Skip to content

Why the secrecy over green capital money? New questions asked

February 8, 2016

I was pretty furious with the patronising fob off reply I received from Bristol Council’s Chief Executive to my request for transparency about the spending of £8million on the city’s year as European green capital. (See my blog of 29th January) The well salaried Ms Yates implied that I was either confused or ignorant and had clearly not appreciated the efforts the council had gone to put all the facts and figures on the table. Silly me!

In fact I had of course availed myself of the facts. I was also aware of the many attempts made by others to get more details, through repeatedly blocked freedom of information requests. It was precisely because of the council’s stonewalling that I decided to intervene. The council does not seem to understand that we now live in an age of transparency, where the public have a right to know how their politicians are spending their taxes.

Frustration with the council’s attitude led to a demonstration being held outside the green capital closing ceremony at the Colston Hall last Friday. I regret that this was necessary and if Ms Yates had not been so dismissive of reasonable requests for information it could have been avoided. Her attitude, one must assume on the orders of Mayor Ferguson, is detracting from the good work that has undoubtedly been done by hundreds of people during Bristol’s year in the environmental spotlight. I’m sure that many of the grants that have been funded from national and local government funds have been well spent and will have made a positive difference.  But unless the council tells us who got what, we can’t be sure. Why on earth must the identity of the lucky recipient of £245,000 to develop a website be kept a secret? Why shouldn’t we know who got paid £138,000 for “The Bristol Method”?

So I’ve had to write a follow up letter to Ms Yates. You can read it below and I will add her response when I receive it.  As well as some detailed questions on the spending during the year I’ve asked her why she thinks the council can defy the requirements of the Local Government Transparency Code. I’ve also asked why the consultants’ report on the structure and governance of Bristol 2015 Limited is being kept a secret. We do at least know it cost us all £8,700 but we don’t know what it said!

This is a big test for the new way of running Bristol with a directly elected Mayor.  I supported that change but strong executive power needs to be balanced by tough scrutiny by councillors.  If councillors are denied basic financial information then they can’t do their job of scrutinising the Mayor. If councillors are kept in the dark then the public will rightly be suspicious that the Mayor has something to hide. During an ITV interview about the lack of transparency last Friday Mayor Ferguson branded the demonstrators “a bunch of lunatics”.  He went on to say most of them were Liberal Democrats. Actually, it’s been great to see people from other parties and outside politics join me in making demands for openness. So, if there’s nothing to hide Mr Mayor, “publish and be damned” because if you don’t it will be you left looking rather silly and somewhat shifty.

 

 

 

STEPHEN WILLIAMS

Former Member of Parliament for Bristol West

By email:swilliams.libdems@gmail.com

 

 

2nd February 2016

 

For the attention of the Chief Executive and Chief Internal Auditor at Bristol City Council

 

Dear Nicola Yates and Melanie Henchy-McCarthy

 

Re: your reply concerning the Government grant of £7million given to Bristol City Council to support European Green Capital 2015

 

I write in response to your letter, dated 28th January 2016, which was the response to mine of the previous day.

Firstly, let me assure you that I did not write my letter from a position of ignorance of the facts. I was of course aware of the limited break down of the £7m DECC grant and £1m city council funding that had been provided to councillors, in particular members of the Audit Committee. I was also aware of the numerous freedom of information requests from members of the public, asking for further information.  It was the refusal of the council to give them a more detailed breakdown that led me to write to you. Your reply simply republishes the information already in the public domain and fails to provide the level of transparency that I would expect from the custodian of taxpayers’ money.

I would appreciate your response to my detailed questions set out below, within the next two weeks. I have two queries about the Local Government Transparency Code and the structure of Bristol 2015 Limited. I have a set of questions about the amounts budgeted and spent from the central and local government funds.

 

  • Local Government Transparency Code

 

The Department of Communities and Local Government published a revised and tightened Local Government Transparency Code in February 2015.  I was Communities Minister in the department at the time and am well aware of the Coalition Government’s intention to require more transparency about expenditure and procurement contracts right across the public sector.  It was an issue that I had campaigned for myself, specifically to open up the public sector to value for money challenge from small businesses, social enterprises and community groups.

The Code requires disclosure of expenditure by local councils of amounts above £500. The details of contracts valued at more than £5,000 should also be disclosed. The information should be published by councils on a monthly basis. It’s now a year since the Code was introduced so Bristol City Council has had plenty of time to comply. The grant of £7million from DECC has been broken down into ten headings, ranging from £2million to £138,892. You decline to publish any detailed information below these amounts. The same applies to the £1million of Bristol Council’s own resources.

Please could you advise me whether you believe the level of detail provided to councillors, campaigners, members of the public and me complies with the Code? Have you taken legal advice in order to justify your compliance or otherwise with the Code?

  • The Structure of Bristol 2015 Limited

It would seem from some of the answers to Freedom of Information requests that part of the reluctance of the council to publish detailed amounts stems from the belief that as some of the expenditure was undertaken by a limited company there is an exemption from FoI requests. Is this the basis for your refusal to be transparent? Have you take legal advice on this issue?

As I understand it, Bristol 2015 Limited was set up by the city council.  The Companies House records for company 08917477 show that on 28 February 2014 the original six subscribing members and directors included Mayor Ferguson and all gave City Hall as their correspondence address. Only one set of abbreviated accounts has been filed so far, to the year ended 28 February 2015.  The cash disclosed on the balance sheet at that point was £557,264. How much of the DECC grant of £7m was transferred to the company during that year (the council was awarded the money in April 2014) and how much has been transferred in the current year to 28 February 2016? How much has been transferred from the city council’s own £1m budget for green capital?

Please confirm whether any of the directors who have served to date (Philippa Bayley, George Robin Paget Ferguson, Carolyn Hassan, Luke Jerram, Guy Orpen, Kulveer Ranger, Andrew Garrad, Helen Bowring, Bevis Watts, Peninah Achieng-Kinserberg, Jane Stephenson, Malcolm Shepherd, Robert Barr and Elizabeth Zeidler plus Quayseco [Burgess Salmon] acting as Company Secretary) have received any emoluments or expenses from the company or the council. Please confirm whether any of the directors and members, their family members or other connected parties, their businesses or professional bodies have received any grants, commissions, awards, contracts or any other benefit financed wholly or in part from the £7million DECC grant or the £1m city council green capital budget.

Please provide details of any city council staff seconded to work for Bristol 2015 Limited and comment on whether their salaries and pension contributions continued to be made by the council or were met by the company. What has been the total payroll cost of seconded staff to date?

Finally on the company, I understand from an FoI request that the council is refusing to publish the report by Grant Thornton on the corporate governance of Bristol 2015 Limited. I was astonished to read in the council’s response that the report was being kept secret as the company only agreed to cooperate with the review if the findings were kept confidential. What concerns led to the commissioning of the review? Why has the council agreed to withhold its findings from the people of Bristol? The report apparently cost £8,700 – was this amount met from DECC money, the council’s green capital budget or other resources? Have you read the report? Has the council taken any action as a result of the report? Has the company taken any action, as far as you are aware, as a result of the report? Will you now publish its findings?

 

  • Expenditure met from the DECC grant of £7million

These questions are based on the council’s audit committee report from 27th November 2015, appendices A and B to item 14, which detailed the forecast or budgeted expenditure from the grant and the outturn to date.

1.Summits £1,679,409 forecast (with £979,153 outturn to November)

How many of these summits have been held in Bristol?

Please break down the costs between venue hire, speaker fees, hotel costs of delegates, entertaining and subsistence for delegates and travel costs of delegates split between motor car, train, air and any other mode of transport.

Specifically for the Paris COP21 climate change conference, how many delegates were funded to attend? It is a matter of record that Mayor Ferguson attended, how many people attended as part of his retinue? What were the travel, hotel and subsistence costs? Will the closing event scheduled for this coming Friday at the Colston Hall be met from this budget or another? Please state the cost of the event and any associated events.

 2. Green Tech £561,253 (£536,825)

It is stated that these plans were scaled back from the original £1.4m budget for green technology prizes.  How many competitions were eventually staged? What was the cost of the competitions and the value of the prizes? Where can I find a list of the prize winners? Who were the judges?

3. Schools £1,111,134 (£577,639)

How much has been paid direct to Bristol schools? Please list the amounts received by each school. How much has been paid to organisations other than Bristol schools? Please list each recipient with the amount received. What assurances have been received that the amounts were used to fund new activities, in addition to those already carried out by schools as part of their regular curriculum?

4. Neighbourhood arts £349,273 (£254,245)

Please list the projects that have or are to receive funding, with the amounts. Who decided which projects would receive funding? Was it Bristol 2015 Limited, councillors, council officers or some other organisation?  I assume these projects were separate to the Arts Council funding of approximately £750,000 that I believe has also been spent on green capital art projects?

5. Local funding £261,851 (£201,468)

Please list the projects that have or are to receive funding, with the amounts. Who decided which projects would receive funding? Was it Bristol 2015 Limited, councillors, council officers or some other organisation?

6. Strategic, small and neighbourhood grants £2,000,000 (£1,935,637)

Please define the three categories and state the total amount allocated to each of them. Please list the projects that have or are to receive funding, with the amounts. Who decided which projects would receive funding? Was it Bristol 2015 Limited, councillors, council officers or some other organisation?

7. Volunteers £272,228 (£166,505)

How many people have volunteered? Was the voluntary activity for funded green capital events or for organisations that might be associated with sustainability organisations in the city?  What is the split of expenditure between managing volunteers or for the expenses of volunteers? Please list any organisations that received money for organising volunteers.

8. City dressing & public awareness £347,230 (£277,692)

In plain English and in the normal language used in accounts may I assume this is advertising and marketing? Please list the companies and consultancies that received payment for advertising and marketing, together with the amounts. Please further analyse the expenditure by format, viz advertising on billboards and other public display points, advertisements in publications, advertorials in publications and any other examples of “city dressing and public awareness”.

9.Welcome events £277,784

First, I should declare that I was a guest at the dinner in MShed that marked the first day of Bristol as European Green Capital. Please state the cost of that event and the number of attendees. Please list the other welcome events and split the costs between venue hire, speaker fees, hospitality and travel. Did Bristol meet the cost of any guests from outside the city?

10. The Bristol Method £138,892 (£87,575)

This is worthy of a prize in itself as the most obscure description I have ever seen in a list of accounting categories. I have looked at the Bristol 2015 web site (see further questions below) and this is described as a knowledge transfer programme. Please could you elaborate? Has anyone been paid to develop “The Bristol Method”? Will this knowledge transfer continue beyond this week once green capital status has passed to Ljubljana?

 

  • Expenditure met from Bristol City Council’s green capital budget £1million

1. Commissioned partner Go Green £140,000

Who are this organisation? Who is the beneficial owner? What activities were funded from the grant, over and above what the organisation was already doing in the course of its business?

2. Commissioned partner Big Green Week £140,000

Who are this organisation? Who is the beneficial owner? What activities were funded from the grant, over and above what the organisation was already doing in the course of its business?

3. Happy City £25,000

Who are this organisation? Who is the beneficial owner? What activities were funded from the grant, over and above what the organisation was already doing in the course of its business?

4. Solar balloon £80,000 (£76,316)

Who are this organisation? Who is the beneficial owner? What activities were funded from the grant, over and above what the organisation was already doing in the course of its business? Where is or was the balloon? Where is it now? Is it owned by the council or was the payment a hire fee?

5. Web site and digital £245,000

To whom was the payment made? Would I be correct to assume this is for the development and maintenance of www.bristol2015.co.uk ? The site does not mention who built it, which is quite unusual.  The Terms and Conditions section states that it is owned by Bristol2015 Limited. The privacy section states that the data is held jointly by the company and the council. Will full control of the site pass to the council when the green capital year comes to an end this month? Was any part of the £245,000 for activities other than the web site I have mentioned? What specifically were the digital activities? The website is not interactive.

6. Support costs £410,000

Were these Bristol City Council in house recharges or payments to external organisations? Please analyse.

 

  • Conclusion

Given that I have derived my questions from the council’s own reports to its Audit Committee and that the amounts are very precise, I do not anticipate you having any difficulty in answering my questions.

For 17 years prior to my election as Bristol West’s MP in 2005 I was a corporate tax consultant, working with the accounts of large and complex organisations every day.  I was also a member of Bristol City Council and as Leader of the Opposition on the council sat on the main finance committees. In all that time I have not come across such an opaque set of arrangements in either the private sector or public sector as those that are the subject of this letter. It is simply not credible for you to maintain that you do not have access to the financial detail that lies behind the 16 broad, and in accounting terms somewhat odd, categories that have been used for the very limited disclosure of expenditure sourced from taxpayers’ money.

The public have every right to know how their money is being spent. I trust that you will now furnish them with at the very least the information I have requested in this letter. If you maintain your refusal to be open and transparent then I will have to ask my former colleagues at DCLG to intervene.

Yours sincerely

 

Stephen Williams

Former MP for Bristol West 2005-2015

Britain and Bristol are Stronger In the European Union

January 31, 2016

This year will see the most important vote that any of us under 60 have cast so far in our lives. We will be deciding whether Britain remains a member of the European Union or leaves it for an uncertain future in an increasingly globalised world.

Back in 1975 when the last referendum on Britain’s membership of the then European Community took place there was an overwhelming consensus among the political, business and media establishment that Britain should stay in the club it had joined only two years previously.  Then, as now, the referendum had much to do with the Prime Minister trying to settle differences in his own party. Whereas Harold Wilson had trouble with the minority hard left of the Labour Party, David Cameron now faces a situation where maybe as many as half of his MPs are tempted to argue for a vote to leave. In 1975 there was no UKIP, fewer anti-capitalist and anti-free trade campaigners, no real opposition among the newspapers and no possibility of circulating wild rumours and untruths via blogs and social media. Britain’s continued membership of the club to which it has now belonged for 43 years cannot be taken for granted.

Just as in 1975 while the political parties will run campaigns to turn out their own supporters the key to swinging the undecideds into the “Remain” camp will be cooperation between politicians of all parties, business, the unions and opinion leaders from other fields. In 2016 this umbrella will be provided by ‘Stronger In’, led by the former boss of Marks and Spencer Stuart Rose. Yesterday I went to Exeter for the launch of the Liberal Democrat ‘In’ campaign in the South West, which included a presentation from Stronger In. In my home city of Bristol several of us have come together to form Bristol Stronger In, which will be launched later this month.  I am representing the Liberal Democrats and there are representatives from the Labour Party, Green Party, Conservative Party (hedging their local bets at the moment) and there is also interest from business and the TUC. To hear more about how to help Stronger In, and get an invite to your local launch, go to http://www.strongerin.co.uk/

We will all have our own reasons for wanting to remain in the European Union but I think there are five main ones:

Prosperity

Britain’s economy is stronger as part of the world’s largest single market. Our businesses, large and small, benefit from being able to export without tax or regulation obstacles to everywhere from Lisbon to Tallinn, across all of the other 27 member states of the European Union.  The EU also bargains on our behalf with the world’s other economies. This is possibly the only area where we have more clout than the USA, the world’s second largest single market. By pooling our sovereignty we enable the EU Trade Commissioner to negotiate the best deal for British businesses and consumers. The EU has over a hundred trade deals with other economies. By remaining in the EU we will continue to benefit from the existing deals and the new ones being negotiated.

Peace

The origins of the EU were the desire of French, German and other European leaders to trade in harmony and remove the need for conflict. My father’s father served in the Eighth Army in North Africa in the Second World War. My grandparents’ generation would all have known someone who served in some capacity. Their parents would have experienced the First World War.  The fact that neither my father nor me has had to seriously contemplate conflict in Western Europe is the major achievement of the European Union. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union the EU has extended east and the Poles, Romanians and Estonians now enjoy peace and greater prosperity. Peace enables prosperity to grow and people that are prosperous will not risk their livelihood with war. The fact that we live in the most peaceful and prosperous part of the world should not be taken for granted.

Opportunity

Britain’s place in the world’s largest single market allows us to work and travel with minimal barriers. It’s a two way advantage, enabling Britons to carve out a career in Paris or Rome, with French and Italian workers bringing their skills to strengthen the British economy. That contribution is right across all sectors from retail to the most advanced manufacturing.  Britain and Bristol are world leaders in aerospace. But that competitive advantage depends on French, Spanish and German engineers as well as the Brits who work for the likes of Airbus and Rolls Royce. British universities are also the most numerous among the global top 100, after US institutions. Britain’s place as an innovation powerhouse, inventing the prosperity of the future, depends on freedom of movement for Europe’s brightest and best students and academics to study and research in Oxford, London and Bristol. The freedom to work and learn also applies to travel.  We all benefit from visa free travel, with low cost flights to Europe’s leisure and culture attractions, with reduced mobile roaming charges the most recent benefit of EU membership.

Security

In an unsecure world, troubled by crime and terrorism, working with our closest neighbours increases our safety. Criminals do not respect national borders but the common European arrest warrant makes sure they have nowhere to hide. Conflict beyond Europe’s frontiers has potential to impact on all of us. Dealing in a humane and fair way with refugees will require cooperation across Europe, much easier to achieve from within the EU. Britain’s membership of both the EU and NATO makes us more secure. Those who would have us leave the EU often falsely attribute our security solely to NATO but overlook the fact that it requires a greater surrender of national sovereignty than anything contemplated by the EU.

Sustainability

Creating a cleaner, low carbon future will depend on Europe working together, not pulling apart. Cooperation on energy is more likely to lead to reduced dependence on polluting fossil fuels. Everything from common standards in food quality and animal welfare depends on agreement within the single market. Europe’s high standards are a model for the rest of the world and can be protected and advanced in trade agreements.

Whatever your preferred reason for remaining in the European Union, one thing is certain. The future of humanity depends on nation states working together to solve common problems and make us safer and richer. Global health problems are best tackled by the World Health Organisation. Our defence and security is more certain through both NATO and the UN. The European Union is arguably the world’s most successful international club.  Most of the remaining European nations not in the EU are in the queue to join.  A British exit at this point in our history would be seen as an act of madness by our fellow Europeans. Britain’s future lies inside our common European home. We are Stronger In.

Where has the Bristol Green Capital Money Gone?

January 29, 2016

Why on earth is Bristol City Council being so stubborn about revealing how it’s spent over £8mllion on Bristol’s year as European Green Capital? Questions from elected councillors and other campaigners have all been rebuffed.  The council is trying to hide behind Bristol 2015 Limited, the company it set up to manage the year’s events.  They claim it is exempt from freedom of information requests.  This is despite the fact that virtually all of the budget it has to spend comes from the taxpayer – £7million from central government and £1million from Bristol council tax payers.

The Green Capital year ends next week.  There will be a “closing ceremony”, with no doubt lots of chatter over canapes and warm white wine. Maybe the cost of this event will come out of the £277,784 forecast to be spent on “welcome events” or perhaps it will be met from the enormous sum of £1,679,409 to be spent on “summits”. Who knows?! And that’s the problem. The council is refusing to disclose any detail below the ten very broad headings it publishes about the £7m national government money and the six it has for the £1m of local money.

This is simply unacceptable. It may also be a breach of the law. I was Communities Minister in the Coalition Government. In February 2015 the Department of Communities and Local Government published the Local Government Transparency Code https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/local-government-transparency-code-2015

The Code requires full transparency of spending by local councils in England, down to quite a low level.  Expenditure of over £500 must be disclosed as must the details of contracts worth more than £5,000. It seems to me that Bristol City Council is either in full breach of the code or, being charitable, is not acting within the spirit of the law.

Several freedom of information campaigners have tried to prise more detail out of the council. All have been rebuffed or fobbed off.  Take a look at https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/search/Bristol%20Green%20Capital/all

I share their frustration for a very good reason.  In 2013 the council approached me to ask both for my ideas on what should be done during green capital year and for help in securing government finance. As to ideas, I said I wanted to see tangible outcomes that would make Bristol a more sustainable, cleaner city. Perhaps a project with the city’s primary schools to reduce the number of children who are driven to school. Or insulating more homes of people in fuel poverty. For the money, I went away and spoke to my Lib Dem colleagues in government, Danny Alexander the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. After many discussions Danny authorised a £7million grant, to be overseen by DECC.  Danny joined me in Bristol on 25th April 2014 to announce the good news.  Now I’m concerned that much of that money may have been frittered away.

My exasperation at Bristol City Council’s refusal to be open about how it has spent a large amount of taxpayers’ money led me to write an open letter to Nicola Yates, the Chief Executive of the council. She has replied, also with an open letter.  Both are reproduced below. In Ms Yates’s letter you will find links to the council’s audit committee reports, with the 16 expenditure categories below which they refuse to disclose any more detail.  For those short of time and patience just look at Appendix B of the report of 27 November 2015.  https://www2.bristol.gov.uk/committee/2015/sc/sc015/1127_14.pdf

Ask yourself, what could there be embarrassing to hide beneath the £1,679,409 on summits.  How many people went to the Paris conference? What were their hotel and subsistence costs? Does anyone have the faintest idea about what the heck is the “Bristol Method”, costing £138,892?? I wonder who got the lucrative £245,000 to develop a web site? Nice money if you can get it.

I will carry on insisting to the council that they publish the full detail, in compliance with the Code, well before the Mayoral and council elections in May. I’m sure Mayor George Ferguson will be mightily embarrassed by the obduracy of his highly paid officers.  I’ve known George for 30 years. I was on his campaign committee when he stood for Liberal MP for Bristol West in the 1987 general election.  Freedom of Information was one of the SDP/Liberal Alliance’s main campaigns.  I chaired the big election campaign rally at the Anson Rooms.  The guest speakers were Shirley Williams and Des Wilson.  Who was Des?, you ask! Well he was best known for being chair of the Campaign for Freedom of Information. Oh the irony! Over to you, George and Nicola.

 

MY LETTER TO THE COUNCIL

STEPHEN WILLIAMS

Former Member of Parliament for Bristol West

By email:swilliams.libdems@gmail.com

 

 

27th January 2016

 

An Open Letter to the Chief Executive and Chief Internal Auditor at Bristol City Council

 

Dear Nicola Yates and Melanie Henchy-McCarthy

 

The Government grant of £7million given to Bristol City Council to support European Green Capital 2015

 

I am writing to you in order to request full transparency about the spending of the £7million government grant that was given to Bristol in order to make our designation as European Green Capital 2015 a success.  In late 2013 I was approached by Kris Donaldson, who was representing the council, asking for my help in securing government support for Bristol as the council alone could not afford a viable programme. I was pleased to help as one of the city’s MPs, not as a government minister.

 

In April 2014 Bristol was awarded £7million of public funding after I had personally lobbied the Treasury and the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) for the money. Since that time it has not been readily apparent how the council has used the funds.  Now in January 2016 it has come to my attention, through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, that Bristol City Council did not transfer the £7m to Bristol 2015 Ltd.  I have been informed by councillors that they were told the company was set up by the mayor to help administer the Green Capital events of the last year. The latest reply from the City Council to the FOI states:

 

“There is no agreement on the transfer of £7 million between DECC and Bristol City Council to transfer money to Bristol 2015 Ltd. and no transfer has taken place.”

 

Furthermore, the Memorandum of Understanding (a document outlining the agreements and obligations between DECC and Bristol City Council) also states the Council may be obliged to disclose information relating to the funding of the Green Capital under the FOI Act and that it must use “reasonable endeavours” to assist and cooperate with such requests. However as recently as the Full Council on 19th January 2016, the Mayor has continued to refuse to release any detailed information about the financial accounts of the Green Capital to any members of the public. This is bemusing to say the least; at every turn the concerns raised by Lib Dem councillors and campaigners regarding the finances of the Green Capital have been brushed aside on the supposition that Bristol 2015 Ltd, which they were told on multiple occasions had been given all of the £7m, was not subject to the Freedom of Information Act or indeed to any public accountability. Given the revelation in the FOI that the £7m never left the Council’s coffers, further attempts to hide behind the faceless and unaccountable private company, Bristol 2015 Ltd, is no longer a credible option for the council.

 

I am proud of the role my local Liberal Democrat colleagues played in securing the Green Capital status for Bristol.  It was our administration that presented the bid that eventually lost out to Copenhagen, the clear favourite. That bid and the subsequent successful one in 2013 would of course have been made credible by many of the policies put in place by the council under the leadership of Barbara Janke and her team of executive members.

Now that the Green Capital year is over there will no doubt be a review of the success or otherwise of the period and whether there is a meaningful legacy for Bristolians. Key to any appraisal of the year will be full transparency of the amounts of public money spent during the year. The public (and the media) now expect all parts of the public sector to be fully transparent.  It is not credible to refuse to publish the line by line accounts detailing the use to which the £7 million received from the government plus the £1.3m of the council’s money was put. A continuance of the stubborn refusal to be open about the use of such a large amount of public money will no doubt lead to speculation about what there is to hide. There are plenty of people who will claim that much of the money was frittered away on talking shops, fatuous “art” projects and mutual back slapping by people already committed to sustainable living.  The only way to scotch such conjecture is to fully account for the full £8.3million of taxpayers’ money.

 

I look forward to receiving your prompt assurance that the full detailed accounts will be published in good time for public scrutiny well before the elections in May.

 

 

 

Stephen Williams

Former MP for Bristol West 2005-2015

 

THE REPLY FROM THE COUNCIL

 

28th January 2016

An open letter to Stephen Williams, Former Member of Parliament for Bristol West

Dear Stephen Williams,

Response to open letter: the Government grant of £7m given to Bristol City Council to support European Green Capital

I believe that you have been somewhat misinformed regarding transparency about the spending of the £7m government grant that was given to Bristol in order to make our designation as European Green Capital a success. The Green Capital ‘commonly asked questions’ section of Bristol City Council’s website https://www.bristol.gov.uk/bristol-green-capital/green-capital-commonly-asked-questions covers a number of the points you raise, so I can therefore respond promptly, as I have all of the key facts to hand. The resource was created to help ensure transparency and for ease of reference by interested parties during Bristol’s Green Capital year. Since the money was awarded, when Bristol received the £7m of public funding, it has consistently been reported to the City Council’s audit committee to ensure proper scrutiny of the spending of public funds. So far it has been presented four times: 1. 23rd September 2014 https://www2.bristol.gov.uk/committee/2014/sc/agenda/0923_1800_sc015.html 2. 7 th November 2014 https://www2.bristol.gov.uk/committee/2014/sc/agenda/1107_0930_sc015.html 3. 24thApril 2015 https://www2.bristol.gov.uk/committee/2015/sc/agenda/0424_0930_sc015.html 4. 27th November 2015 https://www2.bristol.gov.uk/committee/2015/sc/agenda/1127_0930_sc015.html In addition, Bristol City Council reports to the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) on a monthly basis and Bristol City Council’s various Scrutiny Committees have formally reviewed the approach to European Green Capital on five occasions: 1. February 2014: Planning and Transport Scrutiny Commission (subsequently replaced by the Place Scrutiny Commission), Presentation and discussion on overall approach to delivery of the award, including the institutional arrangements. 2. July 2014: Place Scrutiny, Report on institutional arrangements and governance, funding and the outline programme. 3. October 2014: Overview and Scrutiny Management Board, Report in response to questions from the Chair of the Overview and Scrutiny Management Board. 4. November 2014: Audit Committee, Report on governance arrangements in place in relation to Bristol 2015 Ltd and a financial update on grant funding and external sponsorship. 5. November 2014: Overview and Scrutiny Management Board, Report on the process for the grant programme including application and decision processes. It is correct that Bristol City Council did not transfer the £7m from DECC to Bristol 2015 Ltd. Funds have been made available to Bristol 2015 Ltd via a contract with Bristol City Council to enable delivery of specific aspects of their programme. This funding was released gradually throughout the year as work was undertaken. This was done to protect public money and ensure due diligence. It is a very common way of ensuring that activities funded by the public purse are properly delivered and accounted for. The Memorandum of Understanding (a document outlining the agreements and obligations between DECC and Bristol City Council) does indeed state that Bristol City Council may be obliged to disclose information relating to the funding of Green Capital under the FOI Act and that it must use “reasonable endeavours” to assist and co-operate with such requests. I believe that via the scrutiny processes outlined above, information relating to all public funding has been duly disclosed. You will be aware that the FOI Act relates to information held by public bodies and every FOI request relating to public funding has been responded to. Now that the Green Capital year is over we are progressing a review of the period. A detailed review of Green Capital year is being developed which will inform members of the Overview and Scrutiny Management Board before they meet on 2 March to evaluate 2015 activities. In addition, there will also be further opportunity to look at how the year has been funded when the Council’s Audit Committee meets on 11 March. This will bring the total number of times that the Green Capital project has been through the scrutiny process to 11. Regarding your comments about arts projects, I would direct you to Arts Council England, who awarded Bristol Cultural Development Partnership (BCDP) £744,564 through its Exceptional awards programme to deliver an extraordinary arts programme, as part of Bristol’s year as European Green Capital. These projects were not funded by DECC or Bristol City Council. We are grateful to Arts Council England for recognising the opportunity presented by the year and choosing to invest in it. Your last paragraph refers to full detailed accounts being published in good time for public scrutiny well before the elections in May. As I mentioned above, there will be further opportunity for scrutiny when the Council’s Audit Committee meets on 11 March. To deal with your point about a line by line budget, we are not able produce that level of detail because we do not hold it. To clarify, we do not hold this level of detail for any of the Council’s suppliers of goods and services. However if the premise of your concern is a misuse of public funds and the information I have outlined already is not sufficient, I would also add that Bristol 2015 Ltd limited has been the subject of two internal audits from Bristol City Council to ensure appropriate financial processes are in place and followed. In addition, the company has been subject to its own external audit to ensure financial probity. Bristol City Council allocated £1m to the Bristol 2015 programme. This was agreed at a Cabinet meeting on 27 June 2013. An extra £200,000 has been specifically allocated to the One Tree Per Child project, which is now being managed directly by the City Council. So the correct total in terms of Bristol City Council’s contribution to Bristol 2015 Ltd is £1m not £1.3m, bringing the total amount of public funding the Council is responsible for to £8m, of which 25% (£2m) was distributed through grants across the city with the reminder available to Bristol 2015 Ltd to deliver against its contractual obligations. I’m sorry that you did not have the opportunity to avail yourself of this information before you wrote your letter, but I am pleased that we share pride in the role that we and colleagues across the city have played in securing Green Capital status for the city.

Nicola Yates OBE

City Director Bristol City Council

How to deal with home grown terrorism

November 14, 2015

 

It’s an uncomfortable but inescapable fact that there are people in Europe’s towns and cities who reject the lifestyles and values of their fellow Parisians, Londoners or Bristolians so absolutely that they want to maim and kill in order to impose their own mind-set of barbarism. This is the 21st century’s fundamental clash of civilisations and everyone who values Europe’s hard won values of freedom for the individual – liberty, equality and fraternity if you like, needs to wake up to the danger.

I want to make some observations about how we can build a cohesive and therefore peaceful society in a Britain that is largely white European and mainly secular but has among the population people who have family and cultural ties to many other parts of the world and cling tenaciously to religious beliefs. From my political perspective, it’s about how we must be more muscular in our liberalism, at home and abroad.

There are points to be made about how everyone can be a fully integrated Briton. I also want to make some subsidiary points about how liberals respond to the threat to our security at home and how our foreign policy influences opinions in Britain.

For over 20 years I was a politician in Bristol, witnessing how the city changed and trying to influence that change for the greater good. Over time my concerns became as much about demographic change as developments in the economy or infrastructure.  In my lifetime the human face of urban Britain has changed utterly. Bristol, Leicester, Cardiff and of course London are now multi-cultural cities.  London is truly the world’s global city, more so than New York or Paris. This is something to be celebrated, not feared.

In our increasingly globalised lives a capacity for co-existence, mutual respect and good neighbourliness at community, European and world level is the way forward.  Isolation leads to suspicion and loathing of the misunderstood other. Immigration has been good for Britain. Skilled migrants strengthen our economy and help us cope with an aging society. Admitting genuine refugees is the humane thing to do and in my experience refugees make a positive contribution and are eager to do so.

That’s a familiar liberal defence of immigration. But all small L liberals in mainstream politics need to recognise that there are some people who want to live in Britain (or the European Union) and hold a British passport but do not want to be wholly British. They do not accept our values and laws built up over centuries. They reject the concept of equal rights and opportunities for all, irrespective of gender, race or sexuality. They do not believe in freedom of speech, without fear or favour of political or religious belief.

Britain has been scarred by political dispute and religious bigotry but with the partial exception of Northern Ireland these conflicts are now the stuff of history. But some misguided Britons in 2015 are tempted to follow a backward view of Islam (such as Salafism or Wahhabism) stemming from the Arabian peninsular or Afghanistan and its neighbours. These are unreformed views rooted in medieval culture that 99.9% of Britons, including Muslims, would find barbaric.

Why would anyone in Bristol or Bradford or Paris want to fight for those who stone women for adultery, shoot girls who go to school or throw men from rooftops for being gay? But many Britons have departed for Syria, Iraq and other places to stand alongside the perpetrators of such barbarism. The uncomfortable fact is that not only will these jihadists return to Britain and spread those views but there are home grown terrorists who hold those views already.

So what can be done? As well as being a Bristol politician I also spent just under two years as the Communities Minister in the Coalition Government.  Most of my work in the public eye was about neighbourhood plans or housing regulation. But much or my time behind the scenes was taken up with oversight of various programmes of community cohesion. I travelled across England meeting groups of all religions and none who were trying to bring people together in Tower Hamlets, Blackburn, Wakefield and many other places.  No parent, sibling or neighbour wants to see a young man from their community putting on a mask and murdering people in Syria or blowing up a bus in London.  Nor do they want a young girl tempted to be a jihadi bride.  But it’s happening right under their noses.

We need a concerted and massive effort to make our towns and cities more cohesive places. It was I think Lord Leverhulme who originally said that “fifty percent of my advertising is wasted and if I knew which half it was I would be an even richer man.” It’s the same with community cohesion.  There is no magic bullet. National government, local councils, charities and faith groups all have a role and all will run programmes that either fail or at least can’t be proven to have worked. But we must try everything.

There are some areas that are obvious and need more investment. First, everyone should learn our common language, English. When I made that point a few months ago I was jumped on by fellow liberals on Twitter and Facebook saying I was, er, illiberal.  But there is nothing liberal about being shut out of job opportunities or being unable to talk to your neighbours in the street because of a lack of confidence in conversational English.  A proven ability to speak and write English should be expected before citizenship (not the same as asylum) is granted.  A common language brings people together. If you can’t speak English your source of news and whole world outlook is not going to be framed by the BBC or a British newspaper or website. On the flip side, speaking English may help mothers and sisters understand and intercept messages of radicalisation being absorbed by their sons and brothers.  Radicalisation is more likely to be via English, not Arabic.

Terrorism is largely facilitated by older men and carried out by young men. Enhancing the role and status of women will help combat this patriarchal status. This is a challenge right across public life and in businesses. But it is especially urgent to see more ethnic minority women as councillors, school governors, magistrates and business managers and directors.

Bringing adults together who might otherwise not meet is also essential. One of the programmes I helped re-launch was the Near Neighbours scheme, led by the Church of England urban fund. They bring people together for practical tasks, such as soup kitchens, tapestry making, music making – all of which I witnessed. It’s not rocket science to recognise that all humans have common skills and pastimes and they can be a good way to bring people together.  Similarly, we need more adults (especially males in this context) to lead cross community youth groups.  One of my Thick of It moments as a minister was to fall over while trying to give a boy a piggy back at a new scout group I was opening in Hackney.  Fortunately, he laughed rather than cried.

We can also do more to build a shared identity of what it means to British or a Muslim living in Europe.  So it is right that we highlight the Sikh and Muslim contribution to the British armed forces in both world wars. I am also particularly proud of the Remembering Srebrenica programme. Taking groups of young community leaders (from all faiths and none) to Bosnia gives recognition to the 1995 genocide and leads to discussion about how different Europeans perpetrated and eventually intervened to stop the atrocities. Again, it also brings people together who might otherwise not have met and tasks them with doing something positive for community cohesion back in their home town.

There are many other projects up and down the country.  In an era of public sector spending cuts the good news is that many of these interventions can be cheap, even at a large scale. If some of them work, then the value for money is priceless.  The Department of Communities and Local Government will see another round of budget cuts in this Parliament.  It would be an act of madness if community cohesion programmes are cut by DCLG and if the Home Office cuts its complementary work with individuals at risk of radicalisation.

The second challenge for liberals and libertarians is the internal security response to the internal threat to our lives and freedoms.  Liberals must always be suspicious of giving too much power to the state and its agencies. But we must be careful not to have a knee jerk rejection of every Home Office proposal to keep up with the communications capabilities of the sponsors of terrorism. The most common word being used about events in Paris this weekend is “shocking”.  It’s certainly a shock to our sensibilities but the fact of a successful act of terrorism is not a shock. It’s rather a surprise that there aren’t more.  The fact that there has been no large scale act of terror in London since July 2005 is not down to chance.  Special Branch, MI5, MI6 and GCHQ will have foiled many acts of terror.  But one day the terrorists will be lucky again.  It should not be down to the fact that the security agencies did not have the capability to detect and prevent. The security services are not interested in the internet activities of the vast majority of British citizens.  The right to privacy is a fundamental one in a liberal society.  But the bigger threat to my privacy comes from the owners of software programmes, social media sites and other money making corporations, not the good people in Thames House or Cheltenham GCHQ.

Finally, there is British foreign policy.  Globalisation brings trade benefits. It also exposes us to ideas, good and bad. Britain’s heterogeneous population means that people feel a personal connection with events in many parts of the world. Anger about events in Damascus, Hebron, Riyadh or Kashmir is felt in Britain.  I am a liberal interventionist. I believe Britain can be a force for good in the world.  There is a role for our aid programme, now the biggest of the larger developed economies.  There is a role for our network of direct and soft diplomacy. Britain inside the EU and working with the US must do more to bring about a long term solution in Palestine, the excuse for much poisonous activity at home.  But there must also be a role for armed intervention as well.  We must not allow Blair’s folly in Iraq to paralyse our response to IS or other groups in Iraq or Syria now. We must reason with the people who are open to reason but IS are something different and they must be smashed.

In my lifetime the world has definitely become a safer place.  There are now more democracies than dictatorships.  Europe is united and prosperous.  Rights for women and protections for minorities have improved in most places. Absolute poverty has reduced as China, India and other countries develop. But a new threat has emerged, based on a warped view of religion.  Urgent action at home and abroad is needed to protect our hard won rights to life, liberty and happiness.

RIP Charles Kennedy

June 2, 2015

Politics has lost one of its most gifted and genuine communicators. Charles Kennedy, when on form, was a brilliant extempore speaker. He needed no notes or autocue to marshall his thoughts and wow an audience. In the TV studio he was fluent and unspun.  His cheery demeanour won him friends across the political spectrum and endeared him to the public. In an age of grey, robotic, tribal politicians, he will be sorely missed.

I first heard of Charles when poring over the 1983 general election results in the Saturday papers. I was an SDP supporter but, in the middle of my O Levels, I was too young to vote and to busy to get involved. His win in Ross, Cromarty and Skye was the only SDP gain of the election. I joined later that year and during the 1984 Cynon Valley by election became an activist. I first heard Charles speak at an SDP conference later that year and heard him many times thereafter.

I didn’t meet him in person until 1999, when I was newly selected as the Prospective MP for Bristol West and Charles was running for party leader. I supported him and over the next six years he was a great support to me in my unsuccessful run in 2001 and my victory in Bristol West in 2005.

When I arrived in Westminster I was surprised by two things about Charles. First, how remote he seemed from longer serving colleagues and his personal shyness with all of us. Over time I realised this was related to the second surprise, his drink problem. At first I refused to believe colleagues who told me Charles was an alcoholic. But eventually I had to accept it was true.

I never got to see him for a private discussion before he resigned. He was slowly working his way through the 2005 newbies in alphabetical order and never got to me, Mark Williams and Jenny Willott. But he had spoken to me on the phone in July 2005, asking me to serve as Vince Cable’s deputy Treasury spokesman. I said I’d had enough of tax and economics after 17 years in business consulting and wanted to do something else in Parliament.  I asked if instead I could be our public health spokesman, as I wanted to make the case for a comprehensive ban on smoking in public places.  He agreed to both my appointment and the policy stance, which given his other well known vice, was generous to me and an example of his sound liberal judgement.

So when it came to the public revelation of his alcoholism during my first Christmas recess it was with great sadness that I agreed with colleagues that he could no longer carry on as our leader.

But today I want to remember the Charles Kennedy who was kind and funny, eloquent and inspiring. He will be remembered as the most successful liberal leader since Lloyd George, at least in general election tallies of seats. In broader political history he deserves to be acknowledged as the only mainstream party leader who was right on Iraq. He was right from the outset, when it was not the populist stance it became months later.

I also recall a warning from him to the parliamentary party, when discussing the 2005 general election results. He didn’t think we would hold on to protest votes and needed to craft a fresh liberal appeal to voters based on progressive polices. But he warned that any attempt to position the Liberal Democrats to the left of Labour was “an electoral cul de sac.”

Those protest voters have indeed deserted us and the party would do well to heed Charles Kennedy’s warning about electoral positioning. In the next couple of years the Liberal Democrats must be the leading ppositive voice for Britain’s continued membership of the European Union. Charles Kennedy was a passionate Europhile and his clear distinctive voice will surely be a much lamented omission from our national debate.

 

 

What have the Lib Dems in government done for the elderly?

November 13, 2014

Throughout our time in government Liberal Democrats have been committed to supporting our elderly population. Lib Dem policies that have been delivered since 2010 provide stability for pensioners, as well as those coming up to retirement .They will be able to better plan their futures knowing that they will no longer be faced with the insecurity of unpredictable state pension rises.

Thanks to our flagship “triple lock” guarantee policy, the basic state pension has risen in each year of this parliament. The rise has been by the higher factor out of price inflation, wage inflation or 2.5%. This has meant that the state pension will be £440 higher per year in 2014-15 than if it had increased in line with earnings from the start of this Parliament, with the actual cash increase worth £800 a year more in total.

The triple lock was one of our key demands in Coalition negotiations. I am delighted that my fellow Greater Bristol MP and Lib Dem Pensions Minister Steve Webb has ensured that the Government is giving today’s pensioners a fair deal.

The Coalition has also given people greater choice about how to access their  workplace  pension savings that have been paid into defined contribution pension pots. From April 2015, individuals aged 55 or over will be able to withdraw these savings as they wish, subject to their marginal rate of income tax and their scheme rules. Instead of being forced to buy an annuity, they will be able to invest their savings in another financial product, property, or even in short term assets and spending, if that is the judgement they make about their savings. We have given pensioners more control over how they use their own money accumulated while in work.  This is a classic liberal measure, trusting people to make the right decisions.

Finally, a new Single-tier State Pension will combine the Basic State Pension and the State Second Pension. This pension will be set above the basic level of means-tested support (£145.40 per week for a single pensioner in 2013/14). The new Single-tier pension will also support the introduction of auto-enrolment into workplace pensions which we introduced in October 2012. Auto-enrolment helps people save for their retirement by matching contributions (4% employee contribution, matched by 3% from the employer and 1% from government).

The Single-tier pension is an important development, as when we entered government 11 million people were simply not saving enough for their private pensions. The existing system relied heavily on means-testing, which discouraged saving because people who saved could end up with just a few pounds a week more than someone who saved nothing. Our reforms will reduce means-testing and promote private pension saving.

Alongside these changes, we are taking measures to ensure that by April 2015 everyone approaching retirement receives free and impartial face-to-face guidance on their available choices. Pensions are not always straight forward and we want to ensure that people are making informed decisions about their future.

Looking forwards, Liberal Democrats announced earlier this year that pensioners would be guaranteed to earn at least an extra £790 per year by the end of the next parliament under our manifesto plans. These changes mean the state pension will be worth at least £131-a-week by 2020, up from just £97.65 four years ago. In total, pensioners who receive the full state pension would get at least £6,800 in 2020: the plans are expected to benefit 55, 872 pensioners in Bristol alone.

While in government the Liberal Democrats have boosted pensioner incomes – a stark contrast to the increases linked to prices that led Gordon Brown to award a 75 pence increase in Labour’s first term! We’ve also protected the winter fuel payments, free TV licences and the bus pass.  I am particularly proud of the free bus pass, I’ve seen what a big difference it makes to my own mother, enabling her to go out every day.  The bus pass is good for the environment and also for the mental and physical well being of older people.

I have always believed that how a society treats its elderly people is a measure of its decency. I and my Lib Dem colleagues in government, have undoubtedly held true to this principle and put policy into practice for the benefit of millions of elderly people.

Remembering Bristol’s First World War VCs

August 26, 2014

This morning I unveiled a memorial stone to Captain Douglas Reynolds, on the hundredth anniversary of the action that led to him being awarded Britain’s highest military honour, the Victoria Cross.

In this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War there will be many events around Britain and the rest of Europe. There will be further anniversaries to mark down to 11 Novemeber 2018, a hundred years after the Armistice on the western front that now sets the date for our annual Remembrance Sunday event for all conflicts.

The government is supporting a wide ranging programme of events over the next four years. These include battlefield tours for schools, where children will also be learning to play the “Last Post”. The Communities Department is providing memorial paving stones to be laid in the communities of origin of the recipients of the Victoria Cross.

There were 628 Victoria Crosses awarded to 627 individuals, as Noel Chavasse was the only man to be awarded twice. Over the next four years memorial stones will be laid across the British Isles, 361 in England, 16 in Wales, 70 in Scotland and 35 in Ireland, which at that time was all within the United Kingdom.  The remaining 145 memorials will all be laid at the National Memorial Arboretum on 9 March 2015, Commonwealth Day.

This Commonwealth group reminds us of the fact that the war was the first truly global conflict. It was a clash of European empires, drawing in colonial soldiers from around the world. I have visited the memorials in Ypres in Flanders, where the name Singh is more common than Smith or Williams. There was also combat at sea and on land around the world.

Some people may ask why are we commemorating a war that is now outside the life memory of everyone. I think it is right that we do so.  The First World War touched the lives of every community and family in a way not seen before.  The wars of the nineteenth century and before were fought in the main by regular soldiers and sailors. The war from 1914 – 18 was a total war, particularly after conscription was introduced in 1916. As so many men were in uniform, the role of women was also changed profoundly, working in the fields and munitions factories. After the end of the war, the British social order was never the same, with the ‘ruling class’ weakened by taxes, the end of deference and the universal franchise.

I hope the paving stones and various events will rekindle an interest in the war in every community.  There are war memorials in every town and many workplaces and schools, listing the names that could be brought to life by research.  I hope to discover more about my great-grandfather Stephen Davies, who served and survived physically but died in a mental hospital years later.

Today’s event in Castle Park, Bristol, was to commemorate the sixth winner of the VC, the first from Bristol.  Captain Reynolds was awarded his VC for an action on 26 August 1914, just three weeks after the war started. He led his men to recapture a gun at Le Cateau, Belgium Mons. He survived this episode but was killed by gas poisoning in February 1916 and is buried at Etaples. His VC is on display at the Royal Artillery Museum in Woolwich.

The next Bristol memorial stone will be laid on 20th November, the centenary of the VC being awarded to Thomas Rendle.  The other six Bristol VCs are Frederick Room (1917), Hardy Falconer Parsons (1917), Daniel Burges (1918), Harry Blansard Wood (1918), Manley Angell James (1918) and Claude Congreve Dobson (1919).

Bristol has one of the very best commemorative programmes in the country over the next four years. See http://www.bristol2014.com for more details.

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,657 other followers