'Failures in Fundamental Controls' - Report on Fraud at Dundee City Council

Regular readers will remember the case of former Dundee City Council employee Mark Conway who stole over £1 million from Dundee City Council.  Monday evening's meeting of the City Council dealt with  a report produced by the Accounts Commission on this.
This is a report which every councillor and every citizen of Dundee should  be very very concerned about.
We need to start by being clear that one person, Mark Conway, is guilty in this and he was convicted in court.  But we should also be very concerned about a report which says that 'failures in fundamental controls within the council allowed this fraud to continue over a prolonged period.'

As a councillor I need to be able to trust the advice that I am given by officers.  I need to know that financial statements are accurate.  The report by the Accounts Commission demonstrates that this has not always been the case.
As councillors we need reassurance from officers that there will be no repeat of this.  We need reassurance that this cannot happen again.  We also need to know why auditors did not pick this up.

We also need a reassurance that council cuts did not contribute to this and allow one member of staff to accumulate a number of permissions and checks and balances were not in place.  The report points out that the individual concerned built up lots of responsibility over the years and was one of very few individuals who understood the systems.  The lack of segregation of duties allowed him to produce fraudulent invoices, pay them and then hide the evidence.  Despite strenuous denials from officers I find it hard to believe that the cuts which have led to fewer and fewer people working for the council did not contribute to this fraud.

At the Scrutiny Committee I proposed that the committee went further and wrote to the bank and building society concerned and the Treasury as well as the Gambling Commission and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.
To say that I am disappointed with the responses would be an understatement.  We expect regulators to assist us.  In this case I feel that we did not get the protection that we could have expected from the banks, building societies, Financial Conduct Authority and the Treasury.  Neither did we get protection from the gambling firm William Hill, the Gambling Commission or DCMS.
In these times of austerity imposed on Dundee City Council by the UK and Scottish Governments why did these organisations not help us through their regulatory powers?
With regard to gambling I think that we should have a look at the support which the council gives and supports across the city to problem gamblers.  It strikes me that the gambling industry looks upon the occasional fine or ex-gratia payment as part of the cost of doing business.  Perhaps we should be stricter, perhaps we should question whether William Hill is a fit and proper organisation to hold a licence within the city.  I will certainly be making the case for more regulation of gambling.
What we need to know is that lessons have been learnt and officers have taken all appropriate actions to protect the public purse in the future.


Protect Dundee's Fire Stations

Balmossie Fire Station
Kingsway East Fire Station

McAlpine Road Fire Station

Blackness Fire Station

I've called for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to protect fire stations in Dundee.  The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) arecurrently consulting on their future.  The consultation contains references to changing the fire station footprint.  Dundee City Council was due to decide on its response to the consultation last night but in light of the detailed amendments which I put forward they have postponed the decision until 14 May.

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service consultation is incredibly short on detail and full of leading phrases. Who could be opposed to firefighters being given modern equipment to do their jobs, for example.  Worryingly though much of the consultation appears to be cover for cuts.  The headline issue is an apparent 20% pay rise for firefighters but there would be fewer firefighters and they would be doing an awful lot more than they do today.

There are suggestions that firefighters should respond to medical emergencies.  That is fine but it should be additional to the resources available at the moment through the Scottish Ambulance Service and the NHS not instead of it.

Most worryingly the document contains references to ‘reviewing’ the fire station footprint across Scotland.  The proposal put forward by the SNP Administration said that it was broadly supportive of proposals put forward by SFRS.  I was worried that this would be interpreted as support for changes to fire stations in Dundee.  On Tayside Fire and Rescue Board I was proud to have played a part, with others, in stopping plans to downgrade Balmossie Fire Station not once but twice.  I believe that Dundee City Council must make clear its opposition to any changes to fire stations in Dundee.  That is what I will be looking for when this item comes back to councillors.

Fr James Shine 100th Anniversary

A portrait of Fr James Shine in uniform along with a prayer card produced after Fr Shine's Death
The War Memorial at St Joseph's on Sunday
with floral tributes to Fr Shine and the over
200 others mentioned on the tablet
On Sunday I was pleased to be able to join the congregation at St Joseph's Church in Wilkie's Lane as they marked the one hundredth anniversary of the death of Fr James Shine.  Fr Shine had served as one of the priests at St Joseph's in 1914 and 1915.  Fr Shine was born in County Tipperary and was a priest of the Irish Diocese of Waterford and Lismore on loan to the Diocese of Dunkeld working in Dundee at the time he joined up.  He died in Boulogne on 21st April 1918 from wounds received whilst ministering to soldiers in his role as a British Army chaplain in World War I.

Fr Shine's story is one that should be more widely known.  Many people will be surprised to hear about this Irishman who volunteered to serve in the British forces during this turbulent time in relations between Ireland and Britain.

Whilst Fr Shine died 100 years ago I think that we should remember the sacrifice that he made. We should also look at that War Memorial at St Joseph's and the names of all those men who lived in the streets around the West End and resolve to do all we can to say never again.

As some readers will know I have studied the impact of the Irish on Dundee. In the course of that I was lucky enough to meet Fr Shine's great-nephew, Sean Murphy, who has done a lot to promote the memory of Fr Shine.

I would also like to draw attention to the excellent work done by the Great War Dundee Group in looking at all aspects of the First World War in Dundee.


Welcome for low-carbon commitment

I welcome the fact that Dundee City Council’s Policy and Resources Committee agreed to my amendment to commit Dundee City Council to redirect resources to low-carbon activities.  The amendment was to a report entitled Sustainable Dundee and the amendment sets a direction of travel for the council in the future.

I welcomed the Sustainable Dundee report which was before us, it covered a lot of important areas and brought together a lot of the work which the council is doing.  There was an excellent deputation from Mary Henderson of Friends of the Earth Tayside.  After listening to Mrs Henderson I felt that she had made a strong case for an amendment about the future direction of travel of the council with regard to low-carbon activities.

My amendment said ‘Where possible funds should be redirected from high-carbon activities to low-carbon sustainable and renewable activities and where funds are spent outside Dundee they should be redirected from high-carbon activities to low-carbon and renewable activities.’  This is about promoting a direction of travel for the council.

The council is the custodian of the resources of the citizens of Dundee and it is important that we are able to hand on the resources to our successors both in terms of cash, facilities and the environment.  I hope that this way of thinking will influence council thinking in terms of future policies.

I think that protecting our environment is important and I will work with anyone to help protect it.  It is crucial that we plan for a future low-carbon economy which protects jobs and services.  We need to invest in a workforce which is ready for this next stage of economic development.


Consultation on Car Parking Permit Scheme Essential

Let me be very clear I support residents’ parking schemes for people who live on the periphery of the city centre.  I know as a resident in the West End and a local councillor that people are frustrated that they cannot find a car parking space close to their house.

I am glad that at the meeting of the City Development Committee on Monday evening that the proposals put forward by the SNP Administration were amended.  The proposals put forward were designed to fail.  Along with my ward colleague Bailie Macpherson I amended the proposals so that there will be meaningful consultation on them.  I also think that it is important that the consultation includes the issue of cost.  The previous proposals were rejected due to the cost being too high at £80.  I understand that £62 is slightly cheaper but I still worry that it is too much to pay and still not be guaranteed a car parking place at all never mind close to your house.

I also know that as well as the cost people rejected previous proposals because they were a one-size-fits-all proposal.  The proposals before the council on Monday evening were a one-size-fits-all.  I think that the solution is for more bespoke fixes rather than a blanket scheme across large areas of the city.

My amendment was designed to help implement this policy.  The proposals suggest that the way to lodge an objection is by objecting to the Traffic Regulation Order.  This is not the way to gauge public opinion on this matter.  People who are in favour of residents’ parking scheme might object to the specific detail of the Traffic Regulation Order and therefore be counted as an objector to the scheme.  That is surely not what was intended.

 I am clear that in the areas near the city centre there is an issue that local residents would like to see dealt with.  Local councillors who I have spoken to all recognise that this is an issue.  I want to help the council and the people in Maryfield, Coldside and the West End wards get a policy that will work.

The report presented on Monday night says that this policy should be brought forward on a cost neutral basis.  That is not the policy of the council, it may be the preference of the SNP Administration.  The council has other parking schemes which do not work on that basis.  In Menzieshill there is a residents' car parking scheme which costs £8 per year.  I cannot see any justification that would suggest that the West End, Coldside or Maryfield wards should be different.

This is why I think that a full and meaningful consultation must also consult on the cost of the scheme. This committee should be presented with a number of alternatives.

Dundee City Council is currently pointing out how marvellous consultation is.  Dundee Decides is being held up as a great innovation.  I want to argue for more consultation on budgets.  I am also clear that this policy will fail if there is not a full and meaningful consultation on it.  Whilst I am pleased about the result of the meeting on Monday evening I will be watching to make sure that the consultation is as full and meaningful as it can be.

I would also point out that there was nothing in the report presented to the committee which aims to reduce the reliance on the motor vehicle.  I suspect all of us rely on the car too much, and I include myself in that.  I think that any plan for a residents’ car parking scheme needs to look at demand and find ways to reduce it.

I want to help Dundee City Council get to the point where we have a residents’ car parking scheme which works for people in the West End, Coldside and Maryfield wards.  I do not think that the proposal presented by the Convener on Monday evening would have achieved that and therefore I was pleased that the committee agreed to support the amendment put forward.


Welcome for plans to mark heritage of former St Joseph's School SIte

At this week's meeting of the City Development Committee there was an item which sought to name the street at the development of houses at the new development on the former St Joseph's Primary School site.

In the past couple of months as work has taken place to knock down the old building a number of former pupils have spoken to me about their wish for the history of the site to be acknowledged.  I raised this with the City Development Department asked for my views on the street name I made my view known that I think that it should reference the former use of the site.  Therefore I was glad when the proposed name suggested was St Joseph's Court.  I think that this will allow the history of the site and the over eighty years of education to be marked.   I am glad to say that the new school is going from strength to strength on its new site but I felt it was important to acknowledge the history and heritage of this site.


Welcome for Community Asset remaining in community ownership

On Monday evening Dundee City Council considered a report on the proposals to build an AC Marriott Hotel at Site 6 in the Waterfront near to the V & A.  I welcomed the report mostly because the council was retaining ownership.  This is the sort of thing that the Co-operative Party and people like John McDonnell have in mind when they  discuss things like Community Wealth Building.

I warmly welcome this report and want to stress how much the Labour Group supports Dundee City Council retaining ownership of the assets being developed at the Waterfront.

I think that it is very important that the council does retain an element of ownership in parts of the Waterfront.  That way, the people of Dundee will get some benefit from it.  It is important that the assets of the Waterfront continue to produce wealth for the community and it is good to see that the plan isn't to sell the assets off to some off-shore corporation that won't pay tax in Scotland, or possibly anywhere.

I hope that further proposals in Dundee will continue in this way.  It is a way of ensuring that some of the wealth created by these developments stays within the city and is of benefit to the many, rather than just the shareholders.


Dundee City Council Budget - A Missed Opportunity

Let’s start by being honest about what was before us at the Dundee City  Council budget meeting last week.  We had a deal which in January the whole council said was not fair for Dundee, despite the intervention of the Green Party it is still not a fair settlement for Dundee, for our citizens or for our workforce.

The blame for austerity lies in Westminster.  Austerity is a choice made by the Conservative Government.  It is passed on to Holyrood where the Scottish Government refuses to use the powers of the Scottish Parliament to their full extent and passes on disproportionate cuts to local government.  Dundee City Council is then left with a really poor set of circumstances which annoy councillors but which much more importantly have a real impact on the people of Dundee.

The staff of Dundee City Council do an excellent job.  I hope that workers do get a pay rise, but we must also recognise that even if the settlements are more like the Scottish Government want around 3% and not what the trade unions are looking for, these still are not fully funded which means that they will have an impact on services.  So we are in the bizarre position that a pay rise for workers means a cut in services.

I welcome the extra investment for vulnerable children in the budget.  I hope that it does cover the cost pressures because it is unacceptable that year, after year, after year the budget in this area has been wrong.  We need to get in right for these young people and make sure that they are given the best start in life.

The proposals put forward by the Labour Group were innovative and intended to use the powers of the council to make a difference in Dundee.  They were intended to say that poverty and inequality are wrong and that we won’t just complain about it we will try and do something about it.

Last week the council heard the case eloquently put by representatives of the workforce in social care about the problems they face.  I am glad that changes were not forced through and I am also clear that any proposal which imposes split shifts or cuts in hours is unacceptable.

Labour put forward a plan which would have allowed those social care workers to do the job they want to do.  Allow them to spend longer with service-users and make a real difference to their lives.  We thought that this extra funding could have focused on trying to stop hospital readmissions.  The revolving door is good for no-one.  We need to recognise that there is one public purse and cuts to the council which lead to extra spending in the NHS are daft.

We also proposed to bring forward a plan to give access to sports and cultural facilities to disadvantaged young people in the city.  This is a big year for Dundee with the V & A opening and a focus on the city.  With Dundee being lauded around the world.  But this must be a big year for everyone in the city not just those who can afford it.  We need to make sure that the regeneration of our city is for everyone and not just a privileged few.  The Waterfront regeneration will be an abject failure if it doesn’t help everyone in the city.

We want to see fairness at the heart of what we do.  That is why Labour wanted to halt the increase in the cost of school meals and at the same time invest in a fairness fund that would allow work to be done to find a means of delivering a good quality meal to disadvantaged youngsters all year round. 

A number of SNP councillors said that they thought some of our proposals were interesting but they could not vote for them because they had not had enough time to analyse them.  We offered them time at the meeting to analyse our proposals.  We are prepared to give them to the SNP administration because we think that they will make a real difference to the city of Dundee.  We are not even looking for credit for bringing these forward

We want to make a real difference and deliver a budget for the many not the few.


Dundee Needs a Better Deal

On Monday evening Dundee City Council's Policy & Resources Committee looked at the forthcoming budget process.  A paper was produced which showed that the council needs to find a further £15.7 million of savings this year.  This is on top of the something like £100 million which has been taken out of the council's budget over the last ten years or so.  The report can be found at pages 1-9 here.

The Labour Group felt that the paper only told us the facts of the situation and that we needed to make clear that we did not think that we should meekly accept more cuts for Dundee.  We continue to support COSLA's viewpoint that we need a fair settlement for local government and that this settlement isn't fair.

Therefore on behalf of the Labour Group Kevin Keenan put forward the amendment below:

'That Committee believes that the detailed settlement laid out in the report does not represent a fair deal for the people of Dundee or for local government in Scotland as a whole, notes that there is no current majority in the Scottish Parliament for the budget, resolves to stand by the cross party stance set out by COSLA and in doing so make joint representation across all political groups on the council to the Finance Secretary and the leaders of all parties in the Scottish Parliament ahead of the next budget vote calling for a fair deal for local government funding in order to avoid damaging cuts in local services. '

We were very pleased to see that the amendment was accepted by the entire council.  I spoke in the debate and pointed out that this was not about party political point scoring but rather was about doing what was right for the people of Dundee.  It is easy for politicians and political activists to make barnstorming speeches about the faults of others but we must be clear that the issues here about real people with real problems.  For example, there are people in Dundee using foodbanks; there are people in Dundee sleeping rough and there are people struggling to heat their homes - these (and many others) are the people who need Dundee City Council to get a fair settlement.  These are the people who need the council to provide services for them.

We should be clear that the days when we can say that there is fat to cut from councils were probably never true and they certainly aren't true now.  The proposed cuts will have a detrimental impact on communities and on the economy of Dundee.  If a company with  a turnover of £15.7 million was threatening to close then there would be much hand-wringing from politicians and campaigns would be started to stop the closure, well these cuts to Dundee City Council's budget should be treated in the same way.

I was pleased that Dundee City Council spoke with one voice about this important issue on Monday night, now we need action at Holyrood which gives Dundee a better deal.