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Archive for November 6th, 2014

After highlighting Rabina Khan’s live BBC London interview on this blog yesterday, it’s only fair to point to Lutfur Rahman’s rare live TV outing last night.

He granted BBC London political correspondent Karl Mercer some three minutes at 6.45pm. That’s way too short a time to interrogate him on matters of detail….and that’s the advantage the interviewee gains doing live TV.

The clip, which is available until 6.30pm, can be seen at 18minutes in here.

Karl suggests to him that weaknesses found by PwC included £407,000 of grant money given to organisations that failed to make the minimum requirements in application assessment process. Karl also suggests that some £100k was given to Bengali/Somali groups which didn’t even apply for grants.

Lutfur, in combative mode, replies:

Absolute rubbish. That’s not the case. If someone didn’t apply for grants they would not have got a penny. The assessment that this council, our officers gave awards to organisations that didn’t apply is absolutely wrong and it’s absolutely misleading, so let me correct that for the record.

People have to apply in the first place and a [r]/vigorous assessment process which is overseen by officers then is awarded the grants.

And on it goes with more defences of council processes. He said the applications went through proper processes, “overseen by officers” and via appeals channels to his cabinet.

As it happens, his interview came immediately after his monthly cabinet meeting in the room next door. It was the first one I’d attended in a while and while they always were, even under Labour, something of a rubber-stamping exercise I was struck by the lack of interrogation and the intellectual timidity of his members.

Of those cabinet members, who get paid £12,000 extra a year for their roles, only former deputy mayor Cllr Ohid Ahmed dared to ask a question of a senior officer. Good for him.

The only other councillor to ask a question was Lutfur’s old ally, Marc Francis of Labour, who welcomed a new council housing strategy but wanted reassurances on affordable homes numbers.

I wonder how happy these cabinet members are and what powers, if any, they genuinely have. Are they there for show…and the status and money of course?

This all comes down to governance. Is too much power invested in Lutfur and his unelected advisors and mayoral office?

Does that inner circle fully respect council processes?

In the area of grants, at least, PwC found that not to be the case.

I am going to write more detailed analyses of this report, but for the time being here’s a selection from the executive summary on mainstream grants (MSG) The last paragraph is revealing…or not, as the case may be.

(By the way, I think the BBC were confused in their assertion that some grants were given to groups which did not even apply. I think they were probably referring to 32 cases where the mayor intervened directly to increase their officer-recommended grant without the group itself actually asking/appealing for a review. See para 2.35 and 2.36 below.)

Development of MSG grant proposals

2.30 Officers from the relevant directorates evaluated grant applications in accordance with agreed criteria and scored each application on a consistent basis. Based on these evaluations, which were subject to moderation through discussion amongst officers and a degree of adjustment to reflect their analysis of gaps in expected outputs or outcomes as defined in MSG grant Service Specification documents, officers put forward a set of award recommendations in early August 2012. This was later than originally envisaged, owing to the higher than expected number of grant applications, which considerably exceeded that experienced in the previous MSG round (2009-2012). The August 2012 officer recommendations were for awards to 255 organisations totalling some £8.2 million across eleven different funding streams (covering a 30-month period, equating to £7.4 million pro-rated for 27 months).

2.31 During August and September of 2012, an iterative process took place, whereby one Member in particular who sat on the CGPB [Corporate Grants Board] intervened to make significant changes to the officer recommendations prior to their being presented to the CGPB. This has been explained to us as the application of “local knowledge” to achieve a wider spread of grant monies across more organisations, as well as seeking better to address key areas of need and promote a thriving third sector across the Borough (we have also been told that there were “errors” in the officer recommendations, albeit that the nature of these has not been specified). Taken together, these aims would in principle be unobjectionable in themselves, however the process by which they were pursued lacks transparency and is inadequately documented. Further, without a record of what local knowledge was applied it is not clear how this is linked to the assessment criteria for the MSG 2012-2015 awards.

2.32 There is evidence that officers were concerned as to what the basis for the proposed changes were and, indeed, evidence of a concern that such changes might reduce the effectiveness of the use of grants in terms of securing viable services from third sector organisations. Concerns of a similar nature were also raised by the chairman of the Tower Hamlets CVS, the sole external member of the CGPB. There was also an acknowledgement by the senior in-house legal adviser considering this issue that the changes were significant and that care would need to be taken to ensure that the process and its outcome could be justified.

2.33 The result of this process was a new set of recommendations which were significantly different from those made in August. Out of a total of 431 initial applications, the updated recommendation was different in 347 cases (81% by number). This included 15 applicants who had not met the minimum eligibility criteria even to undergo evaluation and scoring by officers. These applicants were recommended to receive aggregate awards of £243,500. A further 18 applicants were recommended who had, on the basis of officer evaluation, failed to reach the agreed minimum score to qualify to receive a grant and had therefore not been recommended by officers for an award. These applicants were recommended to receive, in total, awards of £407,700.

2.34 We note one example of Member input into the decision making of MSG 2012-2015 awards whereby Members recommended £40,000 of funding to an organisation despite identified manipulation in the documents provided to support the applications of the organisation and an Internal Audit report assigning nil assurance to the organisation’s control environment in September 2012. This organisation was not scored by officers as it failed to meet eligibility criteria. In addition to this we note that three other applications to the same funding stream, were turned down for funding with the following comment “this was a reasonably good scoring project, however there was very high demand for funds from higher rated proposals which meant that this project was not able to be supported”. Given the scarce resources available and the apparently good quality capacity already in place it is not clear how seeking to build capacity within this organisation was the best use of resources within this funding stream.

2.35 The new recommendations were put forward at a Cabinet meeting (open to the public) on 3 October 2012. At this meeting, the Mayor indicated that he was minded to accept the recommendations, however he was announcing a seven-day review period, during which grant applicants could ask to have their proposed award (or lack of award) reconsidered. In the event, some 177 applicants asked for their award to be reviewed. Of these, 76 were awarded an increased grant. In addition, a further 32 applicants received increases although we have not seen evidence that they had in fact asked for a review of their award.

Degree of involvement of the Mayor

2.36 In interview, the Mayor told us that he had not been involved in the detail of awards, although he had kept abreast of things generally through occasional high level discussions with one Member in particular. This is somewhat at odds with an email dated 8 August 2012, shortly after the initial circulation of the original officer recommendations, which stated that “the Mayor has requested a vastly expanded Appendix 1”.We also note that a press statement dated 1 April 2014 put out by the Mayor’s office in response to the BBC Panorama programme included an assertion to the effect that the Mayor, acting within his powers, had intervened in 32 specific cases (details of some of which were also given). We consider it likely that the 32 cases referred to in the press statement concern largely the same applicants as the 32 applicants, included in the final award, who received an increase without requesting that their awards be reviewed. In response to our request for clarification of whether or not the Mayor intervened in the manner suggested in the press statement, neither the Mayor’s office nor the Authority has been able to shed any further light on the matter.

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