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12.11.15

Cameron accused of code breach for offering Oxfordshire access to No 10 advisers

Prime minister David Cameron has been accused of breaking the ministerial code by offering Civil Service help to his Conservative constituency after an exchange of letters between him and the Oxfordshire County Council leader emerged yesterday (11 November).

Letters between Cameron and county council leader Cllr Ian Hudspeth, revealed by the Oxford Mail, show Cameron extending an invitation to “initiate a further dialogue” with Number 10 policy unit advisers about possible devolution deals as a result of cuts affecting Oxfordshire. He recommended that Hudspeth contact Sheridan Westlake of the DCLG if he “wished to take this up”.

Shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Ashworth MP has written to Civil Service chief Sir Jeremy Heywood asking for advice on Cameron’s correspondence. He suggested the letter appeared to have been written in the prime minister’s role as Witney MP, but noted that the ministerial code dictates that he must keep his government and constituency roles separate.

“Is it the case that if the prime minister has made this offer of ‘further dialogue’ available to the leader of his local county council, similar offers should be made to all the leaders of other councils?

“Surely the leader of the prime minister’s county council should not be given preferential treatment?” Ashworth wrote.

He also asked for confirmation of whether other council leaders have received similar offers and if the proposed meeting between Cameron and the Oxfordshire leader has taken place.

The two letters between the Whitehall and Oxfordshire bosses have triggered a wave of criticism and accusations of ministerial hypocrisy since surfacing yesterday.

In Cameron’s letter to Hudspeth, dated 14 September, he expressed disappointment at the “long list of suggestions” floated by the Oxfordshire leader to make significant cuts to frontline services in the area, including elderly care centres, libraries and museums.

This was, Cameron wrote, already in addition to the “unwelcome and counter-productive proposals to close children’s centres across the county”.

“I would have hoped that Oxfordshire would instead be following the best practice of Conservative councils from across the country in making back office savings and protecting the frontline,” the prime minister continued.

He accused Hudspeth’s briefing note (where proposed cuts were outlined) of misusing data, claiming that the alleged £204m council budget reduction was in fact a cumulative figure including efficiency savings from cutting waste – and that in reality Oxfordshire’s spending had increased.

“There has been a slight fall in government grants in cash terms, but this has effectively been made up for in other fiscal streams,” Cameron added.

According to the prime minister, the Oxfordshire leader was not taking advantage of potential savings that could be achieved in “a more creative manner” or by integrating or sharing services between other local authorities inside and near the region.

He finished the letter by noting the challenging and expensive impact of the country’s ageing population to all councils, citing the integration between health and social care services in Greater Manchester and elderly care integration in Cambridgeshire as pilot programmes developed to counter these effects.

“As part of a devolution deal, such an initiative could potentially be available to Oxfordshire, provided there was reassurance that the county was taking a constructive approach to protecting frontline services,” the Downing Street boss concluded.

Hudspeth’s reply, dated 22 September, was a detailed six-page rebuttal of Cameron’s arguments, emphasising that the £204m was, in fact, not a cumulative figure and that cuts were already topping £600m.

He also reminded Cameron that Oxfordshire is now in the bottom quarter of England’s county councils in terms of what is spent on the back office, suggesting that the prime minister is not aware of the true extent of Whitehall cuts.

Reacting to the correspondence after the issue blew up in the media, a Number 10 spokesman said: “There is still significant scope for sensible savings across local government to be made by back-office consolidation, disposing of surplus property and joining up our local public services.

“We will be discussing with Oxfordshire how this can be taken forward to help protect frontline services.”

(Top image c. Dominic Lipinski/PA Images)

Comments

Bill P   12/11/2015 at 13:04

Deal with it, Hudspeth - you made a deal with the devil and this is the price you have to pay. The cuts you voted for will not only fall on Labour councils. LOL. There comes a time when you can make no more cuts without cutting actual frontline services - something non-businessmen like Osborne (and Cameron) have no idea about because they've never had a real job - only jobs given for being BFFs. Incompetent

Cash   13/11/2015 at 16:04

Financial competence in action? - Ignorance of the effect of his own cuts -together with the Kids Company fiasco one wonders if these people have any idea of life in the real working world. Who were the auditors?

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