Friday, 27 September 2013

Councillors back Royal Mail - but Council uses TNT for letter deliveries

A Motion opposing the privatisation of Royal Mail was unanimously passed by North Ayrshire councillors last Wednesday (September 18) only for it to emerge that the local authority uses private mail firm TNT for most of its day-to-day deliveries.

The Motion, proposed by SNP Council Leader Willie Gibson and seconded by Labour Group Leader Peter McNamara, welcomed the ‘Save Our Royal Mail’ campaign and stated, “This Council recognises that Royal Mail is a National institution formed in 1512 and provides a one price goes anywhere, next day delivery, universal service.  We are concerned that everyone, including millions of small businesses and rural communities who are most reliant on the service, would be hit by rising prices and by the undoubted reduction in services for the people who need those services the most.”

In addition, the Motion indicated the Council would formally sign the ‘Save Our Royal Mail’ petition “to put pressure on the Government to reverse its decision and protect the country’s postal services”.

All 28 councillors present at the meeting agreed the terms of the Motion, which was passed without dissent.

However, it subsequently transpired that for normal day-to-day deliveries of letters, North Ayrshire Council has a contract with private company TNT, the main contender for postal contracts should the UK Government press ahead with privatisation of Royal Mail.

A spokesperson for the local authority explained the position, “The Council uses both Royal Mail and TNT for mail services.  We use Royal Mail for special and recorded deliveries and TNT for the collection and management of most of our normal day-to-day mail.

“Part of our payment to TNT also goes to the Royal Mail - which delivers items on TNT's behalf.

“The TNT contract was approved by the Scottish Government through a contract framework and provides the best possible value while maintaining quality of service. For example, the rate paid to TNT for second class mail is more than 40-percent cheaper than the equivalent cost of a second class stamp.

“In the last financial year, the Council spent £199,000 with TNT and £98,000 with Royal Mail.”

the3towns understands Cllr Gibson and Cllr McNamara only became aware of the local authority’s contract with TNT last Tuesday, the day before the Council meeting.  Both councillors are believed to have strongly-supported pressing ahead with the Motion to show political cross-party support for retaining Royal Mail in public ownership.

Council's £771,000 mobile phone bill

North Ayrshire Council has paid-out a staggering £771,000 for mobile phone services over the last three years.

The figure was revealed at last week’s Council meeting by Cllr Alex Mclean, SNP Cabinet member for Finance & Corporate Support, in response to a question from Ardrossan’s Independent councillor John Hunter.

Cllr Hunter had asked, “When did the Council take out the current mobile phone contract and how much have we paid the provider for all staff users, thus far, including all service charges and any other overheads?”

Responding, Cllr McLean said, “North Ayrshire Council has been part of the Government mobile contract for many years.  This has changed over the past five-years with new tariffs and the introduction of Blackberrys and other smartphones.”

The SNP councillor then revealed the Council has 1,761 mobile phones currently within the contract, and that expenditure over the past three-years was: 2011/12 - £222,000; 2012/13 – £383,000; 2013/14 (to date) - £166,000.

Cllr Mclean added, “As part of the Council’s proactive approach to procurement, it is anticipated that savings can be made on the existing tariffs.  As such, the Council has entered into the most recent Government Mobile, Voice and Data Competition, which is due to be awarded in January 2014.”

John Hunter pointed out he did not claim expenses from the Council, but that because he is provided with a mobile phone a monthly ‘service charge’ of £31.00 in addition to the cost of calls is recorded against his name when the local authority publishes Councillors’ Expenses.  The Ardrossan councillor then said, “I could walk across to Asda today and buy a mobile sim-card for 50p, then load a £20.00 top-up, which lasts for thirty-days and provides me with 500-minutes of call time, unlimited texts and 500-megabytes of data.

“It appears to me that we are not getting a particularly good deal from the current contract.  So, who negotiated the contract?  Against which options were the terms of the contract considered to be ‘best value’ and what efforts will be taken to ensure that, in future, taxpayers receive a much better deal than is provided by the current contract?”

Cllr McLean responded that the contract had been negotiated by the UK Government and had been deemed to be “best value at the time it was negotiated”.

The Council’s SNP Cabinet, which was elected in May 2012, inherited the current mobile phone contract from the previous Labour administration.

Burgess backs UN call to axe the Bedroom Tax

A United Nations Special Rapporteur has called for an end to the UK Government’s Bedroom Tax.

The damning findings of an investigation by UN official Raquel Rolnik came in the same week the3towns set-out the impact on people in North Ayrshire of the legislation described by UK Ministers as necessary to “end the spare room subsidy”.  However, in reality, some of the poorest households are having their Housing Benefit slashed if they have even just one room in their home more than the UK Government says they need.  One ‘additional’ bedroom sees a cut of 14% while two ‘extra’ rooms result in a 25% reduction.

Public sector tenants faced with slashed Housing Benefit are expected to make-up the shortfall in rent from any other welfare payments they receive, such as Jobseekers Allowance.  However, last week the3towns revealed North Ayrshire Council has paid-out £285,312 in Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP) since the Tory-Lib Dem Government introduced the controversial Bedroom Tax in April.

DHPs can be made to tenants facing hardship as a result of their Housing Benefit being cut and, in many cases, are made to prevent people falling into rent arrears, which could lead to evictions.  As of August, the Council had 1,765 tenants deemed by the UK Government to be ‘under occupying’ their homes.  At the same time, the local authority had just 8 one-bedroom properties available for allocation.  In addition, there were already 3,645 applicants on the Housing Waiting List for one-bedroom properties.  With a combined total of 5,410 applicants but just 8 available properties, the figures show there are 675 people chasing every one-bedroom house in North Ayrshire.

Reacting to the UN Rapporteur’s call for the Bedroom Tax to be axed, local MSP Margaret Burgess said, “The tax is unfair, ill-conceived and risks pushing people to the edge.  The Scottish Government has made clear that, following a vote for independence, this policy will be scrapped.”

Mrs Burgess, who represents Cunninghame South, noted, “It is significant to see that the UN Special Rapporteur has come to the same conclusion as the Scottish Government on the UK Government’s Bedroom Tax.  She agrees that it is a detrimental measure with serious impacts on the most vulnerable in our society.

“The Scottish Government, like the UN Special Rapporteur, takes the view that the right way to go in terms of housing-challenges is an approach that puts the needs of individuals and communities, as well as the principles of equality and respect for human rights, at the heart of public policy decisions.”

The SNP MSP added, “Unlike the UK Government, we understand that housing policy is not just about numbers.  It is about helping individuals and communities across Scotland to live decent dignified lives, with access to good quality, affordable accommodation.”

Mrs Burgess, also the SNP Government’s Minister for Housing, said, “We are on track to meet both our affordable housing targets – to deliver 30,000 additional affordable homes by March 2016, including 20,000 for social rent – and Scotland is outperforming other parts of the UK when it comes to the completion of all types of homes.

“Scotland is also leading the way when it comes to preventing and addressing homelessness.  This was acknowledged by Ms Rolnik, who praised Scottish legislation and achievement of the 2012 homelessness commitment with its abolition of the ‘priority need’ test in determining homeless applications.”

£60,000 consultants' report full of spelling mistakes

Last week’s meeting of North Ayrshire Council heard the local authority has paid £60,000 to private consultants for a report riddled with spelling mistakes and consisting of 76 powerpoint slides, some of which contained just a phrase or a number of bullet-points.

The matter was raised by Ardrossan Independent councillor John Hunter who said, “At the last meeting of the Business Plan Implementation Group we were given a report on housing repairs.  Contained within was a summary of a report on demand for repairs compiled by the consultants iMPOWER.  It occurred to me at the time that most of what was presented in summary could have, and probably did, come from North Ayrshire Council internal sources.  This is not an unusual position and I don’t have a problem with that, provided the end product represents good value for money.”

Cllr Hunter continued, “I asked the officers present how much the report had cost and was told £60,000.  Naturally, I asked for a copy of the report, which I have since received and read thoroughly.”

The Ardrossan councillor then revealed the report contained just 76 powerpoint presentation slides. “There is some narrative in some of the slides,” said Cllr Hunter.  “As I suspected, most, if not all, of the data came from North Ayrshire Council sources and, in fairness, that is acknowledged by the authors [iMPOWER].  In presentational terms the report is poor, with words out of context, for example ‘route cause’ rather than ‘root cause; ‘derived areas’ rather than ‘deprived areas’; and references to the ‘contract centre’ rather than ‘contact centre’, plus inaccurate references and unacknowledged sources of material.  These are not isolated typos but occur many times.  Spell-checkers are no substitute for proof-reading and a basic grasp of the English language.”

Cllr Hunter said that, in his opinion, “many of the report’s recommendations seem to be based on simplistic assumptions with respect to cost, officer time and deliverable outcomes within unrealistic time-frames,” adding, “I would like to know how many of the predicted savings within the two-to-three months elapsed from the date of the report have been fully implemented and what level of savings have been achieved?”

Responding for the Council’s SNP administration, Cllr Anthea Dickson, Cabinet member for Health & Social Care, explained why the Housing report had been commissioned from private consultants, “Senior management – who run the best and administratively-lean housing service in the country, not to mention the Quality Scotland Business Award winner – felt strongly that they had no internal capacity, did not want to divert people from their main jobs to conduct research internally but were clear that the evidence had to be gathered.  The emphasis was to keep the focus on managing the service and the extra work that [UK Government] Welfare Reform has brought in.

“The size of the repairs budget - £4.992million – and the required savings of 20-percent are so significant it was felt the investigation had to proceed so that future work would be targeted precisely where it is needed.  For speed of delivery, accessing the right expertise to do the work and for the short period of time to do it, it was agreed that iMPOWER who had knowledge of our housing sector should carry out the work.”

Cllr Dickson added, “Introducing the recommendations within the report, combined with a revised schedule of rates and procedures for repair-ordering, has resulted in the repair costs in July 2013 being over £600,000 below the year to date budget.”

John Hunter then asked if the consultant’s report had been presented to any committee of the Council and, if so, what actions had been agreed.

Anthea Dickson replied, “I think it went to Cabinet, but I will need to check.”