Saturday, 31 March 2012

Ken Comes To Hammersmith To Set Out His £1000 Fares Offer

Labour's Ken Livingstone in Lyric Square, Hammersmith with local residents and supporters
Ken Livingstone’s Fare Deal Express Bus pulled up outside Lyric Square, in Hammersmith, on Thursday. Ken and his team visited us as part of the launch of Labour’s London transport manifesto pledging to put over £1000 back into the pockets of Hammersmith and Fulham’s residents. He received a warm welcome from the lunch-time crowd. You can read Labour’s transport manifesto for London by clicking here.

All the promises have been costed and Ken has even promised to step down by 7th October this year, should he be elected, if he hasn’t already cut fares by an inflation-busting 7%. Here’s a video on the subject by Steve Pound MP (Lab):

 The Labour candidates’ key transport commitments include:
  • Cut the fares by 7% which will save Londoners on average £1,000 over four years
  • Bring suburban rail services into London Overground
  • Guarantee to protect the Freedom Pass from age 60
  • Deliver better bus services in the suburbs
  • Get a grip of the Tube delays which affect millions of Londoners every week
  • Introduce a smart parking system to reduce congestion and make car parking easier
  • Freeze the Congestion Charge for 4 years.
  • Focus on safer cycling everywhere with new green routes in outer London
  • Build the case for new transport links including Crossrail 2, new DLR and Croydon Tram extensions.
Our Borough has fourteen tube stations, four train stations and numerous bus routes so tens of thousands of local residents will be much better off. But that’s all dependent on the votes cast on 3rd May.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Labour’s Five-Point Action Plan Offering Immediate Help For Pensioners, Families And Young People

Rt Hon Ed Miliband MP
The Rt Hon Ed Miliband MP has published Labour’s five-point action plan to offer immediate help to pensioners, hard-working families and young people. Yesterday the OECD published its prediction that Britain is slumping back into recession. The evidence is mounting just how badly the Conservative/Lib Dem government's austerity economics isn't working. A different approach is needed.

Ed Miliband's five action points demonstrates how the government does actually have different options that could offer a better way to support the majority, build confidence and begin to kick-start the British economy. Ed says "The Conservative Party will have you believe that it’s impossible to help the squeezed middle when times are tough. Our family budget action plan shows it’s possible to make a real difference for pensioners, for hard-working families, for young people, even when there is less money around.

These are measures that do not require extra spending. But they do require a different set of priorities, different values, a government that is on your side, and sometimes the courage to take on powerful and well-financed organisations which will not like it."
The five family budget action points are:
  1. "Stop the Government’s raid on pensioners and block its £40,000 tax cut to 14,000 millionaires
  2. End rail rip-offs by capping fares increases on every route
  3. Force the energy firms to cut gas and electricity bills for 4 million over-75s
  4. Stop excessive fees charged by banks and low cost airlines
  5. Defend working families from the raid on their tax credits by reversing the Government’s pension tax break for those earning over £150,000"

What Does The Kwok Brothers Arrests Mean For H&F Conservatives’ Earls Court, West Kensington Opportunity Area?

Hong Kong: Kwok brothers arrested. Full report in the FT
On the 19th December 2011 Capital & Counties Properties PLC (Capco) announced that it had made a “conditional agreement with Kwok Family Interests to acquire 50% stake in Seagrave Road for £65.6m.” Adding: “Interests of the Kwok family are major shareholders of Sun Hung Kai Properties Limited, one of the largest and highly reputable real estate companies listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.” Seagrave Road in Fulham is the phase one site of what H&F Council and CapCo refer to as the "Earls Court and West Kensington Opportunity Area". You can read CapCo's full press release by clicking here.

However, yesterday afternoon Reuters reported that “Hong Kong's Independent Commission Against Corruption on Thursday arrested two senior company executives, identified in the media as Sun Hung Kai Properties tycoon brothers Raymond and Thomas Kwok, for corruption” It went on to say “the Hong Kong stock exchange suspended Sun Hung Kai, SmarTone Telecommunications Holdings and SUNeVision Holdings Ltd, ahead of what the companies said was a potentially price-sensitive announcement.” The Financial Times have the story here and the BBC are also reporting the story.

Many residents will recall how as recently as the 16th February H&F Conservatives arranged a Special Planning Applications Committee (PAC) meeting so their councillors could rush through approval for the Seagrave Road plans. Then on 19th March, H&F Conservatives called all councillors to an Extraordinary Council Meetings so they could use their block vote to push through the vital Supplementary Planning Document for the “Opportunity Area” site which included Seagrave Road. And just four days ago Mayor Boris Johnson (Con) nodded the whole scheme through.

We will have to see how and indeed if what’s happened in Hong Kong will affect CapCo and H&F Conservatives’ opportunities with their Fulham scheme. We should note that the Kwok brothers have not been formally charged, they haven't been tried and have not been found guilty of doing anything wrong.

Until now, the most controversial aspect of this whole project has been the forced demolition of 800 residents’ homes on the West Kensington and Gibbs Green Estates. H&F Conservatives have broken a long-standing precedent and have flatly refused to give those residents a vote on the future of their homes - as North End Ward Councillor Daryl Brown (Lab) called for here. Last Thursday, the Guardian featured the residents' plight in this excellent article.

The news from the far east spotlights an important aspect to this contentious scheme. There are serious questions that need to be answered about the financial viability of the whole project and what that means for the 800 households racked with anxiety about the future of their homes. Mayor Boris Johnson and H&F Conservatives will both need to publish a full report that comprehensively deals with these concerns and explains what they intend to do with the Transport for London and H&F Council land that they both control and which is intrinsic to the whole "Opportunity Area" plan.

H&F Conservatives should announce that the West Kensingston and Gibbs Green homes are no longer a part of this plan and remove the spectre of demolition from those residents' lives.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

A Treat In The Heart Of Hammersmith

Sharon Isaac-Upton and Tom Roche,
Brackenbury's Delicatessen, Hammersmith
Sharon Isaac-Upton tells how she once strolled through Hammersmith pushing her child in a pram. Eventually she came across this wonderful delicatessen. It sold amazing coffee, beautiful food and was an oasis of friendliness. But she could never quite recall exactly where it was. Many years later she found it. It was being advertised for sale and so, along with her business partner Tom Roche, she bought it last year.

Sharon had stumbled across Buchanan's Organic Deli and Coffee Shop which was run by the lovely and much missed Jim Buchanan, who sadly died last spring.

The store has been refitted out and re-named Brackenburys Delicatessen but it remains at the heart of what has become known as Brackenbury Village. Since taking on the deli, Sharon and Tom have sourced an eclectic range of fine foods. The coffee is still excellent but you’ll also find wonderful cheeses, artisan breads, charcuterie, antipasti and cakes.

The cafĂ© is going strong too: mouth-watering salads are offered up along side luxurious sandwiches, pies and other delights. They do breakfast, lunch and tea and are open from 7.00am to 4.30pm week days and from 8.00am on Saturday and Sunday – when they close at 4.00pm and 2.00pm respectively.

It is good to see Brackenburys Delicatessen thriving. And it's good that this independent small retailer is bucking the trend in this tough economic climate. If you’re in the area, it offers a quite treat in the middle of any day of the week. But do take a note where it is or you might spend years wondering exactly where it was that you found this wonderful oasis of nourishing calm and delightful fare.

You can follow Brackenburys Delicatessen on Twitter; you can visit them on Facebook and you can visit them for real at 22 Aldensley Road, Hammersmith, London, W6 0DH. You can email them by clicking here or give them a call on 020 8748 7388.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Guardian Features West Kensington Residents' Plight As Tory Demolitions Plan Progresses

See today's edition for full page feature on
West Ken and Gibbs Green
Today’s Guardian has published this full page feature on the plight of residents facing the prospect of having their homes demolished in West Kensington and Gibbs Green. The story is written by the excellent Dave Hill who was one of the first journalist to expose the full extent of the Conservatives’ housing demolitions and new policy proposals when he released this video report on the 9th October 2009.

Regular readers will also recall H&F Council’s thoroughly dishonest approach when news of the West Ken and Gibbs Green homes demolitions was first reported in the Fulham Chronicle on 3rd July 2008. The Council's PR department actually threatened that newspaper with legal action unless they retracted the story. But within six months the Council had officially started consulting on its proposal and last Monday night they altered the Council’s planning documents to make it easier to demolish all the homes in that area.

You can read the Guardian’s full article by clicking here.

Daryl Brown's Speech Defending Residents' Right To Vote On Plans To Demolish Their Homes

North End ward's
Cllr. Daryl Brown (Lab)
Last Monday night all the Borough’s councillors attended an Extraordinary Full Council Meeting. We had been called there to consider, debate and then vote on the hastily prepared Supplementary Planning Document for the Earls Court and West Kensington Opportunity Area.

My fellow Labour councillors and I moved a proposal that the Council should “carry out a ballot of tenants and leaseholders on the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates, organised by the Electoral Reform Society, to ascertain if they are supportive of the adoption of the SPD and if a majority who vote are in favour.”

That was voted down by the large Conservative majority which included the two Conservative North End ward councillors. They then voted the SPD through which will make it easier for them to demolish residents' homes.

Cllr. Daryl Brown, Labour’s representative for North End, spoke movingly in favour of the Opposition’s proposal. Here’s her speech:  

"This evening, I am speaking on behalf of the residents of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estate. Residents who are proud of their community, love their homes and care about their neighbourhood. Residents who are living in hope that their voices will be heard.

Walk around the estate on a sunny day and you will see children playing, neighbours chatting and witness a thriving community. So far this community has not been convinced that the Council’s plans are anything but a threat to their homes. That’s an astonishing fact considering that the Administration has spent thousands of pounds selling their ideas via glossy leaflets and personalised letters. They even set up and funded a shadow residents association but still the Council is not believed.

If you listen to people and get past all the emotional issues of moving home and deal with all the concerns of breaking up a strong and resilient community the fact is the deal that the Council says it’s negotiated is bad for those residents. Get past the small print and there are no real guarantees.
  • There are concerns that the developer does not have the financial capability to deliver the scheme
  • There are concerns that there is no guarantees that the numbers of replacement homes will be built
  • There are concerns that CapCo are deciding who gets the few replacement homes on the new developments
  • There are concerns that the Council has sold the tenants' homes and is giving away their rights for £100 million
  • And there are concerns that the Council is so frightened of what residents have uncovered they are breaking a Borough precedent and actually refusing to give a democratic vote on their demolition plans.
Now, although the SPD (Supplementary Planning Document) refers to “regeneration” of the estates, it is clear that redevelopment is the proposal here. Regeneration and redevelopment are not the same things. Regeneration is genuinely regenerative. It improves and adds to the good things that are already there.

Look at the strength of this community. Look at the intelligence of their campaign and the precision of their arguments. Just a brief look informs the most bigoted snob and the most ignorant officials but you have to take the blinkers off first. There is much that is good about the neighbours, friends and fellow residents who live on the West Ken and Gibbs Green estates. How does this plan do anything other than throw that away?

This proposal is a simple proposal. It’s about re-development. But the most negative, threatening type of re-development. Like a drunken thug threatening to re-develop your face. No wonder you’ve so far run scared of giving residents a vote on this scheme. But it’s not too late. You can repent and do the right thing. You can demonstrate the strength of your beliefs and put this to a vote.

That’s what you would do if this was a different, richer group of residents - like those in say, Parson’s Green. So why not those residents who live in West Ken and Gibbs Green?

Give them the vote...
Give them the vote!

That cry is as old as democracy is in these islands. So, give my constituents the vote. Prove that you have the strength of your convictions and let the people decide.
Thank you."

Bunker Mentality

Private Eye issue 1310
Hammersmith and Fulham’s Conservative Administration has again made it into the pages of the most recent issue of Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs, with more news on the Council’s “consultants” and tax scandal.

Cllr. Harry Phibbs (Con), the Borough’s Cabinet Member for Community Engagement, has been busy sending off complaints to the media that have featured the scandal. He has also used his Daily Mail Blog to attack the BBC’s award winning File on 4 programme for also exposing what’s happening in Hammersmith and Fulham in its special documentary titled “Tax Avoidance.”

But, the Sunday and Daily Mail have both done an excellent job of scooping H&F’s peculiar approach to tax and “consultants” both here in 2010 and here in 2011. It's doubtful Cllr. Phibbs wrote to complain to the Editor in those instances and I doubt Mr. Phibbs even told his editor that he was going to contradict the papers' previous line.

One sharp eyed local resident has also written me to point out a further discrepancy. This time it's between Cllr. Phibbs’ position on tax avoidance and that of the Rt Hon George Osborne MP (Con), the Chancellor of the Exchequer. On Wednesday Mr. Osborne told Parliament “aggressive tax avoidance is morally repugnant” thus ignoring the advice offered by our Borough's Cabinet Member for Community Engagement just seven days earlier that “tax avoidance is routine.”

And if H&F Conservatives still haven’t got the message they just need to look in the Treasury’s Budget Red Book. There’s a whole section that relates to Hammersmith and Fulham Council’s employment policies that I have pasted here:

“2.207 Personal service companies and IR35 – The Government will introduce a package of measures to tackle avoidance through the use of personal service companies and to make the IR35 legislation easier to understand for those who are genuinely in business. This will include: strengthening up specialist compliance teams to tackle avoidance of employment income; simplifying the way IR35 is administered; and subject to consultation, requiring office holders/controlling persons who are integral to the running of an organisation to have PAYE and NICs deducted at source by the organisation by which they are engaged.”

As previously reported, my fellow Labour councillors and I want H&F Council to carry out a full internal investigation going back the full six years that HMRC could look into. We require evidence and assurances that all back taxes are paid and that the Borough has done all it can to avoid a hefty fine. There is little doubt that senior Conservative Councillors' time would be better spent ensuring that instead of attacking any journalist that happens to report what’s actually going on in Hammersmith and Fulham Council.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Absolute Chaos: H&F Council's Consultants And Tax Woes

H&F Council management chart presented to the Borough's
Housing, Health and Adult Social Care Select Committee
on 24th June 2010. Click to view.
There are some more interesting contradictions emerging concerning the contracting of the Conservative Administration’s most high profile "consultant" and whether he was a council employee or simply a consultant. This raises further concerns about all sixty-nine consultants and how H&F Council is dealing with the potential fines it could suffer from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.

On 8th March 2012 a senior official wrote to me referring to Nick Johnson and the contracting of Davies Johnson Ltd. She said “These services are properly defined as consultancy under the new procedure which has been introduced for the recruitment of additional resources. Nick Johnson has never appeared on the Council’s organisation charts and so could not have been removed from them in the way that you suggest.  He is not an employee and the Council would have no reason to include him in anything that it publishes which deals with employees.  He will, of course, have appeared on the structure charts of the former ALMO as its interim Chief Executive.”

Another management chart presented to the Borough's
Housing, Health and Adult Social Care Select Committee
on 24th June 2010. This one refers to H&F Council's
ALMO. Nick Johnson is listed as "Chief Executive"
Click to view
But, on 24th June 2010 Nick Johnson gave a presentation to the Borough’s Housing Health and Adult Social Care Select Committee. He presented two management charts: one for the Council’s housing management team and one for H&F Homes - the Council's ALMO. He is on both. He also told the committee that “the provision of supervision and support of the two Assistant Directors had transferred to him” and that he had taken on this additional “full time” role following a personal request from Geoff Alltimes - who was H&F Council’s Chief Executive until last autumn.

And, on the 24th September 2010 Geoff Alltimes wrote to me to advise he and the ALMO Board “concluded jointly that Nick should have two separate contracts, one with the Council for managing the Council’s housing and regeneration functions and the other as continuing interim Chief Executive of H&F Homes.” So there is little doubt that Nick Johnson had been “managing the Council’s housing and regeneration functions” and had consequently played a senior role as part of H&F Council’s team of directors.

In fact, on 7th October 2010, Geoff Alltimes wrote to me again to advise, “On the point about how Nick Johnson was appointed to H&F Homes, I think I have given you as full an explanation as I can. I certainly believe that this was done ‘in an open, fair and professional manner’. I can only add, in relation to you later point, that I do not consider him to have been appointed as ‘a consultant’, Nick was appointed as interim CEO. This was the unanimous recommendation of the appointment panel of which I was part.”

All the evidence demonstrates that Mr. Johnson was not considered as a consultant during his time “managing the Council’s Housing and regeneration functions” either. So how many other “consultants” and agency workers could there be issues with?

Regular readers will recall that on 29th February at the Annual Budget Meeting the Conservative Administration voted against the Labour Opposition's proposal to:
  1. "To inform HMRC of all cases where it has employed individuals via personal service companies and ensure it tax obligations are met and up to date"
  2. "To report to Cabinet and the Audit and Pensions Committee full details of any back-taxes and fines issued by HMRC on IR35"
  3. "To review its use of agency workers looking for more cost effective means of employing individuals and to publish all details of agency workers employed by LBHF and/or its subsidiaries and detail the salaries of all of those over £100,000.00 per year."
All of this raises deep concerns that H&F Council is not addressing its previous dealing properly. HMRC can investigate organisations going back six years. The Council admits its hiring of consultants was a mess in the past but when my Labour colleagues and I question officials about getting all H&F Council’s tax affairs in order responses come back telling us “the Council will in future meet HMRC requirements." When we raise questions about the employment of long-standing consultant/employees it is not okay for officials to bush these aside with assurances that some people are now “defined as consultancy under the new procedure” - which only came in last August and still has some way to go before it can be considered fit for purpose.

Yesterday I noticed that a senior official had written a message to all employees on H&F Council’s intranet. That included the sentence “The council’s processes are now squeaky clean. Any suggestions that things weren’t done properly in the past is merely a criticism of the paperwork rather than any criticism of substance.” Rather staggeringly that statement was flatly contradicted only last Thursday at H&F Council's own Audit and Pensions Committee. The members of that committee were presented with a report that concludes: “The use of consultants was raised in the Annual Governance Statement last year. While some improvement has been made there continue to be weaknesses in managing contracts for consultants.” It goes on to say, “existing consultants’ contracts have been reviewed and HR is in the process of converting these, where appropriate to new contracts in line with the agreed procedures.” So the current situation is hardly “squeaky clean” then? And we still have the matter of cleaning up H&F Council’s tax and consultants dealings over the last six years.

None of this inspires confidence.

I have told officials that should Labour be elected to form the new Council Administration in 2014 I will not look kindly on them if this issue is still a problem. H&F Council needs to carry out a full internal investigation going back the full six years. It needs to deal with any back taxes and demonstrate to HMRC how it has dealt with all its previous failings and is therefore not in line for a very large fine. The sooner they do that the better.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

H&F Council's Dubious Planning Protocol Is Used To Block Social Housing

Residents want to know what is H&F Council's Conservative
Administration agreeing with property speculators?
Imagine government passing a law that said judges won’t be able to see critical information pertinent to a case unless it was okayed by a senior government official. That would never happen in Britain right?... Er, wrong.  Sadly, that’s sort of what now happens in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham on the quasi-judicial Planning Applications Committee (PAC).

A disgraceful mechanism was agreed on the 9th November last year by all of the ruling majority Conservative Councillors on the PAC. It is mostly used to stop Opposition Labour Councillors easily seeing the financial modelling (known as the Three Dragons) that property speculators and H&F Council use to explain why they remove all genuinely affordable homes from all major housing schemes in the Borough.

What’s worse is the local government officials who decide whether councillors, on the PAC, can see the financial modelling are usually the very same officials who have negotiated the controversial secret deals with property speculators.

The Conservatives argue that this new approach is necessary to protect commercially sensitive information. However, all of the other committees on H&F Council have the facility to have a closed session at the end of meetings (with no public or press present) where sensitive details can be viewed and openly discussed by those charged with making the decision. The Conservative members of the PAC rejected this and voted for a far more draconian and limiting scheme instead.

There is much to be concerned about when it comes to the Administration’s approach to building large landscape changing property schemes in our Borough. If ever I write to senior officials to ask for details of the dozens of secret meetings officials and Administration Conservative Councillors often have with property speculators I get very little back. Officials responds saying they set no agenda, kept no minutes and say they only have vague recollections about what may have been said or agreed. 

This video released by the Conservative Administration on 22nd April 2008 speaks for itself really - particularly where H&F Council's voice over tells us “Our planning policies are changing to attract development and to remove the uncertainty around planning applications.” 

In recent months we have seen plenty of "uncertainty around planning applications" removed with the St. George’s Fulham Reach development, the Hammersmith Town Hall development and the Shepherds Bush Market development being just three of the many schemes lately voted through. In the last five years we’ve seen many, many, many more which were always block voted through against the wishes of thousands of local residents.

One resident who witnessed the shenanigans around a recent scheme put her views very simply.“It stinks” she said referring to everything she'd seen about H&F Council’s approach. I think many more local residents have reached exactly the same conclusion. 

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Foodbanks in Hammersmith and Fulham

Last year H&F Conservatives added an extra £1 cut to every £3 the Conservative/Lib Dem government sliced from the Council’s budget. This year a quick flick through the £22.7m removed from the Borough’s finances and the numbers appear to make almost abstract references to the invisible people that lose out.

The Guardian brings them back into sharp focus with this full-colour, 3D description of how some people at the tough end of these harsh ideological cuts and failed economic policies are most affected. It tells us how “by the time most visitors reach the doors of Hammersmith and Fulham Foodbank in London, they have not eaten properly for several days.” And explains that “the hungry who come here must be referred by a recognised public authority – it might be a school that has noticed children are not being fed, a GP who has noticed signs of malnutrition, or a social worker who finds a mental health patient is not eating. The food that is distributed is not state welfare but donated by the public.”

This year’s budget did not propose any policies to help those mentioned in the Guardian article. Take a moment to picture just some of the people at the crunch end of a few of the stealth taxes and cuts in this year's budget - which have been listed below. It’s evident that many of them are the Borough’s children, our elderly neighbours, disabled people, homeless people and many of those people suffering from physical and mental health problems. 
  • 4.9% increased charge to meals on wheels users on top of the £600 per year increase already introduced by H&F Conservatives since 2006
  • £290,000.00 cut to mental heath support services at the Ellerslie Centre – which was signed off while the Council was supposedly consulting on its future
  • £310,000.00 cut by offering less support for people with learning difficulties
  • £94,000.00 cut to the drug intervention programme
  • £1.583m cut to supporting vulnerable people programme
  • £300,000.00 cut to child safeguarding service
  • £175,000.00 cut to the child protection service
The publicised vast waste of money around H&F Council’s current tax and “consultants” scandal makes all this particularly hard to swallow. It doesn’t have to be like this.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Award Winning File on 4 Examines H&F Council In Special Programme On Tax Avoidance

Radio 4's award winning, flagship documentary series File on 4 have investigated H&F’s Conservative Administrations dubious “consultants” and tax position in their latest programme focussing on tax avoidance.

The programme went out at 8.00pm last night and it will be broadcast again at 5.00pm on Sunday 18th Match. You can also download the podcast and listen to it by clicking here and then clicking on the programme titled “Tax Avoidance.”

Today's Daily Telegraph has also named and shamed H&F Council about its "tax avoidance schemes" here.

You can read the BBC's Fran Abrams' report here; you read Andy Slaughter MP’s (Lab) speech to Parliament about this here; you can read some of the other press coverage here; you can follow Private Eye’s investigations here and you can read my report on Nick Johnson (featured in the programme) here and my full report on the whole issue here.

There is much more to come out about this so watch this space.

Andy Slaughter And National Press Highlight H&F Council's Dubious "Consultants" And Tax Scam But Still No Action From The Government

The FT
Last month H&F Council hit the headlines in most of the national and local press for possibly operating outside UK tax laws and building up an estimated tax debt of £15m. In almost every article featuring H&F Council there was also a quote from the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP (Con), the Communities and Local Government Secretary. He announced to the media that he would personally be cracking down on Town Hall tax dodgers saying: "Local people have a right to know whether town hall tax-dodgers are short-changing the public purse; whether bumper bonuses are being awarded to poorly performing workers; or whether pay is being hiked up for execs who've boomeranged from post to post."

It was therefore particularly odd that H&F Conservatives chose to ignore Mr. Pickles call and instead voted against this proposal as featured on pages 8 and 9 of the minutes from the Annual Budget Meeting on 29th February:
  1. "To inform HMRC of all cases where it has employed individuals via personal service companies and ensure it tax obligations are met and up to date"
  2. "To report to Cabinet and the Audit and Pensions Committee full details of any back-taxes and fines issued by HMRC on IR35"
  3. "To review its use of agency workers looking for more cost effective means of employing individuals and to publish all details of agency workers employed by LBHF and/or its subsidiaries and detail the salaries of all of those over £100,000.00 per year."
The Guardian
My Labour colleagues and I first raised these matters in 2010. H&F Conservatives have had to be dragged kicking and screaming into even considering their dubious employment of "consultants" as full time employees or ensuring the resulting tax problems are properly dealt with and in order. Yesterday, Hammersmith's Andy Slaughter MP (Lab) took all this to parliament when he arranged a Private Member's Debate titled Pay and Consultants (Public Sector). You can read his excellent speech here in Hansard.

So will Mr. Pickles act and investigate a council he has previously described as the "apple in his eye"? There is of course the law and then there's the spirit of the law. H&F's Conservative Administration appears to be operating outside of both in this instance and may therefore have put all local tax payers at risk of having to fork out for fines as well as back taxes. Words are easy, now it's time for the government to sort all of this out.

Private Eye's Rotten Boroughs Leads Media Pack In Exposing H&F Council's £15m Tax Woes

Private Eye magazine is second to none at investigative journalism and has led the rest of the media on the latest breaking story concerning oganisations flouting UK tax laws by identifying what's happening with our own Conservative run H&F Council. Here's a selection of clippings demonstrating their most recent coverage of H&F Council's tax woes. There's also a story about the foul-mouthed ranting of a leading local Conservative councillor in the second clipping. To read the stories each featured in issues 1307, 1308 and 1309 respectively, please click on the picture to expand it.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Boris' Cynical Town Hall Development Scam Exposed

Nicky Gavron AM spotlights Boris' misleading
Hammersmith Town Hall intervention that could see
the dreaded scheme back this May
Mayor Boris Johnson (Con) and the Greater London Assembly members came to Hammersmith Town Hall last Wednesday night. The Mayor appears to have tried to mislead local residents about his role on the controversial Town Hall development by insinuating he had somehow stopped it. The audience clapped. But he hasn't stopped it.

What actually happened was following private discussions between London's Conservative Mayor and H&F’s Conservative Administration it was agreed that it would be best if their preferred developer “withdrew” the application. This happened to allow H&F Conservatives and their developer to retain a “live” application that can be re-presented to the Mayor after the May elections.

Nicky Gavron AM (Lab) was one of the GLA members sitting on the stage taking questions and is one of London’s leading housing and planning experts. Clearly astonished at the Mayor’s manipulation of the facts Ms. Gavron has penned this piece on her website:

“The Mayor was happy to take applause from local residents for ‘shelving’ the King Street/Hammersmith Town Hall redevelopment scheme. But as I pointed out, you have to ask yourself why the Mayor didn’t refuse the application?

The application that came to him was Stage II, the point at which you either agree with the council or direct refusal for the project – the Mayor has done neither. Last night the give away was that he said he couldn’t talk about the project because the planning application was live. The Mayor has kicked the project into touch so it can be thrown back in later.”

So is it possible Mr. Johnson chose not to refuse the Town Hall development because it would upset his Conservative friends and colleagues running Hammersmith and Fulham Council? And is it possible that he also chose not to approve it because he thought that would lose him tens of thousands of votes in this part of south west London during an election period? The answer to both questions is yes. Which explains why he's gone for the cynical option of booting his planning decision onto a patch of less sticky political ground situated after the May elections. Sadly, this political strategy appears to have worked as many people have been thoroughly taken in and incorrectly think he's blocked the scheme. He clearly hasn't and for those that listened carefully to the language he used when the public quizzed him on the matter he actually said as much last Wednesday night.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Costs Of H&F Council’s Incompetent Tax And “Consultants” Woes Casts Its Shadow Over Borough’s Annual Budget Meeting

Millions of pounds have been wasted out of
H&F's £200,818,000.00 annual budget
Sometimes, it’s all in the body language. At last week’s Annual Borough Budget Meeting the Conservative benches were worthy of study. The triumphant braying and back slapping slipped into petulant heckles and shouting and ended with a sullen anxiousness, as one-by-one, they noticeably sunk lower and lower into their seats as if hiding themselves away. The cause of this downward trajectory in their collective spirits was waste? And not just any waste. This waste could see the Council fined and back taxed up to £15m for operating outside UK tax laws.

Regular readers will recall how my Labour colleagues and I have criticised H&F Council's (and H&F Homes - its onetime housing management subsidiary) dubious practice of re-employing retired local government officials as “consultants” via limited liability personal service companies. Doing this has the benefit to the “retirees” that it side-steps Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) rules which would have otherwise forbidden them from working for another council without suspending their generous pension payments. The infamous case of Nick Johnson is documented here.

This also allows H&F Council to duck out of paying National Insurance and other contributions - so H&F Conservative have argued that doing this is “good value for money.” Well, it’s not. And, if we put aside the value for money of making tax payers pay out twice for both “retirees'” vast final salary annual pensions as well as their vast daily consultancy rates (often about £1000 per day) we also have the problem that this is very often contrary to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) rule IR35 and therefore makes H&F Council liable for back taxes and possible hefty fines going back six years.

I first wrote to H&F Council about this possible tax avoidance on 16th December 2010. Initially, nothing was done but I persisted. The Conservative Administration started by admitting that it didn’t know how many “consultants” they actually employed and so they commissioned Deloittes (a genuine consultancy company) to look into the matter.  By 30th June last year Deloittes were able to report that there were sixty nine consultants working at H&F Council and that seventeen of them worked via personal service limited liability companies. They also found that H&F Council had in fact broken all its own rules for hiring consultants and there was:
  • “No evidence of any formal documented selection and recruitment process”
  • “No evidence of any formal performance monitoring”
  • “No complete list of all the consulting companies used by the Council”
  • “Of all the consultants examined there was an agreement with only one”
The Council had potentially wasted up to £12m in this way. Bob Neill MP (Con), the Under Secretary of State at the Department of Communities and Local Government, told the BBC that this “may simply be slackness but slackness isn’t forgivable under these circumstances.” I agree.

But all of that is the least of H&F Conservatives’ woes. What about their Council operating outside of UK tax laws and the possible £15m in back taxes, fines and other sanctions that could hit the Borough's finances? By October last year H&F Council eventually agreed to consider that matter and officially hired PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC - another genuine consultancy company) to report back. But what was the brief?

On 10th June last year I met with top level officials who told me that they were hoping to hire PwC but when I asked to see the brief I was told I “would have to get a court order” to see “all written documents, emails, etc sent to PwC seeking advice on this matter.” I followed the meeting up with an email which pinpointed how “I was deeply concerned during our meeting that PwC may not have been asked about LBHF's position to date. Instead, [I was] told that a question on how can LBHF improve this situation in the future was raised.” I explained that should Labour form the new Administration after the 2014 local elections “I would not look kindly on officers if the new administration was dealing with unnecessary cost implications because of this failure to act properly.”

Going by the evidence on this matter, it appears that H&F Council has only asked PwC about getting things right in the future and is deliberately not seeking to ensure that the Borough’s tax affairs are compliant with the law or up-to-date. It has consistently refused to inform HMRC of its actual situation. At the Audit Committee meeting on 30th June 2011, Cllr. PJ Murphy (Lab) asked whether the Council should report its problems concerning one case to HMRC. A senior officer told him “given the high profile of the situation in the media, HMRC would be aware of the situation, and had not approached the Council. If the Council approached them directly, a further inquiry would take place, with further impact on officer time and resources.” The two Labour members on the committee then put that question to a vote. They voted to inform HMRC but were blocked by the Conservatives who used their majority to vote it down.

On 9th November 2011 Cllr. PJ Murphy wrote to a very senior official to ask what are the “actions required to ensure we are fully compliant?” She replied that "This has given LBHF an assurance from PwC that the Council will in future meet HMRC requirements." There it was again: “in future”. What about the last six years? HMRC are entitled to investigate any tax discrepancies and if they believe an organisation has acted improperly can issue millions of pounds of fines. The way to avoid this is to contact HMRC and ensure all back taxes are paid and that there is not even the slightest whiff of tax or avoidance or tax evasion.

So at last week’s Annual Budget Meeting the Labour Opposition moved a proposal to:
  • "To inform HMRC of all cases where it has employed individuals via personal service companies and ensure it tax obligations are met and up to date"
  • "To report to Cabinet and the Audit and Pensions Committee full details of any back-taxes and fines issued by HMRC on IR35"
Astonishingly, the Conservatives each voted against this.

On top of all this it is interesting to note that last year H&F Council employed 20% of its directly employed workforce as agency workers. A senior director told a Labour councillor that he believed this was necessary in one particular instance as he could not pay his senior staff member enough if they had been employed through the normal local government recruitment rules and were on its recognised pay scales. That individual takes well over £100,000.00 a year from the public purse.

There were 540 agency workers at H&F Council in the last year. Some have worked there for five years and more. At last week’s Annual Budget meeting the Labour Opposition argued that this expensive way of hiring and employing people should be curtailed for all but emergency cases. We proposed that the Council should start to cut this practice and agree:
  • "To review its use of agency workers looking for more cost effective means of employing individuals and to publish all details of agency workers employed by LBHF and/or its subsidiaries and detail the salaries of all of those over £100,000.00 per year."
The Conservatives voted that proposal down too.

In recent years we have become accustomed to H&F Conservatives’ particular habit of wasting public money. On 6th April 2010 their waste of £5m on propaganda was highlighted by John Whittingdale MP (Con) the Chair of the Parliamentary Culture Media and Sports Select Committee. He accused them of "misleading" the public by producing "political propaganda on the rates”. They were attacked by the TaxPayers Alliance for giving senior officials 16% salary rises and this year it emerged that H&F Conservatives were gifting up to £70m of land so they could get £35m worth of new Town Hall offices in the much detested Hammersmith development. It’s hard to believe the Administration really understands the importance of setting the right tone and carefully managing every penny when it was only last November that they spend over £7,000.00 of tax payers' money on a Monday afternoon booze-up for senior officials, their friends and family.

My Labour colleagues and I support cuts to council taxes and have been campaigning for this to happen. This year the Department of Communities and Local Government awarded H&F Council an “additional grant”of £1.6m to cut or freeze council tax - which it describes as equivalent to 2.5% off council tax. Last year H&F Council generated an extra £655,000.00 in its parking account. These figures combined are equivalent to this year's 3.8% cut in council tax.

But consider that just one of H&F Council’s so called “retiree” “consultants” (working via a limited liability company) has since just 2008 earned the equivalent of giving every household in the Borough an additional 2.5% council tax cut and it’s obvious more could have been done to cut all council taxes by much more and help residents in these difficult financial circumstances.

It is good to cut council taxes but not so good if rather than tackling waste the Conservative Administration simply introduces stealth taxes to find less obvious ways of getting residents hard earned cash. H&F Conservatives have introduced or increased nearly 600 stealth taxes in total during the last six years. They made the Daily Telegraph’s list of Parking Shame for 55% hikes in parking charges, new opportunities to issue parking fines and higher parking fines; child care charges rose by 221% in this Administration’s first year and last April the Daily Mail attacked the Conservative Administration for taxing people who use personal trainers in parks. The Conservatives have added a staggering £600 a year to the bills of those in receipt of meals on wheels and one of their officials even admitted the Administration had put the elderly and disabled residents “at risk” by introducing home care charges. At one point the Conservatives even objected to the public being given the full list of the new stealth taxes - which indicates how nervous they are about their new approach to tax.

Last year for every £3 cut that the national government made to the Borough’s budget the local Conservative Administration added an extra £1 cut. The hard ideological approach behind that decision was underlined by Cllr. Harry Phibbs (Con), H&F Council’s Cabinet Member for Community Engagement, when he announced“I'm with the 35% of people who feel the cuts don't go far enough”

This year the Conservatives are removing £22,687,000.00 out of the Council budget. I agree that some aspects of that money will be genuine savings however lots of this money will be generated with more stealth taxes and harsh cuts to front line services.

Here’s just a handful of the stealth taxes and cuts detailed in the report
  • 4.9% increased charge to meals on wheels users on top of the £600 per year increase already introduced by H&F Conservatives since 2006
  • 23% increased charge for small businesses to remove trade waste
  • 25% increase on top of the new £20 charge for households to remove bulky and garden waste
  • 25% increase in charges for children's (under 18s) football charges
  • Target generating an additional £250,000.00 from the public with new opportunities for parking fees and fines
  • £290,000.00 cut to mental heath support services at the Ellerslie Centre – which was signed off while the Council was supposedly consulting on its future
  • £310,000.00 cut by offering less support for people with learning difficulties
  • £120,000.00 by reducing security operation on council estates
  • £95,000.00 cut to the anti-crime Eyes and Ears Project
  • £100,000.00 cut to the anti-crime community safety team
  • £89,000.00 cut to parks and waste service
  • £220,000.00 cut by further reducing the maintenance of roads and pavements
  • £94,000.00 cut to the drug intervention programme
  • £1.583m cut to supporting vulnerable people programme
  • £300,000.00 cut to child safeguarding service
  • £175,000.00 cut to the child protection service
These are tough times and the government’s austerity approach is coming in for ever harsher criticism. But are all these cuts really necessary given the waste elsewhere?

My Labour colleagues and are campaigning for an end to this waste, we want tighter financial controls and believe we should use zero based budgeting to root out redundant council practices. These processes will help to drive efficiency and so improve services. And we will be able to deliver genuine savings that can be used to cut all council taxes.