At the Council meeting last Thursday, in Public Question Time, I asked a number of questions in relation to the possible ballot of Council tenants on transfer to a Housing Association. (See the questions and answers at: http://swindontuc.wordpress.com/2009/09/25/balloting-tenants-questions-and-answers )

Asked if they agreed that tenants “have the right to hear the case for and against transfer before deciding whether transfer was in their best interests” the answer was evasive. It seems that tenants will have “a range of opportunities” to “engage in the process before voting takes place”. We can no doubt expect ‘engagement’ as practiced in the recent consultation: that is where officers meet tenants individually and public discussion is carefully avoided.During the recent consultation we are told that “tenants have been presented with a balanced case” and should the Council decided to proceed to a ballot, “that will continue to be the case.”

Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. Did the Council present the pros and cons of transfer? No, they said “there is no alternative”. At the time the advantage of transfer was the fact that Housing Associations are able to keep all their income from tenants’ rent whereas Swindon suffered “negative subsidy”; the government took off us £16 million of our rent each year. There were disadvantages of transfer of which the Council was well aware, yet they avoided any debate on the actual pros and cons of the two options.

In the last Options Appraisal six years ago, they organised public meetings on the estates, where the options and their implications were openly discussed and debated. This time they decided not to organise meetings, holding sessions where they presented “the facts” to individual tenants. When asked why they did not organise meetings, one senior officer said that “the problem with meetings is that people with strong opinions have a lot to say”. In other words opponents of transfer might dominate the meetings and lead the poor tenants by the nose. Council officers would save them from this fate, and present only “the facts”, which by chance happened to coincide with the view of the Council that there was “no alternative”.

In response to Swindon TUC the Conservative ruling group said that they would not allow people to be “shouted down” in meetings. What such an idea is based on is a mystery since in the last Options Appraisal nobody was shouted down. This time around the only public meeting to have taken place was one organised by the Parks and East Walcot Forum. It was a lively affair, but once again nobody was shouted down.

The other ‘problem’ with meetings is that officers and Councillors have to justify what they are doing and saying. But isn’t this part of the process of accountability?

‘Balance’The lack of ‘balance’ in the conduct of the Council was reflected by the fact that neither they, nor the so-called Independent Tenants Advisor, had a single thing to say about potential disadvantages of transfer to a housing association (e.g. the difference in tenure between a Council tenant and a Housing Association, the fact that you can vote out your landlord at the Council but you cannot vote out the Board of a business).

It would be one thing to list the advantages and disadvantages of the two options, but they acted as if there were no disadvantages to transfer. In the case of the ‘Independent Tenants’ Advisor’ their main role was to downplay the consequences of transfer. They even argued against meetings on the grounds that opponents of transfer, or ‘unrepresentative people’ would dominate meetings, whereas they and the Council could ‘impartially’ present ‘the facts’ to individual tenants, away from the malign influence of campaigners against transfer. Presenting ‘the facts’ meant nothing other than driving home the message that “there is no alternative” to transfer. It was difficult to tell the difference between the Council and the ITA.

Of course, the ITA was not a disinterested and impartial provider of advice to tenants. It was in their interest for a ballot to take place. Why? Because if the Council decided against balloting then that would be the end of their contract. If a ballot was to take place, then they had the chance to be appointed to the next stage and earn more money. Could the fact that they did not present any disadvantages to transfer be connected with their prospects of earning more money?

In the public meeting which was organised in Parks the ITA representative was asked by one tenant, how many times have you advised tenants that their best option was to stay as Council tenants? Curiously enough he did not answer the question.

The BallotIn response to the question, “will it commit to providing a list of addresses to the campaign against transfer” they said that the content of any offer documentation “has not yet been considered” and this request “will be given serious consideration” (within the context of complying with the Data Protection Act.) In fact the right of campaigners to receive the addresses of tenants has already been established by ruling of the Information Commissioner. Government guidance simply reiterates this right.

The conduct of ballots has been brought into disrepute by many Councils. Instead of the presentation of ‘facts’ a concerted propaganda campaign has often been used to win a ‘yes’ vote. So much so that the government has seen fit to introduce a consultation paper on Statutory Guidance for the balloting process. This states that:

“Tenants… should not feel that the main purpose of the consultation document is to sell the transfer; rather it should provide neutral information.”

It further says that the document issued to explain that:

“…although transferring tenants will have broadly similar rights, some rights will be lost whiloe others will be provided by contract rather than by statute.”

And:

“There are additional grounds for possession available to the new landlord that may be used against existing tenants in the event that the transfer goes ahead and these should be explained.”

Playing by the Queensbury Rules?Of course, the problem is that in reality a Council which is in favour of transfer is hardly likely to play by the Queensbury rules. In the case of our Council, if the tenants vote ‘No’ then the Council tax payers will bear the cost of the process which is estimated at £1 million. That would be a political problem for the ruling group because they would be open to the accusation that they have wasted Council tax payers money and so on. So they are bound to campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote rather than impartially presenting ‘the facts’.

We asked two other questions PQT. Does the Council accept that the ballot papers should go out with no accompanying material? The government’s guidance says:

“The ballot paper should be delivered to each tenant under separate cover from any consultation material. During a ballot period a local authority should generally refrain from issuing any further material about the proposed transfer.”

The answer to this question is curious. The Council says that since a ballot would be conducted by an independent organisation such as the Electoral Reform Society “they would have the final decision on what would be appropriate at this final stage”. This is unacceptable. The Council must decide what is “appropriate” in the light of government Guidance, and the avoidance of any tricks designed to assist winning a majority for a ‘Yes’ vote. ERS has behaved inappropriately in a number of ballots which it has conducted. For instance they have conducted balloting in the landlord’s office with their staff on hand and they have given details of who has voted to the landlord.

The final question related to who would be balloted. Some households have a single registered tenant, others have two jointly. Will all individual tenants receive a ballot or just one per household? Where there are two tenants there is no guarantee that they will vote the same way. What happens if they disagree? The only way to ensure their rights is to ballot all registered tenants. The Council tells us that they will seek Government guidance on this matter.

Martin Wicks

October 1st 2009

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