Cambridgeshire County Council confirm request to Cambridgeshire Police to investigate concerns over community transport survey and riddle of the 187 'duplicate' responses
PUBLISHED: 17:11 11 November 2016 | UPDATED: 17:11 11 November 2016
Police have been called in by the chief executive of Cambridgeshire County Council to investigate consultation responses following concerns that they may compromised decisions involving public money.
Gillian Beasley took the decision to alert Cambridgeshire Police to her fears on Friday. It was after she had been confronted with concerns over a consultation involving community transport users including members of the Fenland Association of Community Transport (FACT), Huntingdonshire Association of Community Transport (HACT) and the Ely and Soham Community Transport Association (ESACT).
Jo Philpott, manager of all three associations, said she had no knowledge of any wrong doing.
The chief executive’s decision to involve police came about after her attention was drawn last week to a survey carried out earlier this year.
A county council spokesman said: “The council has referred the issue to the police and will fully co-operate and work with the constabulary as part of any possible investigation.
“As such it would be inappropriate for the authority to comment further at this point.”
A police spokesman said: “The constabulary has received some information from Cambridgeshire County Council and will liaise with them to obtain greater detail. “It is very early days therefore it would not be appropriate to comment any further at this time.”
County council officials became concerned the responses – used by county councillors to vote to extend a subsidy to community transport operators – may have over estimated the numbers using these services.
Council officials excluded 187 responses that officials reported as ‘duplicates’ after becoming concerned about similarities in terms of phrases used to oppose any cuts to the subsidy.
Mrs Beasley felt by Friday to have no option but to ask police to conduct an investigation.
At the beginning of this year the county council was considering a business plan that would have ended the discretionary concession of a 50 per cent reduction in the cost of journeys made on community transport dial-a-ride schemes by bus pass holders.
“This did not necessarily mean that the service will end but that users would have to pay the 50 per cent of the journey that is currently paid for by Cambridgeshire County Council,” said an officers’ report to the economy and environment committee.
Before taking a decision the committee undertook a survey of all community transport users who would, had the subsidy been withdrawn, probably have been forced to pay an extra £2 to £4.50 for most journeys. The county council wanted to contact all community transport members direct but FACT declined to allow them to access their membership lists quoting data protection rules.
Instead a compromise was agreed with FACT where the survey forms were sent in bulk to be sent to their members.
A total of 2,600 surveys were sent out, 1,753 ‘valid responses’ received and with an overwhelming majority expressing concern over a possible reduction the committee agreed to dig into reserves to allow the subsidies to continue until at least next year.
Paul Nelson, interim head of passenger transport services, told the committee in May that the majority of respondents “were either unwilling or very unwilling to pay the additional cost”.
He said the results “do show that there is considerable concern amongst users, many of whom are vulnerable, live in rural areas and are at risk of social isolation”.
Included in his report were the observations that two community transport groups – Cambridge Dial a Ride and The Voluntary Network- accounted for 21 per cent of the responses. Three groups represented the rest – all run by the Fenland Association of Community Transport (FACT).
FACT’s Ely and Soham Association for Community Transport (ESACT) produced 127 responses (seven per cent); Huntingdonshire Association for Community Transport (HACT) had 238 responses whilst FACT itself (the parent group and based in March) accounted for 1,060 responses, i.e. 60 per cent of the overall total.
Mr Nelson observed that “61 per cent of respondents were either unwilling or very unwilling to pay the additional cost although this ranged from 15 per cent for The Voluntary Network to 77 per cent of FACT members.
When the forms were returned by the CTOs, council officials noticed there were some that appeared to be duplicates and looked to have been filled in by the same person.
These were removed but the committee felt the overall consultation presented a strong enough case anyway and they agreed to continue with the subsidy.
Michael Soper is the county council’s research manager with overall control of conducting consultations.
He later pointed out that the CTO operators had been asked for their data bases so that surveys could be targeted to those individuals most affected.
HACT, FACT and ESACT declined to share their membership database and instead the council agreed to print the questionnaires and bulk deliver them to these three organisations to then send out to their members.
In correspondence seen by this newspaper Mr Soper said: “In total we received 1,940 responses.
“Reviewing these it was clear that a number of questionnaires had been filled in by the same person.
“These were easy to identify as the same stock phrases had been used throughout with the same tick box answers together with the same style of handwriting and pen.
“All of these duplicates pertained to be from members of ESACT / FACT / HACT (in that order) and strongly objected to the proposed withdrawal of the subsidy.” Those identified by Mr Soper were, of course, then withdrawn.
At a meeting on Thursday officials looked at many of the responses and raised questions over how they were sent out.
It was also pointed out that the numbers of journeys respondents had claimed didn’t appear to match audited returns.
Councillor Alan Lay, his colleague Councillor Paul Clapp, and representatives of the Cambridgeshire Bus, Coach and Taxi Association (CBCTA) questioned the outcome of the survey and last Thursday visited Shire Hall to examine the original survey responses.
They were joined by the vice chairman of CBCTA Dave Humphrey and Andrew Rowson – a freelance audit specialist who has been advising the UKIP councillors and the taxi drivers.
They arrived at 9am and by 1pm and after processing a further 220 responses, the group decided they had seen enough to challenge the veracity of the survey.
Mr Rowson said: “Dave called for an emergency meeting with chief executive Gillian Beasley, who immediately decided to put the boxes under lock and key”
Mr Humphrey has previously spoken out about community transport schemes because he claims they deprive taxi drivers of the potential to compete.
In recent months his association has won a pledge by the county council for an independent and external £45,000 investigation into allegations of long term irregularities into community transport funding.
I met Ms Philpott on Wednesday along with two of her board members, former county councillor Jill Tuck and Fenland district councillor Kit Owen.
Cllr Owen said: “Anybody could have tampered with the forms.”
Ms Philpott said the county council provided 2,500 forms for the members of all three groups but spares were put on their mini buses in for new members.
She said there were about 400 members of ESACT, 1,400 FACT members ad a further 700 HACT members; all were sent the survey.
“There were quite a few thousand forms sent to us,” she said.
I asked “So you would have mailed out 2,500 forms?
Ms Philpott said: “Yes.”
She confirmed FACT would have paid around £1,200 to mail out the forms over several weeks but the cost was re-imbursed by the county council.
She said the surplus of forms left over was made available on buses “to make sure everybody got one. We didn’t do a check list of who had one and sent it back.” “A lot of our members hand back to drivers. Old people don’t use the postal system.”
Ms Philpott denied any member of FACT staff was involved in filling out any of the forms. She said drivers may have occasionally been asked to help but that would have been the limit of any involvement.
Ms Philpott said many of the surveys were returned by members to drivers and all FACT then did was to post them to the county council from their March office.
Mrs Tuck said: “Our drivers go over and above to help our members.”