So yet another smear story about local government was in the papers on Saturday with an appropriate quote from my mate Eric. Did you see the none story? Well basically it came to the conclusion that councils in England spend about £100 million a year on credit cards and that some of that money has been wrongly used! The problem with reporting on local government is that when you add up anything we do it becomes a huge figure because we spend a vast amount of money. In England alone councils spend in the order of £120 billion. That means that councils spend less than .003% of their expenditure via credit cards. Put it that way and a ‘shock horror’ story becomes very quickly a ‘so what’ story – but only amongst those that know the full facts in the first place.
Hence my headline. I don’t have a clue how much councils spend on paper clips and staples. It will individually per employee be a derisory figure – but add all the little bits together it becomes a story of bureaucratic waste and incompetence. Of feather bedding the back office whilst letting front line services die.
I don’t who started this story off. I strongly suspect it was Twatman and Dobbin, Pickle’s dastardly duo in DCLG, who have already incurred the wrath of Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell. But I do know that it was Pickle’s duty to squash the story and not fan the flames.
Councils use credit cards for two reasons:
- In some very limited cases it cuts down on bureaucracy and enables staff to take advantage of offers in the market place which are cheaper than a central procurement exercise.
- Our staff work 24/7/365. Sometimes they have to make small expenditure decisions in the middle of the night which fall outside any reasonable procurement policy such as where to put a homeless family of all the hostels are full.
Whenever credit cards get used there is the same strict accounting process as used in all council money. Yes some people have taken advantage of their credit cards to do naughty things. But the reason they could be quoted in the article was that we had caught them. Whenever you get 2.4 million people with budgets of £120 billion you will find some people trying to cheat and steal. By and large they get caught. Councils have no hesitation in prosecuting and sacking people who steal from the public purse.
Collectively councils do a fantastic job with limited resources for people and communities who depend on them for even a limited quality of life. Our staff see things and have to do things that most people, including me, couldn’t begin to cope with. They care for the lonely and clear the detritus of human society. They plan huge regeneration projects but tend to the needs of fragile communities.
Our staff and our councils deserve greater respect and support from Pickles and his crew than they get. The reason that Pickles is the most loathed Cabinet Minister for local Government in my 30 years plus experience is not that he’s the cleverest or that he catches us out more than anyone else so that we resent him. It’s because he fails to understand and support the good work of the people he is supposed to support and represent within the system.
Pickles was not a good council leader in Bradford. Tories from Bradford tell me that his time there was typical of the confrontation and mediocrity which he displays in his current job. Like a retired Soviet Army General he wants to replay the battles of the 80s and 90s with no understanding that councils have moved on from the way they behaved and delivered then and are far stronger and better deliverers than any other part of the public sector.
Please Mr Cameron have a Ministerial reshuffle. Replace Laurel and Hardy with people who are prepared to work with and understand councils so that together we can improve our work to continue to deliver the services that our people need.