Advisers to Eric Pickles have insisted that departmental statisticians signed off on controversial research by private-sector consultants that was promoted by the communities secretary last summer.
Giles Kenningham, a special adviser to Mr Pickles, told LGC that research by Opera Solutions which claimed councils could save £10bn a year through improved procurement had been tested by departmental statisticians and “we were comfortable with the results”.
LGC contacted Mr Pickles’ office after Private Eye magazine obtained information through the Freedom of Information Act which showed that the communities secretary’s other special adviser, Sheridan Westlake, right, had deleted emails between himself and representatives of Opera.
The department declined to release details of its statisticians’ approval.
Taking estimated savings from a tiny part of the spending of just three councils… is eye-catching but inaccurate
Baroness Margaret Eaton
Opera’s research was hailed in a Department for Communities & Local Government press release last June as “new, cutting edge analysis of council spending data by procurement experts Opera Solutions”.
It quoted Mr Pickles saying: “Let there be no doubt whatsoever - today’s figures show that there is significant scope for councils to make taxpayers’ money work even harder.” Unusually for the work of a private company, the departmental press release included a link to American-owned Opera’s report.
The research studied the spending of three local authorities on energy, mobile phones and legal services, and calculated that by working together to achieve economies of scale the councils could save 10% on their bills.
The then chair of the LGA Baroness Margaret Eaton (Con) responded, claiming: “Taking estimated savings from a tiny part of the spending of just three councils and grossing them up across all 375 local authorities in England and Wales is eye-catching but inaccurate.”
But in a ‘note to editors’ accompanying its release, the DCLG press release stated: “The Opera report confirms what Cllr Paul Bettison, of Bracknell Forest Borough Council, and Andrew Smith, chief executive of Hampshire, who are leading the Local Productivity Programme’s work on Capital, Assets and Procurement have been saying for some time.”
This LGA-sponsored programme led to a ‘big wins’ strategy “calling councils to collaborate to unlock 10-20 per cent savings in areas like construction,” the release noted.
Mr Kenningham confirmed to LGC that Mr Westlake had been in contact with representatives of Opera along with a former Conservative party official called Nick Vaughan, now working for Opera’s public relations advisers Gardant Communications.
“There is nothing wrong with us talking to third parties about how local government can make savings but there is no official relationship with this company,” he said. “There was correspondence between Mr Westlake and Gardant Communications, correspondence with Nick Vaughan, but…it was correspondence on how local government can save money. It was for a proper purpose.”
The disclosed correspondence refers to an e-mail exchange between Mr Westlake, an unnamed person at Opera and Mr Vaughan.
It reads: “Good morning. Per our email exchange, I am forwarding you a White Paper we put together specific for this speech and conference.”
But the department said it could not disclose any other e-mails related to the matter as “the requested material was routinely deleted from Mr Westlake’s email account some weeks before receipt of your original FoI request”.
Mr Kenningham said the productivity programme report referred to in the release showed that others in the sector accepted the scale of savings predicted by Opera.
The FoI release was sent to LGC on request but has still not appeared on the DCLG website, which has not had its disclosure log undated since February. By contrast, the Department for Transport has published 29 FoI responses since then.
A spokesman for the Information Commissioner said: “There is no statutory requirement on a public authority to update its disclosure log but it is bad practice if they are not proactively made available as there could be other requests.”
DCLG intends to release its next a batch of FoI disclosures on 4 May, a spokeswoman said.