Friday, December 05, 2008

Council logic: The cost/benefit ratio.

A recent Freedom of information request highlights an interesting issue.

The Local Government Ombudsman issued a report against Haringey council finding maladministration causing injustice (06/A/12508). The Ombudsman recommended that Haringey should make a payment of about £250 to the complainant.

The report also identified that Haringey made use of external legal advisers in relation to the LGO investigation. The cost to Haringey council, or more precisely, the cost to Haringey council tax payers was £8000 + Vat.

What a waste of taxpayers money. If Haringey had apologised and settled for a few hundred pounds they could have saved £9,400 plus all their own internal costs. In addition the LGO's could have saves the taxpayer the thousands of pound it costs to produce a report. The LGO cost the taxpayer about £12 million year and they produce about 125 reports. That works out at £96,000 per report.

To put everything in context Haringey's attempt to save a few hundred pounds following an act of maladministration cost the taxpayer, one way or another, over £100,000. Multiply that by all the councils in the country and literally £millions must be wasted every year by Councils trying to evade paying out a few hundred pounds each in compensation.

Cheshire County Council is another example, they have spent thousands more on trying to avoid the consequences of maladministration than it would have cost them to amicably resolve the situation. However, the key reason behind doing this is that spending thousands on external legal advice allows a council concerned to block or seriously derail an LGO investigation.

Using external legal advice allows the council to move the issue from 'one of fault in procedure' (maladministration which the LGO can investigate) to 'one of merit' (which the LGO can't investigate). This may be an expensive and dubious tactic to use but it nicely excludes the LGO from getting too involved in anything the council doesn't want them to get involved in.

What makes this tactic even more interesting is that by law any legal advice the council receives is classed as privileged information so the council involved doesn't even have to show the LGO, or anyone else, the advice they received. The bottom line being that a council can hide behind legally privileged information and lie to the LGO and there is damn all the LGO can do about it.

If the council say they took legal advice (even if the legal advice didn't support their position) the LGO is history because the issue is has been moved from an argument about procedure to one of merit.

Unfortunately, the LGO realise that they can't let the complainant in on the trick because it will just expose the stupidity of the whole situation. Therefore, the LGO tend to hide the problem by finding the council guilty of a trivial act of maladministration, such as delay, whilst finding them not guilty of any issue they have managed to 'avoid' using the devious and dubious tactic outlined above.

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