing a new chief executive role, contain anything more than a few rapped knuckles over processes.
This language tends to downplay the importance of following “processes” in local government spending decisions…
Jim Fitzpatrick and Lutfur’s team are also openly worried and critical of the potential £1million cost of the PwC report. As things currently stand, those costs will be charged directly to Tower Hamlets taxpayers.
It is inconceivable this will happen in reality. If the report finds governance failures, it will surely be sensible politically for Eric to announce that Whitehall will pick up the tab: why should innocent Tower Hamlets taxpayers face the double-whammy of suffering poor governance AND the cost of detecting them?
Meanwhile, Lutfur seems to be carrying on oblivious. Over last few weeks he’s been concerned with the important matter of choosing his next chauffeured car.
Nine days ago, this Volvo V60 Estate D6 AWD Plug-in Hybrid 5dr (Price £49,975) was seen in his town hall parking spot.
A Toyota Prius hybrid (as I predicted here in May) has also been seen in that space.
A council spokesman said:
We are currently exploring a range of transport options to assist the Mayor in his duties. As part of this process the more efficient and environmentally-friendly hybrid cars are being considered as a potential option.
A car is necessary because the Mayor seeks to maximise his accessibility to the electorate by going to them rather than requiring them to come to the Town Hall.
Most recently the Mayor trialled a more environmentally-friendly Volvo hybrid D6 for three days, at zero cost to the taxpayer.
But when I asked what other cars he’d tried out, Takki Sulaiman’s press office told me to submit a Freedom of Information request.
Which says something about attitudes towards openness and what they consider the “best value” for taxpayers’ money.
PS.. Sadly, I wasn’t at last night’s full council meeting, which didn’t fail to live down to its usual standards. Lutfur and his Tower Hamlets First party staged a walkout rather than debate why the council has spent money applying for a judicial review on DCLG’s decision to send in PwC. All councillors were apparently told by interim monitoring officer Meic Sullivan-Gould they risked jail should they breach the Contempt of Court Act in debating the issue.
The East London Advertiser’s Mike Brooke has the full story.
And here is the full text of DCLG’s statement today:
Update 11 September 2014
Inspection of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets: concluding stages
In April inspectors from PricewaterhouseCoopers were asked to look into serious allegations of governance failure, poor financial management and fraud.
PwC have now substantially completed their inspection fieldwork and are in the process of producing their report.
PwC has today (Thursday 11 September) sent certain factual information, which they may include in their full report, to Tower Hamlets Council for fact-checking.
Where individuals have given information in interviews which may be referred to in the report, PwC will also be sending relevant information to that individual by the end of the week.
The council and individuals receiving this information will have 10 working days to comment to PwC on its factual accuracy.
All this information has been provided by PwC on a strictly confidential basis solely for the purpose of this fact-checking exercise.
From Thursday 25 September PwC will be considering all the comments received, and finalising their inspection report, which must include any matters identified where the council has not complied with its statutory best value duty.
As required by statute once PwC has finalised its full report, it will then send a copy of that report to the Secretary of State and to Tower Hamlets Council.
Once the Secretary of State has received the report, he will give it careful consideration. Subsequently, in due course, he intends to exercise his statutory power to publish the report, and to make any statement he considers appropriate to Parliament.
If the Secretary of State is satisfied that Tower Hamlets Council is failing to comply with its best value duty, he may exercise his powers of statutory intervention. Statutory intervention may take a number of forms including directing a council to take any action that the Secretary of State considers necessary or expedient to secure its compliance with the best value duty, or directing that certain parts of the council’s functions be undertaken by the Secretary of State or by a person – for example a commissioner – appointed by him for that purpose.
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