Saturday, 8 February 2014

What are they afraid of?

Its County Council Budget time. Although you may not know this as a couple of years back Northamptonshire County Council stopped running consultation meetings. Nowadays, the only published meetings are budget scrutiny meetings.  Here Councillors listen to any member of the public with any particular feedback on the budget and perhaps may question them. It's ironic that the only built in mechanism for engaging with councillors on something as significant as the budget is an area where Councillors hold you to account rather than you challenging them to justify their proposals.

If you take the time and trouble to attend the scrutiny meetings, your statements are listened to by the sagely, sedentary councillors present and after they've heard it, perhaps asked you questions. You are then asked to leave while they discuss behind closed doors without you. So is it worth turning up to these scrutiny meetings? Jane Carr, the recently appointed Chief Executive of Northampton Volunteering Centre attended the scrutiny meeting that considered amongst other things the proposals to reduce the small grants fund to voluntary and community groups. She suggested that instead of introducing the cut immediately, that the funding reductions should be phased in. A very moderate line that recognised the Council's difficult position but sensibly trying to mitigate the impact of the plan. Despite this, her evidence is not mentioned in the Budget Scrutiny report.

At this stage I'd like to post a link to the Cabinet papers which includes the Budget Scrutiny Report. However. It does seem that all the links to the relevant  Council  system are non-functioning so members of the public aren't able to see any reports. When trying to access the Cabinet papers on the Council website you can only get this:

Yesterday (Friday 7th February), I managed to see the papers after trying about three different routes to them. I called the County Council to let them know that there were problems with their system. They profusely apologised but now it seems that there is no access to the documents. Is this Northamptonshire County Council progress?

So regrettably, I cant show you, that in the budget scrutiny report  did the County Council not even acknowledge the representations made by Jane Carr. What was also more surprising about the report was the consideration that they have made about cutting the ACES service again. I say again as this is the third year running that the service has faced a cut. It's also surprising because the proposed cuts to the service didn't feature on any of the equality impact assessments despite the service being primarily serving  Northampton's African Caribbean community.

The budget has 22 Equality Impact Assessments. Here are some highlights:

Voluntary and community Sector Infrastructure Support Equality Impact Assessment has no functioning links on data sources (pity since the rest of the document is relatively well written).

Fire and Rescue Service Equality Impact Assessment was particularly poor given that there was no data analysis. It's  abysmal as the policy change majorly affects both services and staffing quite radically. It's also poor because although no human resource data is presented, it's fairly clear from previous documents produced by the Police Force and the County Council, that this data is available.
There are four decisions being taken with no Equality Impact Assessment as they are just technical adjustments even though there have been other policy areas that are stated as technical adjustments where equality impact assessments have been carried out.

A proposal termed "Employment models" has no Equality Impact Assessment as it states they are "Unable to undertake the EqIA at present" and that it will be undertaken in April 2014. Funny that. It seems that they are going to undertake the Equality Impact Assessment after the policy has been decided on. You have to ask yourself then how they are demonstrating due regard to equality as they are legally obliged to?
A Children's Services Investment change and a Children Services Improvement  change are also not Equality Impact Assessed. This in concerning purely because of the poor manner in which the County Councils children's services have operated over the last few years. I have written about this in the past.

Contact me to find out more about my views on the budget Equality impact assessments.
At the first scrutiny meeting of this budget that I attended, the committee were advised that some of the Equality Impact Assessments were work in progress and would be published in due course. It now seems that what that really means is that it will be published on the morning of the cabinet meeting (that is if they decide to get their web pages for this working). It just leads you to question, how Cabinet members can feel that they have really paid due regard to equality with just a few hours to look at these. Have they had enough time to ask officers any questions about them? Additionally can this really be seen as an open and transparent process when publication is at such an eleventh hour. Equality Impact Assessments are not only meant to be published, but also meant to be consulted on. Is a few hours consultation enough?

I keep asking myself, what have they got to be afraid of?  The bar to make your voice heard in the budget is exceptionally high. First, as previously mentioned , no consultation meetings. Second, the scrutiny meetings that are held are very early in the process (straight after Christmas) and all held on weekday daytimes and if you can attend they don't really seem to consider what you say. There was a link on the budget consultation pages which encouraged the setting up of a petition. When I tried to do this on the 22nd of January, it took till the 30th of January for the County Council to approve the petition (yes they have to approve the petition!) even when their website said that it would take three days. Since I wanted the petition to go to the cabinet meeting, this allowed just three days to collect signatures. We collected 136 signatures. At 4.03pm on Friday (7th February four days after the petition had been submitted), I was told that the response to this petition would be published on the morning of the 12th after the Cabinet on the 11th. So the notification of the timeline on the response to the petition was given four hours after the deadline to register to speak at cabinet which the petition  sought to influence. Something that you might decide to do after sight of cabinet papers that are invisible on the County Council Website.

Really what are they afraid of?

Members of the community, concerned about the Northamptonshire County Council budget are holding demonstration outside County Hall on the day of the full council when then Budget is voted on, Thursday 20th February morning. Please come to this event if you share our concerns. All welcome.

We will be collecting petition signatures for this campaign at weekly street stalls in Northampton town centre by the Cobblers Last on Saturdays at 11am to 12 noon on saturday 15th Feb.

We are also have placard making sessions Tuesday 11th and Tuesday & 18th February at the Dostiyo centre at 53 Dunster Street, Northampton NN1 3JY between 6.45 and 7.45pm

You can also continue to sign the petition here.