Friday, 16 October 2015

NAC: questions over costly consultant

Senior management of North Ayrshire Council face questions over a controversial external appointment of a consultant that, it has been revealed, cost local taxpayers £180,000 over little more than a year.

The matter initially came to light some months ago following concerns expressed by Three Towns Independent councillors Ronnie McNicol and John Hunter.  The shocking level of payment to the consultant was revealed this week in a council response to a Freedom of Information request submitted by the Ardrossan & Saltcoats Herald.

However, in addition to the huge cost involved, a North Ayrshire Council employee who spoke to the3towns on condition of anonymity has claimed high-quality candidates were rejected in order that Mrs Sally Agass (pictured) could be brought-in as a consultant.

The insider said, “The job Sally Agass was originally employed to do was advertised externally as a full-time post, and there were very good candidates interviewed for the job.  There were at least two who were more than qualified to do the job, but the decision had already been taken to bring-in Sally Agass to do it.”

Mrs Agass is a former official with Waltham Forest Council in London and more recently has worked as a local government consultant.  She was employed by North Ayrshire Council through an organisation called Solace Group, which is actually the Society of Local Government Chief Executives, a body that represents council chief executives and senior managers.

In 2012, Elma Murray, NAC’s chief executive, was Chair of Solace Scotland, the Scottish branch of the London-based group that supplied Mrs Agass to the North Ayrshire local authority and which received payment for her services.  Solace subsequently paid Sally Agass.

Solace describes its work as providing its members “with opportunities for professional development and seek[ing] to influence debate around the future of public services to ensure that policy and legislation are informed by the experience and expertise of our members”.

The NAC source who spoke to the3towns said, “It has been an open secret that very senior managers wanted Sally Agass brought-in.  There are Solace links in all of this.”

The council employee claimed that employing one of the applicants for the originally-advertised post would have cost around £50,000, instead of the £180,000 paid to Solace for the services of Sally Agass.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Council's £50,000-spend on awards

North Ayrshire Council has spent over £50,000 entering workplace competitions in the past year.

The figure was revealed in response to a question from Saltcoats & Stevenston Independent councillor Ronnie McNicol.

At a meeting of NAC on September 9th, Cllr McNicol asked the Council’s SNP administration for a detailed list of all awards for which the council had entered or had been nominated since January 2014.

In response, Cllr Ruth Maguire, Cabinet Member for Finance, Corporate Support and Welfare Reform, indicated details were only available from November 1st 2014, and provided a list of the awards-contests entered by the council from that date to the present.

Cllr Maguire noted, “While it is great news that the achievements of our staff have been recognised in our run of recent awards, it is also important to recognise the wider benefit of the award process.  Entering awards allows council performance to be compared against the best-in-class.  They [the awards-contests] provide a measure of where the council is on its journey from ‘Good to Great’.  They enable us to learn from others, identify opportunities and deliver better-quality services at lower cost.”

The SNP councillor added, “National awards raise the profile, not just of the council but of North Ayrshire as a whole.  They raise awareness that this is a dynamic and forward thinking area to live, work and do business.”

Ronnie McNicol then reminded councillors of North Ayrshire’s position as one of the most-deprived areas in Scotland, and asked Cllr Maguire to provide a breakdown of all costs associated with the council entering awards-contests.

At the time, Ruth Maguire stated that it would not be possible to provide information on the cost of officer time in preparing submissions to enter awards contests, but that she would provide other information requested by Cllr McNicol.

This week a further response was, indeed, provided to the local Independent councillor, which revealed that the total amount paid by North Ayrshire Council to enter awards competitions since November 2014 came to £51,073.

The latest reply also indicated the council had entered 90 awards-contests during the period, giving an average cost per entry of £567.

In addition, the council response to Cllr McNicol said, “Our good to great journey has enjoyed broad cross-party support from elected members for its ambition and far reaching vision to make our Council Great.  This support has been vital in successfully driving forward our programme of transformation with pace and vigour.”

The reply continued, “Our staff have been critical in this process. Their relentless pursuit of excellence has allowed us to transform our Council and create an environment which values creativity and innovation and has seen the Council deliver £50m of efficiency savings over the past five years.

“Award success is the natural culmination of the tremendous efforts of our inspired and creative workforce.  They [the awards] provide recognition and motivation for our staff and are a necessary investment to allow us to continue to achieve the savings and efficiencies we need to make going forward.”

The breakdown of costs associated with entering awards contests shows North Ayrshire Council paid a total of £9,081 to the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE), a Manchester-based organisation that has a membership comprised of councils from across the UK.  APSE has a Scottish ‘region’ with an office located in Hamilton.

In another significant outlay within the period November 2014 to October 2015, North Ayrshire Council paid £8,589 to enter awards-contests run by the Municipal Journal, and £3,381 to the Duke of Gloucester Young Achievers Award.

A further £6,924 was paid to enter awards run by the Local Government Chronicle (LGC).  The LGC is part of EMAP, a London-based publisher of business-to-business magazines.  In turn, EMAP Publishing is owned by Apax Partners plc.  Last year Apax Partners declared assets of $20bn and, in 2010, the company was condemned for “unethical and predatory practices” after it was found to have profited from a ‘leveraged buyout’ of Dutch publishers PCM.  Apax acquired PCM, saddled the company with huge debts, then sold it for a profit.

In the period covered by the £51,073 expenditure, North Ayrshire Council won a number of awards, including: Three-Star Level of Excellence at the Scottish Awards for Business Excellence 2015; CoSLA Gold Award – Strong and Sustainable Communities; CoSLA Gold Award – Social Services and Health; APSE Striving for Excellence Award; Investor in People Gold Award; Scottish Property Awards – Town Centre Regeneration Project of the Year; Customer Service Excellence Awards – Housing Services (Concierge Team), Revenue & Benefits, Customer Services; SOCITM 4-Star Rating for Council Website; Food for Life Gold Accreditation – Catering Services.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Tory welfare cuts have cost 300 jobs in North Ayrshire

Local MSP Margaret Burgess has blasted the UK Tory Government after independent research revealed 300 jobs have been lost in North Ayrshire as a consequence of Westminster welfare cuts.

The figures, based on data produced by Welsh academic Professor Steve Fothergill, were released this week by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre, which is completely independent of political influence.

Mrs Burgess said, “It’s now abundantly clear that the callous, punitive Tory cuts to social security have failed by even their own standards – and people in North Ayrshire are paying the price. 

“Not content with pushing vulnerable people even further into poverty while doing nothing to support people into employment, we now know that Tory social security cuts are actually costing 300 local jobs by sucking spending power out of our poorest communities.

“With less money in communities across the country as a result of these welfare cuts, hundreds of local people now find themselves without work.”

The SNP MSP for Cunninghame South, which includes Stevenston, noted, “With his welfare cuts failing by every conceivable measure, it’s time for David Cameron to finally admit that his unfair policies simply don’t work.

"It's also time for a long-overdue U-turn from this Tory government who are more interested in punishing unemployed people than in supporting them back into work.”

Mrs Burgess said, “With Westminster’s appalling record on social security, it’s absolutely no wonder that more and more people in Scotland want these key powers to be in Scotland’s hands – rather than in the hands of right-wing Tory ideologues.”