Sunday, October 18, 2015

One-Party Councils, Accountability & Corruption

Below is an email that I have sent to Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) in response to a recent report she circulated to I believe all local Councillors in England. The report is called "The Cost of One-Party Councils: Lack of Electoral Accountability and public procurement corruption" by Cambridge academic, Dr Mihály Fazekas, who believes that one-party Councils cost some £2.5 billion per year in excess costs for defective contracts. The ERS believe that this report supports their call for proportional representation in Council elections and have asked for responses.

"Dear Katie

Thank you for sending me a copy of this hard hitting and provocative report. As a Labour Councillor in the London Borough of Newham which has no elected opposition and has been controlled by my Party for over 100 years, I was of course interested in its findings. I also sit on my authorities' scrutiny commissions and was myself, a former officer, employed by another Council for many years.

Firstly, I note that although you say in your covering email that there are many one-party councils "which are models of local government excellence and efficiency" the report by Dr Fazekas does not seem to support this. I am also puzzled that London Councils are omitted from this analysis since "due to the two-tier government structure and London’s special economic position within England". There are two-tier structures in non London authorities and such procurement issues are surely similar in London and the rest of England?

I also see that the London Borough of Newham is also mentioned in the main report (page 2) and used to illustrate "governance weaknesses and mismanagement of public funds such as the
London Borough of Newham‘s East Ham Campus project (PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2015
)". A number of London boroughs are also listed in Table 4 as being one-party dominated.

I am not a statistician so I freely admit to have struggled to fully understand and evaluate all the empirical "big data" evidence that support the report's conclusions on the link between one party control and corruption.  I feel though that it is somewhat stating the obvious that having such control and dominance leads to a real risk of inefficiency and corruption. However, I don't necessarily think that it is always inevitable as long as the necessary checks and balances are in place.

The justification about the"red flags" dangers for corruption risks - such as there being only a single bid, not publicising tenders in the official procurement journal, too short times between adverts and submission of bid,  rigged assessment procedures etc are persuasive and well made. All Councillors should be aware of this. I suspect that there is insufficent vigour in scrutiny in many one-Party Councils and money is wasted. However, I can see that a local authority may for various valid reasons include non competitive requirements in any contract such as wanting an in-house team or a Living wage for a contracted out workforce. This does not always mean that they are corrupt or wasteful.

In my time in local government I am aware that corruption has taken place but at the risk of appearing naive, I do not believe it to be epidemic and widespread. By and large we are well served by our local government officers, although there are rotten apples and some very poor practises. Having a full competitive tendering process can be a very complex, lengthy, bureaucratic and expensive. It may well be more effective and efficient not to always have such processes. This must always be fully justified.

While I am actually a long standing supporter of proportional representation in national and local elections I do not think it is a panacea for all ills. I read the main report while on a visit to Rome, Italy (see picture above). Which is a beautiful and historic place but it is not exactly a model of good governance and anti-corruption, despite having proportional representation for their elections for many years. "First past the post" is plainly wrong and fatally flawed but often in one-party councils, opposition parties are ineffective since they are disorganised and do not receive the support needed from their national organisations who concentrate resources in marginal election areas.

I also have my doubts about the single transfer vote system since I think Party "top up" lists are inherently dangerous and risky since they give too much power to the Party machine.

Finally, I think just as important as electoral reform, local government needs structural and legislative reform. Such as making the role of scrutiny committees much more robust and truly independent of the Executive; beefing up Standard Boards; time limits on Council leaders; stopping backbench Councillors being refused information by Chief officers for no substantiated reasons; being open and transparent and stop restricting information to the public or press unless absolutely necessary; making officers' hospitality register a public document; better guidance from national political organisations on the role of elected members as being champions of their constituents and holding the Executive to account. Last but not least, we should reintroduce powers to surcharge individual Councillors who act without due care or legal authority with public money.

Yours sincerely

John Gray

(this is of course in a personal capacity and not be seen as representing the views of anyone but myself)

Update: I think I have confused the STV system for electing local Councillors with that used to elect the devolved government. It is confusing. Hat tip Tim R-P. 

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