North East Assembly in Council Funding Scandal

 

    by Neil Herron                                                                  4th February, 2003

 

The campaigning group North East Against Regional Assemblies (NEARA) was set up by a number of individuals to provide a balance to the arguments that the people of the North East are in favour of an elected Regional Assembly. We were concerned initially that the views of ordinary people were not being heard or represented both in the debate and collectively in the media whereas the pro-assembly agenda was receiving a disproportionate amount of coverage and bias.

I was asked by concerned ratepayers from across the region, many of whom telephoned our office, to help uncover the role their local authority was playing in the North East Assembly and help enlighten them as to what impact regionalisation would have on them and their community. They were concerned that there appeared to be an active campaign by the Assembly to help influence the people of the North East to vote Yes in a proposed referendum.

 

The whole regionalisation agenda appears to be driven by a self-interested Newcastle based elite with little regard for the wishes of the people of the North East who are only now being consulted as to whether they wish to have a referendum, not whether they want an Assembly. This ‘Consultation Process’, as it is called, requires local authorities to canvass their electorate to determine not if they are in favour of regional government, but if they are in favour of a referendum!

 

The initial ’level of demand’ for devolved government was created by a BBC poll 1. published before the Government White Paper and stated that 72% of people surveyed in the region were in favour of regional government. This poll was very misleading in its conclusions and was used as the bedrock for driving the agenda to the next stage. What the poll did not state was that 84% of the people questioned, that is 5 out of 6, had little or no idea of what regionalisation was and had seen little reported in the press and media. The pollsters then had to lead the questions. The poll also took place before the White Paper which would define the powers, structure, funding and role of such an elected assembly, and before it was envisaged that there would be a wholesale restructuring of local government boundaries and the possible abolition of certain councils and authorities. The two tier structures of county and district authorities would have to be removed to create one-tier unitary authorities 2.

Because of this, the BBC poll should have been discredited, but the Government and pro assembly campaigners used this as their mandate from the people to continue with the agenda instead of shelving the plan.

 

The North East Constitutional Convention had also been set up by pro-campaigners in favour of regional government and is chaired by the Bishop of Durham, the Reverend Michael Turnbull. People concerned as to the role an Assembly would play in changing the democratic structures of the North East enquired about attending the NECC’s meetings but were told that the attendees had to be ‘pro’ the creation of an Assembly. The NECC is made up of ‘representative’ groups 3.

Concerns were raised as to the impartiality of the Bishop of Durham and the role of the church in what is likely to be a highly contentious issue as well as the subject of a referendum. Such an influential figure actively supporting a Yes vote could hardly reflect the views of all his North East parishioners. Another main concern is the role of the European Union in the regionalisation agenda. Whilst it is acknowledged that it is a central government initiative, John Prescott’s baby, there are major concerns as to the influence and relevance of the European Union in the whole of the regionalisation process.

It is not widely known but the initiative; ‘A Soul for Europe’ is an EU funded project and therefore compromises the Bishop’s impartiality.4.

Supporters of devolution for the North East continually deny any EU involvement, but the simple fact is that the European Union, like it or not, is playing an increasing role in our governance and this is undeniable. The separate argument is to the legitimacy of this interference and also the fact that it is leading to the bypass of our own national democratic institutions.

 

In an article by Nick Woods (The Journal 16.01.03) he asks the question, “Will there be less money for the North East as the EU expands?” and as the North East may lose an MEP in the enlargement process, he states that the prospect of a directly-elected North East Assembly dealing directly with Brussels could go some way to compensate for reduced MEP strength. So, it is inexcusable to dismiss the EU connection as scare mongering. It is fact, and to dismiss it as irrelevant or non-existent only serves to weaken the pro sides credibility.

On Friday January 10th 2003 The Journal carried an advert from the North East Assembly for a Policy Officer (European Issues) 5.

The North East Assembly contributes towards the North East of England office in Brussels (£120,000 in 2002/3) 6.

 

Thanks to the honesty of one North East MEP, Barbara O’ Toole, (Article Journal 1st January 2003) then perhaps the true role of the future of the region in an enlarged European Union can be seen.7.

 

It is not widely known that the originator and primary advocate of regionalisation, John Prescott, was a UK delegate to the Council of Europe in 1973 where he spent two years, becoming a member of the European Parliament in 1975. So strong were his ‘European’ credentials that he was offered, but declined, the position of European Commissioner. An excellent risumi of the whole history of the regionalisation process can be found in Dr. Richard North’s paper, “A Democracy Bypass”.8.

 

The North East has two representatives and two alternates on the EU’s Committee of the Regions and literature produced by the CoR clearly shows a well mapped out timeline.8b However, this is an argument for another time as the concern here is to the unlawful use ratepayers monies in driving forward the regionalisation agenda.

 

So it is here we come on to our main concern, the issue of funding.

In 1995, the then North of England Assembly of local authorities agreed a consultation document on regional government to stimulate discussion. As a result, the Assembly agreed to support directly elected regional government, with the will of the people. This is the point where the whole thing becomes contentious because at no point have they demonstrated that the ‘will of the people’ is for regional government. This will only be fully realised with the results from a referendum.

In 1999 this support for directly elected regional government was reaffirmed by the Members of the new Association of North East Councils.9

At this point we therefore begin to ask some questions as to who funds the Association of North East Councils and where is it based?

Also, what is its relationship with the North East Assembly?

The North East Assembly was set up in 1999 and is an organisation that ‘brings together representatives from the whole of the North East.’ Its members who consist of local authority councillors (70%)as well as representatives from the business, voluntary, ethnic minority/faiths and public sectors (30%) from around the region make its main decisions. They are each nominated by their sector. It is therefore to be assumed that these members agree with the NEA’s aims and priorities. The day to day running of the organisation is overseen by its Director, Stephen Barber, who has a team of 28 full and part-time staff, based in the Guildhall, Newcastle.

From April 1st 2002, the North East Assembly also became the Regional Planning Body, which produces Regional Planning Guidance including the Regional Transport Strategy. It took over this role from The Association of North East Councils.

In literature produced by the North East Assembly it lists as its first priority for the next twelve months…”to ensure that the region moves swiftly towards the introduction of directly elected regional government.” 10.

 

So the relationship between the Association of North East Councils and the North East Assembly appears to be, and most obviously is, very close. Upon further scrutiny it appears that there is no distinction between the two. So close is the relationship that they could not deny they have separate remits or agendas. For all intents and purposes it appears as though ANEC exists in name only, the drive and agenda being set by the North East Assembly. Here are a number of interesting points should there be any doubt…

The Association of North East Councils (ANEC) is based in the Guildhall on Newcastle’s Quayside.

The North East Assembly is based in the Guildhall on Newcastle’s Quayside.

The telephone number for the two organisations is the same, (0191 261 7388)

The fax number for the two organisations is the same (0191 232 4558)

The staff for the two organisations are the same, including Director, Stephen Barber.

The Chairman of both organisations is Tony Flynn, Leader of Newcastle Council.

Also, the accounts are prepared for ANEC / NEA and “presented in a unified format because one organisation supports the activities of both bodies and it is generally impractical to arbitrarily apportion the income and expenditure between them.”11.

 

To highlight the fact that the two organisations are both singing from the same hymn sheet, let us also look at the statements of the Chairman, Tony Flynn.

 

In the ANEC Corporate Plan 2002-4 brochure he states that, “Unity of purpose will be critical to achieving regional government in the North East. The Association will have an important role to play in taking forward the agenda on regional government and in ensuring that there is a strong local government voice in the debate over the next two years."

In the North East Assembly Corporate Plan 2002-4 he states, “The North East has been given the challenge and opportunity to shape its own destiny, through the White Paper on Regional Government, ’Your Region, Your Choice’. The powers and responsibilities proposed for a directly elected regional assembly represent an exciting and unprecedented opportunity to address the social and economic challenges facing the region. The North East Assembly will further the debate on ways in which regional government can fundamentally improve people’s lives.”

“Over the next twenty four months,” the brochure goes on, “the Assembly is setting itself another set of goals which are aimed at ensuring that regional government becomes a reality in the North East and that we truly become ‘The First English Region’.”

The brochure also confirms that it is the North East Assembly’s target to “ensure that the region moves swiftly towards the introduction of directly elected regional government.”

 

Therefore, there is no doubt that the two organisations are intertwined and inter-related to such a degree that they have common purpose and goals. As members of the North East Assembly include representatives of all the North East Councils it appears as though they agree and support the Assemblies agenda and consensus, and the above statement drawn from the accounts show that one organisation supports the activities of both bodies and so the evidence is overwhelming.

However, some of the authorities are unsure whom they make their subscriptions to, whether it is ANEC, ANEC/ NEA or simply NEA. Because of this we must question whether this is an attempt at concealment as to the true nature of their contribution, or simply because the two organisations are indistinguishable then the monies can effectively be paid to either or both to achieve the same purpose.12.copies of letters received from supporters highlighting who the councils paid the money to.

The role of ANEC as mentioned, now appears to be relatively minor in the general scheme of things, the broad remit being taken over by the NEA. Such is this relationship that the Guildhall abounds with literature from the NEA purporting to be ‘ The Voice for the Region’, and on a most recent visit there was only one brochure left in the building which was produced by the Association of North East Councils.

 

 

 

During 2001/2 the Assembly was given additional responsibilities relating to the scrutiny of the Regional Development Agency (One NE). With these extra responsibilities came extra funding of £1.8m (payable over three years in three instalments of £600,000) from Central Government and was specifically earmarked for ‘Strengthening Regional Accountability’. This money was incorporated in the annual accounts under a separate schedule relating to the use and receipt of the grant.

 

Therefore this extra money was to be used solely for the scrutiny of One NE and not for any other purpose to do with the North East Assembly or the Association of North East Councils.

Even so, it was confirmed by Robert Crangle at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister that this money could not be used to promote regional government.12b

This helps clarify the position that we are heading towards.

The ANEC / NEA members, as mentioned, make annual subscriptions based, in the instance of the local authorities, on head of population.

 

The Subscription Fees 2002/3 are listed in the ANEC/NEA Annexe B document, and it can clearly be seen that Sunderland is the largest contributor…£92,224.77. As the question of an elected Assembly is highly contentious and the subject potentially of a referendum, then the ratepayers of Sunderland most definitely have not been consulted as to whether their monies could be used for such a purpose.

 

The two County Councils of Durham and Northumberland between them gave the sum of  £130,050.97. Quite surprising, as these two county councils, under the plans in the White Paper, face abolition. The question has to be asked as to whether their representatives on the ANEC/NEA were aware of this, and if so, why did they not raise their objections?

 

We are currently awaiting the release of the minutes of all NEA / ANEC meetings over the last two years to confirm that all parties were actually in agreement with the Executives agenda. If not, why didn’t some authorities withhold their contributions and demand that biased material be withdrawn. Dave Stephens, Leader of Blyth District Council, was quoted as saying (Page 7 TheJournal 3.02.03), “…………….12c

It therefore now appears as though the impact of regionalisation is beginning to strike home, and that it may be very detrimental to large areas of the North East and its residents.

 

It is also understood from the White Paper that the district authorities also face abolition and restructuring into Unitary Authorities. Between them these authorities also gave a total of £130,050.97.

Again, the question has to be asked, were the representatives of these authorities aware, and did they inform their ratepayers, that the organisation they were paying money to would be assisting with the creation of their demise?

 

As can be seen from Budget Details 2002/3 13.

 

The ANEC/NEA confirms that this is a UNIFIED budget, and gross spending is expected to be £ 890,000.00

 (£617k is for staffing, £120,000 to the North of England Office in Brussels & NE sport)

It seems rather unusual that supporters of regionalisation who deny any EU connection would not therefore question why the organisation also needs an office in Brussels!

 

Local authorities contribute £821,090.00 and Social Partners a figure of £26,400.00 (these include the Countryside Agency, Environment Agency, English Heritage, University of Newcastle and Sunderland Health Authority).

 

Now this is the point where the issue becomes highly contentious and involves an unlawful misuse of public monies.

 

Regional Assemblies were set up as regional chambers to promote and create a regional identity and an awareness of the region. Also to encourage social, economic and environmental issues at regional level, as well as scrutinising the work of the RDA, One NE as has already been mentioned.

 

The Assembly is there to offer a Regional view to the Government and the EU on any issue falling with in the Assembly’s competence. The Assembly will also provide a forum for considering and debating any issue of policy proposals having an impact upon the people of the North East of England.

(Drawn from NEA Rules of Procedure) 14.

 

*At no point within their Rules of Procedure does it allow, or even state, that they can actively campaign for a yes, or even a no vote in any referendum. Their position should be benign and neutral.

Every other Assembly in the country has adopted this role, and their web sites and literature confirm this.

 

The North East Assembly however, has been actively and vociferously campaigning and promoting a yes vote in all of their literature and on their website.

They actively support the North East Constitutional Convention and its aims and offer no balance in their literature or on their web site from opponents of regionalisation.

The North East Assembly assisted with the organising of a conference at the Stadium of Light in Sunderland having previously stated in their literature that this was their intention.14b

The event attracted media coverage, but was only open to supporters of regionalisation. A request to attend from myself was denied as I was told that it was not a debate.

 

 

To confirm the active promotion of a Yes vote here are a number of statements from ANEC and NEA’s literature. -

 

Paving the way for a Referendum in the Northeast 15.

 

“…. The regions local authorities are in favour of a directly elected assembly for the Northeast”

“…There is evidence of a groundswell of support for a directly elected assembly”

 

Now these statements give the impression that all the regions local authorities are in favour of regionalisation. It will be interesting to note from the minutes of meetings exactly how many dissenting voices there are in the councils across the North East. Can we assume that because no one refused or withheld their subscriptions, that they were all in favour?

If there is evidence of groundswell support then where is it? Where were the studies conducted? How many people were polled? Were they representative socio-economic samples, or was it simply the ‘consultative groups’ making statements?

 

It also mentions the government’s sounding exercise to whether we should have a referendum. This highly ambiguous soundings exercise is nothing short of farcical and merely avoids the issue.

You could answer No to the question, “Do you want a referendum?” because you do not want an elected assembly.

You could also answer yes to wanting a referendum to be able to tell the government you do not want an assembly. Either way, it makes a mockery of the whole exercise and will lead to more obfuscation and ambiguity.

 

Frequently asked questions (web-site) 16.

 

Q.“What are the Assembly’s priorities in the next twelve months?”

 

A.To ensure that the region moves swiftly towards the introduction of a directly elected regional government.

 

You cannot get much more of a ‘pro’ agenda than that!

 

Also from the same site…just to clarify that the membership are in full agreement with the aims of the North East Assembly…“the Assembly’s main decisions are made by its members, who come from the length and breadth of the North East. They include local authority councillors as well as representatives from the business, voluntary, ethnic minority / faiths and public sectors from around the region. They are each nominated by their sector.

These members debate regional issues in full plenary sessions twice a year and through an Executive Committee, time limited panels and seminars” 17.

 

Interview with Tony Flynn, Chairman, North East Assembly  18.  

 

“As soon as we are given the green light, the challenge will be to engage the electorate in a truly region wide campaign to convince the people of the North East that a ‘Yes’ vote at a referendum can fundamentally improve their lives”.

 

Obviously Mr. Flynn is entitled to hold personal opinions but as we will see later from guidelines from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, he cannot use public money to further his own political aims or beliefs, or, in his position as Chairman of both the Association of North East Councils and the North East Assembly actively campaign to influence or coerce the public to hold a particular opinion.

 

 

Devolved Regional Government (website) 19.

 The Association of North East Councils….”The Association supported the introduction of directly elected regional government with the will of the people”

 

It is apparently clear that ANEC / NEA are using public money to try and influence the ‘will of the people’ as it is abundantly clear from all straw polls and opinions conducted by local TV (Tyne Tees 85% opposed) and Radio stations (BBC Radio Newcastle 75% of callers opposed) that the people most certainly do not want a regional assembly.

 

Also on the Northeast Assembly web site, as we have already mentioned, they promote the North East Constitutional Convention who is actively campaigning for a directly elected assembly. There is no attempt anywhere on the Northeast Assembly’s web site or in any of its literature to provide a balance from any of the opposition groups.

All meetings, which have been held so far by NECC, have been closed meetings with anyone not in favour of regionalisation barred from attending. Hardly open and transparent democracy. If this is the way they behave now, just imagine what it will be like if they have an assembly.

 

ANEC Corporate Plan 2002-2004  20.

 

Statement by Chairman, Tony Flynn…

“Unity of purpose will also be critical to achieving regional government in the North East. The Association will have an important role to play in taking forward the agenda on regional government and ensuring that there is a strong local government voice in the debate over the next two years”.

 

 

 

North East Assembly Corporate Plan 2002/4 21.

 

“Over the next twenty four months, the Assembly is setting itself another set of goals which are aimed at ensuring that regional government becomes a reality in the North East and that we truly become ‘The First English Region’”.

 

Also…Target

 

“To ensure that the region moves swiftly toward the introduction of directly elected regional government”.

 

 

So therefore, it is clear and unequivocal that ANEC / NEA makes no secret of the fact that it is actively in favour of, and will campaign and promote regionalisation in order to influence the people of the North East in voting ‘Yes’ in a referendum.

 

This therefore leads us finally to the misuse of public funds scandal.

Guidelines issued by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister…”Code of Recommended Practice of Local Authority Publicity” (Local Government Act 1986) state… (The killer point is section 19)…

 

19. “Legitimate concern, however, caused by the use of public resources for some form of campaigns which are designed to have a persuasive effect. Publicity campaigns can provide an appropriate means of ensuring that the local community is properly informed about a matter relating to a function of the local authority and about the authorities policies in relation to that function and the reasons for them.

But local authorities, like other public authorities should not use public funds to mount publicity campaigns whose primary purpose is to persuade the public to hold a particular view or a question of policy.

 

Therefore, it is abundantly clear that the North East Assembly has exceeded its remit and is actively campaigning for a Yes vote in what is a highly contentious issue, which is to be the subject of a referendum. The use of ratepayer’s monies to fund what is essentially a propaganda campaign to achieve a political objective is outrageous and immoral as well as unlawful.

At no point were the ratepayers of the councils of the North East told that their monies would be used for this purpose.

Initial soundings and straw polls by independent television and local radio stations, mentioned above, has shown massive opposition to the creation of an elected regional assembly, and all of these people have contributed monies via their rates to an organisation which is intent on influencing their opinion.

The position of Newcastle City Council Leader Tony Flynn is untenable. He must resign his position as Chairman of the North East Assembly and Association of North East Councils immediately as he must have been fully aware of the guidelines issued by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. If he is not fully aware then he is also not fit to hold office. If he is fully aware then he, along with the members of the Association of North East Councils / North East Assembly have abused their position to drive forward a political agenda in direct contravention of the Government’s own guidelines.

 

Action Needed

 

1.      All the contributing councils from across the North East must cease funding this organisation immediately as this is an unlawful use of ratepayers money.

2.      All literature produced by the North East Assembly or the Association of North East Councils must be withdrawn, and only impartial non-biased material produced in the future.

3.      Chairman of ANEC and NEA, Newcastle City Council Leader, Tony Flynn, must resign his position immediately as his openly pro stance on regionalisation must not be allowed to influence anything the NEA / ANEC does in the future. His position, in allowing this unlawful activity, is untenable. Credibility of the organisation will be permanently destroyed unless he stands down.

4.      There must be full scrutiny by all the District Auditors across the region of monies paid by councils to ANEC / NEA to date. Ratepayers in each one of the council areas will be making objections in due course.

5.      The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister must issue guidelines to all other regions and their assemblies that this behaviour will not be tolerated otherwise the credibility of the whole of the regionalisation programme will be called into question.

6.      Public statements must be made by each of the councils along with the North East Assembly that there will be no repetition, and that they will provide a balance to the arguments by allowing the case against regionalisation to be covered in any future literature as well as allowing representation from the No Campaign a place on their membership list.

 

 

Moves are already afoot to raise objections to items in all the councils approved accounts and the District Auditor in each case will instigate investigations. Ignorance of the Assembly’s intentions will be no excuse as each council has a representative who has agreed with ANEC / NEA ‘s aims.

We trust that all these concerns raised in the above will be addressed immediately with full and open transparency.

We do not expect, and will not tolerate obfuscation and misinformation.

We trust that the District Auditors in each area will treat the matter with the utmost importance and that the findings are open and public.

We trust that the press and media will be aware of the gravity of what has been exposed.

We trust that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister will begin a full and thorough investigation.

The Electoral Commission is being kept fully informed as misuse of public funds prior to a referendum may affect the validity of any result.

 

 

 

Contacts

 

Neil Herron

N.E.A.R.A.

(North East Against Regional Assemblies)

48 Frederick Street

Sunderland

SR1 1NF

Tel..……. 0191 5657143

Mobile.. . 07776 202045       e-mail metricmartyrs@btconnect.com

 

Tony Flynn

Leader of Newcastle City Council

Chairman ANEC / NEA

Tel. 0191 211511

Fax. 0191 2114815               e-mail tony.Flynn@newcastle.gov.uk

 

Stephen Barber

Director ANEC / NEA

Guildhall

Quayside

Newcastle Upon Tyne

Tel. 0191 261 7388

Fax. 0191 232 4558               e-mail Stephen@rane.gov.uk 

 

Bob Symonds

Leader of Sunderland Council

Tel. 0191 553 1322

Fax. 0191 553 1323                e-mail cllr.robert.symonds@sunderland.gov.uk

 

David Jennings

District Auditor

Nickall’s House

Metro Centre

Gateshead

NE11 9NH

Tel. 0191 4602022

 

 

Robert Crangle

Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

Eland House

Bressenden Place

London

SW1E 5DU

Tel. 0207 944 4998

 

Audit Commission

1 Vincent Square

London

SW1P 2PN

Tel. 020 7828 1212

Fax. 020 7976 6187                     e-mail enquiries@auditcommission.gov.uk

 

Electoral Commission…Jane Harrison ext. 0590

Trevelyan House

Great Peter Street

London

SW1P 2HW

Tel. 020 7271 0500

Fax. 020 7251 0505