Over the past few years, the government has given LBWF millions of pounds to close the gap between richer and poorer wards. It is meant to be spent on health, education, safety etc. to improve standards in the latter. The government programme is called the Neighbourhood Regeneration Fund (NRF); in 2006-07 and 2007-08, LBWF has re-badged it locally as the Better Neighbourhood Initiative (BNI).
However, things have not gone to plan. The problem is that while some of the money has been spent profitably, much has not. Residents in the target wards have been frozen out of the allocation process. Council officials have top-sliced in order to subsidise their own hobby horses. Contracts have gone to consultants in return for flawed work. The Council has been weak at monitoring programme outputs. In my view, it is a scandal - which is hitting the poorest people in the Borough.
The latest BNI expenditure and output report, dealing with 2006-07, is symptomatic. During this period, the BNI administered nine groups of programmes. The results were as follows:
€ in two cases, Attainment and Olympics, worth £752,000 or 40 per cent of the total, the BNI delivered more than it planned;
€ in three cases, Health, Worklessness, and Strategic Interventions in the Wards, worth £661,000 or 35 per cent of the total, the BNI delivered less than it planned - in the first two cases, far, far, less; and
€ in the remaining four cases, worth £477,000 or 25 per cent of the total, it is impossible to draw a conclusion, because, extraordinarily, no output figures were recorded.
This is, by any standards, a weak performance. But it is in fact even worse than it looks, because we know that in both the Attainment and Olympics programmes, and for reasons that have never been explained, BNI expenditure occurred right across the borough, and not just in the deprived wards. Taken as a whole, therefore, the verdict must be harsh. The Government provides the Council with BNI money in order to narrow the gap between the richer and the poorer wards. Yet the Council's loose targeting and inefficient delivery means that opportunities for change continue to go begging.
Together with friends, I have campaigned about this, writing to councillors and the press. It seemed a good idea to focus on a few case studies, and the Dr Foster Intelligence report is an example. I¹m currently campaigning to get Dr Foster to return the money.
Dr Foster comes from Gloucester
In early September 2006, the London Borough of Waltham Forest (LBWF) LSP agreed to pay the consultant Dr Foster Intelligence (DFI) the sum of £47,150 from its Neighborhood Renewal Fund (NRF) budget to produce a report on ill health in the borough's five deprived wards, and in parallel identify by postcode those households at risk of major disease, so that these could be visited by Household Health Improvement Managers. After a month, DFI duly delivered, which meant that it had earned at the rate of £2,400 per day.
After exhaustive research, I have unearthed the following:
(a) the report has never been used
On 8 August 2007, in a Freedom of Information Act deposition, LBWF admitted to me that, though the DFI report had been consulted for 'background research', it had not been used 'to fashion or operationalise practical interventions' the antithesis, of course, of why it was commissioned in the first place.
(b) the report is seriously flawed
In October 2007, I made a formal complaint about the report to the Dr Foster Intelligence Ethics Committee, a related but independent company which is composed of some very eminent figures (see www.drfosterintelligence.co.uk/ethics/). In a judgment of 6 December 2007, the Ethics Committee has upheld my complaint, and ruled that DFI is in breach of its own code of conduct. Further, it has instructed DFI 'to review the report to amend the inaccuracies, to investigate the omissions, and to ensure that editorial systems are reviewed'; and promised that it will place a public record of these findings on its website.
The flaws in the report (which are detailed in my complaint) are very basic muddle over terminology, illogicalities, and omissions. Furthermore, it is a fact that a large number of the postcodes which the DFI report lists as being in the five deprived wards appear to be fictitious. For example, DFI cites 207 post codes for the Cann Hall and Cathall wards, but on inspection, no less than 80 of these come up as void when checked against the the Post Office's own data base.
(c) the report may not have been tendered correctly
If it chooses to go down the tendering route, LBWF requires, for a contract of this size, three written quotes, including at least one from a local supplier (see LBWF Constitution, part 8, at www.walthamforest.gov.uk/contract_procedure_rules-2.doc).
To begin with, the LBWF chief executive claimed otherwise, and also asserted that the tendering had been done correctly, writing in an e-mail to me of 29 November 2007:
'In respect of the procurement procedures employed in the case to which you refer, I am satisfied that this matter was dealt with appropriately in that, in accordance with the Council's rules, three tenders were sought.
As a matter of working practice, both here and in many other places, if not all the tenderers choose to reply, officers proceed quite properly to determine the matter on the basis of those who have tendered¹.
On 18th December 2007, the chief executive wrote me a letter apparently modifying this opinion. He now
€ admitted that three written bids (including one from a Waltham Forest supplier) were indeed required (as opposed to be just 'sought');
€ reported that 'at least three organisations were invited to submit written quotations for this contract';
€ added that of these, 'one responded to state that they were unable to fulfill the contract within the required time-scaleŠ' and a second 'asked whether they might submit a joint bid', an approach that was rejected;
€ and pleaded mitigating circumstances, writing:
'it is not always possible or practical to insist that rules are followed to the letter, in order to get the job done and in time (for example, where bidders withdraw). In these circumstances, it is sometimes necessary to take a pragmatic approach, and to award the contract to the most suitable remaining bidder. In these circumstances, it is expected that records be kept, for audit purposes, to show that efforts have been made to follow the procurement process, and to meet the requirements of the Procurement Rules correctly'.
The problems with this letter are:
€ It is inconsistent. At first, the chief executive suggests that LBWF approached three organisations, but that two withdrew after initial discussions. But later he writes of 'bidders' withdrawing as if the two organisations in question had in fact submitted bids and subsequently withdrawn.
€ Negotiations concerning this contract occurred in the summer months of 2006. When the contract was signed in early September, there were seven months of the financial year to go, and another 12 months of the BNI programme to run after that. The chief executive's reference to a pressing time constraint, therefore, rings hollow.
€ The chief executive presents no evidence that LBWF made reasonable efforts to move beyond discussions with three potential bidders, and actually secure three written bids.
€ The chief executive fails to state whether any of the three organisations involved were local, as the rules require.
To clear these matters up, on 21 December 2007, and citing the Freedom of Information Act, I asked LBWF to provide me with hard copies of 'all letters that LBWF sent to outside parties regarding any aspect of the tendering and bidding process for the "Working with at risk households" project [the formal pre-tendering name] during 2006 and 2007'. As will be noted, this is a fairly broad request.
On 15 January 2008, I received LBWF¹s reply. Apparently, all that LBWF holds on this topic is two e-mails, dated 16 and 19 July 2006, which show the London consultant PPRE expressing interest in the project, but then being turned down by the LBWF Public Health Improvement Manager because 'the timescale for the work is four weeks'.
Thus, there is no written evidence
€ that 'at least three organizations were invited to submit written quotations for this contract';
€ that one 'asked whether they might submit a joint bid';
€ that a local supplier was involved; or that
€ Dr Foster Intelligence was in fact one of the bidders.
What this means is that LBWF cannot demonstrate with any degree of certainty that this contract was awarded according to its own rules.
(d) There has been a high degree of cover-up and obfuscation
During the course of my research, I have been misled on a number of occasions, sometimes about very crucial matters.
The story has been much covered in the local press. See, for example;