Eric Pickles: No privatisation of the fire service

Eric Pickles: Amazing no to fire privatisation

Eric Pickles: Amazing no to fire privatisation

Eric Pickles, the communities secretary,thisweek made an extraordinary statement for a Tory Cabinet Minister. He categorically ruled out the privatisation of the fire service in England. This has not been reported in any national newspaper or TV network.

Even more extraordinarily he made this statement in a very public place in front of  some 80 journalists from the Westminster elite body of lobby hacks as guest speaker  at a Parliamentary Press Gallery lunch. And only one, the questioner, Rob Merrick, a freelance parliamentary correspondent who writes for the Northern Echo and other regionals, bothered to report it.

Evidently such a statement is not regarded as news by journalists.

Yet it is significant. Mr Merrick had spotted that the government was using some obscure measure to  amend an act passed by the Blair government in 2004 to allow the core of the fire service – the  full-time firefighters – to be privatised.

The reason they were doing it was that Cleveland fire authority wanted to become a mutual – a half way house to privatisation – but had found it was illegal. The Tories ever keen to end the state look like ready to oblige.

First Mr Pickles denied that the government was going to privatise the fire service only encourage mutuals. But Mr Merrick came back and said the same change in the law could permit privatisation as well as mutuals. The in an extraordinary statement Mr Pickles said: ” If this is the case we won’t go ahead with the change. I repeat there will no privatisation of the fire service.” So he seemed to suggest that even Cleveland’s mutual plan could be dead in the water.

To me this was extraordinary . First one of the big privatisers in government had actually ruled out full-scale privatisation – not a normal statement from the Tory right.

Second the press -even on the old man bites dog scenario – thought this didn’t  merit any attention.

I know that no privatisation does not equate to no cuts – see what is happening in London and elsewhere now- and it does not stop some of the services being run by private companies. But it seemed that a very senior Tory had decided that they could not turn the whole system over to the private sector. Perhaps the Assetco scandal in London has made its mark. Perhaps they have decided that it is not worth a full-scale dispute between them and the Fire Brigades Union, led by Matt Wrack. But whatever a Rubicon was crossed and nobody reported it. But now he can held to account.

Why Eric Pickles will allow councils to fiddle your cash – MPs’ damning verdict

Eric Pickles:will he make it easier for councils to fiddle your cash?

Eric Pickles:will he make it easier for councils to fiddle your cash?

Do you believe your council spends your money wisely? Are you sure none of your council tax is wasted through incompetence or fraud? Do you trust all your local politicians to be honest? Probably the answer to all three is no!

Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, has a flagship policy of scrapping the body that  tries to protect you from all of this – the Audit Commission. His passionate belief is that this body of highly skilled auditors and officials  is a load of bureaucratic nonsense – and has produced figures to claim that the public will save  over £1bn in a decade by scrapping it.

Now an all party committee of MPs led by the indefatigable Margaret Hodge, scourge of  tax avoiding Amazon and Starbucks and chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, has come to some damning conclusions on what the government is about to do. There is a full report by me on the Exaro News website (

Basically Pickles wants to leave it to local councils, health trusts and the new NHS commissioning bodies to police themselves by appointing their own auditors,taking away a whistleblower hot line to the Audit Commission, and allowing big accountancy firms  free rein to up their charges by picking off individual councils. It also allows  even more cosy relationships to be built between the auditor and the local council and leaves whistleblowers nowhere to go.

Given the present background of mass privatisation of services this plain daft. The most extreme example is Tory controlled Barnet’s plan to hand almost everything over to the private sector – see the Broken Barnet website for detailed coverage ( Are locally appointed auditors going to be up to doing a tough job – already Grant Thornton missed the MetPro private securityscandal in the borough. How will they keep up with all the services being privatised?

Some amazing facts are comments in  the report. The government claim it will save £137m a year. The MPs say the figure is more likely to be £2.4m. They warn of a fragmented and more complex audit regime.

And on the appointment of local auditors they say: “The proposals for self-appointment of auditors risk compromising the independence of audit. The Government must intervene to ensure that existing governance structures within local bodies are not duplicated; existing contracts are managed proficiently; economies of scale in audit fees are not lost; quality of audit does not diminish; value for money can be measured comprehensively and consistently; fees, especially for smaller bodies, do not increase as a result of increased tendering costs and potential limitations to the market in audit and; processes for auditor removal, whistleblowing and public interest reporting are rigorous enough so that the regime is sufficiently robust in difficult circumstances.”

The link to the full report is:

Pretty damning stuff. And they call on the auditor general, Amyas Morse, to  offer to take calls from whistleblowers as well as local auditors who could have a vested interest in not upsetting the council.

Otherwise they warn that whistleblowers will contact the media, and in Barnet’s case,it will be  the local bloggers. Too right if Pickles gets his way on this dodgy piece of legislation, your money is at stake.

Council Fraud up £50m Eric Pickles- so let’s relax auditing nearly 100 authorities

Eric Pickles: Slashing audit checks as council fraud booms

Detected fraud in local councils has jumped £50m in one year – with the biggest scams involving cheating on council tax benefits, unlawfully subletting council homes and false benefit claims.

 You would think Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, and Grant Shapps. the local government minister, would only be too delighted that someone is collecting this, advising councils how to tackle the problem, and saving the taxpayer up to £185m.

But soon you won’t know because the Audit Commission, the body that collects  all this information,  is to be abolished. And to save more money the government is raising the ceiling on councils that needed to be fully audited from £1m to £6.5m next year.

 Perhaps you might think these councils – mainly town and city councils, museums and drainage boards, are paragons of virtue and nobody working so close to the parish pump would dream of defrauding them.

But read the Audit Commission report,Protecting the Public Purse 2011, (summary and download here ) and you will find that one parish clerk managed to defraud four councils  out of £63,000 and get an 18 month prison sentence. As the report reveals: “The clerk forged signatures, altered cheques, and made unauthorised payments to herself and her family. ”

The chair of one of the parish councils said, “We have had to take out a £30,000 loan as a result of her leaving us practically bankrupt.”

In another reported case a parish council clerk set up an internet banking account for the council without its knowledge. He used this account to pay himself. The clerk told councillors the council did not require an audit. Councillors believed him and failed to ensure their responsibilities for protecting public money were undertaken properly.

So perhaps it is a bit stupid of ministers to decide that 96 authorities each spending between £1m and £6.5m a year WILL no longer require a full audit – the perfect excuse for the fraudster who conned his local councillors.

Not only is  this an opportunity for fraud but incompetence as well. An investigation I did for Exaro News revealed that among the 96 – a number had recently had their accounts qualified because they were full of mistakes or just plain wrong. One authority, Swanage Town Council, was  qualified twice in successive years. Another council, Tavistock, was told by its auditors to  resubmit its accounts to the council because they had approved completely inaccurate documents.

 You will find the full story and the  list of authorities on the Exaro News website ( ). In the meantime you could always ask Mr Pickles to justify what he is doing – his work e-mail is . Bet you he won’t want to know.

Grant Shapps: The man killing the public right to expose another Dame Shirley Porter

Grant Shapps: Abolishing the public's right to object

Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, and Grant Shapps, the housing minister, will shortly be publishing the government’s response to their consultation on the rather boring subject of holding councils to account after they have closed down the Audit Commission.

Hidden in this rather dense document is a rather nasty proposal which seems to go against everything they stand for in opening up councils to scrutiny. The ministers are on record in wanting to encourage armchair auditors, more localism, more public rights, openness, you name it.

Eric Pickles is even a  fan of my friend Mrs Angry- a thorny red rose in the side of true blue Barnet Council- much to chagrin of Brian Coleman and his friends.

 So it rather bizarre that top Tory politicians should include a measure to abolish a 150 year old right that brought to light one of the worst scandals in local government.

Dame Shirley: Would have been saved by Grant Shapps. Pic

 The exposure of Dame Shirley Porter in the 1990s for the infamous ” homes for votes ” scandal that included ” gerrymandering ” votes by selling council homes in Tory marginal seats was only possible because of a public right to force an auditor to investigate.

As the report says: “Members of the public currently have rights to question the auditor of an audited body about its accounts and raise objections… in respect of unlawful items of account or matters on which the auditor can make a report in the public interest..

Auditors have only limited discretion to refuse to investigate objections, but the costs of investigating objections, which are recovered from the local public body and, therefore, funded by council taxpayers, can be disproportionate to the sums involved in the complaint, or to the normal audit costs of the local public body.”

This rarely used power is now being scrapped because  as the paper says: “we consider that the rights for local government electors to object to the accounts are both outdated and over-burdensome on auditors, local public bodies and council tax payers.”

So  effectively Pickles and Shapps are saying it is too burdensome  for auditors to expose corruption and certainly not in the interest of local people to have the power to force the auditor to do it. One wonders why ministers are so keen to do this. Are they expecting more corruption? Do they not want the most forensic skilled person – the auditor – to examine accounts but rather as they propose go to lay people like the Information Commissioner and the local government ombudsman to do it? Or is Mr Shapps repealing this measure as a gift to a  secret fellow Tory heroine of his, Dame Shirley?

 I think we deserve to be told. You could try to get answers. Grant Shapps is a great user of Twitter, so you may send a tweet to @grantshapps. Eric Pickles is more old twentieth century and not very techy but he does have an email address,

 In the meantime I have written a full piece – one of five – on life after the Audit Commission – on the new Exaro News website. The link is .

Morecambe Bay Cockle Pickers: Does the government want it to happen again?


The cockle picker victims of Morecambe Bay: Will cuts mean more to come? Pic courtesy bbc

Remember the tragedy at Morecambe Bay which led to the deaths of at least 21 cockle pickers? The public outcry that followed the exploitation of these Chinese workers led to the setting up of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority to protect migrant and other workers from future exploitation.

Since then it  has been very successful in both licensing gangmasters and working together to fight exploitation with other agencies like the UK Border Agency,the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the police and Revenue and Customs. 

A key test case will take place this autumn with the prosecution of  an Oxfordshire dairy farmer, and potentially 18 other farmers, for using unlicensed labour on their dairy farms. Other cases included investigations into shellfish farmers in County Antrim and a successful opposition to a licence being sought through a Facebook friend of a banned gangmaster who exploited Lithuanian workers.

In the last year its inspectors identified 845 workers who had been exploited to the tune of £2.5m, revoked 33 licences, and prosecuted 12 firms. Some 91 per cent of operations identified serious exploitation. Employers who appeal against its decisions have only a 5 per cent chance of success, 95 per cent of appeals are rejected.

Now any further success is being threatened by a triple whammy from the government. The latest annual report ( reveals that in the last year the government is putting their effectiveness at risk.

Eric Pickles abolished funding for gangmaster intelligence

The biggest blow has come from none other than Eric Pickles, the communities secretary. His department abolished funding altogether to the agency from April. This funded work enabled the agency to set up intelligence operations with local councils and funded community enforcement officers. These posts have now gone.

 Then Caroline Spelman, the environment secretary, cut funding by five per cent and Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, imposed a Whitehall recruiting freeze which has mean that skilled people have not been replaced.

At the same time the agency which relies on licence fees for the vast majority of its income has been told to freeze fees for two years, presumably to save business money.It is no wonder the agency’s annual report says: ” The authority faces a major challenge in seeking to prevent the exploitation of vulnerable workers with the prospect of fewer resources.” It also gives a lie to the government’s claim that cutting back office staff won’t have any effect. It admits that these cutbacks” may have an adverse impact on the ability to control risk in the future”.

 Under government spending cuts it will be cut again over the next three years as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs  reduces its budget by eight per cent a year. Given it runs on a shoestring budget in Whitehall terms of under £5m a year and employs 89 staff, it seems remarkable value for money.

It would be a serious tragedy if penny-pinching by the government gave the green light to new exploiters to take advantage. If it does at least transparency makes it clear which minister to blame.

Private security firm that banned bloggers goes bust

gone bust Pic courtesy MetPro Rapid Response Ltd

The row over  Barnet Council’s ludicrous decision to defy Communities

Some of the fine lads working for MetPro, the blogger busting co. Pic courtesy:

Secretary Eric Pickles and ban bloggers and film makers from covering their cuts meeting has taken an extraordinary twist.

In order to enforce the ban the Tory council used MetPro Rapid Response – the council’s main private security contractors – to stop some residents and bloggers from entering the public gallery to see the council vote through cuts.

See footage on Broken Barnet website here:

Full story on Broken Barnet website. Link is Mrs Angry also reveals that the company may have done covert filming of residents and may be monitoring Barnet bloggers and this blog. The council says it is ” not aware” of any blog monitoring.

The company  has received £275,889  for work from the  council taxpayer according to Barnet’s documents released on the Openlylocal website.  See

It has also  received glowing tributes from the council. On MetPro’s website they quote Barnet Council as saying: ” MetPro has removed all of our safety worries at work thanks to their rapid response officers here in our building.”

 But now the company has just gone bust and is being run by a Liquidator, Mike Solomons, who according to the law firm handling the liquidation, Beavis Morgan, has put Barnet’s security staff contract up for sale.

Closer investigation of the MetPro has revealed some extraordinary facts. Its two directors, Kevin Sharkey and Luigi Anthony Mansi appear to have run a  string of companies which have gone bust before.

 The address of the firm until recently was a rented  multi million pound mansion in Totteridge Lane, Barnet owned by the  brothers Cyril and Edward Frey, aged 86 and 89, and a former lawyer from Finer and Company predecessor of Finers, Stephens, Innocent ( the firm defending the Wikileaks founder). The Land Registry entry confirms that the three owners can be contacted through them, though the law firm which handles multi million pound estates, says it does not manage the property.

Contrary to the glowing references from Barnet, its staff have received libellous comments on a security officers chat site. They are not surprisingly  hardly popular with a string of Barnet bloggers.

All this suggests that Barnet Council may  have more to answer than banning bloggers – and some explanation is required about what is going on and how this firm got the contract in the first place.

A Council spokesperson said: “Barnet Council is urgently reviewing MetPro Rapid Response’s position and will be liaising with the liquidators involved.”

Eric Pickles and Boris Johnson: Dirty Large Tricksters

New Tory image: The Exhaust Pipe. Pic courtesy

Remember  David Cameron’s greening of the Conservative Party with that lovely logo of a tree. It is beginning to look as though it has got leaf rot or some other nasty disease. Perhaps the symbol should be replaced with an exhaust pipe.

Pickles: A cunning little plan.Pic courtesy

The rot set in when Eric Pickles decided on a crafty  trick  in the Localism Bill to ” devolve” the payment of European Union fines from Whitehall to town hall. The two likely areas where councils will start having to pay hundreds of millions of pounds are waste disposal and air pollution. Both are affected by EU directives and Britain has little time left to comply with them.

This has caused considerable anger among  Labour councils and even at the Conservative dominated Local Government Association. Authorities now not only face swingeing cuts but also fines unless they spend money to meet tough EU standards aimed at reducing pollution and waste. And if they have to pay the fines they will have to introduce even more cuts or get into expensive law suits with ministers over what proportion of the fine they should pay.

As Baroness Margaret Eaton, Conservative leader of the LGA said:  “ Changing the goalposts now to make councils liable for fines is unfair to them and unfair to the local residents who may have to foot the bill. The Government must amend this unfair, unworkable, dangerous and unconstitutional legislation.” See full press release at

But there has been another extraordinary response from Boris Johnson which seems to suggest the solution is NOT to implement the new  EU anti-pollution measures so we don’t have to pay the fines anyway. Flushed out by Murad Qureshi, Labour’s environment spokesman at City Hall, he disclosed that David Cameron and Eric Pickles want the EU to defer new tough air pollution measures for four years until 2015 so major conurbations including traffic ridden London don’t have to do anything yet.

Murad Queriashi is not impressed: “: “London’s air is literally killing thousands of people prematurely every year but it just doesn’t seem like Boris Johnson appreciates this. Improving air quality standards is one area where the mayor of London can, with a bit of will, make a real difference to people’s lives and especially to the lives of children. The statistics obviously haven’t had much effect on Boris – hopefully the threat of a big fine will.”

All this calls into question whether the Tories are really committed to the environment.

 Basically Pickles has devised a very cunning plan. Make councils pay EU fines which will make the EU unpopular. See if you can delay anti-pollution measures which are affecting health – try walking across the Euston Road in London or near Birmingham’s inner ring road  – so we don’t have to bother anyway. If that fails, it doesn’t matter, because it will be the councils who pick up the tab.

Robert Neill, the local government minister, gave it away earlier this year by blaming Labour for signing up to the Lisbon Treaty for councils having to pay fines. But as far as I know there was no provision in the treaty saying councils must pay.

Perhaps Pickles, Neill and Johnson aren’t really bothered by pollution – so an exhaust pipe rather than a tree would suit them.

Record Interest in blog banning Barnet and AssetCo’s fire sale

Last week’s blogs on Tory controlled Barnet’s defiance of Eric Pickles on banning bloggers and the woes facing Assetco, the London strike breaking private fire company, produced record hits for my modest site.

Altogether there were 3293 hits in seven days – with two record hit days of 1,375 and 1021. There were 1324 hits on the Barnet story and 1128 on  the revelation that AssetCo were facing a winding up petition from Revenue and Customs.

Barnet’s refusal to allow bloggers or filmmakers to record their big cuts package was much boosted by decisions by Guido Fawkes and Conservative Home to mention it on their websites. Guido Fawkes led to 1001 visits while Conservative Home attracted 55 visitors.

 The AssetCo story was boosted by being mentioned by the FBU – some 100 referrers – but a lot of the interest appeared to come directly. Mentions by the London Evening Standard and The Mirror produced  20 and 6 hits respectively, suggesting that the traditional media is losing ground to blogosphere sites. They were nearly equalled by hits from Liberal Conspiracy, Broken Barnet,VicKim57 and Left Foot Forward.

Interest in both stories revived hits on an older but updated blog on Brian Coleman, who features in both Barnet and the London Fire Authority. Hits have now reached 2285, with  massive interest in his council allowances,free gifts and expense claims.

So thank you. This week there will be new revelations about Barnet and the plight of AssetCo. So keep watching.

Praise be Pickles: Pity about your party activists

eric pickles- the bloggers friend; Pic courtesy


Lynne Hillan- Barnet Tory leader- Queen Canute rather than Iron Lady. Pic courtesy: Barnet Times

Normally I don’t approve of the judgements of Eric Pickles, the  communities secretary, the man Westminster jokes is so much larger than life that he can be spotted on Google Earth. However in a  blog for Conservative Home last week the scourge of local government  bureaucrats penned an article backing the idea that councils should open the doors to bloggers and citizen journalists who should be able to tweet and film  to their heart’s content. He of course cited outrageous Labour councils who had banned this. He also praised the work of Maidenhead and Windsor council .

 He wrote: ” Conservative-run Windsor and Maidenhead recently decided to allow members of the public to video local meetings. This week, I wrote to councils encouraging them to follow suit, opening up public discussions to all forms of multimedia. Citizen journalists have as much right as anyone to attend and to share their views, and council ‘monitoring officers’ shouldn’t hide behind bogus concerns about ‘data protection’ or ‘human rights’.

He goes on to describe this new freedom right back to the Blessed Margaret Thatcher who introduced the right  of the press and public to attend council meeting way back in 1960.Isn’t it then doubly ironic that tomorrow night (March 1) Barnet Council, whose citizens returned the former Tory leader to Westminster, should be doing the very thing that Eric Pickles deplores.

 This Tory controlled council has banned videos by the public of the public council meeting saying it is ” against the council’s constitution” and I am told people can be ejected if they are caught tweeting , even though councillors are free to do so.

Indeed bloggers are not welcome at all. Lynne Hillan, leader of the council,  told the Barnet Times:

“The only thing we will do is consider responsible media requests, and they are the only thing we would allow at this stage. If we had a request I would expect an officer to approach me about it. I do not think we would consider a request from bloggers . Only respectable media would be considered.”

This dinosaur attitude from a Queen Canute  is breathtaking. Her ignorance about how the modern world works is absurd. Presumably her next step as Barnet leader will be to table a motion condemning Lady Thatcher for allowing the public by law to attend council meetings.

The best riposte to her comes from the mouth of Eric Pickles himself. ” When councils make these sorts of petty decisions, at best they look foolish and out of touch; at worst they look like they have something to hide.”

 Need I say more. You can. E-mail her with your views at or phone her direct on 0208 359 2059. Her fax is: 020 889 7464.

Update: Barnet kept its word in blocking bloggers and filming at the council last night by employing some rather heavy looking security guards to limit who could get a seat to hear the council introduce cuts and higher parking. According to Mrs Angry, a blogger who did get in, they appeared to be able to overrule local police officers. See her report and pix of  the heavy bouncers employed by the Tory council on her blog at 

Armchair Audit: Gareth Bacon – The Tory recruiting public servants for Eric Pickles to sack

Gareth Bacon - A key ally of Brian Coleman

After receiving some 2000 hits on the first Armchair Audit on Brian Coleman, the Tory chairman of the London Fire Authority, a second right-wing Conservative councillor has been highlighted by readers as sharing the same virulent anti union beliefs while taking lots of cash from the taxpayer.

Gareth Bacon’s  entire income comes from either taxpayers or from the successful recruiting of staff for  quangos and local councils.

The 38 yr old London Assembly member from Bexley ( where he made his name in recycling)  is one of the rising right-wing Eurosceptic stars  in London. He has courted publicity recently by attacking Transport for London for allowing staff to have free travel, backed driverless trains on the tube to end the RMT union’s ” stranglehold” and supported  London Fire Brigade chairman Brian Coleman in criticising  firefighters and the FBU.  Like  Coleman he is no stranger to drawing cash from the taxpayer for the various jobs he holds himself. He also is a member of the Eurosceptic Bruges Group and Conservative Way Forward. See profile on Wikipedia.

His income from five jobs is:

Member of London Assembly                                                                       £53,439

Cabinet member (Environment)Bexley Council                                  £13,197

Member Bexley Council                                                                                  £9,418

Chair, London Fire Brigade Performance Management Com         Free *

Total income from the taxpayer:                                                            £76,014

* Under rules he has to waive a £5329.50 a year salary if a London Assembly member. Allowance available for first time this year.

Private Income:                                                    estimated between £75,000-£100,000

Director, RandstadFinancial and Professional Ltd, a Dutch owned financial recruitment company. Details of his job are here: . (look under our people after selecting about us).   His perks include private medical cover, company pension and bonuses.  He makes his money by recruiting highly paid officials to quangos and councils which his party want to curb or abolish. Clients include a string of London boroughs from Tory controlled Barnet and Hammersmith and Fulham to Labour controlled Hackney and Newham. Quangos include the soon to abolished Audit Commission and the 2012 Olympic Authority.

The company had a turbulent two years after the credit crunch. The company did not respond to any inquiries about the future of their recruitment policy  for the public sector.

He admits to a combined income of above £150,000 which means he pays 50 per cent tax or as he put it ” I am in the highest income tax band, meaning that every penny I receive from the public purse is taxed at the maximum rate, which in turn means that more than half of
it does not reach me, indeed in effect it never leaves the Treasury and exists only on paper.”

This was in reply to  Danny Hackett, a 17 year old student who queried his claim for a free travel card after reading this blog.


Unlike Brian Coleman, Gareth Bacon, hardly claims any. There is one glaring exception. He  claims an annual Transport for London travel pass worth £2016, the very perk he believes should be withdrawn from staff, many of whom earn a quarter of what he claims in allowances from the taxpayer. See the entries here.


Fairly modest. His improving financial fortunes have seen him move from a house in Sidcup bought for £170,000 in 2001  and  sold at a profit of £70,000 last year to a £365,000 home  nearby well set back from the road. Mortgage is with Santander and a restrictive covenant prevents him building another home on the site or extracting sand and gravel. He is also an investor in his parent’s property in the borough.


Very keen on the police kettling demonstrating students-particularly after the first demo. He would also like  police uniforms to have sown in cameras – so they can monitor every action.


He took offence at  me not contacting him directly but checking some of these facts with London Fire Brigade press office before putting this up.

 He said to me: ” I have nothing remotely to say to you.”


Gareth Bacon’s views will affect the livelihoods of firefighters and train drivers and the treatment of demonstrating students. But his most extraordinary contribution is his private sector job recruiting highly paid people to councils and quangos – the very bodies his political party wants to slash.

You can contact him to put your own views at both the Greater London Assembly and Bexley Council. His direct e-mail at the London Assembly is . His Bexley e-mail is . He is bound to pick up either as Dave Hill reports in The Guardian he has four blackberry devices.