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Why did Wirral Council spend an incredible £1,872 on a London barrister to prevent openness and transparency?

                                                     

Treasury Building (Wirral Council), Hamilton Square, Birkenhead, 19th August 2014 (you can click on the photo for a more high-resolution version)
Treasury Building (Wirral Council), Hamilton Square, Birkenhead, 19th August 2014 (you can click on the photo for a more high-resolution version)

Yesterday on a sunny afternoon, I went to the Wirral Council building pictured above known as the Treasury Building to inspect various Wirral Council invoices. I was exercising an obscure right under s.15 of the Audit Commission Act 1998 c.18. This right means that for a few weeks each year, as an “interested person” you can inspect the accounts for the previous financial year that in the process of being audited by Grant Thornton. You can also inspect all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts that relate to these accounting records and make copies of all or any part of the accounts and those other documents. This year (for Wirral Council) that period ran from 21st July to the 15th August, so sadly if you’re thinking of exercising this right you’ll now have to wait till next year to do so!

However I had put in my request during that brief time period for five areas I was interested in. I’ve briefly describe what those four areas were, the first was invoices from SCC PLC (which is a large IT company), the second and third batches were invoices for legal matters (solicitors, barristers, expert witnesses, court fees etc), the fourth were some general invoices and the fifth were various contracts (two of which were the Schools PFI contract and the Birkenhead Market lease).

The contracts aren’t ready yet, but the invoices were available for inspection yesterday and I also exercised my s.15(1)(b) right to copies. Just the copies of invoices comes to hundreds of pages of documents (which may take me a while to scan in). Some pages are more heavily redacted than others. However this blog post is going to concentrate on just one which is document 117 in one of the two legal bundles. The document (in the form I received it from Wirral Council) is below (you can click on the photo for a more readable version).

11KBW Invoice for appeal of an ICO decision notice (October 2013) Metropolitan Borough of Wirral (£1872) redacted
11KBW Invoice for appeal of an ICO decision notice (October 2013) Metropolitan Borough of Wirral (£1872) redacted

A bit of context is probably needed about this invoice first. 11KBW is a London-based chamber of barristers that specialise in employment, public and commercial law. You can find out more about them on their website. This particular invoice for £1,872 (including VAT) was for “perusing and considering papers, advising by email, telephone and writing and drafting grounds of appeal to an ICO decision notice”. Whereas the first bit of that is understandable, if you don’t know what an ICO decision notice is then I’d better explain.

If a person makes a Freedom of Information request to Wirral Council, then is not happy with the response, requests an internal review, then they’re not happy with the internal review they can appeal the decision to the Information Commissioner’s Office (known as ICO). The ICO prefer to deal with things informally, but if they can’t they will issue a “decision notice”. A decision notice is an independent view of ICO’s one way or the other on the FOI request and as to whether the body to whom it has been made has complied with the Freedom of Information legislation and sometimes also the Environmental Information Regulations.

Unless the body to whom the FOI request is made or the person making the request appeals the decision notice within 28 days, the body to whom the FOI request is made has to comply with the decision notice within 35 calendar days. Sometimes ICO agree with the body the FOI request is made to so no further action is required. Other times the decision notice compels the body (unless they appeal) to disclose the information. If the public body doesn’t comply with the decision notice within 35 calendar days then ICO can tell the High Court about this failure and it would be dealt with as a “contempt of court” issue.

Helpfully (unlike a lot of other court matters), ICO have a search function on their website for decision notices. As the invoice is for drafting grounds of an appeal (which has to happen within 28 days of the notice) a search for decision notices from the 27th September 2013 to the 25th October 2013 brings up three decision notices FS50496446, FS50491264 and FS50474741.

The first of those three (FS50496446) states in the summary “As the council has now provided a response, the Commissioner requires no steps to be taken.” so it’s not that one. The last sentence of the summary on FS50474741 states “This decision notice is currently under appeal to the Tribunal” (which is a little out of date as by now the tribunal has already reached its decision on that matter). Therefore this invoice is (by process of elimination) about eight page decision notice FS50474741.

The decision notice goes into the detail about what the original FOI request (which you can read for yourself on the whatdotheyknow website) was about (made on the 4th February 2012), which is for correspondence between Wirral Council and DLA Piper UK LLP. Much of the correspondence is between DLA Piper Solicitors and Anna Klonowski Associates Limited and includes an amendment to the contract between AKA Limited and Wirral Council. The information also included Bill Norman (Borough Solicitor)’s advice to councillors on publication of Anna Klonowski Associate’s report which was previously published as an exclusive on this blog on December 12th 2011.

When the AKA report was published, the issue made the regional TV news (you can view a video clip of that below this paragraph) and a no confidence vote which removed both Cllr Steve Foulkes as Leader of the Council and the minority Labour administration. The Labour administration was replaced by a short-lived (~3 month) Conservative/Lib Dem one in the February of 2012. The whole matter was a very sensitive (and somewhat embarrassing) period in Wirral Council’s history (even more than the public inquiry into library closures was) and it’s probably somewhat understandable as to why Wirral Council didn’t want information as to what happened “behind the scenes” being released into the public domain. As far as I remember (and it was some years ago so I hope my memory is correct on this point), Wirral Council was paying DLA Piper to give legal advice to itself and AKA Limited. This was in relation to the inquiry of AKA Ltd started by Cllr Jeff Green into Martin Morton’s whistleblowing concerns (in the brief period when as a Conservative councillor he was Leader of the Council).

However, in addition to the details of the decision notice, other information has been blacked out. The part at the top right where it states “professional fees of”, I think relates to a junior barrister called Mr Robin Hopkins who is also on Twitter. The reason behind this is that at the bottom of the invoice it states “PLEASE MAKE CHEQUES PAYABLE TO Mr Robin Hopkins” and his name also appears as the organisation name on the list of invoices Wirral Council publish of over £500 for October. On Wirral Council’s systems although a small number of invoices from barristers chambers come under the name of the barrister’s chambers, most appear using the barrister’s name as the organisation.

As to the name of the Wirral Council officer that the pro forma invoice is addressed to, it would seem most likely that this is Surjit Tour. Not only does his short name fit what is blacked out, but he’s also the Head of Service for this service area within Wirral Council. I don’t know whether he’d actually be the solicitor at Wirral Council giving instructions to the barrister on this issue (as there are over a dozen solicitors employed at Wirral Council). I’ve no idea whose signature it is on this invoice and there are three other places on the invoice where officers initials or names have also been blacked out.

When the appeal to ICO’s decision notice was heard at the First-Tier Information Tribunal you can read this post about it on Paul Cardin’s blog, there’s another write-up about it in Local Government Lawyer and a copy of the 16 page unanimous decision of the tribunal can be read here.

The invoice (partly revealed) with my educated guesses in green as to what’s behind the redactions is below. However it begs the question, why did Wirral Council redact this information and what have they got to hide? Or is it just a case of they’d prefer the press and public to forget about the entire Martin Morton/AKA issues which were compared to “Watergate” by Cllr Stuart Kelly? If they’d chosen not to appeal this decision wouldn’t that meant a saving of £1,872 that Wirral Council could have instead spent on education or social services? I thought that a Labour councillor (was it Cllr Phil Davies) stated that the current Labour administration was “open and transparent”? Only as recently as June of this year wasn’t the Cabinet Member Cllr Ann McLachlan stating “the key problem here that we have a high volume of FOIs from a small number of people”? So do Wirral Council see the people making FOI requests as the problem rather than their own cultural attitudes towards openness and transparency?

Partially unredacted invoice relating to an appeal to ICO Decision Notice FS50474741 (Robin Hopkins of 11KBW) Metropolitan Borough of Wirral for £1872 (invoice 117)
Partially unredacted invoice relating to an appeal to ICO Decision Notice FS50474741 (Robin Hopkins of 11KBW) Metropolitan Borough of Wirral for £1872 (invoice 117)

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The incredible £754,783.18 that Wirral Council councillors cost (plus amounts for the Mayor & Deputy Mayor)

                      

To very little fanfare (compared to the local newspaper coverage that used to go with the annual publication of MP’s expenses), Wirral Council has published on its website what it paid each of its councillors for 2013-14 with a breakdown by basic allowance, responsibility allowance, telephone rental (although this is a £NIL amount for everyone on that list), expenses, subsistence, travel expenses and car mileage. Despite replying to a FOI request and stating this was part of Wirral Council’s “openness and transparency” it is in fact a legal requirement that they publish this information annually (if you’d like to leave a comment referring to the specific Act of Parliament or regulations that require them to do this feel free).

This list includes three people who aren’t councillors but are “independent persons” and are appointed by Wirral Council councillors. These three have a role set down in law in dealing with complaints about councillors. They are also co-opted on Wirral Council’s Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee (whose next scheduled meeting has been cancelled).

Unlike the councillors none of these three get a basic amount, but receive £25 for each meeting they attend of the Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee. In addition to this they are able to claim car mileage for meetings associated with their role. The annual amounts for these three are the smallest on the list being £90.80 (Dr. Burgess-Joyce), £122.40 (Brian Cummings) and £208.10 (RS Jones).

For the politicians, the lowest annual amount paid was to Cllr Matthew Patrick of £3,794.14. This is because he was only elected part way through that year in October 2013 in the Upton by-election. The by-election in Upton happened because of the death of Cllr Sylvia Hodrien, who also appears in the list receiving a part year amount of £4,373.84. Former Councillor Darren Dodd is the only other name to receive a part year amount of £6,019.11 as he resigned part way through the year and moved to Leeds.

The rest received the basic allowance of £8,712.48. In addition to this amount roughly half receive an extra responsibility allowance which for this financial year applied to thirty-three out of the sixty-seven councillors. An extra responsibility allowance is paid to the ten members of the Cabinet (generally an extra £9,171 although the Leader receives £22,927), chair of a committee, leader or deputy leader of a political group etc. The largest responsibility allowance paid was to Cllr Phil Davies of £22,926.96 (this is in addition to the basic allowance of £8,712.48). The smallest amount (that wasn’t £NIL) paid as a responsibility allowance was to Cllr Lesley Rennie of £203.38.

In total (the councillors and independent persons) claimed a total of £5,171.75 in car mileage payments, £490.99 in subsistence payments (this a meals allowance when they’re away from home for over four hours) and £1,684.64 in “expenses”.

The total cost (from this list) to the taxpayer for 2013-14 for the councillors and three independent persons was £754,783.18.

For some obscure reason I’m not really sure of, in earlier years the amount that the Mayor and Deputy Mayor are paid is published separately. This doesn’t seem to have been done yet this year (at the time of writing), but in 2012-13 came to a total of an extra £12,228.80. I would guess that the amount for the mayoralty in 2013-14 would be a similar amount to this.

A number of councillors also represent Wirral Council on outside bodies. There are two councillors who represent Wirral Council on the Merseyside Recycling and Waste Authority are paid an extra £1,834 each. These amounts are paid directly by Wirral Council to these councillors.

There are other outside bodies such as Merseytravel (four councillors from Wirral Council) and Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority (four councillors from Wirral Council). These two pay these councillors directly extra amounts for these extra responsibilities. A list similar to the one Wirral Council produces is published on their organisation’s website annually. These amounts are not included in this list from Wirral Council as such payments are made directly to councillors by those bodies rather than through Wirral Council.

A resolution to Council in previous years required Wirral Council to publish these extra amounts received too from bodies funded through the council tax such as Merseytravel, the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority and until it was abolished and replaced with the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for Merseyside & Police and Crime Panel, the Merseyside Police Authority.

As with the complicated scheme in place at Wirral Council, these amounts can vary quite considerably from a basic allowance that all receive to large amounts for the Chair.

Taking one public body, the figures for Merseytravel (which is now part of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority) haven’t been published on Wirral Council’s website for 2013-14, but the 2012-13 figures show that Wirral Council councillors received a basic allowance each of £5,202.13 (with part year payments to Cllr Blakeley and Cllr Foulkes), an extra special responsibility allowance for three councillors ranging from £1,095.38 to £4,063.29 as well as travel & subsistence payments ranging from nothing claimed to £997.99.

So, although the “cost of democracy” at Wirral Council is at least £754,783.18, in addition to this amount is the cost of the Mayor & Deputy Mayor and the currently difficult to find amounts councillors receive for representing Wirral Council on outside bodies (which Wirral Council should following a resolution agreed by Wirral Council publish on its website but in recent years hasn’t).

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Government asks councils in England to bid for £16 million of money to tackle fraud

 

Last month, the Department for Communities and Local Government invited local councils to make bids to it (closing deadline is 5th September 2014) for £16 million of money to help with counter fraud. This is not for the purpose of tackling benefit fraud (which is a different issue) but would be for projects to reduce the risk of for example the £45,779.46 Wirral Council lost in a care home fraud last year.

Certainly Wirral Council’s counter-fraud team (considering the size of the organisation and complexity of its finances) isn’t very big. The last time somebody asked how big it was I think the answer was two. Since then I think at least one person has left who I assume was in counter fraud (although whether the post has been filled or left vacant as a way to save money I’m not sure). So as fraud is losing Wirral Council money and if they made a successful bid the money would not have to come out their existing budgets I hope Wirral Council does bid (although who knows)?

I know counter-fraud is at times a rather dull back office function and I doubt on the doorstep people are saying to political parties “You must do something about improving your counter fraud activities!”. However it is important, because although the risk of fraud may be small, the amounts can be large (some authorities have lost far larger amounts in frauds). Admittedly with the fraud referred to above Wirral Council admitted that the fraud was sophisticated and convincing but that staff hadn’t followed their internal rules to prevent this sort of thing happening. I think the staff involved were “subjected to disciplinary measures”.

However to make it as easy as I can for Wirral Council, here is a link to the application form and is a link to the nine pages as to what it is about and when they will get the money if their bid is approved. So, if you have any juicy tips about Wirral Council losing money to fraudsters (recently) or have some suggestions as to what they could do better to reduce the risk of fraud please leave a comment (even if it has to be anonymous)!

In the interests of open reporting here is a link to the DCLG press release about this.

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Open Democracy Project Phase 1: Dates of upcoming public meetings (18th August 2014 to 19th September 2014)

                                                               
Planning Committee (Wirral Council) 20th March 2014
A Planning Committee meeting at Wirral Council (20th March 2014), an example of one of the public meetings at Wirral Council and one now covered by the filming legislation

One of the questions I sometimes get asked is when public meetings are. In fact the numbers of the public turning up to public meetings (ranging from zero to over a hundred) was talked about at the last Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee. I’m always pleased to see other members of the press or public at these meetings and I don’t mind if someone else is filming, tweeting, audio recording, photographing etc too (not that they are supposed to stop such things these days anyway).

If the press (whether that be newspapers, radio, TV, online or other) and public are able to exercise their new rights about filming however, they have to first know when and where the meetings are being held. The Wirral Council, Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority, Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, Police and Crime Panel, Mersey Port Health Committee and definitely some of the police ones do fall under the filming legislation.

Strangely (strange because other public bodies paid for through Council Tax, such as fire, police, Merseytravel, Combined Authority etc do fall under it), meetings of the Merseyside Recycling and Waste Authority don’t fall under the filming legislation, although they are public meetings. There are then a bunch of public meetings where it is “unclear” as to whether the filming legislation applies or not (something our legal department will have to look into and do some internal guidance on).

Usually public meetings are not very well advertised! Notice of them is usually published on an obscure page or two on a website (although obviously the people on the committee are told). If you really wanted to you could probably spend a lot of time going to them (although thankfully in August there are less of them). If anyone wonders if I’m going to be at them all, the answer is no (as at least two are on at the same time in different places).

As we’re halfway through August (and there are very few meetings in August so this would be a very short list) this list of public meetings also includes part of September. I have included training sessions too (although councillors would probably not appreciate it, if members of the press or public turned up to their training sessions so the location of such training meetings is not included but the titles, dates and times of the training sessions are).

Where available (at the time of writing) links to agenda & reports are included (and a brief bit about what the meeting is about if known (well there is some stuff I know about what these meetings are about but it would take too long to include here). Reports & agendas should be published (it’s a legal requirement) on the respective organisation’s website a week before the meeting is held. Room bookings however can be changed at short notice due to contingency plans. For example at Wirral Council if large numbers of people turn up and exceed the capacity of the room & overflow room, a previous meeting in the same room overruns or the situation that has happened in the past where two meetings are double-booked in the same room at the same time then the location of the meeting can change at short notice.

Meetings can be added (or cancelled) on an ad hoc basis, but in the case of the former a week of notice is usually given.

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Wirral Council (Metropolitan Borough of Wirral or Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council) (public meetings 18th August 2014 to 19th September 2014)

Thursday 21st August 2014 6pm Planning Committee, Committee Room 1, Wallasey Town Hall, Brighton Street, Seacombe, CH44 8ED

agenda reports

Purpose of meeting is to decide on minutes, site visits, planning applications & AOB. Planning application for Tranmere Rovers training ground has already received some press coverage.

Friday 22nd August 2014 10am Licensing Panel, Committee Room 3, Wallasey Town Hall, Brighton Street, Seacombe, CH44 8ED

Agenda Reports

Purpose: To decide on an application to register a Hackney Carriage Vehicle (GX51 OKL). Normally a decision made by officers (not councillors) but taxi failed its MOT so couldn’t be registered in time before licence expired.

Tuesday 26th August 2014 Constituency Committee – Wallasey Working Group, 7pm, Committee Room 1, Wallasey Town Hall, Brighton Street, Seacombe, CH44 8ED

Wednesday 27th August 2014 Licensing Act 2003 Subcommittee, 10am, Committee Room 2, Wallasey Town Hall, Brighton Street, Seacombe, CH44 8ED

Agenda Reports

To decide on an application for a premises licence for Westbourne Hall, Westbourne Road, West Kirby. To also decide on an application to vary a premises licence at KP Store, 338 Old Chester Road, Rock Ferry.

Monday 1st September 2014 Attainment Subcommittee, Committee Room 2, Wallasey Town Hall, Brighton Street, Seacombe, CH44 8ED 6pm

Wednesday 3rd September 2014 Coordinating Committee, Committee Room 1, Wallasey Town Hall, Brighton Street, Seacombe, CH44 8ED 6pm

Thursday 4th September 2014 Licensing Act 2003 Subcommittee, Committee Room 3, Wallasey Town Hall, Brighton Street, Seacombe, CH44 8ED, 10am Agenda Reports

Application to vary a premises licence The Courtyard, 7-9 Rose Mount, Oxton.

Thursday 4th September 2014 Cabinet (Special Meeting), 6.15pm, Committee Room 1, Wallasey Town Hall, Brighton Street, Seacombe, CH44 8ED

Special meeting to make decision on options following consultation on closure of Lyndale School.

Monday 8th September 2014 5.30pm Councillor Training: “Regulatory Committees and What You Need to Know

Tuesday 9th September 2014 6.00pm Families and Wellbeing Policy and Performance Committee, Committee Room 1, Wallasey Town Hall, Brighton Street, Seacombe, CH44 8ED

Wednesday 10th September 2014 5.30pm Councillor Training: “Use of Social Media to Engage and Mobilise Your Community

Thursday 11th September 2014 6.15pm Cabinet, Committee Room 1, Wallasey Town Hall, Brighton Street, Seacombe, CH44 8ED

Monday 15th September 2014 6.00pm Pensions Committee, Committee Room 1, Wallasey Town Hall, Brighton Street, Seacombe, CH44 8ED

Tuesday 16th September 2014 6.00pm Transformation and Resources Policy and Performance Committee, Committee Room 1, Wallasey Town Hall, Brighton Street, Seacombe, CH44 8ED

Wednesday 17th September 2014 6.00pm Constituency Committee – Wallasey Working Group, Committee Room 2, Wallasey Town Hall, Brighton Street, Seacombe, CH44 8ED

Wednesday 17th September 2014 6.00pm Audit and Risk Management Committee, Committee Room 1, Wallasey Town Hall, Brighton Street, Seacombe, CH44 8ED

Thursday 18th September 2014 6.00pm Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee, Committee Room 1, Wallasey Town Hall, Brighton Street, Seacombe, CH44 8ED – NOTE CANCELLED MEETING

Thursday 18th September 2014 6.00pm Coordinating Committee, Committee Room 1, Wallasey Town Hall, Brighton Street, Seacombe, CH44 8ED (Financial Monitoring call in from adjourned meeting on the 7th August 2014)

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Merseytravel (part of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority) from 18th August 2014 to 18th September 2014.

Merseytravel Committee, Thursday 4th September 2014, 2.30pm, Authority Chamber, 1st floor, Merseytravel Offices, No 1 Mann Island, Liverpool, L1 3BP

Performance and Review Sub Committee, Monday 15th September 2014 1.00pm, Authority Chamber, 1st floor, Merseytravel Offices, No 1 Mann Island, Liverpool, L1 3BP

Audit and Governance Sub- Committee, Monday 15th September 2014 3.00pm, Authority Chamber, 1st floor, Merseytravel Offices, No 1 Mann Island, Liverpool, L1 3BP

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Now for the list of Liverpool City Region Combined Authority meetings from 18th August 2014 to the 19th September 2014:

Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, 19th September 2014 11am, Authority Chamber, 1st floor, Merseytravel Offices, No 1 Mann Island, Liverpool, L1 3BP

Purpose: Business Enterprise Strategy, International Strategy, Rail Franchising and Rail North, Feedback on the Skills Show @ the IFB, Scrutiny Workplan, City Region Deal implementation update, Devolved funds implementation update, Budget monitoring

*Note I am unsure when the new overview and scrutiny committee for the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority has its first meeting or even from memory what exactly it’s called.

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Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority (18th August 2014 to 18th September 2014)

Consultation and Negotiation Sub-Committee, Tuesday 2nd September 2014 1.00pm Wirral Suite, Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service Headquarters, Bridle Road, Bootle, Merseyside, L30 4YD

Performance and Scrutiny Committee, Thursday 4th September 2014 1.00pm Wirral Suite, Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service Headquarters, Bridle Road, Bootle, Merseyside, L30 4YD

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Merseyside Police and Crime Panel (host authority Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council) 18th August 2014 to 17 September 2014

Merseyside Police and Crime Panel, Thursday 4th September 2014 10.00am Council Chamber, Municipal Buildings, Huyton

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Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for Merseyside (18th August 2014 to 17th September 2014)

*note it was much easier to find out this sort of information below in the Merseyside Police Authority days, although even they made mistakes from time to time and I had to remind them to update their website (which now no longer exists)!

Tuesday 9th September 2014 Performance and Scrutiny Group (approximately three hour meeting) Room G40, Merseytravel Authority Chamber, Merseytravel Offices, No 1 Mann Island, Liverpool, L3 1BP.

Audit Committee (no meetings during time period, next one is scheduled for 6/11/14)

Merseyside Community Safety Partnership (awaiting further information)

Merseyside Criminal Justice Board (awaiting further information)

VCFSE (Voluntary, Community, Faith and Social Enterprise) Network (awaiting further information)

Business Change & Efficiency (awaiting further information)

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Merseyside Recycling and Waste Authority (18th August 2014 to 17th September 2014)

Merseyside Recycling and Waste Authority (no meetings in time period, next is scheduled for 26/9/14)

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Mersey Port Health Committee (18th August 2014 to 17th September 2014)

Mersey Port Health Committee (no meetings in time period, next is scheduled for 16/10/14 11.00am (Liverpool)). Note host authority for the Mersey Port Health Committee is Liverpool City Council.

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There are probably other pan-Merseyside public meetings, NHS meeting etc in addition to the above. Other parts of Merseyside have their own local authorities which have meeting too, such as Liverpool City Council, Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council etc. I made the above list rather Wirral-centric though, but can provide links to the other local authorities’ calenders if required. When I get further information I will update with specifics, although with people being on holiday in August it may be some time before I receive a reply! I hope this list is of use to someone! If you want any further details about what these committees do, who’s on them, please leave a comment with your query as there may be other people with the same question! Thanks.

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Lyndale School Consultation Meeting: Cllr Dave Mitchell “They need the care they’ve got!” (part 9)

                                                  

Phil Ward (Wirral Council's SEN Lead) at a later meeting of Wirral Schools Forum 2nd July 2014 (who chaired the consultation meeting at Acre Lane on the 16th June)
Phil Ward (Wirral Council’s SEN Lead) at a later meeting of Wirral Schools Forum 2nd July 2014 (who chaired the consultation meeting at Acre Lane on the 16th June)

Continues from Lyndale School Consultation Meeting: Tom Harney “it’s amazing the things that go on” (part 8).

This transcript starts about 1 hour and 4 minutes into the meeting.

PHIL WARD
Next question, ok, yes, thank you.

UNKNOWN SPEAKER (MALE)
I’d just … (unclear)… and this side here, listening to the people who are around who have been giving their opinions, errm frontline people who have all the experience of all the years of looking after the children and seeing all those who have those difficulties that have actually come about you know!? Why aren’t they sitting there? Why aren’t they sitting there telling you, what the nature of those problems are and …(unclear)…ing to you how they feel that it should be dealt with and what would be the best way? Why don’t you prefer no experience to (unclear).. key parts…(unclear)… when you’ve got people with loads of experience and anyway you’re not going to do it at the end of the day?

He received a round of applause.

COUNCILLOR DAVE MITCHELL
I’m going to make two points and one is that what is being proposed of the nature of, we need to go back and look at errm individual pupils and we need to do this before we take a democratic decision, before we decide.

The second point is really concerning those children, errm the children of Lyndale and the point Ian [Lewis] touched on earlier, is that moving the children from the Lyndale School to other schools, those are children with different sets of needs and can we invite all those Lyndale actions you know?

What I would like and the children who are at Lyndale, could we be, could we be learning from them? They need the care they’ve got! It’s (unclear)…and you know, I think the point is relevant for me, I think playing one off against the other and it’s a case of the children at the Lyndale, hopefully so we’ll still get the benefit of that, but the children themselves (unclear)… and then (unclear) …and then you have the ability to cause problems and I am really concerned about that! I’m really concerned about that.

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What does 1 lighthouse, 1 salt barn, Tesco and a new college have in common?

                          

Bidston Lighthouse, Wilding Way, Bidston Hill 14th August 2014 Listed Building Consent LBC/14/00584 (erection of a Radio Antenna to the outside of Bidston Lighthouse)

Bidston Lighthouse, Wilding Way, Bidston Hill 14th August 2014 Listed Building Consent LBC/14/00584 (erection of a Radio Antenna to the outside of Bidston Lighthouse)

Video of Bidston Lighthouse, Wilding Way, Bidston Hill 14th August 2014 Listed Building Consent LBC/14/00584

Four planning applications have recently been decided by Wirral Council officers in the Bidston & St. James ward. I live in the general area of the second planning application for Bidston Lighthouse, so in the interests of openness will state that as an interest at the start.

One is from Wirral Council (to itself) for erection of a salt barn, fence, camera domes, entrance and exit gates etc in Cleveland Street.

The second is to put an antenna on Bidston Lighthouse, Wilding Way, Bidston Hill for use by 7 Waves Community Radio.

The third is to build a new college on land next to Tower Road, Birkenhead.

The last is an advertisement consent for the Tesco Superstore, Bidston Link Road, Bidston.

All four applications have been approved by planning officers and further details for each one is below. The application number for each is linked to further details for each application on Wirral Council’s website should you like to find out more.

Application No.: DPP3/14/00492
Application Type: Work for Council by Council
Decision Level: Delegated
Ward: Bidston and St James
Decision Date: 17/07/2014
Decision: Approve
Case Officer: Mr K Spilsbury
Applicant:
Agent: WIRRAL COUNCIL

Location: Garage Depot, 250 CLEVELAND STREET, BIRKENHEAD, CH41 3QL

Proposal: Erection of a salt barn, 2.4m high steel palisade fence, 2 new camera domes and associated equipment, new entrance and exit gates and new access off Vittoria Street.

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Application No.: LBC/14/00584
Application Type: Listed Building Consent
Decision Level: Delegated
Ward: Bidston and St James
Decision Date: 14/07/2014
Decision: Approve
Case Officer: Mr M Crook
Applicant: Dr Stephen Pickles
Agent: 7 Waves Community Radio Ltd
Location: Bidston Lighthouse, WILDING WAY, BIDSTON, CH43 7RA
Proposal: Erection of a Radio Antenna to the outside of Bidston Lighthouse.

===============================================

Application No.: APP/14/00629
Application Type: Delegated
Decision Level: Full Planning Permission
Ward: Bidston and St James
Decision Date: 08/08/2014 Decision: Approve
Case Officer: Ms J Storey
Applicant:
Agent: Turley

Location: Land Adjacent to TOWER ROAD, BIRKENHEAD, CH41 1FN
Proposal: Erection of new college facility and associated works, including new accesses and hard and soft landscaping and other works

===============================================

Application No.: ADV/14/00801
Application Type: Advertisement Consent
Decision Level: Delegated
Ward: Bidston and St James
Decision Date: 07/08/2014 Decision: Approve
Case Officer: Mr N Williams
Applicant:
Agent: Smith Smalley Architects

Location: Superstore, Tesco Superstore, BIDSTON LINK ROAD, BIDSTON, CH43 7AA
Proposal: Additional signs and amended signs to approved application ADV/14/00139

===============================================

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How was the history of the Lyndale School closure consultation rewritten by Wirral Council?

Phil Ward (Wirral Council's SEN Lead) at a later meeting of Wirral Schools Forum 2nd July 2014

Phil Ward who chaired the consultation (Wirral Council’s SEN Lead) at a later meeting of Wirral Schools Forum 2nd July 2014

A while ago, well nearly two months ago I was at the last of the six consultation meetings about Lyndale School. Nobody could really fathom out then why the officers were keeping the notes of these meetings “a secret”. In fact, had it not been for the Freedom of Information Act request of the Wallasey Conservatives I doubt they wouldn’t have been published for a further few weeks (and let’s face it they can use “future publication” as a reason to turn down FOI requests).

The officer chairing that meeting, Phil Ward was adamant in that meeting that the notes were for councillors on the Cabinet. Previously on this blog I’ve written up a transcript of the first hour or so of that meeting. Yesterday I compared the transcript of the meeting to the notes that officers wanted to use to tell Cabinet Members about the meeting.

One of the councillors in Eastham (where Lyndale School is) (who was present at the meeting) is Cllr Chris Carubia. He has written several books for example, The Raven Flies which is described as “finding out the location of his father, Sigurd and his crew, join King Olaf of Norway’s invasion to the land of the Moor’s, encounter a strange new culture and battle a savage new enemy”. I’ve never read any of his books (this isn’t really a blog for book reviews) but this is to make a point. The reason I mention this obscure fact is that his books would be put in a library under the “fiction” section. He used his imagination to come up with them. They’re made up.

This is probably where the notes (which let’s face it officers were going to use to persuade Cabinet to make the decision they wanted) should be as they are veering towards a fictional account of that meeting. Now the alternative viewpoint is, oh don’t be so cruel John, officers are doing their best under difficult circumstances. Yes, they are, but we’ve seen this subtle rewriting of history recently before at the Improvement Board where Wirral Council asked for questions from the public, rewrote their questions and handed out the “approved” version of history to those at the meeting hoping nobody would “spot the difference”.

So what is the proof I have of this? Well yesterday (and believe me it took some time to do as it was a two-hour meeting) I compared the notes to the transcript of what was said by whom. I am only about halfway through the meeting. It is only then when you can compare and contrast the two versions that you see what edits were made, what was left out and how things were changed. After all this is consultation, Wirral-style where we ask for your contributions but then officers meddle afterwards with them.

Call me biased (because let’s face it on Lyndale I am and it’s an editorial line we all agree on here but this is a serious point about how consultations are done and how decision-making happens). Is this the way consultations should be done? If the information politicians take into account when making important decisions has been altered in between being gathered and being put before politicians by officer/s is this honest? Does the way the notes were presented originally give anybody reading them the impression that the meeting was vastly different to how it happened and the misleading impression (as apart from a brief list of some present) as no names are used so that officer’s views can look like people responding to the consultation?

Below this is just the first half of the meeting compared to the notes. Things I have added are I hope highlighted in green. There are aspects of the notes that are broadly similar to what happened and I’ve left them in unedited. The aspects of the notes that seem to be at odds with what was said, have got a line through and are replaced with a direct quote of what was actually said. There are sections which were originally blank in the notes and some of the extra detail has been added.

This is so you can compare the “Wirral Council version” to my version of what happened based on the transcript. I hope that is clear. Most of the changes happen to the “key points” column. As names aren’t in the original version, this could’ve originally given the misleading impression that “key points” were made by the public. However this is just officers’ (and the Cabinet Member’s) viewpoints. It would take a long time to transcribe the rest of the meeting and do the same with the last few pages of the notes. If I have the time I will though. You can listen to the whole consultation meeting at Acre Lane about Lyndale from start to finish if you wish. Please leave a comment on this as (as has been mentioned many times by politicians and others before) getting consultation right is key to the decision making process at Wirral Council.

Annotations are added in red.

Public Consultation Meeting re The Lyndale School held at Acre Lane

16th June 2014: 5.30pm to 7.30pm

In Attendance:

Julia Hassall: Director of Children’s Services, Phil Ward Senior Manager SEN, Councillor Tony Smith: Lead Member for Children and Family Services (arrived late not present from start), David Armstrong: Assistant Chief Executive, Andrew Roberts: Senior Manager School Funding and Resources.

Attendees 34.

Questions/Comments                                                      Key points

Can we have a copy of the notes which you have been taking throughout the 6 consultation meetings

Could you then have key bullet points, or pick

up the themes and can we see them.

These are high level summary notes and not minutes and we will be using them to inform Cabinet. They are to capture your views

Phil Ward: “They’re not for circulation.”

They will be made public when our report goes

to Cabinet

I have been to 100 companies so far and have asked them what they think of the closure of Lyndale and they are 100% against it.

You are public servants and you should be serving the needs of people not yourself

Thank you for your comments

Phil Ward: “Is that something you’d like to submit to us?”

The consultation document is not worth the

paper it is written on

Phil Ward: “point taken”

When the children’s assessments are done

will they be used to cost need. Will you look at the banding

The assessment is about capturing the most up to date information of a child. This will be done on an individual basis

Phil Ward “then we had captured the up to date information that we retain on the children so that we could begin on an individual family basis”

The banding system is new and it was agreed by the Schools Forum.

There will be review after the first year. DA/AR will feed this information you are raising back to the Forum

David Armstrong “Just on the banding system, the banding system where we have five bands because of the special schools budget.  Clearly, it’s new so it’s only been in place for a short while and I mentioned the Schools Forum before.” … He referred to the Schools Forum and how questions about the banding feed into the Schools Forum.

 

Ed – 1st update: Everything below this has gone a bit wrong (table wise) below this point. I’m working on fixing it! 2nd update: Fixed (11:36 13/8/14) 3rd update 3:55 pm removed duplicate cell in column 1 (above)

Councillor Dave Mitchell:

Will the petition from
5 years ago also be presented to Cabinet?

“Will that include the decisions made by Council which were fully supported by all parties?”

All 3 parties fully supported it and decided not to close Lyndale

“I think that’s a very important issue, it should actually be highlighted. It was a notice of motion to Council and it was fully supported by the local authority at that time.”

 

David Armstrong: No, it would just include references to previous reports.

Julia Hassall: This is a new consultation.

“We did make clear reference to that to my recollection at the call in.”

Lyndale school is a fabulous resource inside
the school as well as outside. We are able to take our children out so that they can enjoy the trees, the garden etc. The idea of
squashing us into another school is not conducive to provide a high level of care and education

Phil Ward: “Thank you for that point.”

Is it 5 or 10 places in Stanley School, it is
just a play on words

The new building was built to accommodate a higher number of pupils.

The number of extra places will depend on the needs of the children

David Armstrong: “The school’s brand new and what we learnt when the Lyndale School was built was looking at primary schools. We built them absolutely tight on the existing campus. We found that the schools became more popular and also you’re building something for fifty or sixty years. We’re building something for fifty or sixty years, so we’re building to a generous standard and the new style that was built to a generous standard. The school, the school that we’re building had a capacity of ninety pupils. The new building is capable of taking a hundred and ten and the reason for that is that we’ll be building to the maximum standards in place, we’re building some spare capacity because we’re investing several million pounds for the next couple of years.” 

Are there any PMLD children at Stanley School at the present time?

No, but there are some children with PMLD at Elleray Park

David Armstrong: “The school was built to take the full range of PMLD.”

I have visited Stanley School and I would be petrified to leave my child there.
I think it would be a massive risk as I don’t
think my child will be safe
“would
be absolutely petrified to leave Scott there. I’m absolutely petrified.”

 

Both Head Teachers are confident that they can safely integrate your children into their school. Across the country there are many
schools who do this successfully

Phil Ward thanked her for her point.

 

Has anyone spoken to Paediatricians or
Specialist Health Visitors about this consultation

Phil Ward: “Sorry I can’t speak for paediatricians, but surely the point… No they have not, no is the answer to that.”

 

What is going to happen if there are growing
numbers with children with CLD if you transfer our children into Elleray and Stanley

This is something which we have to manage all the time. We need to keep
up with the changes in SEN.

Phil Ward said the question had come up a number of times and the answer was that Wirral Council has a responsibility on specialist provision. When there was evidence that the numbers were growing in any particular category then they would start discussions with schools to plan places.

 

In your special arrangements to provide an up
to date assessment of each child you need to take into account that some of the children don’t have language etc and the
environment is as important as well as relationships, friends, as well as a sense of place and security. They need a safe environment and this could be difficult if you mix them with children who have ASC
ASD (autistic spectrum disorders)

We have asked our Principal Educational Psychologist to ensure that we have an up to date picture of each child and their needs. She understands each child and if we know the needs of each child, this will help to drive our future provision

Julia Hassall “This is why we’ve got our principal educational psychologist pulling together a group of meetings with the key
staff involved with each child, the parents, any health professionals to really understand each individual child but also how the children interacty with each other.”

What about Councillor Chris Carubia: However nobody had mentioned Foxfield School before?
That was a great provision why have you not put this forward as an option

This is a secondary school; children come into this school at aged 11. One of the options mentioned in the consultation document is a 2 to 19 provision. We are looking at Foxfield School as an option as parents have asked us to.

Also it is important to remember that if we close Lyndale we will have a discussion about each child and parents can state their preference for any school

How come at Stanley only 90% is funded,
will this mean that the other 10% will not be funded and have to
be found our of their resources

She said that there were ten children at the school [Stanley] that were not funded and would this be sorted out if the Lyndale School children went to Stanley School?

Annually there is a census for each
school. Numbers are reviewed and amended taking this into
account.

Andrew Roberts replied, “In terms of places at special schools, those decisions are taken annually. So the schools take it at a point in time, the decision taken in respect of Stanley was taken last November as a census. Clearly we need to be reviewing, as do the number of places at other special schools.”

We gained public support when we fund raised £80,000 for the sensory garden,
if you close what will happen to it and how will you give the money back to the general
public who had donated it?

This
was their hard work and you are going to knock down Lyndale!

There is an amphitheatre; do you know who built it?

It was the YTS lads from Wirral Action

Phil Ward: “We don’t know”
David Armstrong: “there’s no decision been taken to determine it”….

In other schools we have always made sure that if we were about to
close and transfer the children, we relocate
any other equipment where possible
. “anything that was in memory of a particular pupil we’ve dealt with that first and then we’ve gone on from that” We will look to relocate the sensory garden

David Armstrong: “I don’t know.”

David Armstrong: “I can’t know every detail.”

No

Ian Lewis

4 years ago officers put forward a
proposal to close Kingsway Primary
School because it was not financially viable and this was voted against and this school is still here. So what is to say 4 years on Lyndale will not be the same and continuing to deliver high quality care and education.

“If in four years time that’s [Lyndale] still here, who’s to say it won’t be viable?”

Kingsway remains a small school which limits its budget income and there is
an outstanding Council resolution to carry out a review.

David Armstrong “In Kingsway, we haven’t gone back, but at some point there’s a Council resolution to go back and revisit Kingsway.”

 

Elleray and Stanley school do not
always provide 1 to 1 support or even 2 – 1 support for their children so if you relocate Lyndale will that not effect
their financial viability

The Head Teachers of both schools are
confident that they will be able to manage integration of the children from Lyndale.

Ian Lewis

5 years ago at a full council meeting
all 3 parties agreed to keep Lyndale open. Therefore the message is keep it open

Julia Hassall The
difficulty as mentioned is that there is a change to the funding formula and we have been funding empty spaces in this school. You
have been really clear during these consultations that what you want is wherever your children go to school that it needs to
replicate the provision at Lyndale

“No, no the significant difference Ian now to five years ago, is the government have changed the funding formula. So Lyndale is
currently funded as if there were actually forty children at that school and over the last seven years, the numbers have gone down. It’s been about fifty odd percent occupancy in the school and following the exact funding formula, it will mean that as some point, the £10,000 per a child will have to be applied and that will mean £230,000 for twenty-three children as opposed to £400,000 because there aren’t the children in the places.”

I have an issue in relation to the banding of our children. I accept that they all have different needs but my worry is that my child who is on band 4 is getting £8,000 less than others on a band 5 but what will happen at Stanley School?
what band are they because how much money are they going to have taken off them?

We do not think that this will work as my son needs 1 to 1 care as although my son can feed himself he also needs to be fed as well.

Andrew Roberts: The banding is a new system and only came into being on 1st April 2014.

David Armstrong The question about whether your child is on the right band needs to be fed in to their annual review. You can also take this up with the Principal Educational Psychologist.

Julia Hassall said, “Can I just add one other bit, I think it’s important to feed that in through the psychologist when the meetings are taking place as well.”

If the banding was changed would that keep the school open?

David Armstrong:

In relation to the National Funding, Local
Authorities have the ability to say what system they are going to use and Wirral chose to do a banding system which has no flexibility.

“decided to do away with this system, which you know because it was easier,
but it really doesn’t have much flexibility or address the actual needs of the children involved.”

The difficulty is that by the time you go to the Schools Forum to change this system, Lyndale will be closed

(no response given)

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Lyndale School Closure Consultation: Cllr Phil Gilchrist “this looks to be a set of moving goalposts”

                                        

Cllr Phil Gilchrist presented with Andy Day Memorial Cup by former Mayor Cllr Dave Mitchell
Cllr Phil Gilchrist (left) presented with the Andy Day Memorial Cup by former Mayor Cllr Dave Mitchell (right)

Councillor Phil Gilchrist (the Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on Wirral Council) has kindly provided this blog with his consultation response to the Lyndale School Closure Consultation. It is reproduced below. For the purpose of clarity when reading the acronyms SEN and DCSF have been expanded and this addition appears in brackets [] in bold italic text.

Ed – Updated (revision 4) 10:50 12/8/14 to replace absolute values in table 1 with relative values to fix display problem.
Ed – Updated (revision 5) 10:55 12/8/14 to replace absolute values in table 2 with relative values to fix display problem. Linked email address.

Feedback Form

 

Please let us know the main relationships you have with the school(s) by putting a tick in the appropriate box or boxes. You might be a parent and a member of staff, for example.

 

School

Parent

Member of Staff

Governor

Other Person

Elleray Park
Lyndale
Stanley
Foxfield
Meadowside
Other (Please Specify)

Cllr


I attended the consultative meeting held at Acre Lane on 10
th April and the further meeting held on 16th June.

I have also visited The Lyndale School on 27th January on a private fact finding arrangement, and, on 9th May after a request from parents.

In addition I have visited the school and Stanley, Foxfield, Meadowside and Elleray Park with other councillors on 16th and 17th June.

I was also a signatory to the ‘Call In’ considered by the Council committee.

Short fact finding visits can only provide a brief picture of how a school works day by day. In making the recent visits I formed a strong impression of the way the children at The Lyndale might be ‘compared’ with children of the same ages at Elleray Park and Stanley.

In attempting this I also need to take account of the needs that I did not see – children who are not in the school, that day, because of their poor health.

It seems to me that a high proportion of children attending Lyndale have the most serious needs.

Lyndale may not be the best laid out building but is ‘home’ and provides the atmosphere and the facilities to stimulate the children.

The financial problems flow from the formula adopted by the Council.

Consultation on changing the funding formula began in 2010, under the last Government, when the DSCF [Department for Children, Schools and Families] looked at the formula (Chapter 4) for high cost pupils.

The formula the Council adopted in 2013 arose from discussions at the Schools Forum which chose the present banding system which has added to the pressures on Lyndale’s finances.

The parents need the utmost assurances that the care and education being provided must continue to that same high standard.

Without sight of ‘the answers’ provided to parents I am aware that reference is regularly made to what the SEN [Special Educational Needs] ‘test’ should ensure.

As I mentioned at the last meeting this looks to be a set of moving goalposts.

A ‘pale imitation’ is not good enough for the children.

Some years ago parents did seek the creation of an all through school, up to the age of 19. One of the ‘drivers’ was the issue of ‘transition’ at age 11.

Councillors who visited Foxfield and Meadowside were assured that there is a very thorough process for transition – with study of the children, visits to Lyndale by staff before children move, and visits by parents to those schools.

These visits showed the differences in the buildings ‘on offer’.

The new Stanley building was ‘sparse’ and assurances were given that any new additions could be designed with needs of ‘The Lyndale’ children in mind

However this appeared to be an addition as an ‘afterthought’.

The children at Elleray Park had different needs from the children at Lyndale.

Assurances have been given that schools can adapt their teaching styles and methods to the needs of children, that parents have choice and that there is good communication between professionals.

It is apparent that the parents at Lyndale place great emphasis on the way the staff the children ‘know’ interact with them Equally the staff are able to ‘read’ the developing signs and gestures that the children are able to return.

I have asked how the ‘Lyndale’ can be completely replicated elsewhere.

The answer has not, as yet, as far as I know, been given in a way that fully satisfies the parents,

However, if the Council insists on change then it should design a setting that has the atmosphere and facilities valued by parents, several classrooms with accessible changing, a communal hall where children can fully socialise and guaranteed access to hydrotherapy. .

Please tell us your name and address, postcode, and email address if you have one. We will not use your personal information for anything other than this consultation.

Name: Phil Gilchrist
Address: 2 Gordon Avenue Bromborough
Postcode: CH62 6AL
Telephone: 0151 334 1923
E-Mail:philgilchrist@wirral.gov.uk

Please note: In order to ensure that this process is fully open and transparent, other people will be able to read all the responses to this consultation.

Please return this form to:

Email: specialreview@wirral.gov.uk

Post: The Lyndale School Consultation

Children and Young People’s Department

Hamilton Building

Birkenhead

CH41 4FD

Please make sure your response is submitted by:

Wednesday 25th June 2014.

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Lyndale School Consultation branded “white-wash” & 1 officer is singled out for criticism for lack of impartiality

                           

Phil Ward (Wirral Council's SEN Lead) at a later meeting of Wirral Schools Forum 2nd July 2014
Phil Ward (Wirral Council’s SEN Lead) at a later meeting of Wirral Schools Forum 2nd July 2014

Lyndale School has of course made the news again, as the “high level notes” of the six consultation meetings have been published in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The concept that these “high level notes” should actually be used as part of the decision-making process is an interesting one.

I was at one of the six consultation meetings so I looked at the “notes” for that one and compared it to my own notes, transcript of the first hour (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8) and an audio recording of what actually happened.

As Tom Harney (the Chair of governors at Lyndale School) himself said at that actual meeting in relation to another matter “it’s amazing the things that go on”. He was also one of the few speakers at that meeting to get applause. The comments made by Cllr Paul Hayes (a Conservative councillor who if I remember correctly was also present at that same meeting) about the consultation process as reported in their local paper were very critical of the way the consultation process and that meeting was handled.

As I’ve mentioned the Conservative and Lib Dem positions, I should mention that the only Labour councillor I recognised at the meeting (Cabinet Member for Childrens’ Services Cllr Tony Smith) arrived late. It is of course extremely difficult to describe what the Labour position is on Lyndale School other than being pro closure consultation, telling the public that they have an open mind and that no decision has been made yet. A decision is expected on the 4th September on the next stage. The point that Labour are keen to make is not for Labour to do things that would give the impression that they have made their mind up. This was again made at the July Council meeting by Councillor Tony Smith and Councillor Phil Davies.

So in the words of a Wirral Council officer Phil Ward what was the purpose of these notes about the meetings? Phil Ward said “They’re notes recording the high level points raised at the meetings and importantly we will be reporting them to Cabinet.”

I had a look through the notes for the one question I asked in the two-hour meeting (something is there but it bears little resemblance to what I asked). It wasn’t there in any form that resembles what I asked. Maybe it wasn’t classed as “high level” enough. Maybe I should instead have started by saying “This is a high level question I am asking so please put it in the notes”. Or maybe Wirral Council doesn’t like putting down tricky questions and answers and prefers to subtly rewrite the historical record to suit itself.

However this isn’t about me. This is about Lyndale School. Let’s have a look at the notes Wirral Council produced.

Here’s the first line of their notes “10th April 2014: 10am to 12pm”

Err no, seems Wirral Council can’t get the date and time of its own consultation right (which should worry you there right from the start if they can’t get the simple stuff right like the date and time!) It should read “16th June 2014: 5.30pm to 7.30pm”.

Turns out there were two different meetings at Acre Lane as part of the consultation. There were notes from both meetings. Apologies.

Moving on, it seems the “points” column according to the table used are not what the people had to say at the consultation. No the “points” column is reserved solely for points made by officers and the Cabinet Member Cllr Tony Smith.

The more difficult questions raised, the important concerns of parents about what’s going to happen, what appears in the points column? Nothing… almost as if Wirral Council is ashamed as to what was said to these questions to be known in public.

Even some of the answers that do make it are misleading. At least one of the officers is in fact tying themselves in knots and going into policy areas that strictly speaking in my opinion they shouldn’t. To the best of my knowledge all the officers at that meeting are in politically restricted posts. One of these legal restrictions from what I remember is that they are not allowed to “speak to the public at large or to a section of the public with the apparent intention of affecting public support for a political party”.

Now I will make this clear, I’m not referring to Julia Hassall, David Armstrong or Andrew Roberts. These people are senior professionals and although I’m sure people like me make doing their jobs more difficult, I will state now my personal opinion that all three have been extremely professional in my past dealings with them.

This is despite me doing what in any other sphere of life outside the political arena would be classed as behaviour that would lead to people falling out with each other. I have written things (robust criticism would be putting it very mildly) that disagree with their professional opinions and have pointed out what I perceive as flaws in arguments they have used. They know I do not however do this out of malice or anything personal.

That’s just the nature of politics as one of the rules is “don’t take things personally”. Other people’s opinion of them may be wildly different but like myself they are doing a job in a highly political environment, so criticism goes with the territory. They are public figures (as are politicians) and are rewarded with a high salary partly to reflect the problems that having to deal with the likes of the press can cause.

Now you can point out at this point the press is supposed to be impartial. I try to be even-handed (and believe me that’s very difficult at times) and to quote Cllr Jerry Williams recently “There’s no side to the gentleman, he does a very good job”. An editorial decision (and I’m pretty sure the Wirral Globe takes a similar policy stance too) was made a long time ago that we’re against the closure of Lyndale School, but obviously in the reporting of this matter to do it justice we have to report both sides of this issue.

There are people of course that are for the closure of Lyndale School. You are entitled to your opinion too (it just happens to be one that this publication disagrees with but that is the nature of politics)! However one of the extremely important roles of the press in society is to stand up for the viewpoints of people who can’t advocate for themselves. The children of Lyndale School are in that position.

The person to whom my criticism is about at that meeting is the Wirral Council officer Phil Ward. Now I’m not saying he said things downright stupid and overt like “vote Labour in May” I’m not. However throughout the whole meeting he appeared to champion a particular policy position/stance on this matter.

There is admittedly a fine line between explaining decisions that have already been made and talking about decisions that have yet to be made by politicians in the future. The former is entirely legitimate for officers to do. Taking policy positions (especially on a party political matter such as how education budgets are spent) is something that officers have to be very careful of.

Now officers can say in relation to future decisions “based on my professional advice or opinion I advise you to do X (or X, Y and Z are options I’d prefer you to do X). However the decision is up to you.” That is one thing, however they should not advocate support when speaking to the public during a consultation for a particular political decision that has yet to be decided or even worse give the impression that a decision has already been made when it hasn’t yet (even if they think they can guess how it will be made). If they go down this route, their impartiality will be called and can be called into question (and his was during the meeting).

No officer at Wirral Council I know of before in a politically restricted post has done what was done at that consultation meeting by Phil Ward in the way he did it. Believe me, during meetings politicians have put officers under extreme pressure to take sides. Most officers with some common sense (and there are a lot of them at Wirral Council) will politely decline to answer such questions. This is what should happen.

This was however what the audience at Acre Lane found so amazing. A consultation is supposed to be about listening to their views (and yes Wirral Council has a long way to go on getting better at involving the public in their decision-making). However chairing this meeting was an officer who was the equivalent of waving a red flag to a bull. Had he come to the meeting with the genuine attitude of “We’re here today to hear your views, the purpose of the consultation is to do that, we appreciate you being here and we’ll listen carefully to what you have to say.” then I think the audience would’ve applauded him. However the impression the audience got was that he was lecturing them and completely impervious to any other viewpoints.

Sadly this particular officer did somewhat get stuck in “broadcast” mode. However, this attitude leads to the audience getting the following impression and I quote from the notes “No one has fully answered any question. You are just white-washing it. You have already made your decision”.

The Wirral public are not stupid, nor are they children. They are able to read people’s body language and how they say something. How something is said and the person’s body language when saying it are a large part of its meaning. Sadly Phil Ward didn’t seem politically savvy enough that night to develop a positive relationship with the audience. Nor did he seem to appreciate the way power shifts. The senior officers are better attuned to these kind of things.

There was for example in that room that night, Emma Rigby from the Wirral Globe, myself and Leonora. For those who recognise us, they’d know that that amount of people from the press means you have to be very careful what you say. I hope to carry on in the next few days with publishing a transcript of the long meeting itself. In the meantime the below links should take you to what has been published so far.

Lyndale School Consultation Meeting: Tom Harney “it’s amazing the things that go on” (part 8)
Lyndale School Consultation Meeting: Funding, banding and need (part 7)
Lyndale School Consultation Meeting: Kingsway, funding and hydrotherapy pools (part 6)
Lyndale School Consultation Meeting: questions about the sensory garden, resources, Elleray Park and Stanley (Part 5)
Lyndale School Consultation Meeting: questions about Stanley, Elleray, Foxfield & the educational psychologist (Part 4)
Lyndale School Consultation Meeting: questions about banding, outdoor space and Stanley School (Part 3)
Lyndale School Consultation Meeting: David Armstrong explains why there’s a consultation and questions begin (Part 2)
Lyndale School Consultation Meeting: Julia Hassall explains why Wirral Council are consulting on closure (Part 1)

Audio of entire consultation meeting

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Despite Tory objections, Labour adjourn meeting to revisit 2 matters (leisure centre concessions and Forest Schools)

                                    

Video of the entire Coordinating Committee meeting of the 7th August 2014 can be viewed above

Yesterday Wirral Council’s Coordinating Committee met to consider two call-ins of Cabinet decisions. In a short ten minute meeting, Councillor Moira McLaughlin (the Chair) explained that the meeting had been called to consider call-ins about the cancellation of the “Forest Schools” funding and changes to the concessions that current and former Armed Forces personnel receive at the Council’s leisure centres.

It was agreed that despite the Chair’s initial view that both call ins should be considered in the same evening that they will be heard over two different evenings instead. Due to a constitutional requirement, the Coordinating Committee had to meet to consider these decisions within 15 days, however was unable to proceed any further as officers were not available (presumably as they are on holiday).

Therefore (as previously reported on this blog even before the decision was formally made) the call-in about Forest Schools will be heard starting at 6pm on the 18th September 2014 and the call-in about leisure centres will be heard starting at 6pm on the 23rd September 2014.

Councillor Chris Blakeley (Conservative spokesperson) suggested a different date as he was not happy with the choice of date for one of the reconvened meetings. However Labour councillors used their majority on the committee to vote through their preferred choice of date. The Chair Cllr Moira McLaughlin gave a detailed explanation as to why the dates had been chosen and why she disagreed with Councillor Chris Blakeley’s motion that a different date should be used.

Due to the call-ins the Cabinet decisions will not be implemented until a decision has been reached by the Coordinating Committee. Therefore the existing concessions at the Council’s leisure centres for current and former Armed Forces personnel will continue and so will the funding for the Forest Schools program in order to not prejudge the outcome of the Coordinating Committee decisions in September.

Similar reasons to do with availability and holidays were given behind the recent adjournment of the Audit and Risk Management Committee’s BIG/ISUS investigations.

Councillor Chris Blakeley (Conservative spokesperson) did raise the point that the meeting was being adjourned to suit Wirral Council officers, therefore why couldn’t it be rearranged to suit councillors (referring to three Conservative councillors)? However the Labour councillors on the Coordinating Committee disagreed with this approach.

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