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Comment: Round One - Labour comes out with guns blazing
Until now, there had only been a few skirmishes in the battle for Watford’s mayoralty – which is unsurprising given the election is not until May.
Yet this week saw the first major engagement between the challenging Labour Party and the incumbent Lib Dems and it was Watford Council’s beleaguered revenues and benefits department that found itself in the crosshairs.
The department, which is shared with Three Rivers, has been struggling to get on top of a chronic backlog in claims for years.
Good money after bad has been thrown at the situation, but to little avail. The political situation escalated last month when the council’s budget panel was presented with a report showing delays processing claims and changes in circumstance were leading to overpayments of around £1 million a year – and rising.
Lib Dem portfolio holder Mark Watkin admitted the state of affairs was not desirable, but said the money was not a dead loss and would be clawed back eventually.
At the time, the issue caused a moderate amount of handwringing and table thumping – from both opposition and ruling councillors – but it was not treated as a political cataclysm.
However this week, it was upgraded from minor embarrassment to potentially damaging fiasco as Labour’s mayoral candidate, Jagtar Singh Dhindsa, looked to turn the overpayments into a campaign weapon.
In an open letter published on the facing page, he seized on the benefits brouhaha and called for the resignation of Councillor Watkin and his boss mayor Dorothy Thornhill over what he is keen to frame as the Liberal Democrat’s “missing” £1.3 million.
As well as the obvious political advantage to be gained from this line of attack, Labour also sense an opportunity to exact some long-awaited revenge.
One of the blows that helped end Labour’s control of Watford Council in the early noughties was the accusation it had badly mismanaged the borough’s finances. In March 2002, the council’s then Labour leader, Vince Muspratt, was getting his campaign for the first mayoral election underway when it emerged the authority was involved in an angry bust-up with government auditors.
One of the main disputes was over £531,000 written off in the previous year’s accounts.
The district auditor, looking at the council’s books, accused the administration of a “collapse in financial control”, which made it impossible to ascertain the true nature of the write-off. The episode enabled the opposition Lib Dems to make hay over the council’s “missing” £500,000 in the campaign that saw them capture the mayoralty and with it effective control of the borough.
In the ensuing decade, the Lib Dems have relentlessly portrayed Watford Labour as the party of fiscal ineptitude. Even 11 years on, rarely a council meeting passes where the mayor and her lieutenants miss an opportunity to bring up the financial mess Labour left Watford Town Hall in.
By levelling an accusation of a “missing million” at the mayor, Labour is attempting to turn the Lib Dem’s gun back on them.
Yet the two issues are different and Councillor Watkin will argue in detail in defence of the backlog. The money will be clawed back from claimants, he has said, and the council was actually in profit from one of the years. But these qualifiers may not be enough to blunt the attack.
Public antipathy to benefit claimants is well documented and the perception council inefficiency is adding to overpayments is electorally toxic. This ongoing bureaucratic mess up risks becoming a serious political liability for the mayor.
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