freedom

After the fire…

Warwickshire County Council did not know what had hit it when thousands of people took to the streets up and down the county to protest proposed cuts to the fire service. The level of public anger was vastly greater than expected. Bosses understood that closing down fire stations would not be popular. But what inflamed residents most was the apparent dishonesty of the consultation document, which worked so hard to talk up the benefits that it neglected to mention the proposals would reduce the number of fire-fighters and close fire-stations.

Within four months of the consultation document being released, county councillors in the ruling Conservative party had done an about face and put the proposals on indefinite hold. Three days later, Conservative party leader David Cameron was despatched to Leamington Spa to suggest that the proposals should wait until after the public enquiry into the deaths of firefighters at the Atherstone-on-Stour tragedy. Whatever his intention, this fuelled speculation, in the Stratford Herald as well as in other places, that the decision to suspend (not scrap) the fire cuts was made in order to defend an increasingly shaky electoral position in Warwickshire, and that councillors were responding not to the will of the people, but to the dictat from Conservative Central Office.

One of the officers involved with putting the proposals forward told me that consultation documents were supposed to put one side of the story, and that this was standard practice up and down the country. When I suggested that this was not, or should not be, the case, he asked me how else the changes could be pushed through. It had clearly not occurred to him that, if it was impossible to persuade an informed public who had been given all the facts, perhaps they should not be pushed through at all.

I don’t think there was ever a time when anyone in Warwickshire would have been taken in by the consultation document which was put before us. But I do believe the extreme spin which was put on it reflected the fear of the people putting it forward, and that fear was fuelled by three things.

First, it was fuelled by the knowledge that, just a few months before, the man who was to front it had been promising that there would be no fire cuts. Whether this made a difference to his electoral prospects or not it’s hard to say, but, clearly, Warwickshire Conservatives believed that no word of fire cuts could or should be breathed before the County elections, which saw them take Warwickshire from no overall control into Conservative administration. Councillors were clearly afraid that they would be accused (which they in the event were) of concealing swingeing cuts, and they tried to hide this by presenting the cuts not as cuts at all, but as an increase.

Second, it was fuelled by the knowledge that Warwickshire would shortly be sharply criticised in a national review.
This information was not made available to the public until the day after the consultation finished, but the Comprehensive Area Assessment known as OnePlace reported: “The Fire and Rescue Authority know they have to improve their fire prevention service. They also know that they have to change the way they work to improve the service as a whole. This is a difficult task and part of the challenge will be to explain the plans to residents so they understand the reasons for the need to modernise the way the service is provided.” In the fuller text, the assessment added: “They have been slow to make the changes needed to provide a more efficient, modern fire service that balances emergency response with good prevention and protection work and gives taxpayers good value for money. The pace of change is picking up.”

The extreme haste with which the proposals were developed and put to public consultation between the end of the council elections and the announcement of this assessment reflects the real fear that people would be even less open to change if they knew what was driving it. In fact, almost certainly the opposite would have been true — if the authorities had admitted early on that they were in serious trouble and needed help, they would have gained a more sympathetic hearing. I doubt it would have changed the outcome, but it would definitely have changed the tone.

Third, it was fuelled by the fear that, after all, the proposals did not stack up. Councillors and officers initially refused to release the full document setting out the risk assessment for the changes, and only did so when Liberal Democrats Hazel Wright and Peter Moorse on Stratford District Council put in a Freedom of Information request. This was the first official, public document that admitted that fire stations would close and that the total number of fire-fighters would be reduced by 51 (the consultation document gave the impression that they would be increased by 25). When a subsequent Freedom of Information request asked for the costings, the answer was that costings had not been calculated.

All these fears that the public would mistrust the reasons behind the proposals — in the bizarre world of half-baked decisions and incomplete logic — led those putting the document forward to produce not something which was so transparently transparent that people would be forced to say “we disagree with your proposals, but we admire the honesty and clarity with which you put them”, but which in every sense failed to fulfil its obligations to the public trust.

After all the revelations of MP expenses during the summer, for people to be given something in the guise of a consultation which was little more than a trick, was more than anyone was willing to stand.

I have yet to meet one person from the Warwickshire public who supported or trusted the proposals. I doubt that I ever will. In a year when public trust in politicians has fallen to its lowest in recorded history, the Warwickshire Fire Consultation did us the gravest disservice.

It is customary, when a major public consultation, on which an organisation is betting its future, fails, for someone to offer their resignation. As yet, no-one has. I think it is probably too much to hope that, in the next few months, in order to restore damaged public trust, someone will.

Utterly unproven

Utterly unproven

"No fire cuts" protest in Bidford on Avon, 7 November 09 The consultation document is farcical, the case for change is not made, the future costs have not been calculated — so why are Warwickshire Fire Services pushing ahead with a plan to cut the fire service by more than fifty firefighters, close firestations and and abandon fire-engines on which they still have to pay fees whether they use them or not?

The story so far: before the June County Council elections, the portfolio holder promised voters that there were no plans to cut the Warwickshire fire services. Almost immediately after the elections, a consultation was announced on ‘improvements’ to the services. People who read the document were bemused, because it was evidently paving the way for cuts, but it only talked explicitly about increasing numbers. Shortly afterwards, it became clear that the plan was essentially to dispense with retained fire-fighters and a number of fire stations, and to attempt to fill the gap created by taking on a much smaller number of full-time firefighters. Under questioning, through Freedom of Information requests by the Liberal Democrats, and in public meetings by residents from, among others, Bidford on Avon and Studley, it became clear that there would be a net reduction of more than fifty firefighters.

I reviewed the consultation document on behalf of local residents — you can read my original report Analysis of the Warwickshire Fire Consultation Documents — and discovered that it completely failed to reach the bare minimum standard for a public consultation.

Shortly afterwards, an FOI ((Freedom of Information requests must be answered within 21 days and give the public the power to demand documents produced by publicly funded bodies)) request from Councillors Peter Moorse and Hazel Wright, forced the release of the hitherto secret management review by Det Norske Veritas. You can read that here: Det Norske Veritas Risk Review. The questioning, balanced view of the Norwegian company which provided the work contrasted very, very sharply with the confident, essentially patronising language of the consultation document. I wrote a second report on this, which you can read here: Comparison between Consultation documents and Det Norske Veritas risk report.

Since then, in a series of public meetings and protests, it has become clear that nobody except the Conservative cabinet of Warwickshire County Council, and those who report to them, is in favour of the plans put forward. Even Conservative district councillors (mindful no doubt that they are up for election next year) and Conservative MPs (mindful almost certainly of the same unpleasant truth) and prospective parliamentary candidates are distancing themselves — at least in public. We should remember that, no matter how much county councillors, district councillors and MPs like to present themselves as different from each other, a political party must stand or fall together. If they really cannot agree, they should leave the party. That is how politics works.

There are three fundamental reasons why this consultation process and the plans behind it cannot stand. Any one of them should be enough to persuade the Warwickshire cabinet that it is time to call time on these plans.

First, the consultation document is in a very real sense a false prospectus. We are told that if we don’t agree with it, we can put our own views forward. That is how consultation is supposed to work. But this relies on an accurate, complete and comprehensible presentation of the plans. The consultation documents put forward are none of these. A number of people, including a number of lawyers, have suggested that the process will fail at Judicial Review. But this is simply madness. Are we really going to drag each other through the courts? Is that worth wasting the tax-payer’s money on? If the issue were some complex and contentious point of law, then that perhaps would be the right solution. But there is no need to test these documents in the courts. There is a national standard (and a county standard), and the proposal document completely fails to satisfy it. It should therefore be withdrawn, without any recourse to the courts.

It is not enough (as the Cabinet portfolio holder has suggested) to accept that the documents are poor but to count on the public meetings to provide legitimate consultation. Where the written documents are inadequate, there can be no confidence that the two sides in a public meeting are even talking about the same thing. How can Cabinet determine the difference between responses based on a sound understanding of the real proposals and their consequences from those based on the original consultation document? Again, they have suggested that, since they have published additional documents, the public can reasonably be expected to have read the subsequent documents. Once more, not so! This would effectively invalidate early responses. Furthermore, it would require the collators of the responses to be able to track which version of the information the public was responding to.

Secondly, and more importantly, even if we take the original consultation document at face value, no compelling case has been made for why change should take place. The documents do not identify any particular inadequacies of the existing service. To be sure, they offer some suggestions of things which it would be nice to have — a boat, more money for smoke alarms, specialist units for road accidents, more training — but they do not make any case whatsoever for what is wrong with our current arrangements. If there is nothing wrong with them, why should we even entertain (let alone accept) a set of changes which will have dire consequences for at least fifty fire-fighters, will damage the lives of the communities from which the stations are taken and, potentially (since we never really know the consequences of our decisions until it is too late) will result in the loss of life and property across the county.

Of course, it could be the case that a prospective Conservative government is about to substantially reduce the budget available for fire-fighting. Perhaps the County Council cabinet knows this, and perhaps so do the MPs and district councillors. But, if that is the case, they owe it to us to tell us. It is not enough to say “we’re doing this for your own good — we just can’t tell you why”. If change is in the wind, then we need to know this.

We imagined that all would be clear when we got the (then) secret management report. But this is not the case. The management report comments on the haste with which they were asked to analyse the risks. In their conclusions, they state explicitly that a full risk analysis should be undertaken. I put this to one of the leaders of the consultation process, after the Bidford public meeting. He told me that ‘consultants always try to get more work for themselves’, and explained that it was always certain that the consultants would recommend a further report. Ok. Fair enough. But, if you didn’t want the answer, why did you ask the question? If consultants were certain to say that the timescales were too tight, and more work was needed, what was the point of asking them at all? But, having asked them, the Warwickshire Cabinet is honour-bound (and, by the standards of the National Audit Office, duty bound) to take their report seriously.

Thirdly, and most importantly, we know that the police, and also the Health and Safety Executive, are still investigating the tragic Atherstone on Stour fire of two years ago. The Det Norske Veritas references this fire more than once. Well sourced, but strictly anonymous, insiders tell us that one of the main drivers of the proposed changes to the fire service are a way of dodging criticism which the county council is expecting when the results of those investigations are published. They will be able to argue (we are informed) that the service has changed radically, and therefore the criticisms will relate to the past, not to the present.

All of Warwickshire mourned the deaths of the firefighters on that day. All of us, of course, want changes to the way things are done to minimise the risks that people who risk their lives for us should run. But. Absolutely crucially, until the results of those investigations are published, we will not know in what ways things should change. How does county council cabinet know that it won’t be making things worse with its changes? Certainly not based on the results of the risk report, which suggests that reducing the total number of firefighters will increase the risks. Certainly not based on the work of other fire-services. The Atherstone investigation has already cost £4million. If the police could simply have looked up best practice and compared it with what actually happened, the investigation could have been finished within weeks of the fire. It is absolutely right that the police and the Health and Safety Executive take their job seriously. We owe that to those who gave their lives, and to their families and friends. It is also right that they work exhaustively if that is what is needed to discover the truth. But the greater their investment of time and money, the more foolish it is to second-guess it.

The public has already put £4 million on the table to find out how things should change. Warwickshire’s fire service proposals are a cheap attempt to second guess that investigation. There is no worthwhile evidence that the current proposals will make things better. Many frontline firefighters believe passionately that they will make things dramatically worse.

But the madness is that we do not need to sit around arguing about it. We only need to wait until the investigation is done.

Which is why this consultation, and the proposals behind it, are utterly, utterly wrong.

They are the wrong proposals, at the wrong time, put forward in a way which is so poor that no real information can be gathered from consulting the public at all.

Farce. Fiasco. All the usual words are simply inadequate.

County Councillors, if you are reading this, pull the plug on the Warwickshire fire services consultation. You owe it to yourselves. More importantly, you owe it to us.

Crowdsourcers shame Telegraph

Crowdsourcing — an idea that suggests that many people working on their own on a collective project can accomplish great things — has put paid to the Daily Telegraph’s claims that only the vast resources of a major commercial newspaper could possibly have uncovered MP expenses abuse. And it has done it through the mediation of the Telegraph’s derided rival, The Guardian.

Originally put forward in a Wired Magazine article, and subsequently in a book by Jeff Howe, crowdsourcing harnasses the skills of the many (as opposed to — dare we say it in this context? — the lust for blood of the mob) to analyse data or to chew over a problem. In this particular case, Guardian readers, and, we can assume, other bloggers and webites, have been combing through the now-published MP expenses data. Despite the blanking out of crucial data, crowdsourcers have already begun to build up powerful profiles of who is spending how much on what.

More important than the actual method used — although it is important — is the fact that all this user-researched data means that finally we, the people, have access to our MPs’ expenses claims, not in driblets issued by the Daily Telegraph to further its own ill-concealed political agenda, nor in the avalanche of mind-numbing detail on which civil servants and politicians have been counting to put us off looking, but in clear, concise analysis, which can be checked by anyone who wants to.

This is what Freedom of the Press is all about — the freedom for any newspaper, or, in this blogging age, any citizen-journalist, to look at the facts for themselves, come to a conclusion, and put forward their own interpretation. Suddenly we are no longer in the hands of a journalistic-elite, themselves under the thumb of a right-wing editor.

This freedom has come too little too late. Too late for Cameron’s ‘old-guard’, who are set to be swept away in sweeping purges. And certainly too late for us collectively to have any faith in the financial probity of our politicians. And too little to set our minds at ease that now everything is in the open and nothing is being hidden. If you haven’t looked at the MP expenses yourself yet, then do. There is something uniquely terrifying about the way in which whole sections have been blacked out, with (crucially, in my mind) no annotations to indicate the reason for the black out nor the text minus the offending details. Nothing is more compelling in telling us that our interests are deemed as less important than those of an MP. Even though any private detective could dig up the real information (or just buy it from the Telegraph) without a great deal of difficulty.

Guardian readers have so far crawled through 700,000 heavily edited documents. The degree of scrutiny they have brought to it is vastly more than the Telegraph’s — in fact, we now wonder if the Telegraph was not tipped off to go straight for the juicier items, since they, in passing, overlooked so many other interesting things.

More to the point, though, is that the Guardian readers are enabling information to be aggregated. We know now that the Tories claim the most for food. But the aggregations also allow us to compare MP total costs for various things with their actual performance in the House of Commons, thanks to a little additional cross-referencing with TheyWorkForYou.Com.

Once MP second job information is published at the start of July, we will be in a position to see a league table of MP value for money. It will not placate the public. But it may give some old, recalcitrant and now entirely embittered MPs the push they need to, in the time honoured phrase, ‘pursue career interests elsewhere’.

He should go, and he should actually go, and then others should go

Speaker’s fate sealed as Clegg breaks ranks

Nick Clegg has taken the historic step of demanding — as a party leader — that the speaker of the House should go. William Hague declined to be as forthright, in his capacity as de facto Tory deputy, but he made it clear that he believes the same thing.

Michael Martin’s conduct has been the poorest of all those not directly implicated in the scandal itself. As a figure independent of government, he should have led the calls for Freedom of Information, and should have led the House (not the government) to deal with people who have made potentially fraudulent claims, or who have arranged their affairs in order to make a profit from the public purse.

Instead, he silenced the voices of dissent.

Martin should go, and he should actually go — not sit around as a back bencher collecting his salary, but leave parliament altogether and make his way in the world.

And then others should go. Not everyone. Certainly not everyone ‘fingered’ by the Daily Telegraph, which seems to have set itself up as an arbiter of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.

For me, three groups of MPs should leave right now:

  • Those who have committed what looks like fraud should step down and face the courts. This would include those who claimed for mortgages which did not exist.
  • Those who have organised their affairs in order to profit from the public purse — for example, those who played the property market, ‘flipped’ their second homes, defined their second homes differently for parliament and for the tax man, and spent money on properties which they then promptly sold. In other words, anyone who played the expenses so that they would have money in their pockets at the end.
  • Those who sought to bring in a bill exempting MPs from Freedom of Information, but who were subsequently found to be extravagant in their expenses — even if what they did was neither criminal nor profiteering, they abused their position by attempting to legislate to protect themselves
  • .

    Others can stay — as far as the General Election. Though I’m sure that many, especially older MPs, will choose to stand down rather than face the music. A landslide defeat, which is what many of them will face, will seem an unattractive prospect as the end of their political careers.

    As far as I am concerned, suspending people from the government, or from the shadow cabinet, or from their parliamentary parties, is not enough. Those who failed in their duty as MPs must cease to be MPs.

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