Cambridge City Council lost almost £650,000 of public money after the company it appointed to run the online ticket sales for the 2008 Folk Festival failed to hand over any money. I have written a number of articles following the council’s attempts to understand what went wrong so that similar disasters can be avoided in the future:
- Cambridge City Council Owed 618K by Folk Festival Ticket Seller
- Asking Questions About Money Owed to Cambridge City Council from Folk Festival Online Ticket Sales
- More Questions on the Cambridge Folk Festival Ticket Money
- Damming Report on Cambridge Folk Festival Fiasco
- Looking into the Folk Festival Mistakes
- Following up the Folk Festival Losses – An Update
At Cambridge City Council’s Community Services Scrutiny Committee on the 25th of June councillors considered proposed terms of reference for a “Members’ Committee of Inquiry”, the previous meeting of the committee had already agreed to the principle of such an inquiry. The Leader of the Council, Liberal Democrat Ian Nimmo-Smith, and the Chief Executive attended the meeting for this agenda item only.
The Chief Executive presented suggested terms of reference and explained how she thought an inquiry might proceed. She explained there was no separate budget for the process, and said she had decided the council’s head of strategy and partnerships, who had not previously been involved, would be the lead officer charged with supporting the inquiry. She stressed the inquiry was not to replace the council’s HR processes and would need to be focused on learning lessons from what has happened. She said there would be a need to be tough on data protection and access to information and said it was very likely that sessions would get into discussions which would require them to go into private session. She recommended that at least the witness sessions ought not be held in public. A timetable involving five meetings, the middle three of which would be witness sessions, and the final meeting to pull together findings and recommendations was suggested.
The Chief Executive admitted there was some debate as to who the inquiry was reporting to. She said she expected it would report to “the relevant committee or executive councillor”. She finished her introduction saying it was: “important to put boundaries around the process, particularly in the form of a timetable, to make it manageable”.
Councillor Boyce welcomed the report saying he felt the terms of reference suggested were “reasonably good”. He formally proposed two amendments:
- The inquiry should follow the chain of evidence from Arts and Entertainments into other departments but not cherry pick things which do not relate directly to the subject.
- The first and last meetings shall be in public.
He gave examples of things he didn’t want the inquiry getting into – including the icelandic banks and said he wanted the inquiry to compare what happened with what should have happened and to try and work out why the two states are different.
Labour Opposition’s Reaction
Cllr Benstead spoke on behalf of the Labour opposition. He said:
“The Labour group are not supporting this recommendation; we are proposing an amendment with a counter recommendation. This issue has been in operation around the council for some five, six, seven months for some members and has been discussed at numerous council meetings including area committees, meetings of this committee and full council. It has also been informally discussed among councillors for some length of time. When we have discussed it formally we have been advised not to stray into certain areas in-case we go into the areas being dealt with by the human resources (staff disciplinary) process. We are being led down a route which the inquiry may not want to take.
Through the whole of the period the Labour group has called for an independent external inquiry. We believe that if the inquiry held by members was a court of law then the jury would be seen as tainted, as it would be felt there was some degree of pre-determination. A large amount of money has been lost by the council in anyone’s view. I don’t think this should investigated by any members of the council as there would be a degree of political and personal interest. This has been a hot issue for a considerable period of time, it needs to be looked at independently from an external point of view, this cannot be done by our own members, we are all too close to this. We already have views which may influence us. The Labour group are declining the option to take places on the inquiry. We are calling for the committee to ask the council to establish an external inquiry, which can act fairly and without predetermination. The council has to be seen to deal with issues fairly and cleanly without consideration of personal and political advantages. With an external enquiry that issue does not arise, we do not think that is possible with an internal inquiry.”
At the end of Cllr Benstead’s speech Nimmo-Smith said “I’m rather disappointed by what I’ve just heard from Cllr Herbert there”, implying Cllr Benstead was reading Cllr Herbert’s words, or at least expressing his sentiments. Cllr Herbert is the leader of the Labour Group, who had been quoted in the Cambridge-News in an article published on the day of the meeting saying his group would be effectively boycotting the inquiry, on the grounds it would not root out the problems. Cllr Nimmo-Smith then said Labour was acting in their own and not the council’s interests; saying: “they have a fox; it’s important to them that this live fox keeps running as long as possible. Cllr Herbert has said there are ‘systemic problems’ which he has seen in the folk festival, he has declared the council is infested with witches and he wants to set up a witch finding process to root them out. His views are completely unfounded.”
Other councillors briefly contributed to the discussion. Cllr McGovern said he could not see why councillors would not be able to act neutrally on this inquiry as they do on licensing and planning matters. Cllr Liddle said: “I don’t recognise Benstead’s description of councillors; they’re known for being independent – known for their bloody mindedness”. While that might be true of some councillors, I don’t think it is true of most of the backbench Liberal Democrats who generally keep quiet and put their hands up to vote when they’re told to.
Cllr Ellis-Miller said: “I feel we’re able to discuss it with people involved and come to agreement in a rational manner – if at that stage or at the end we need some help from outside we can look at costs and timings then. I feel we all need to be able to stand back and do it in a measured way; I don’t feel we need bickering and posturing.”
Cllr Walker : “I object to Ian Nimmo-Smith referring to Cllr Herbert’s request for an independent review as a witch hunt and a desire to promote a witch hunt. He’s using very emotive language which is not called for. The request for external review is made in good faith. I find Ian Nimmo-Smith’s response surprising”.
Votes were held on both Cllr Boyce’s amendment, and one from Cllr Bedstead calling for an external inquiry. Cllr Benstead’s amendment: “The committee recommends the council recommends an external independent inquiry into folk festival ticketing issues” was not passed; with the six liberal democrats voting against outnumbering the three labour members voting for it. Cllr Boyce’s ammendment was passed with the six Liberal Democrats in favour, and no votes against. The official minutes will not record who voted which way.
The meeting’s chair, Cllr Liddle tried to progress things saying “now we have a substantive motion we can move to a vote”. Cllr Blencowe said word to the effect of “oh no you don’t ” clarifying “we’re not taking part – you don’t have 2 Labour members”.
Cllr Boyce asked for an adjournment, which was granted, and he joined the Chief Executive and Leader of the Council in a huddle as they decided what to do next.
When the meeting reconvened Cllr Boyce explained that four members plus two others is permitted in terms of the council’s representation on committees rules which are designed to ensure that the ratio of members on committees reflects the make up of the council. The Chief Executive concurred confirming that if Labour don’t want to take up their seats that doesn’t stop the process. The committee was originally planning to allow a Labour member to chair the inquiry, following Labour’s boycott the meeting decided to allow the inquiry to appoint its own chair.
The meeting voted to set up the inquiry with four Lib Dems and two as yet unidentified others serving on it. Cllr Al Bander asked if the “others” have to be councillors and was told yes by Cllr Boyce and the Chief Executive. Cllr Al Bander asked for further clarification on if the inquiry would really go ahead with unfilled seats on it, he appeared to be suggesting that wasn’t such a good idea, but was told yes by his party colleagues.
Before moving on Cllr Blencowe asked questions about the timing of the inquiry in relation to the Human Resources processes. There was some discussion among councillors of the value of looking at matters arising in the HR processes, with various councillors saying that HR processes often revealed problems with management, and were a route via which the council’s procedures were improved. The Chief Executive confirmed it was her intention to allow the HR processes to complete first, so the committee of inquiry would have all the relevant information at its disposal.
There has been renewed interest in this recently, with Radio Four’s You and Yours covering the council’s losses on Friday 26th June (At 30 minutes in). A Radio Four researcher had even been in touch with Rashid Qajar, who was the director of SecureTicket UK, he blamed the recession for the failure of his business, and claimed the company had lost much more than the council. (I have come accross this blog post describing the opulence of the company.) It is likely there will be further discussion at the Council’s Strategy and Resources committee on Monday evening.
The other opposition councillors, Hipkin (Independent), Wright (Green) and Howell (Conservative) will have to consider if they wish to take up seats on, or even chair the members inquiry. I think that the presence of Hipkin or Howell would add a lot to the enquiry, with them it would be likely to achieve more; however whoever is on it, the enquiry is to be vigorously constrained by the council’s chief executive, and it will not do anything towards recovering the money. For that we need to look to the police, and PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the latter are due to visit the council and report on their progress this week.