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The agenda and reports for this meeting can be found on Wirral Council’s website and this blog post includes video of the meeting.
The Chair welcomed everybody to the meeting, after a short discussion about filming he asked for any declarations of interest or party whip. No declarations of interest or party whip were made. The minutes of the meetings held on the 14th February 2013 and on the 30th January were agreed.
Peter Timmins introduced the month 10 report on the overspend. He started by saying that they’d added £1 million to the budget of Adult Social Services, increasing the original overspend from £17 million to £18 million, however due to the spending freeze the overspend was down to just over £7 million, but that the month eleven report was just about to go to the Chief Officer’s Group which would add a further £200,000 reduction to the overspend.
Part 3 (page 9) of the report detailed the risks of overspends in adult and children’s social care and how they were in talks with Cheshire West and Chester Council about shared services. He felt they could do more on procurement to generate savings and clamp down on “rogue purchasing”.
Cllr Gilchrist asked when the report on bad debts would be reported? Peter Timmins said it was going to a Special Cabinet meeting on the April 18th and that it had led to some interesting discoveries about the Pension Fund. He said they were looking at the processes involved.
Cllr Gilchrist asked about the changes in month ten compared to month nine. Peter Timmins said he would give Cllr Gilchrist the budget book which showed three years budgets which he hoped to have ready by the middle of April as it was now in draft form. They had also done a budget training session for councillors and planned to do more of these and were also training officers in budget management with aids to budget management put on their website. He described sending officers to budget management training courses using the metaphor of sending sheep to be dipped.
Roundup of Wirral Council meetings: Sustainable Communities (Biffa and bin collections, flooding, libraries), Council Excellence (overspends, Social Services debt), Audit and Risk Management (HESPE Action Plan, gifts and hospitalities procedures)
In a change to the more detailed format, below are brief write ups of three meetings this week.
Sustainable Communities Overview and Scrutiny Committee 29th January 2013
There was a long presentation by Biffa, followed by questions from councillors. The meeting also discussed recycling, dog fouling enforcement, flytipping (including a recent rise in asbestos flytipping), managing highway structures (bridges, culverts etc), libraries, Wirral Heritage Strategy, food hygiene ratings, no cold calling zones and climate change.
Councillors asked Biffa about the recent missed bin collections and how the new changes (winter tyres and snow shoes) affected collections during the recent cold weather. On food hygiene the Food Standards Agency website was highlighted which shows the star rating for the 1,698 food businesses on the Wirral. A councillor was surprised at the nearly two hundred businesses on Wirral with a one star (which means major improvement necessary) or two star (which means improvement necessary) rating, however most businesses had a rating of four or five stars.
The increased use of volunteers in libraries was discussed and the problem of some households in areas at risking of flooding having problems obtaining insurance was also highlighted.
Council Excellence Overview and Scrutiny Committee 30th January 2013
Most of the meeting was a discussion about Wirral Council’s finances including measures to reduce this year’s overspend and how overspends in the past had been paid for by one-off measures that wouldn’t be available in future years. The investigation into Social Services debt was discussed also.
Audit and Risk Management Committee 31st January 2013
The HESPE Action Plan provoked discussion at this meeting. David Armstrong gave a verbal update on it and said that he’d written to all directors and acting directors for an update over the dates in the plan and had received no correspondence to say that they wouldn’t be able to stick to the timescales. The Acting Director of Technical Services had written to him stating there had been no interest from the private sector in consultancy work.
The Action Plan was being monitored by Fiona Johnstone’s department and was going to the Improvement Board and Council Excellence committee as well as being incorporated into Concerto. He assured people of the focus on it and that the actions would be followed through. Cllr Ron Abbey referred to it as a pantomime, saying “Did he or didn’t he?” and asked how much it had cost? Cllr Foulkes said that similar matters were not the remit of their committee, that there’d been two contrary reports, the Audit Commission report and the Penn report. He wanted continuing dialogue with the whistleblowers which he thought was the best way to deal with the matter. Cllr Ron Abbey said he would take that on board. Cllr Foulkes said they needed to find the common ground between the points in the Penn report and the action plan.
Cllr Green welcomed the reassurance, but wanted tests that the actions had been carried out. He said they’d had a range of reports that lessons had been learnt and a culture embedded, so it was useful to have it in writing. He referred to project management problems and who was supposed to be in charge of the Project Board and referred to issues with clarity, responsibility and project management.
Cllr Brighouse said he broadly endorsed the remarks, but the Penn report was ongoing as the recommendations and outcome were still to be resolved and agreed. He said it was appropriate to have some discussion covering the issues and whether there were any governance implications but it was “wrong to pretend there was nothing there”.
The Chair, Cllr Jim Crabtree said there’d be a further report next meeting.
There was also an update given (again by David Armstrong) on proposed changes to the gifts and hospitality/conflicts of interest procedures for officers.
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The Council Excellence Overview and Scrutiny Committee was a special meeting with only one main agenda item which was to discuss the 2013/16 Budget proposals which are currently part of a consultation with the public (until 31st January 2013).
The Chair, Cllr John Hale said that in his view the Committee was without a lot of the information he would’ve liked on the Budget options, and that he was “not in agreement with the move to four yearly elections”. He also disagreed with the saving on Destination Marketing as this money “brought an awful lot of visitors to the Wirral” and had spin offs for businesses on the Wirral.
Cllr Phil Gilchrist (Lib Dem spokesperson) arrived and apologised for being late. The Chair asked Cllr Stuart Wittingham if he had any comments to make?
Cllr Wittingham said he was pleased that most of the savings were to the back office and that he wasn’t saying that the front line wouldn’t be affected. He had no comments to make on a four yearly election cycle but described it as a “substantial saving”.
The Chair said it was not a very substantial saving “at the cost of democracy” and that there was still “insufficient information”. He’d be moving to note matters with the exception of the four yearly elections that he was opposed to and the 100% cut to Destination Marketing, which he said supported major activities and brought in thousands of visitors to the Borough.
Cllr Hale had asked what the Pest Control reduction meant and that the answer given was that it would result in their staff being reduced from five to four. He said it also meant that the home insulation program which had only met 59% of its target wouldn’t be able to continue with the rest. However £50,000 would be kept in the Budget for fuel poverty.
Cllr Gilchrist said that previously when the Council had let people retire or take voluntary redundancy, there had been criteria that had had to be looked at such as the need to pass on their expertise or whether it would cause a problem for the service if they left, he asked if officers had discussed the rationale for restructuring?
The Chair asked Chris Hyams to answer the question.
She said the proposals were either for a restructure or service changes. In the case of a restructure, Chris Hyams said that they would seek volunteers first, but may need to move to compulsory redundancies. In order to maximise redeployment opportunities they would look for volunteers across the organisation. They couldn’t let people go where their jobs were required, but would be looking at things on a proposal by proposal basis.
Cllr Gilchrist made a further comment about redundancies.
Chris Hyams responded said the strategy had been to seek voluntary leavers, but ensuring they had the capacity in the services to let them go “at the appropriate time”. She gave the example of letting volunteers go in day services and redeploying people from residential to day services. However the voluntary leavers couldn’t leave until the redeployed workers were ready to move into their posts. She said they wanted to do it quick enough that they were not incurring the need for more savings, but at a time that was right taking into account their notice periods and with due consultation and process.
The Chair asked about suppliers.
The Wirral Council officer responded by saying, “Yeah Chair, thanks Chair, one of the one of the issues that had been identified through the work that the Local Government Association are doing with us with on the Improvement Plan is a weakness in procurement, how the Council procures its related goods and services. There are a number of processes that we can improve upon, one of the issues is that we have a purchase order system, but the majority of purchases don’t go through that purchase order system. So we believe that by improving the governance of that system to actually make it so that 90% goes through that purchase order system, we’ll be able to negotiate with suppliers and get a better deal. Hopefully the volume issue, we will get a better deal.
We’re also looking at how we actually manage our procurement function. One of the things that we’re doing is basically is to have overall category managers, which have an area of spend rather than the generic purchasing officers. A category manager would have an area of spend for instance Adult Social Services and become knowledgeable in that field and achieve savings with suppliers. We feel that the evidence from other councils is that we’re not getting value for money now just now and that the savings are achievable if we can actually both improve our processes and improve maybe we carry out procurement with these category managers.
It’s a process that’s used in the private sector and maybe we’ll use it in the public sector. We’re looking at best practice elsewhere, we’re getting advice both from other Councils and from the Local Government Association, now we actually need a step change in getting more out of our procurement activity because clearly with the financial challenges that the Council’s facing we’ve got to get more for less in effect and we believe that we can actually achieve the savings in procurement.”
Council Tax Benefit changes, replacement of Council Tax Benefit from April 2013 and replacement with new Local Council Tax Support Scheme
The Council Excellence Overview and Scrutiny Committee agreed (except for Cllr Gilchrist) to recommend to Council Scheme 1 to replace Council Tax Benefit which from April 2013 will be called Local Council Tax Support Scheme.
Those who are now in receipt of a state pension, war pension, disability premium or disabled child premium won’t see any change to their current entitlement. Working age claimants (apart from those groups just mentioned) will find the most Council Tax Support they can receive will be limited to 78% of the Council Tax liability.
Council Tax Support will only be awarded to those with savings under £6,000, rather than the current savings limit of under £16,000. Backdated claims will be stopped and the flat-rate Non-Dependant deduction set to £9.90 per a week.
Wirral Council’s Cabinet have also considered the proposed scheme and also recommended Scheme 1 to Council.