Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Why does Eric Pickles not love the Audit Commission?

[Thanks to Politics.co.uk for the pic]

Eric Pickles is the Secretary of State for Communities Local Government. Last week he caused astonishment by promising to abolish the Audit Commission (AC) and to privatise the its auditing functions.

Given that the remit of the Audit Commission is to make sure public services are carried out efficiently, and given that the Coalition Government's objective is to cut public spending by increasing the efficiency of public bodies, it looks a bit odd, to say the least. And it's not just me saying that.

Is there a back story to Eric Pickles and the Audit Commission?

Well, Eric has asked numerous Parliamentary Questions about the AC. They can be found here, and here, and here and here and here. There are more, but you get the idea. Here is the search page I worked from.

Here are 15 questions from Mr Pickles' total of 45 (forty five) between March 2008 and Feb 2010, all about the Audit Commission:

How many parking fines had they had ? (none)How many communications to Conservative members? (five)
What did their bill to the Government Car Agency come to?
How much in hotel reservations?
Gross yearly expenditure each year from 1995 to 2009?
How much spent at Shepherd's of Marsham Street?
What guidance on household waste had they put out?
How many Away Days had they had? (none)
Which body oversees the Audit Commission?
What external public affairs companies have they used?
Whether members of the AC are required to declare their political party?
How many employment disputes have they had?
Did members have to declare interests?
What political party membership did the AC members have?

This is a sample, because life is short. 45 questions in all, If you are interested, the full set is on my website here.
So Eric was On Their Case.  Verging on the Obsessional. I have not looked in depth at the answers. Nothing struck me as outstandingly expensive or dodgy, but it is possible that they indulged themselves, as quangos tend to do. It is wrong to see things in binary terms, as in "Pickles Bad, therefore Audit Commission good". It looks as if the head of the AC was overpaid, as all such dignitaries tend to be. The reasonable response to this kind of thing is to reform, not to abolish.

Maybe Eric pieced all his Parliamentary answers together, perhaps for a book he is writing. Or perhaps it is in preparation for the hatchet job on the AC, because here is the chair of the AC defending it against a series of allegations, made by Pickles, which are based  on his questions.

Or maybe he just did not like the Audit Commission, and wanted to chase them and give them more work to do.

But why would he not like them?

Mr Pickles was Leader of Bradford Metropolitan District Council from 1988 - 1990. He got the Tories in to power by a cunning bit of political chicanery involving breaking a convention in order to  retain a Tory mayor with a casting vote. 

Tony Grogan has chronicled this period, in a book (now online) called The Pickles Papers.  In it we find that in planning for his policies, Eric read an Audit Commission report, "The Competitive Council" and looked also at the models of Conservative axepersons in local government provided by Shirley Porter, the Westminster gerrymanerer, (whose crimes were later uncovered by - wait for it - the Audit Commission). And he sat at the foot of Christopher Chop(e) the Tory Wandsworth axeman.

Once in office, he did a chainsaw job on the Council "announced a five-year plan to cut the council's budget by £50m, reduce the workforce by a third, privatise services and undertake council departmental restructures, many of which proved controversial."

The FT thinks his decision is ideological. But did the Audit Commission report on Eric's time in office in Bradford displease Eric in some way? If so, do we have a case of a Secretary of State making policy decisions on the basis of personal spite or obsession?

The truth about the Audit Commission's report on Pickles' time in Bradford  is out there somewhere, drifting slowly towards the exit like a bubble of methane in a cavernous sigmoid colon.  Which is another way of saying that I have put in a Freedom of Information request for the AC report on Pickles' Bradford.


Updates: Valuable NS blog and discussion here.

This video may help:

Update: The Audit Commission only keeps records for 6 years, so that trail went cold. I commissioned a researcher in Bradford to trawl through the records of the Bradford Telegraph and Argus, the local paper, but he drew a blank. There was no report of Pickles being trashed by the Audit Commission. So, although absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, there is no rational explanation for Pickles' obsessive animus against the Audit Commission.


Edward Wilson / Harold Heath said...

Nice bit of digging, doctor.

Call me suspicious, but there's some additional pointers to a rationale in your first link:

"Will Abbott, partner with Gloucestershire-based firm Randall and Payne, said the decision to axe the body may favour the larger accounting firms.

“My experience is that local authorities have a tendency to set arbitrary thresholds when it comes to tendering for any type of work,” he said.

“The consequence is that the smaller local operators are excluded at an early stage, leaving only larger national contractors, who are arguably more expensive, to do the work.” "

Similarly, a programme on the radio reported that only large corporate solicitors firms will in future be able to survive the escalating indemnity inurance demands that fall due on October 1st.


"Last year the renewal season led to mergers and the dreaded ARP charging solicitors 35% of turnover just to stay in business."

To paraphrase Phil's brother in law, it's Concentration, Concentration, Concentration!

DocRichard said...

Interesting names(s) interesting comment. Yes, the concentration of power into the hands of ever bigger mega-corporations continues. Marx K had a point.

Edward Wilson / Harold Heath said...

"Capital, vol. I, Kerr ed., 685-688"?

I suppose it's the usual case of the original thinker being given a bad name by the acolytes then.

Although some like Desai prefer to call themselves "marxian" as opposed to "marxist", maybe because "The adherents of Marxian economics, particularly in academia, distinguish it from Marxism as a political ideology, arguing that Marx's approach to understanding the economy is an intellectually valuable one, independent of Marx's advocacy for revolutionary socialism or the inevitability of proletarian revolution."?

DocRichard said...

Religion says Person A is 100% right or wrong. Analysis says "They got this or that bit right"

Take Freud. He made some brilliant insights, and built a system out of them. To Freudians he is a guru. To me he is they guy who is good on ego defence mechanisms and other stuff.

The cognitive system we're interested is human ecology, which has no guru, but a community of thinkers who are all co-contributors. Including you and me and all of us.

Adrian Windisch said...

I love the typo 'audi comission'. Freudian slip?

See para starting 'Tony Grogan...'

DocRichard said...

Thanks Adrian.

Gareth Allen said...

Great thinking - the "personal vendetta" angle hadn't occurred to me - I feel so naive. Looking forward to the results of the FoI request.

Edward Wilson / Harold Heath said...

"no guru, but a community of thinkers who are all co-contributors"

Trouble is though, 98% of peeps like to have a guru ... want to have a guru ... are desperate to have a guru; check out Idries Shah and Mullah Nasruddin (Hodja) on amusing ways gurus are always trying to get away from wannabe acolytes and disciples.

It's partly why conmen, marketers and politicians generally find it so easy to con people. People want something / someone to believe in, without the trouble of thinking for themselves.

Anonymous said...

It can't be a coicidence that the local authority in Pickles constituency (Brentwood Borough Council) was consistently one of the worst performing Councils in the country under the Audit Commission's Comprehensive Performance regime.

DocRichard said...

That's interesting, Anon.
Only 9 days to go until the Audit Commission discloses my FoI request...

Anonymous said...

I hope you'll publicise your findings, Pickles is in favour of openness after all

Anonymous said...

Some interesting issues highlighted on the Audit Commission on the future of public audit. Looks like that there was a lot that Pickles didn't consider when he made his decision


GE said...

Any news on the FoI?

DocRichard said...

I am going to chase it up today.

DocRichard said...

I have just filled in a request here:
as follows:
I made an FoI request on this website on or around August 17th. It was a request to see the Audit Commission report covering Bradfor Met District Council covering the period 1988-1990.

I have not received any response yet.

Could you chase it up please?

You can put in a request too, if you like; Pour encourager les.


DocRichard said...

Also another request here:

I am seeking the Audit Commission report on Bradford City [Metropolitan District] Council covering the period 1998-90.

I understand that papers are not usually retained after 7 years, but it is possible that a copy of the report has been archived somewhere.

Grateful for any assistance.

DocRichard said...

I have phoned the Bradford Telegraph and Argus, and learn that there are archives of the T&A held in Bradford library which would cover that time.

We need a researcher located near Bradford. I could pay expenses and a modest fee...

Any offers?

GE said...

Maybe I'm misunderstanding something here, Richard, but don't you have to return to your original FOI request page, where they ask the requester (you) to log in with any further details / queries?

What is the URL of your original request?

DocRichard said...

They have emailed to say that the records are destroyed after 7 years, and there is no hope of finding them. Only chance is records of the local paper, as above. :(

DocRichard said...

Having been blocked on a FoI request to the Audit Commission based in bradford, since they only keep records for 6 years, I commissioned a researcher to look at the archives of the Bradford Telegraph and Argus, to see if there are any news reports of a run-in between Pickles and the Audit Commission.

He drew a blank.

Unfortunately I could not locate any meaningful evidence anywhere that Mr Pickles had any issues either with the Audit Commission or any other tier of the Audit profession for that matter. I did find evidence from March/April 1989 that a controversial policy of privatisation of the School Meals Service had been referred to the District Auditor by Phil Beeley the then leader of the Labour Group, the reason being that two managers involved in an in house bid were in an unduly preferred position. This story appeared to fizzle out however.

The only other point of interest was a strange case involving the theft of Mr Pickles Filofax. The thief was subsequently prosecuted in June 1989 for Blackmail. The report states that as well as attempting to blackmail Pickles he had also previously contacted the T & A, making what the paper termed 'various allegations' about Mr Pickles, apparently gleaned from his diary.

So, there is no logical explanation for Eric's extraordinary animus against the Sudit Commission.

It must have been something he ate.

Ms Green said...

Have you tried asking the Audit Commission? Their reports, as public documents, will be archived somewhere, maybe The National Archives.

However, the Pickles Papers website (not very convincing) says:

"But most important of all for Pickles were a series of reports produced by the Audit Commission. This body had been set up by the Tory government as an "independent watchdog" on local authority financial affairs. But it's reports went much further, bringing together many of the various ideas promoted by other organisations, and dealing with the necessary reorganisation of local government's management structures required before radical policy changes could take place.

The Audit Commission reports culminated in March 1988 with its document. "The Competitive Council" and it's recommended reading of "In Search of Excellence" - a term which would be adopted by Pickles as the slogan for his brave new strategy."

He must have decided it had taken a wrong turn since then ...

DocRichard said...

Hello Ms Green

Unfortunately, the Audit Commission has no records beyond 6 years. It looks as if the trail has gone cold. :(

Anonymous said...

hmmm - interesting. The trail may have gone cold, but the problem may be in looking for the "Audit Commission" rather than the District Auditor. The story I heard was that, as leader of Bradford Council, Pickles used the dubious practice of the conservative mayor's casting vote (in an otherwise evenly split council)to push through significant policy changes, outsourcing and such like. At some point, and I'm not sure what the particular issue/s was/were, but Pickles and the council ended up getting a stern telling off from the District Auditor for exceeding their powers and/or irregular procurement/contracting arrangements (again, I'm not sure of the precise story, as you can tell). Oh, and the name of the District Auditor at the time, according tot he story I heard? Eugene Sullivan. Now better known as the acting chief exec of the Audit Commission. So maybe there was something in the score-settling analysis after all.

DocRichard said...

Thanks for that Anon.

Very useful. I will follow it up when Libya is sorted.


Anonymous said...

I can confirm that when I worked at the Audit Commission there was certainly a "story" doing the rounds about Pickles and his time at Bradford. Surely the Audit Commission, the local Press or the Government, could provide details of the name of the District Auditor in Bradford at the time?

DocRichard said...

Thanks, Anon. It is piquant, these stories keep popping up. I tried, but it it difficult to stay interested. I tried, but it is going to take some brave whistleblower to blow the whistle, knowing that the full weight of Pickles is going to come crashing down on him/her. Metaphorically.