Tuesday, July 28, 2015

"LOBOs and the confessions of an ex-auditor"

Check out this article in the local government finance online site "Room 151". Former auditor, Stephen Sheen, looks critically at the decision making process that resulted in Councils taking out LOBOs (Lender Option; Borrower Option) in the first place.

He thinks that the arguments that LOBOs were better than PWLB (the government Public Works Lending Board) are "somewhat disingenuous". The big numbers thrown by critics do not "illuminate the evils inherent in LOBOs"  To be fair he seems to be not a great fan of any long term fixed rate loans.

He "fesses" up that as an auditor at the time there was little thought about whether "LOBOs had unlawfully sneaked Bermudan swaptions" back into Local Government finance (after I assume the Hammersmith & Fulham debacle).

The suspicion is that LOBOs appeared attractive since loans could be rolled over and spread for unprecedented time periods.  Also the initial "teaser" interest rates (some 0%) provided short term financial relief.

His final thoughts were that this is still relevant since "it is still the episode from my twenty-year audit career that I remember with most concern about the enduring question of the acceptance of advice without due critical reflection". So I think he means if it happened once, it could happen again.

This is I think the first thing I have read in a mainstream Council media that "suggests" LOBOs were a bad deal for local authorities. Unlike the Housing Association world where it is widely accepted that LOBOs were a disaster, in Local Government, we still have our heads buried in the sands.

If you are in a hole, the first thing to so is to stop digging and get yourself out of the hole. Councils holding large amounts of LOBOs should firstly accept that they have been missold unlawful loans and combine together (with housing associations) to sue the Banks and the advisers.

Otherwise we face spending billions of pounds that we haven't got on profits for the Banks paid for by further slashing and burning public services.

Can we start this by having some more confessions please. 

If you don't have a clue what I am talking about (not an uncommon occurrence) check this article http://grayee.blogspot.co.uk/2015/07/how-banks-are-ripping-off-councils-and.html

Hat tip Mr Meech.

Monday, July 27, 2015

West Ham Votes for Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson

A little late but last Thursday West Ham CLP narrowly nominated, Jeremy Corbyn, as Labour leader ahead of Liz Kendall, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper. Tom Watson, was nominated as Deputy leader beating Caroline Flint, Stella Creasy, Angela Eagle and Ben Bradshaw. Local boy Unmesh Desai was also comfortably nominated as the City & East GLA candidate ahead of Murad Qureshi, Howard Dawber, Abdal Ullah, Ashton McGregor & Feryal Demirci.

It was one of the largest West Ham meetings (122 members) I have attended and took place in the Vicarage Lane Community centre in my ward. All members were invited to give speeches and make nominations. I think probably a fifth of those present spoke including young and new members. The speeches were often quite passionate and waiting for the results was tense and rather exciting.  Everyone behaved themselves (even Red Tel) and  I think we did our CLP proud.

As a Party member I nominated Andy Burnham for leader and spoke in favour of Stella Creasy for Deputy. As a UNISON delegate I nominated Murad Qureshi for the GLA seat who has the support of Greater London UNISON.

Afterwards there was food and the traditional Labour Party raffle. When everything was cleared up a few die-hards went down to the Black Lion to further analyse in detail the results and debate the merits (or otherwise) of candidates.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Beware of Shapeshifters & Outsourcery: Protecting public services and the public purse - APSE seminar

Last weekend I went to a well attended seminar for London Labour Party Councillors at the UNISON Centre in Euston Road presented by Mo Bains from APSE (Association for Public Sector Excellence).

It was an eye opener and I would recommend that all progressive Councils and Councillors should also get this alternative view of how to challenge the so called "orthodoxy" regarding cuts and privatisation before they make any final budget decisions. 

Mo reminded us that the provision of public services only came about in the first place due to massive private sector market failure.

There is little or no evidence that "the market knows best" in public services. The "savings" from privatisation of public services are often down to cuts in terms and conditions of low paid staff and more than off set by paying profits to shareholders and increased salaries to senior management. 

It seems that many private companies see the public sector as "easy meat" to rip off and defraud.  

"the National Audit Office study in 2013/2014 explored the £40BN contracts market. Of 60 contracts tested 34 found billing issues".

Public policy is not set in stone but if services are privatised and policy changes then Councils are being penalised and held to ransom if it means contracts have to be altered.

The privatisation (top down "mutalisation") of Council services into small businesses only results into a greater risk to the Council from failure and massive inefficiencies due to fragmented dis-economies of scale. Many so called former local authority "mutuals" have collapsed or staff have been forced into accepting massive pay cuts.

"Outsourcery" of public services is no panacea and can result in greater cost and a reduced service.   This is not political. More services are currently being taken back in house by Conservative Councils. 

Councils should make greater use of their expertise and resources to offer services to other councils and local businesses. They most also be prepared to make evidence based difficult decisions on the provision of services to ensure they remain in house. For example if a council runs a personal social care service 9-5pm but the users want a service in the early morning or evening then the in house service must to be changed to provide this need after full consultation with staff and the unions.

The great thing about APSE is that it is about public sector excellence and not provider interest. I would recommend that Councillors should ask for APSE to present to their Councils before decisions are made in the coming months on budgets following the savage government cuts.  There is an alternative way to protect public services and the public purse.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Great Newham Run 2015

Off message-ish but last Sunday (19 July) I took part in the first Great Newham Run 10k in the Queen Elizabeth Park. I have also taken part in the Great North Run in Newcastle and the Great South Run in Portsmouth.

For I think the fifth year in a row, I took part in a running (or rather in my case - a jogging very slowly) event in Newham. The weather was warm but there was a very welcome cooling breeze. It seemed well organised apart from huge queues for the portable toilets at the start.

I was in the Green wave which started off just after 10am near the ArcelorMittal Orbit. Running legend and founder of the Great North Run, Brendan Foster, set us off. The route was around the Olympic park and went past all the iconic Olympic 2012 sports stadiums that are still standing - the main stadium, the Aquatics centre and the Velodrome. The park is also a mass of canals and beautiful green spaces.

During the final 300m you are in the Olympic Stadium itself and running along the track to the finish line which is great thrill.

Fellow Newham Councillors James Beckles and Terry Paul also took part (Terry had the previous day also particated in the Great Newham Swim with Cllr Julianne Marriot in Victoria Docks).

The run itself was a great experience. The big downside was that I didn't see very many Newham residents taking part. We were identified on our number bib. Despite being host to the Olympics in 2212, Newham also has the most "inactive" adults in the country. Is this because we have very little organised youth work provision in the Borough?

There was also a distant lack of black runners taking part. Newham and the boroughs that surround the Park are amongst the most ethically diverse in the country.  While I love Queen Elizabeth Park, I often think it has become a middle class playground and local Newham residents for whatever reason are excluded. Something to work upon I think.

Friday, July 24, 2015

"Alternative Financing Proposals for the Newham Pension Fund"

(This sounds pretty teckie and boring but I have serious concerns about this proposal which you can find here and was agreed yesterday at Newham Cabinet. I circulated this email to all Cllrs with a copy of my submission to the overview and scrunity committee meeting on "Pensions for Members" Call in).

"Dear Colleagues

I hope to attend at least part of the Cabinet meeting tonight but due to work commitments I cannot be certain. Please see attached document on "Pensions for members" item that I submitted to the Overview & Scrutiny “Call in” yesterday evening.  

I also have concerns about the proposal in item 6 “Alternative Financing Proposals for the Newham Pension Fund”. These concerns are :-

1.       The Government announced in the budget that if the 101 different local authority pension funds do not pool their funds they will be forced to do so by the Government. It would be unwise and a waste of public money to set up an Alternative  Financing proposal if the Government is about to force funds to merge. It may provoke legal action by the Government as well.

2.       When funds are merged we can expect huge cost savings and improvement in return which will be far more that any projected savings from the alternative proposed vehicle (even if it works).

3.       I understand that the proposal will cost £500,000 to set up and it is a significant cost at a time of savage cuts.

4.       I do not understand why this proposal has not been before the Investment and Accounts Committee (and the Pension board) for consultation and initial approval? The committee may decide that the proposal is not suitable for the fund and again, public money will be wasted?

5.       Finally, I understand that such complex alternative vehicles are high risk and eye watering expensive.  After our dreadful experience with LOBO loans we should be extra careful not in invest in such complex products without the highest level of scrutiny.

         I therefore hope that the Mayor will withdraw this proposal and send it for consideration by Investment and Accounts Committee (and Pension Board)


John Gray (Councillor)

(All Newham Cllrs have been asked to suggest ways to save money and cut costs. I will be publishing posts such as this on possible savings that can be achieved without harm to residents. So far this amounts to £1.1 million. £500k for not going ahead with this alternative proposal and £600k for not giving some Cllrs pensions).

Thursday, July 23, 2015

UNISON Selection of Labour's Leader and Deputy Leader Candidates

This survey below has gone out to all UNISON members in Greater London region who pay a voluntary affiliation levy to the Labour Party.  We did a similar survey for the London Mayoral candidate and got an excellent response.

I hope to be able to attend the UNISON National Labour Link leadership nomination meeting as a re-elected NEC Member (NEC will elect the same day - fingers crossed). It will be good to get the views of London on who we should nominate. I will also consult with my branch and Community Service Group colleagues. 


 Dear UNISON Member,

Selection of Labour's Leader and Deputy Leader Candidates - UNISON Members Canvassing Survey

Following the recent General Election and the resignation of Ed Miliband the process is now underway to elect a new Leader and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party.  UNISON is eligible to make a nomination and is seeking your views so these can be considered by the National Labour Link Committee when they meet next week.  All members are encouraged to participate and have their say. 

We would be grateful if you could take a few minutes to answer a very quick survey (there are only 3 questions and it should take just a moment). Just click here to start: (Survey Monkey link on email only).    The survey will close on 12 noon on Tuesday 28 July.

The four candidates standing for Labour Leader are Andy Burham, Yvette Cooper, Jeremy Corby and Liz Kendall.  In accordance with the agreed process UNISON London Region encourages you to support candidates who have shown a commitment to UNISON values by joining our union.  These are:

"         BURNHAM, Andy
"         COOPER, Yvette
"         CORBYN, Jeremy 

The five candidates standing for Deputy Labour Leader are Ben Bradshaw, Stella Creasy, Angela Eagle, Caroline Flint and Tom Watson.  In accordance with the agreed process UNISON London Region encourages you to support candidates who have shown a commitment to UNISON values by joining our union.  This is:

"         EAGLE Angela 

To view opening and closing statements from the candidates at a hustings event at UNISON's National Labour Link Forum please go to

The responses of the survey will be forwarded to the National Labour Link Committee who will make the nomination. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Submission on “Call in” over Pension Provision for Members 22 July 2015

UPDATE: Overview & Scrunity voted 5:3 on Wednesday to recommend to Mayor that he postpones the pension provision for some himself and some Cllrs until we can afford it. This is an account by a journalist of that meeting. However, at Cabinet the next day he approved paying the pension.

"This is a report I submitted today as a Councillor to Newham Overview and Scrunity Committee.

1. Firstly, I would like to thank members of Overview and Scrutiny for supporting my request that this decision is “called in” and reviewed.

2. The decision by the Executive Mayor to award himself and members he appoints as Mayoral advisers (and elected Scrutiny Chairs, Group Chief whip and Secretary) a non-contributory pension of 13.4% costing up to £603,000 at the Cabinet meeting on 25 June 2015, needs to be independently examined and reviewed by Overview & Scrutiny.

3. There is a clear and obvious conflict of interest for the Major (supported by his cabinet appointees) to make this decision without independent scrutiny since he will be significantly financially better off if it goes ahead.

4. I submit that this decision at a time of savage cuts in our Council budget is wrong for the reasons detailed below and that Overview & Scrutiny should consider making a recommendation to the Mayor that no such pension should be provided by Council taxpayers.

5. Newham Council is currently consulting on how to implement a £91 million in cuts including £50 million alone next year. I believe it is wrong that the Council at this time of unprecedented savage cuts to its budget and us closing children centres and community facilities, we should be considering to pay what is in effect an extra 13.4% in allowances for 29 out of 61 elected members.

6. We already have to spend £78,000 per year for the next 20 years to fund the deficit in Council pension arrangements for pre 2014.

 7. This proposal is in my view extremely damaging to the reputation of the Council and all elected members. It will be divisive and damage our relationship with residents who will not understand why at a time we are consulting on cuts, we are paying more to some elected members.

 8. If and when our financial situation improves then this matter could be reconsidered.

1. I have sent previously legal advice to the Investment & Accounts Committee, including Mayoral advisers and Council officers, that the provision of any Council funded pension to Councillors is likely to be Ultra vires (unlawful) in the view of the Local Government Association. I have received further advice that this view remains.

2. I have been refused copies of the legal advice in the original report on this provision (I am appealing this decision). As an elected Councillor representing the concerns of my constituents about possible illegal payments and expenditure of public money, I am extremely disappointed at this refusal. This has obstructed my work as a Councillor and this submission to Overview & Scrutiny committee.

3. I suspect from the main report that the legal advice is (as often the case) contradictory and that this decision will be open to challenge by either the Government or local residents via judicial review. In the report it is stated that “The Secretary of State could at any time by order, restrict the use of S.1 of the Localism Act 2011 and by doing so bring a locally introduced scheme to an end”. So it would appear that at any time this proposal if passed today could be struck out by the Government? As a Council facing massive cuts we cannot afford to waste money on costly legal opinions and Court costs.

4. I also think that this report is in contradiction to existing Council policy passed only last year regarding a defined benefit type of pension for all members. This decision has also been overtaken by events following the budget cuts.

5. I would like to make it clear that the decision by the previous government to pass legislation to bar all Councillors and Executive Mayors from access to a pension scheme was petty and politically spiteful. However, we are democrats who believe in the rule of law and therefore have to accept decisions that we do not agree with. This proposal may be well intentioned but it is misguided in the extreme.

6. Even if it was lawful to have such a pension scheme for the Mayor and his advisers, I think in light of the current financial crisis facing the Council, it would be inappropriate to fund this provision.

1. The original report on pension provisions is also in my view unclear, contradictory and confusing. It would be unsafe to make any decision based upon it. For example it argues that providing a pension will encourage younger Newham residents to become Councillors and existing Councillors to become mayoral advisers? Where is the evidence for this?

2. I have seen no evidence that the candidates and elected members 2014-2018 are less inclined to become mayoral advisers, part time or full time? I suspect that the average age of the current 2014-2018 Newham Councillors may well have gone down since we were barred from pensions in 2014.

3. The number and selection of cabinet members and those who receive (none Group elected) SRA is purely in the gift of the Executive Mayor, so there is no guarantee or objective process that they would ever be given a Cabinet position or SRA. This in contrast to the appointment and promotion of Council officers.

4. If the reason why the Mayor and only Councillors who are full time or receive a SRA should have a Council pension is because they suffer a determent in their careers by public service then surely it would be logical for all Councillors to receive a pension? Since all of us will suffer to lessor or greater extent in our professional careers by our public service commitments. It is noted in the report that the average councillor spends around 20 hours per week on their ordinary duties.

5. Since I believe that our existing SRA allowances are more than adequate then surely in the light of the unpreceded savage cuts Newham is facing then the Mayor and all Cllrs should pay their own pensions? Since 2014 I have paid 10% of my Councillor allowances into a private pension plan. For which I receive significant tax relief. Council officers could source an appropriate scheme at little or no cost to the council. This could be reviewed when austerity ends and the financial situation improves.

 6. Apart from the Mayor who receiving £81,029 per year, the 10 Full time advisors referred to in the report receive up to £44,672 in allowances. This is more money than I have ever earned or any member of my family. The Council has estimated that 20% of Newham residents earn less than a minimum wage and 50% less than a living wage. I do not think it is unreasonable for Councillors who are full time earning £44,672 to put 10% of their income into their own pension plan.

7. I think we separately need to look very seriously at the number of SRAs for executives and council members in light of cuts. Do we really need to have 10 full time Councillors plus the Mayor and 19 others receiving a SRA? Other Executive models have far less full time and part time Councillors on

8. I accept that elected members have to perform important legal functions such as scrutiny, planning and licensing but we employ professional officers and a senior management team to run the Council. Elected members should be concerned with setting strategy and oversight and should not in my view be running operational services.

9. If some elected members are to have a pensions then why has it been set at 13.4% of allowances? It seems illogical to set it at the old defined benefit rate which was an actuarial derived figure dependent on that schemes investment and mortality projections. Defined Contribution schemes should calculate contributions on the basis of replacement income. While I don’t agree with the principle of pensions for some elected members at this time the methodology should at least be consistent.

10. Why is it being proposed that the employer contribution rate being set at 13.4% when new employees of companies controlled and set up by the Council (for example NewhamActive) are only getting I believe a 6% employer contribution?

11. Also, why is the proposed scheme “non-contributory”? There no requirement for the selected elected members to personally contribute towards a pension from their allowances in order to receive an “employer” contribution? This is in my experience a standard requirement for such pension arrangements.

12. Nor do I understand why it is projected that not all members who would be eligible to join would fail to do so? It is unlikely that anyone will refuse to take up this pension if offered. Since it will cost them nothing to join.

13. Since the Council does not have any policies for maternity or paternity leave for elected members on the grounds that they are not employees, I am surprised that what is in effect an occupational pension it is being proposed for some members?

14. I note that there has been no mention of a Sharia compliant pension option.

15. In summary, I am also opposed to this proposal since I fear it is unaffordable and unlawful and will damage the Council’s resilience agenda and our desire to promote a “Strong and Cohesive Community” and as an “Efficient and Trusted Organisation”. We will run the real risk that we will all be perceived (wrongly in my view) in the most difficult of economic times as only be interested in ourselves and feathering our own nest".

John Gray West Ham Ward Councillor (and member of Investment and Accounts Committee) 22 July 2015

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Select Committee Hear Damning Evidence on LOBO Loan Scandal And Conflicts

I was at the Parliamentary select committee hearing yesterday with Newham Councillors, Cllr Fiaz and Cllr Whitworth. Bearing in mind the savage cuts in our budget, I was incensed to hear futher details how Councils were duped into buying LOBOs when paid advisers were also receiving commissions from the Banks. I will post my thoughts later.

Below is a press release from Debt Resistance, who I do not always agree with but let us all say well done for their work in exposing this national scandal. 

"Communities and Local Government Select Committee Hear Damning Evidence on Local Government LOBO Loan Scandal And Conflicts Of Interest With ICAP and CAPITA Treasury Advice.

The Communities and Local Government Select Committee inquiry into LOBO loans to local authorities heard evidence on Monday from Vedanta Hedging CEO Abishek Sachdev and former Barclays Capital trader Rob Carver on the back of Debt Resistance UK FOI research featured in C4 Dispatches – ‘How Councils Blow Your Millions’. Presenter and C4 journalist Antony Barnett also fronted the committee, broadcast live on Parliament TV.

Highlights of evidence submitted during the hearing included:

Antony Barnett (C4 Dispatches):

'Based on data obtained via FOI's by Debt Resistance UK, Dispatches, and from Government sources, we estimate 250 councils have LOBO loans, and there are around 1000 individual LOBO loan contracts'

'Brokerage fees [on LOBO loans] are significant and this is public money, we can estimate from Freedom of Information requests councils paid £25,000.00 in brokerage fees on £10million pound LOBOs. So over all, we are talking tens of millions of public money, being paid to ICAP, Tullet Prebon and other brokers - who were also being paid commissions from the other side. On an equivalent Government PWLB loans, I think they only paid £75'. 

Rob Carver (former derivatives trader - Barclays Capital):

[LOBO loans] are: 'the kind of risk that makes traders and hedge fund managers wake up at night screaming. It’s just horrible, horrible stuff, and I don’t think anyone who understands it would do it.'....  ‘I wouldn’t do these deals with a gun to my head.'

'On average, looking at interests rates now, you'd expect LOBO loans to be worse value than Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) loans. The reason you know that is because thats what the loan breakage costs tell you. The break costs tell you the expected value of that loan going into the future. The fact the breakage costs are so much higher tells you on average all the derivative models think LOBO loans will be a worse deal than PWLB loans.'

Abhishek Sachdev (CEO Vedanta Hedging):

'I would categorically say I don’t believe you could find a finance officer or treasury officer in a council who could assess the risks and rewards of these LOBO products. Even FTSE 250 businesses wouldn’t be able to analyse these on their own.’

'We looked at exit (breakage) fees for both PWLB loans and LOBO loans. On PWLB loans the exit fees were 38% of the loan value. On LOBO loans, the exit fees were greater than 90% of the loan value'.


In response to evidence submitted during the hearing, Newham Council Labour Councillor John Gray said:

'I was incensed to hear of the massive hidden LOBO loan kickbacks that banks paid 'independent' council advisors that were supposed to be representing the interests of residents and taxpayers'.

Despite damning evidence of profiteering, amounting to the systematic manipulation of local government finance by the financial sector, the Commons CLG Committee has not announced a full inquiry, nor scheduled further evidence sessions at this stage.

Instead, individual named parties will be privately invited to submit evidence to the Committee, with no further action expected on this matter until at least September, when a summary report will be prepared.

In response to the news the CLG Committee will not conduct a full inquiry, Joel Benjamin of Debt Resistance UK said:

 "Instead of a full public hearing, where evidence is scrutinised and broadcast live on Parliamentary TV, the CLG Committee have allowed a situation where CAPITA, ICAP, Tullet Prebon, RBS and Barclays are granted preferential treatment and will submit written evidence to the Committee in private, with no scope for either forensic questioning by MP's, nor public oversight.

I fail to see how this opaque arrangement is in the interests of UK taxpayers, who are billions of pounds out of pocket as a result of LOBO loan borrowing from banks and demand answers as to why this scandal has occurred, despite attempts to toughen regulation since the banking crisis. Parliament and The FSA both failed in their duty to fully investigate Treasury Advisors following the Iceland banking crisis in 2009. This matter cannot be swept under the carpet yet again. 

Billions of pounds of taxpayer money is ultimately at stake here, with serious questions of impropriety to be answered. Parliament must fully scrutinise public sector borrowing from City of London banks and address conflicts of interest with the unregulated financial advisors that recommend LOBOs whilst accepting undeclared kickback payments from banks and brokers.” 

Failure of the CLG Committee to initiate a full public inquiry highlights the limits of institutions including the Financial Conduct Authority and Local Government Association that failed to spot the LOBO loan scandal to act in the public interest. DRUK insists citizen debt audit pressure must be applied to local authorities to ensure this issue is taken seriously.

Many local authorities which do not fully comprehend the long term risk and cost implications of LOBO loans have rushed to defend LOBO deals. DRUK's Jamie Griffiths observes:

"LOBO loans present terrible value for taxpayers despite arguments to the contrary. By extending the life of the loan and giving up the ability to repay when interest rates are low, councils end up paying significantly greater sums in interest than they would by borrowing from central government. While so-called 'independent' auditors look the other way, taxes collected by councils end up paying not for essential services but to feather the nests of bankers, brokers and advisers."

Already City Watchdog The FCA are seeking to distance themselves from responsibility for this fiasco, despite being directed to investigate Treasury Management Advisors by DCLG in 2009, yet refusing to do so.

The FCA claim to lack the powers required to investigate conflicts of interest within the very firms they are supposed to regulate – with an FCA spokesperson confirming that local authorities are "sophisticated" borrowers:


Ludovica Rogers from Debt Resistance UK continues:
"DRUK is calling for a UK wide audit of Local Authority debts, a thorough regulatory investigation into the systemic abuse of Local Authority finance by the financial sector and where appropriate legal and enforcement action.
We call on people and local grass-roots groups to join the campaign and start organising their own local action group. We need a localised decentralised campaign spread across the country run by citizens for citizens.
This is not a campaign against Local Government. It is a campaign to reclaim our democratic institutions from the clutches of the financial sector. We need to keep the pressure up and insist that our Local Authorities are run in the interest of their citizens and not the interests of the City of London.

Debt Resistance UK intend to submit FOI evidence to the CLG Committee on LOBO loans, but as yet have not been called by the CLG Committee to provide evidence.

For press inquiries email: press@debtresistance.uk  Phone: 07543219635

Links to further information:
UK Local Authority Debt Audit website: http://lada.debtresistance.uk/
Debt Resistance UK website: http://debtresistance.uk/
Interactive map of local authority debt: bit.ly/LADAmap
What is a LOBO loan? http://bit.ly/LOBOLoan
LOBO Loans are potentially illegal http://bit.ly/DebtTrap
The conflicts of interest http://bit.ly/LADA3