“Me Too!” – an independent investigation?
- an ‘In My View’ article by Nigel Ward, examining the case for a truly independent investigation into allegations of fraud and forgery during the roll-out of the “Me Too!” Voucher Scheme intended to provide extra-curricular learning-experiences to deprived school-children.
IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST
As the County election approached, there was a flurry of interest in the circumstances surrounding the suspension of the Extended Schools “Me Too!” Voucher Scheme, following the publication of our NYCC Election Preview on County and Borough Councillor Joe PLANT which subsequently spawned a spin-off article entitled “NYCC, Joe Plant, Mini Monsterz and £113,000”.
In point of fact, Councillor Joe PLANT has already made a statement – in fact, two statements.
Firstly, it should not be forgotten that County Councillor Joe PLANT declared an interest in the “Me Too!” Voucher Scheme at a meeting at County Hall on 16th February 2011, within a matter of weeks of the abuses of the “Me Too!” Scheme becoming widely-known amongst the Whitby public. The Minutes of that meeting confirm as much, in the following words (some highlighted in bold, for later reference):
“Cllr Plant: I have given a question for Councillor Watson, before I ask it I want to declare a personal interest my son is married to a provider of Me Too.
The scheme was launched last year and went down well in the Whitby area and is aimed at underprivileged children. It has increased the take up of free school meals and activities they would not have gone to in the first place. It started off well, but I want to ask Councillor Watson to investigate problems of the Me Too scheme as it operates in Whitby area it is apparent that some providers have not been paid since last summer and they have been told there is not enough money in the pot to pay and they are suspended. The scheme continues. Allegations that vouchers are being handed out to people not entitled to them. One particular case is a millionaire in the Whitby area and they have changed hands for money. Please investigate as a matter of urgency because the scheme is being abused.”
Noteworthy is the fact that, notwithstanding the opening sentence, Councillor PLANT neglected to mention that the interest he only now wished to declare had, in fact, existed for well over a year – since (at the latest) November 2009, and this Declaration itself confirms Councillor PLANT’s failure to declare a disclosable interest throughout the whole of that period.
Noteworthy, too, is the fact that Mr Tony MOK, headmaster of East Whitby Primary School had made reference, in the public domain, to fraudulent activity – almost four weeks earlier on 21st January 2011.
But now let us compare Councillor PLANT’s Declaration with the account he offered to me, in an email of 2nd April 2011 – just six weeks after his formal Declaration:
“On the advise[sic] of the NYCC legal officer I did declare a personal interest when I brought concerns about the scheme to the council’s attention. I am really concerned how the ME TOO voucher scheme is being run in Whitby. The scheme is aimed for families on free school meals and benefits, it started off very well, now it is really, really silly. Families on big wages get them, and this is how silly it is, a millionaire lottery winner gets them. Vouchers are photo copied, forged and even sold on to other people. This info is from people on the street how true it is, i do not know. But I know that the whole scheme has lost its meaning. The losers are and will be the families that need them.
I also brought to the attention of the council that some providers were not being paid as the rumour was there was not enough money in the pot, one of which was the provider that my son is married into the family. This is because all of the providers knew I helped to promote the scheme. The advice I got from an officer was to tell providers who had problems to get in touch with the college as they are the administrators.”
Councillor PLANT has referred to his 16th February 2011 Declaration, thereby re-iterating his personal interest, and re-iterating his reference to the Whitby millionaire Lottery-winner who allegedly took advantage of the free “Me Too!” Vouchers.
But he has also provided information conspicuous by its absence from his official Declaration. I have highlighted in bold significant elements; let me now bullet-point what we may draw:
- Councillor PLANT’s Declaration was fourteen months late, having been delivered only at the urging of an (unidentified) NYCC “legal officer”.
- Councillor PLANT now amends the allegations he made in his formal Declaration, stating that they were “from people on the street how true it is I don’t know” – i.e. mere hearsay.
- Councillor PLANT refers, for the first time, to criminality – i.e. forgery and fraud.
- Councillor PLANT refers to having “brought to the attention of the council” the outstanding invoices of providers – including the business in which he had a duty to declare a personal interest (but did not – for fourteen months, plus), namely. Esk Leisure, i.e. Mini Monsterz, in Ruswarp, which is not situated in Councillor PLANT’s division – Whitby Streonshalh).
- Councillor PLANT now corrects his omission, in his formal Declaration, that one of the as-yet unpaid providers was the one in which he held a disclosable personal interest.
So, by referring only to the public record and County Councillor Joe PLANT’s own words, it is absolutely clear, at least in my view, that he admits having solicited settlement by NYCC of an invoice from Esk Leisure / Mini Monsterz, a provider in a division in which he had no authority to act, and in respect of whom he held a disclosable but long undeclared personal interest.
We now know that that payment was suspended until a partial settlement was made, in December 2012, in the sum of £113,822.25.
This is a timely moment to cite just a single paragraph from a very long email to me from a member of the public (dated 4th April 2011 – just two days after Councillor PLANT’s email to me, quoted above):
“One voucher could access loads of different things; two weeks with interactive, horse riding courses, a block of 10 swimming lessons, any piece of pottery to paint, soccer school, and in Scarborough, a whole years pass to the swimming pool! Total madness – all with just one voucher!”
Any piece of pottery.
A completely independent informant has confirmed that his whole family (he, his wife and two children) witnessed an operative of the provider in question vigorously dissuade an unaccompanied child from painting the pot of his choice (coffee-mug sized) in favour of a very large specimen – bearing a price-tag of almost £100.
Yet according to the Mini Monsterz web-site, pottery painting at the Ruswarp branch starts at £3.99 per item (no studio fee).
- £113,822 = 28,527 pots.
It is easy to appreciate why the “Me Too!” Voucher Scheme has been described as “a licence to print money”.
At this point, I would like to remind readers that Councillor PLANT was one of eleven Scarborough Borough Councillors who took the opportunity to respond to my ‘Transparency Questionnaire’ of September 2010, in which I asked all of the SBC Councillors if they upheld the Prime Minister’s call for transparency in local government.
Councillor PLANT’s response reads:
- “Nigel. Like I have always done I DO uphold the PM’s statement calling for transparency. But to clarify I stick within the code of conduct. Joe – Cllr Joe Plant”
In my view, Councillor PLANT’s refusal to provide answers to the many questions arising from his rôle in the “Me Too!” affair shows him to be very far from “upholding transparency”.
His failure to declare a personal interest contingent upon his relationship, through his son, to the provider who would appear to have made the most of the privilege of provider-status seems to me to be very far from “stick(ing) within the code of conduct”.
On 14th May 2011, I emailed the Leader of NYCC, County Councillor John WEIGHELL. Within that rather lengthy email, I included the following:
“After profound deliberation, and being acutely aware of the exceptional level of public interest, a human being has seen fit to share with me the following information, adjuring me to regard it with the same gravity as would pertain in the case of a sworn affidavit:
“In a meeting of School Governors, the information was shared with those present that a single ‘provider’ in the Extended Schools ‘Me Too!’ voucher scheme had submitted an invoice (or invoices) in a sum exceeding £100,000 (one hundred thousand pounds), with the result that the Audit Committee of NYCC had determined to pursue an investigation on suspicion of foul play.”
Strangely, Councillor WEIGHELL has not responded to that email – or even provided any acknowledgment of receipt. Almost two years has elapsed.
The conclusion that I believe every right-thinking reader will adopt is that the actions of County Councillor Joe PLANT merit diligent and impartial investigation by a body more independent of the Council than Veritau Ltd (a company not subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 that is jointly owned by York City and North Yorkshire County Council), who prepared the existing report – and more specialised than the skills or the remit of the rural beat-bobby of the NYP, to whom the report was finally submitted.
Stranger still is the email that I have received, on 29th April 2013, from NYCC Chief Exec Richard FLINTON, in which he states:
“I note that you say that you reserve the right to publish information as you please, you will also need to be mindful of the need to be factually accurate in doing so particularly given that in the election period, anyone who makes or publishes any false statement of fact in relation to the candidate’s personal character or conduct will commit and[sic] offence.”
As a human being, I am fallible; I can (and do) make mistakes. And certainly I would not wish to stand accused of publishing false information – either during Purdah, or at any other time.
So I have emailed Richard FLINTON, attaching the draft of this article, asking him to state clearly whether or not he discerns any factual errors, so that I may benefit from his wisdom by correcting, where necessary, any such errors, prior to publication. I have also offered Richard FLINTON an opportunity to comment, if he so wishes.
I have, of course, received a response from Richard FLINTON. And (equally ‘of course’) it does not provide a statement for publication. Nor does it offer the public any explanation of, or apology for, the extraordinary laxity of control in the design of the “Me Too!” Voucher Scheme, or for the disgraceful pillaging of the system. Richard FLINTON has expressed no contention with the factual accuracy of this article; and he has offered no word of support for, or confidence in, County Councillor Joe PLANT.
As I wrote in my reply to Richard FLINTON:
- “So much for the seventh Nolan Principle”
The seventh Nolan Principle is:
Leadership – Holders of public office should promote and support these principles [the seven Nolan Principles] by leadership and example.