was a Finance and Corporate Services Committee meeting last Tuesday chaired by
councillor Philip Read. He started off well enough with a welcome to the members
of the public - all three of us - and ran through the usual recording
not permitted tripe as dictated by the all powerful Teresa.
Once again councillor Jackie Evans was missing and we all know why.
We were told that all of the Performance Indicators were showing green (Key Indicators Pages 8 to 16), although the documentation showed the occasional amber tinge. In reply to a question about bad debts we learned that 66% of council tax is paid by Direct Debit and councillor Malik asked the Finance Director if there were any worrying trends developing. It was presumably Mike Ellsmore who replied - I couldn’t quite see after moving from an embarrassingly squeaky seat - who said that he “sometimes hold my breath at the speed at which we chase up late payments” and he was asking his staff “to look for more innovative solutions”. Thumb screws perhaps? Mr. Ellsmore repeated what we have heard a dozen times before, that providing Children’s Services is putting a lot of pressure on the budget.
The responsible cabinet member made his report. Campbell said that Welfare Reform had provided “a very difficult first three months”. That's the 5% minimum council tax the poor have had to pay since April and the cap on housing benefits, bedroom tax etc. Fortunately, said Campbell, the Department of Work and Pensions had got their forecast for Bexley badly wrong. Instead of the expected 300 plus families affected there were only 162. “Vulnerable adults” he said “were dealt with very sympathetically but that may not be sustainable long term”. Despite that he admitted that “a very large number” had been taken to court.
Campbell again mentioned the looming £40 million black hole, ten million next year and 30 more by 2018. His plan to side-step it involved protecting front line services and possibly “stopping doing some things”. Children’s Services being a drain on resources got another mention and in what may be a rare moment of honesty Campbell said “some of the things going on in Children’s Services make you wonder what the heck is going on”. A rich endorsement of Bexley’s many failings in that area if ever there was one.
Moving on to Agenda Item 8, councillor Craske suggested that the cost of answering individual Freedom of Information requests should be published. The complaints officer, probably Suzanne Lloyd but she was too far away to positively identify, said that she was looking into that possibility for the future. Makes you wonder how they were published in the past. Plucked out of thin air presumably.
Councillor Malik queried the big drop in the number of complaints recorded compared to last year but the answer was pretty straight forward, complaints about missed bin collections are no longer logged as complaints, neither are parking appeals. Nothing has actually changed but it looks better that way.
For Agenda Item 9, chairman Read went off on some flight or irrelevant fancy about the International Monetary Fund and the UK economy. He said it illustrated how well Bexley has coped with the economic crisis. Councillor Munir Malik asked if that has allowed the regeneration of the borough but I don’t think he got an answer.
Later Munir was critical of the council’s website. Councillor Gillespie related how he spent ages looking for a council tax registration form on the web, but eventually gave up. He was advised that was an inspired decision - the form is not there. Council Officer Graham Ward blamed the sub-contractor, for now you have to ask Capita for a form. For some inexplicable reason the Agenda referred to the longer time that people were spending on the website (up 13%) as a good thing. Councillor Gillespie may not agree.
Councillor Maxine Fothergill was asked to report on the findings of her Finance Sub-Committee. Chairman Read said some of her recommendations were already in use. I don’t think he meant they had been instantly implemented, I got the impression she had wasted her time, but I could be wrong.
Councillor Malik was concerned about how some chairmen saw their roles and criticised the quality of debate. He believed some chairmen saw their committee as a “personal fiefdom”. This suggestion did not find favour and the volume rose several decibels. Read put himself firmly in the ‘personal fiefdom’ camp by wagging his finger vigorously at councillor Malik and threatening to exclude him from the chamber under some obscure standing order or other. The row subsided almost as quickly as it arose.
Dave Easton, Head of Electoral Services, then delivered what was probably the most generally interesting report of the evening. The Electoral Roll registration system, he said, was moving to an individual based arrangement from the long established address based system. It should reduce electoral fraud and the switchover will be a big operation with plenty of publicity and Road Shows. Councillor Craske thought Mr. Easton’s report to be good and “very comprehensive”. For the first time in my life I am going to agree with Peter Craske.
Finally came the brief discussion of Business Rates. Councillor Craske summed things up by saying that “we have replaced a system that was complicated with one that is even more complicated”. Now that’s embarrassing; two endorsements of Craske’s opinion within the space of two paragraphs.
The meeting lasted 63 minutes.