Andy Gall interviewing Mark Wallace Campaign Director of the Taxpayers’ Alliance on BBC Radio Peterborough at 08:10 am 1st March 2010 icw a legal challenge to the release of details of payments made by Peterborough City Council to consultants.
AG: Now in the past hour we’ve heard that Peterborough City Council is still spending millions of pounds a year on employing consultants. And we’re not likely to find out what they’re being used for, as the consultancy firm is threatening legal action preventing information from being disclosed. Cllr. Mike Fletcher Chairman of the Sustaianble Growth Scrutiny Committee says the taxpayer has a right to know where their money is being spent. Here’s how he found out about the threatened legal action:
(Cllr Mike Fletcher TAPE: On Monday 22nd February, I received an email in the evening, and was going to have an Interim Meeting the next day, but it was received without any prior consultation whatsoever, which had been issued by the Solicitors to the Council.
MF: And it states: “on the instructions of the Solicitors to the Council, the Informal Meeting of the Sustainable Growth Scrutiny Committee tomorrow is required to be cancelled” The reason being, the Council is being threatened with legal action, over the release of information, and she needs to fully consider what we propose to release, with the lawyers acting for the consultants concerned. She has requested ten working days to sort out this issue. I find that to be somewhat astounding.)
AG: Now Mark Wallace is Campaign Director at Taxpayers’ Alliance and joins us now. Good morning Mark.
MW: Good morning.
AG: Thank you for joining us. Now councils .. do councils normally spend this sort of money on consultants?
MW: It’s actually been an area that so far has been very secretive. Not really in the past because firms have threatened to sue in this disgraceful way, but actually because councils have found it very difficult to put a figure specifically on how much they spend on consultants. That’s partially because obviously you have things like engineering and road development consultants, IT consultants, and management consultants. there’s always been a bit of debate. But it does seem clear that most councils spend at least a few million pounds on this. And I think most people will be shocked to learn that it’s that high.
AG: Where’s the culture gone of being open and honest though, and transparent? That seems to have disappeared when it comes to this little area of consultancy.
MW: That is a serious concern. And I think some public bodies really, in Westminster and Whitehall in the Civil Service and the Government nationally started off deliberately obscuring things like freedom of information when it came to consultancies, because they knew it was going to be an embarassing and high cost. And obviously what we’ve seen now in this latest development in Peterborough is the quite shocking idea that the Council is going to silence itself in the face of a threatened legal challenge. Now I think that’s outrageous. The first thing the Council should do really, and they wouldn’t be breaking any law to do it, would be to name the company that is threatening to sue them.
AG: Because as far as we’re aware at the moment the company has said they don’t want information to be in the public domain about their costings, and the work they’re doing, because they fear it will compromise them bidding for other contracts.
MW: Well, what of course that means in real world terms and without the management jargon is that they’re worried other consultancy firms might come along and say, hang on a second, we can do that cheaper. So this is a perfect example of why we need this transparency. There are some councils, Windsor and Maidenhead for example, or Northamptonshire, are considering doing this. You publish every single item of spending with any company, over five hundred pounds a year, and one of the benefits of that is these other companies can come along and say I’ll do you a better deal. And we can save money.
AG: It seems, especially in the current climate, you know where people are worried about money here, there and everywhere, that it seems such an extraordinary, almost a rude amount of money.
MW: It is, and I think we’ve got to actually see the other side of this coin as well, which is that we now spend a record amount of money on senior and middle managers, in local government. We compile a town hall Rich List, the next one’s coming out in a few weeks, which shows record levels of people on over a hundred thousand pounds. And if you look at middle managers, those earning over fifty thousand pounds or so, that’s gone up eleven-fold in the last eleven years, which is a vast increase. Now if we’re paying these managers more money than ever, why on earth are we paying consultants to tell them how to do their job? If we’re not getting the experts already, with this money, then we should be changing the managers we’ve got.
AG: Can you comment in any way on why there is such a disparity in earnings, you know, if you look at the people who are working in the lower echelons of the council, and then the people at the very top, how there is such an incredible hike?
MW: Well, we’ve seen some very clever and very successful lobbying withing local government. If you contrast the way that local government has changed with, say, the Civil Service in Whitehall, in Whitehall we have actually seen some big increases in salaries, but they’ve normally gone with people actually being brought in from experts in particular sectors, actually from outside the Civil Service. Unfortunately local government has kind of mimicked what’s gone on in central government with this massive pay packet culture, and all they’ve really done is recruited existing local government staff. So you’ve got a bit of a merry-go-round where, you may remember a couple of years ago the chief executive of Suffolk County Council managed to get herself £220,000 a year plus perks, and all that happened there was all of the other council chief executives around the country started elbowing their council leader in the ribs, saying: “Look, see what I could get somewhere else.”.
AG: You look at .. within our region as well there’s many anecdotes of people who have taken pay cuts, so that they don’t lose their jobs, so that colleagues don’t lose their jobs, during the recession, and during straightened times, and then to .. it just doesn’t dovetail and it actually sort of smacks of like a completely unreal world.
MW: Absolutely. And that’s the real thing which ordinary taxpayers, and certainly the Taxpayers’ Alliance want to see happen in the next few months. We’re not asking for anything unrealistic, we’re not asking for any undue suffering in councils. All we’re asking is for local government, and national government, anyone who spends our taxes, to start living like ordinary people. We started off with getting rid of the MPs expenses abuses, and now we need to move on to the other fact that whilst ordinary people have taken pay cuts, and pay freezes, local government haven’t done that yet, and they need to catch up.
AG: And Mark, just before you go, this is a statement from a spokeswoman for the Peterborough City Council, and see what you make of this. The spokeswoman for the Peterborough City Council said : “The Sustainable Growth Scrutiny Committee planned for Tuesday 23rd February was postponed not cancelled. And nobody is suing the Council over this matter. We are in the process of compiling a public report, to go to Scrutiny Committee on Monday 15th March.” Do you understand that?
MW: Well that really, for the benefit of your listeners, is weasel words. I mean, saying that nobody is suing the Council, well it could well be the case that the formal proceedings and papers haven’t been filed yet, but it seems clear from the letter, we heard from the Borough Solicitor read out earlier, that there have been threats of legal proceedings. It’s clear when you actually .. democratically elected representatives of the people who are meeting to discuss how taxpayers money is used … you are suspending that meeting because of threats, and mutterings from a private company. It should be standard. If you are a company who take taxpayers money, you’ve got to accept that’s going to be made public, and you’re going to be scrutinised for it.
AG: Our money being spent in any way, in any which way, apart from the way we want it to be spent, it would seem. Mark, thank you very much for talking to us.
MW: Thank you.
AG: That’s Mark Wallace, campaign director at Taxpayers’ Alliance.