Cllr Foulkes uses phrase “shambolic” to describe Wirral Council’s decision making on Lyndale School

                                  

Councillor Phil Gilchrist explains his amendment on the minority report on Lyndale School to councillors, officers and the public 2nd October 2014 Council Chamber, Wallasey Town Hall (c) John Brace

Councillor Phil Gilchrist explains his amendment on the minority report on Lyndale School to councillors, officers and the public 2nd October 2014 Council Chamber, Wallasey Town Hall (c) John Brace

Below is the text of the amendment submitted on Monday evening to the minority report from Cllr Paul Hayes. It was not circulated to the public gallery, so myself and another went downstairs during the adjournment to get a copy.

Despite the Chief Executive’s assertion that it was a “private paper”, this will form part of the minutes of the public meeting on 22nd October 2014.

It is a shame committee services officers aren’t instructed to circulate copies to the public gallery too during the adjournment. However this would cost Wirral Council the extra labour costs of sending someone up the stairs and the extra photocopying costs of a further ten or so sheets of paper, so I am happy in these straightened financial times to decrease the labour costs of Wirral Council!

So this Lib Dem amendment gets a wider audience (and I got told off a bit by the Chief Executive on my way out of the Council Chamber for being in the Council Chamber as he made some point about “private papers” and a “private meeting” that to be honest I didn’t understand at the time as we were both tired), it is below. I’ve linked from it to the documents referred to in it. It’s also interesting to hear the Mayor’s comments on an attempt to make councillors vote on an amendment they hadn’t received a copy of yet!

The item on Lyndale School starts at the 3 minute 40 second mark, lasts for a further six minutes then the meeting is adjourned.

This is after the meeting resumed after the adjournment and continues below at the next clip.

The item on Lyndale School is for about two minutes at the start.

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

COUNCIL 20 OCTOBER 2014

Proposed: Cllr Phil Gilchrist
Seconded: Cllr Dave Mitchell

Amendment to the Minority Report from Cllr Paul Hayes

It be noted that the SEN Improvement Test as set out on Page 87 as Appendix 3 in the Consultant’s Report did not fully set out paragraph 40 as set out in the Guidance Document, namely that:

“….Decision-makers should make clear how they are satisfied that this SEN improvement test has been met, including how they have taken account of parental or independent representations which question the proposer’s assessment”.

…was not included and that, therefore, the matter should be referred back to Cabinet so that they can fully set out how they have undertaken this assessment in the light of the guidance.

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

Of course, the question is therefore, did Wirral Council’s Cabinet (and Coordinating Committee) actually have to consider the guidance before reaching a decision? It would seem from the legislation they do have to have regard to it. For the purposes of clarity LEA stands for Local Education Authority:

Section 72 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 c.40 states the following:

“72. Duty of LEA to have regard to guidance

A local education authority must, in exercising their functions under this Part, have regard to any guidance given from time to time by the Secretary of State.”

Note the use of the word must, the decision makers must have regard to any guidance (which was issued on the 28th January 2014). It’s not optional to do so. The current guidance introduced in January 2014 is in four parts (and hasn’t been included in the papers for the meetings so far in full):

School organisation (maintained schools) (23 pages) issued 28/1/14

School organisation: annex A (16 pages) issued 28/1/14

School organisation: annex B (23 pages) issued 28/1/14

School organisation: annex C (14 pages) issued 28/1/14

In other words, when making the decisions on 5th February 2014, 25th February 2014, 27th February 2014, 4th September 2014, 2nd October 2014 and 20th October 2014 can those over sixty councillors all prove they had regard to the guidance when the seventy-six pages of government guidance wasn’t included in the papers for those meetings?

Not even four weblinks were included, so they could read it in their own time was included.

The guidance that was quoted, wasn’t for the right time period and after new guidance was issued on the 28th January 2014, Wirral Council just kept using the old version as the first Cabinet meeting to discuss Lyndale School was held on the 16th January 2014.

Why don’t people bother to check these things at Wirral Council before including them in meeting papers? Should the Labour councillors accept some responsibility for not asking officers whether required guidance was not included with the papers or do Labour councillors assume that Wirral Council officers don’t make any mistakes (unlike the rest of us)?

During the adjournment I happened to pass Julia Hassall (Wirral Council’s Director of Children’s Serivces) leaving the Council Chamber and she didn’t look very happy by this development. However it’s been known for some time (although apparently Wirral Council officers and politicians are the last to know it seems).

It’s just one of many unresolved anomalies about how the decisions surrounding Lyndale School have not been made as they should have done.

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Expense claim form for Councillor Phil Davies (Wirral Council) 2013 (continued) £241.10 claimed in 1 week!

                                             

Councillor Phil Davies is a Labour councillor for Birkenhead and Tranmere ward. During the period covered he was Leader of the Council and Cabinet Member for Finance/Best Value. The first eight pages of his expense claims I published on this blog last month.

However the page below was only provided last Friday, which accounts for a further £241.10 claimed (October 2013).

This breaks down to:

1) Mersey Tunnel tolls Fast Tag (£1.30 * 10 (5 return trips on 17/10, 18/10, 21/10, 23/10 & 24/10)) = £13
2) Return train from Liverpool to London for LGA Workforce Board meeting (21st October 2013) = £220.80
3) London tube for LGA Workforce Board meeting (21st October 2013) = £7.30

Total (for 17/10/13 to 24/10/13): £241.10

These were for meetings to see an unspecified Police and Crime Commissioner (which could be Jane Kennedy), a meeting of the City Region Cabinet, a meeting of the LGA Workforce Board (in London), a meeting of NWIUF (spelt incorrectly) and the LEP (Local Enterprise Partnership presumable the Liverpool City Region one).

In fact NWIUF is an error on the expenses form and should instead be NWUIF (which is the North West Urban Investment Fund).

For four meetings that are not at Wallasey Town Hall (Police Commissioner, City Region, NWUIF and LEP) Cllr Phil Davies should have included the place he was going to on the form. However, as he claimed Mersey Tunnel tolls for going to these meetings, it is assumed they are all outside the Wirral and to the east.

Looking on the bright side though, Cllr Phil Davies’s expense form is typed, which makes it far easier to read than those councillors who fill them in by hand! The total of £241.10 seems to have originally been a different figure, but then tippexed out and replaced with £241.10. However it is to be expected that the Leader of Wirral Council has a busy schedule and diary.

Cllr Phil Davies expenses claim 2013 page 1 of 1

Cllr Phil Davies expenses claim 2013 page 1 of 1

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Expense claim forms for Councillor George Davies (Wirral Council) 2013 (continued)

                                             

Wirral Council have provided a further four pages of expenses returns for Councillor George Davies. Cllr George Davies is a Labour councillor for Claughton ward. His expenses return are for car mileage, tunnel tolls (cash and Fast Tag), car parking and tickets. These four pages cover the period of 11th July 2013 to 13th November 2013.

The tunnel toll of £3.20 on 1st August 2013 is a return trip through the Mersey Tunnel using cash. However on 11th September 2013 (£2.60) and 18th September 2013 (£2.60) these other trips are return trips using a Fast Tag. Cash tolls were £1.60 (each way) during this period and Fast Tag was £1.30 (each way).

There is an entry for £2.50 for two tickets for the 29th October 2013 which relates to the Child Poverty Working Group. I’m not sure exactly what it’s for as it’s written in the “tolls and parking” group and appears to not relate to tunnel tolls.

On the mileage side thankfully Cllr George Davies has provided mileometer readings.

For example on a trip to visit Chief Officers on the 29th July 2013, his start mileage is 53960, his finish mileage is either 53970 or 53974 (as both figures were written here although it looks like 53974 is the later figure) and mileage claimed is 14 miles.

His four page claim consists of:

658 miles travelled @ £0.40/mile = £263.20
Tunnel toll (cash) @ £1.60 each * 2 = £3.20
Tunnel toll (fast tag) @ £1.30 each * 4 = £5.20
Parking (18/9/13) = £2.80
Tickets (29/10/13) (2) = £2.50
Unknown but probably parking (31/10/13) = £1

Total: £277.90

The rest of Cllr George Davies’ expenses claims for the 2013/2014 financial year, which were published on this blog last month can be read here.

Cllr George Davies expenses claim 2013 page 1 of 4

Cllr George Davies expenses claim 2013 page 1 of 4

Cllr George Davies expenses claim 2013 page 2 of 4

Cllr George Davies expenses claim 2013 page 2 of 4

Cllr George Davies expenses claim 2013 page 3 of 4

Cllr George Davies expenses claim 2013 page 3 of 4

Cllr George Davies expenses claim 2013 page 4 of 4

Cllr George Davies expenses claim 2013 page 4 of 4

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An update on what’s been happening at Wirral Council about Lyndale School (and other matters)

                                                    

Councillor Tony Smith (Cabinet Member for Children and Family Services) at the Special Cabinet Meeting of 4th September 2014 to discuss Lyndale School L to R Cllr Stuart Whittingham, Cllr Tony Smith, Cllr Bernie Mooney and Lyndzay Roberts

Councillor Tony Smith (Cabinet Member for Children and Family Services) at the Special Cabinet Meeting of 4th September 2014 to discuss Lyndale School L to R Cllr Stuart Whittingham, Cllr Tony Smith (Cabinet Member for Children and Family Services), Cllr Bernie Mooney and Lyndzay Roberts

It’s time for a brief round-up on latest developments on Lyndale School.

The draft minutes of the call in on Lyndale School held on the 2nd October 2014 were published a few days ago and come to twenty-nine pages long. The meeting itself was about five hours long with a short adjournment part way through which explains the length of the minutes. They make for interesting reading.

The draft minutes of the call in meeting on 2nd October 2014 about Lyndale School go to tonight’s Council meeting to be approved (agenda item 10 (Matters Referred from Policy and Performance Committees)).

There are also many different minority reports tabled to do with recent call ins that have been heard. The minority report from the Conservative Group about Lyndale School is here.

In addition to the minority report on Lyndale School there are a further three minority reports about matters unconnected to Lyndale School:

Lib Dem Group (about the call in to do with concessions for the Armed Forces at leisure centres) proposed by Cllr Phil Gilchrist.
Conservative Group (about the call in to do with concessions for the Armed Forces at leisure centres) proposed by Cllrs Chris Blakeley, Wendy Clements, Mike Hornby, Steve Williams and Gerry Ellis.

Lib Dem Group (Health Homes/Forest Schools call in) proposed by Cllr Stuart Kelly.

So because of the minority report submitted by the Conservative Group there will be a further vote of all councillors on Lyndale School tonight. Whether the report will trigger a debate or not I’m unsure.

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Who will choose Wirral Council’s new Chief Executive?

                                                         

One of the bigger stories on this blog recently has been the news that the current Chief Executive for Wirral Council Graham Burgess has handed in his notice and will retire at the end of the year.

So as Wirral Council has the Chief Executive’s three-month notice period (30th September 2014 to 31st December 2014) to find his replacement, what’s happened so far?

Well because the Chief Executive is a political appointment of councillors, the politicians have to decide. So a meeting of the Employment and Appointments Committee has been set up for the 27th October 2014. Graham Burgess is also currently Returning Officer (many people reading this may also know what a Returning Officer is but in simple terms it’s the head person at Wirral Council for elections), Electoral Registration Officer (another role to do with elections) and Head of Paid Service.

So what’s the timetable for picking a new Chief Executive and will one be in post by 1st January 2014? According to the draft timetable it won’t so temporary appointments will have to be made! The proposed timetable means the job advertisement will be advertised around the start of December 2014, which will give people until nearly a week after Graham Burgess leaves to apply for his job.

It is proposed that Penna PLC be paid about £15,000 for helping find a new Chief Executive and a further about £15,000 for finding a new Head of Specialist Services (who is also leaving in December 2014).

However paying out about £15k to Penna PLC to aid Wirral Council’s Human Resources department is not enough! No a “professional adviser” from the Local Government Association will also be advising the Appointments Panel.

This in fact has always struck me as a bit of an anomaly. Penna PLC and the LGA aren’t officers or councillors at Wirral Council. In the past though, they’ve remained in the meeting room after the press and public were excluded from the public meeting.

So who is the Appointments Panel going to be and what will it do? It will consist of seven councillors who will make a recommendation for the post of Chief Executive to the sixty-six councillors. It will probably be four Labour councillors, two Conservative councillors and one Lib Dem councillor. I have some guesses now below about who will make up this appointment panel for the Chief Executive. It hasn’t yet been decided yet which councillors will be on it, but below are my names along with my reasons:

Labour (4 councillors)
Cllr Adrian Jones * reason is already Chair of Employment and Appointments Committee
Cllr Phil Davies * reason is already Vice-Chair of Employment and Appointments Committee & Leader of the Council
Cllr George Davies * reason is Deputy Leader of Wirral Council, Cabinet Member and Labour councillor on Employment and Appointments Committee
Cllr Ann McLachlan * reason is Deputy Leader of Wirral Council, Cabinet Member and Labour councillor on Employment and Appointments Committee

* Note although Cllr Moira McLaughlin is a possibility, she’s unlikely for the reasons listed above

Conservative (2 councillors)
Cllr Jeff Green * reason there are only 2 Conservative councillors (apart from deputies) on Employment and Appointments Committee
Cllr Lesley Rennie * reason there are only 2 Conservative councillors (apart from deputies) on Employment and Appointments Committee

Lib Dem (1 councillor)
Cllr Phil Gilchrist * reason only Lib Dem (apart from deputies) on Employment and Appointments Committee

The seven councillors on the Appointments Panel will all be from the Employment and Appointments Committee and due to the high-profile nature of the appointment unlikely to be deputies. The Employment and Appointments Committee has eight councillors on it (plus twenty-one deputies). So the seven will come from those twenty-nine.

The Appointments Panel doesn’t actually choose the Chief Executive though. They just recommend who the Chief Executive should be to a meeting of all sixty-six councillors at Wirral Council.

From a practical perspective though, as Labour have a majority of councillors on the Appointments Panel and Wirral Council it will be down to the Labour councillors to decide who the next Chief Executive/Returning Officer/Electoral Registration Officer/Head of Paid Service is. As the process will probably be going on after Graham Burgess leaves and it’s a legal requirement to have somebody appointed to some of these roles, temporary people will have to be found before a permanent appointment is made.

Looking back to July 2012 when Graham Burgess was appointed as Chief Executive by Council, he then had to serve his period of notice before starting in post in September 2012.

If the new Chief Executive has to also serve out a period of notice, it could be as late as May 2015 before he or she starts (which if it is after General Election and local elections it will make the election side of their job easier).

So here’s the proposed job description & person specification for the Chief Executive/Head of Paid Service/Returning Officer/Electoral Registration Officer.

Certainly it will be interesting to see who the politicians eventually recommend for this key post at Wirral Council! If anyone wishes to leave a comment comparing the appointment of Wirral Council’s Chief Executive to the complicated process of appointing a Doge of Venice, feel free.

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The 6 “missing” pages of Cllr Tony Smith’s expenses claims shed more light on Lyndale School matters

                                                                                

As part of the 2013/14 audit of Wirral Council, I exercised a legal right to a copy of the councillors’ expenses forms. I have published what I received last month (which attracted much public interest), but a lot of pages were still not provided at that point. You can read the earlier nine pages for Councillor Tony Smith here.

The internal processes seem to be that the finance side of Wirral Council ask for these from Human Resources. Human Resources then ask for legal advice. The legal side of Wirral Council then recommend to redact officer names, registration numbers of councillors’ cars, payroll numbers, signatures and other information on these forms. Quite why that whole process takes over two months I’m not quite sure.

As many readers of this blog will know there was a call in of the Cabinet decision of September 4th on Lyndale School which happened during a five-hour public meeting on the evening of October 2nd 2014. The six pages of the Cabinet Member for Education’s expenses (Cllr Tony Smith) I requested in August 2014 but were only supplied to me this morning (17th October 2014).

It shows some meetings which may be of interest to the continuing public debate on Lyndale School. The last meeting with Alison McGovern MP is education related due to its location, however whether it is connected to Lyndale School or a different education matter I am unsure at this point. I include the original six pages below.

Wirral Council also provided me today with a further dozen or so pages of councillors expenses for other councillors that had also been missing from what I had been supplied with. I plan to publish these in the near future.

Date | Description | Departure location | Return time and location| No of miles| Rate

17.5.13 | Visits to Foxfield and Elleray Park School – in role of Cabinet Member | Home | | 10 | 0.40p
9.8.13 | Meeting re Lyndale School with Director + Officers / Hamilton Building | Home | Hamilton | 10 | 0.40p
13.9.13 | Meeting ?? ?? M.P. Alison McGovern and officers / Hamilton | Home | Hamilton | 10 | 0.40p

Cllr Tony Smith expenses claim 2013 page 1 of 6

Cllr Tony Smith expenses claim 2013 page 1 of 6

Cllr Tony Smith expenses claim 2013 page 2 of 6

Cllr Tony Smith expenses claim 2013 page 2 of 6

Cllr Tony Smith expenses claim 2013 page 3 of 6

Cllr Tony Smith expenses claim 2013 page 3 of 6

Cllr Tony Smith expenses claim 2013 page 4 of 6

Cllr Tony Smith expenses claim 2013 page 4 of 6

Cllr Tony Smith expenses claim 2013 page 5 of 6

Cllr Tony Smith expenses claim 2013 page 5 of 6

Cllr Tony Smith expenses claim 2013 page 6 of 6

Cllr Tony Smith expenses claim 2013 page 6 of 6

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Councillor Ron Abbey today reassured people about the risk of infectious diseases to the people of Merseyside through Liverpool Airport and sea ports

Councillor Ron Abbey, Chair and the Mersey Port Health Committee plus officers at the West Reception Room. 1st floor, Liverpool Town Hall, Liverpool on the 16th October 2014 for a public meeting

Councillor Ron Abbey, Chair and the Mersey Port Health Committee plus officers at the West Reception Room. 1st floor, Liverpool Town Hall, Liverpool on the 16th October 2014 for a public meeting

Apologies for the poor sound quality on the video below, one of the few spots to film in the West Reception Room was sadly next to a working air conditioning unit. The video below should finish uploading at about 5.30pm on 16/10 and is one of two parts. The second part will be uploaded later.

Mersey Port Health Committee (comprising councillors from Liverpool, Wirral and Sefton), 16th October 2014 at West Reception Room, 1st Floor, Liverpool Town Hall, High Street, L2 3SW starting at 11.00am | 53.40711°N, 2.99162°W

I attended my second meeting (this time on dry land so no possibility of sea sickness) of the Mersey Port Health Committee, for my write up of its AGM earlier this year just follow this link.

Although we were the only two members of the public at the last meeting, this time we were also joined by a student who was attending as part of her studies.

On the Mersey Port Health Committee and present from Wirral Council were Cllr Ron Abbey (Labour) and elected Chair at the AGM last time), Cllr Gerry Ellis (Conservative) and Cllr Harry Smith (Labour). Councillor John Salter (Labour), Councillor John Hale (Conservative) and Councillor Dave Mitchell (Lib Dem) (who are all on the committee representing Wirral Council) were not present.

There were also various other councillors representing Liverpool City Council and the Metropolitan Borough of Sefton.

The meeting started with an officer saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, could you please take your seats before we start today’s meeting? Before I formally commence proceedings, …” before going on to remind people that there were no fire alarms planned during the meeting, which fire exit they should use if there was an emergency and where to assemble outside at Exchange Flags. He also referred to the “new legislation” (a reference to the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014 (SI 2014/2095)) and said, “The use of recording devices both audio and video is permitted at public meetings now in accordance with government legislation” and he asked that we not film the other members (he should have said member) of the public present (the error was because there was only one other member of the public present, a student there attending as part of her studies at the University of Liverpool).

I’ll point out at this point I will make a declaration of interest as I have previously been a student there (as has Leonora) and Leonora and I both have a current connection with that university.

I will also point out that we’re allowed to film whoever is in the actual meeting room, but Liverpool City Council decided on their own filming policy (which is at odds somewhat with the legislation) earlier this year (with no prior consultation of the people affected such as ourselves but that’s Liverpool City Council for you). A the meeting it was discussed they decided that they didn’t want the public filmed at public meetings for rather complicated reasons I won’t go into here. From what I remember of the discussion back in September 2014 Liverpool City Council councillors expressed the slightly odd viewpoint that the public at a public meeting were entitled to privacy. In fact I seem to remember that at that very meeting at least one councillor expressed the viewpoint that they felt it was the height of bad manners to turn up with a camera and record a public meeting! For the earlier discussion on that filming policy see: the video footage I took then and the major problems I had filming Liverpool City Council’s Constitutional Issues Committee which was about filming public meetings in the same room that I was filming in today.

No declarations of interest were made.

There was a correction made to the minutes as the list of councillors attending was incorrect. Cllr John Coyne (Green Party, Liverpool City Council) raised the issue of infectious diseases and the Chair (Labour, Wirral Council) Cllr Ron Abbey referred to the guidance on Ebola and how port health was the “guardian on the frontline of preventing infectious diseases”.

An officer referred to the Liverpool City Council emergency group and an exercise the day before. She said that there was a lot of literature about the public health measures if there was an outbreak at a sea port.

Cllr John Coyne referred to the press reports about the intention to screen at the Eurostar Terminal in London. The Chair Cllr Ron Abbey pointed out that there were no direct flights to Liverpool with a point of origin from the countries affected by the Ebola outbreak. He also referred to Heathrow and Eurostar and that people would be transhipped through other ports first.

The councillor referred to trains.

Cllr Ron Abbey (Chair) said that Eurostar links to France, which was a main connecting hub and then people could travel by Eurostar from the French airports.

An officer, supporting Cllr Ron Abbey said that it was based on risk and that both Heathrow and Eurostar were both passenger hubs. She referred to regular surveillance of flights coming through.

A councillor once again referred to Eurostar and the terminal in London.

The Chair (Cllr Ron Abbey) reassured him that people travelling from affected countries would be automatically screened on flights before they got to Liverpool, therefore there was no call to do a secondary check at Liverpool John Lennon Airport.

An officer said that they were working with Public Health England and there was a port health plan. He referred to meeting all relevant agencies to discuss the potential of sea ports or airports with regards to communicable disease.

The Chair (Cllr Ron Abbey) said it was a “moving issue”. He referred again to a secondary check at Liverpool John Lennon Airport, but that it was a smaller airport than Gatwick or Manchester.

A councillor said that he felt that as it had a 21 day incubation period, that the screening had no medical value and expressed the view that it was being done for “political” reasons. However he did want to ask about ships from West Africa docking at the pier and also for guidance about ships, crew and passengers which he felt was more relevant than people flying in or Eurostar.

An officer answered about the potential for ships from West Africa on which there were people who had possibly contracted a communicable disease and referred to meetings with public health. She said that ships had a responsibility to report any illness of crew or passengers under maritime law, not just Ebola.

The minutes of the last meeting were then agreed, with the amendment to the list of those who had attended.

The Chair made an announcement that he welcomed a student (who he named) to the meeting. However the student wasn’t there so he apologised to the student who was there for misleading people over what her name was. He welcomed her to the meeting and hoped she would find it interesting.

The meeting then considered the quarterly report for April to June of 2014.

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Isn’t it time Cllr Phil Davies remembered his 2009 U-turn on closure of Ridgeway and did the same now on Lyndale?

                                                                                      

Councillor Tony Smith (Cabinet Member for Children and Family Services) at the Special Cabinet Meeting of 4th September 2014 to discuss Lyndale School L to R Cllr Stuart Whittingham, Cllr Tony Smith, Cllr Bernie Mooney and Lyndzay Roberts

Councillor Tony Smith (Cabinet Member for Children and Family Services) at the Special Cabinet Meeting of 4th September 2014 to discuss Lyndale School L to R Cllr Stuart Whittingham, Cllr Tony Smith (Cabinet Member for Children and Family Services), Cllr Bernie Mooney and Lyndzay Roberts

I wrote yesterday about “Is Lyndale School under threat just so Wirral Council can provide a further £2 million to a company that already has plenty?” , so I thought today I’d write a little more on the topic.

Last year, Wirral Council wanted to introduce a banding system for the extra costs at special schools. However at the last-minute they withdraw their application to the Secretary of State to do this.

Despite the fact it actually couldn’t be implemented in 2013-14, the policy was agreed by a close 8:7 vote at a call in meeting back in February 2014, so if it gets implemented next year for band 5 children at Wirral Schools the top up element for band 5 children is capped at £16,000 (this is in addition to the £10,000 each school receives per a child).

If however a child with special needs based on the Wirral is at a school outside Wirral or at an independent special school (such as West Kirby Residential School) on the Wirral this £16,000 upper limit at least by my reading of the policy doesn’t apply.

When questioned at the Coordinating Committee meeting on October 2nd 2014 and asked to explain this unfairness, David Armstrong (Assistant Chief Executive) explained that because independent schools are run as a business, Wirral Council pay more to independent schools because such businesses are run to make a profit.

I used to go to an independent school, called St. Anselm’s College. Between the ages of 12 and 14 the school complained bitterly at people like myself whose places were funded by Wirral Council because we were all told many times that the school got (if memory serves me correct nearly 20 years later so I may be a little rusty on the figure) £100 per a term less than this was actually costing them and this meant in effect they had to cross subsidise the education of people like myself by putting fees up. Across about 35 pupils, this was a deficit of about £10,000 a year at 1992 prices.

The school felt (or maybe influential parents on the board of governors felt) it was unfair to expect the well off parents to subsidise the education of other students and they chose to opt out of the local system becoming grant maintained in the mid 1990s (as grant maintained schools no longer exist it is now called an academy).

In other words even when I was actually a child in the Wirral education system (and too young to vote), I was being made aware of how angry (and let’s face it political) schools got at Wirral Council’s funding formula a whole two decades ago! This may sound awful to write like this but to a lot of large schools, each child at the school meant £x,xxx a year, which meant management trying to balance the books each year veered towards seeing children as a source of income and forgot that people prefer to be treated as people and not a line on a balance sheet. Each year children got old enough to leave, so there was the usual advertising in the local newspapers and open evenings each year to try and persuade parents to pick that particular school for their children.

That is the mistake that I sadly feel politicians and upper management at Wirral Council have made. It is very easy to just see Lyndale School as a line on a balance sheet and that there’s an underspend in the budget for closing schools and try and spend that budget. The debate has sadly got too much about money and dare I write the unthinkable “nobody really understands the full complexities of education funding anyway”?

It’s harder to look at the social fabric of what makes up a school, not just the staff and children at it but its place in the community. To give one example of this there’s the history of a school and the fond place in the hearts of people who no longer have children there but did at one stage. These are not factors that can never truly be measured by accountants at Wirral Council. Unlike other consultations, the consultation responses made to the Lyndale School closure weren’t published by Wirral Council, although you can read them as an exclusive on this blog.

In the recent past there was a move to close Ridgeway High School (a secondary school) here in Birkenhead. Ridgeway was the controversial political issue back then (I even remember speaking on TV about it), there was a large petition of thousands against closure handed in to Wirral Council and a call in meeting held in the Council Chamber which a lot of people associated with the school attended. It was controversial, but in the end in 2009 the Labour/Lib Dem Cabinet did a U-turn and Rock Ferry closed instead. The rest as they say is history.

Back then Cllr Phil Davies was the Cabinet Member for Education and was quoted as saying this about that U-turn in the Liverpool Echo, he said that it was a “pragmatic decision, based on the clear view from Ridgeway that they do not want to be part of these options” and “We are not going to force the school to close and be part of a review which they now no longer wish to be involved in.”

In the interests of balance I will point out the same article has a quote from Cllr Stuart Kelly saying he is “delighted” and this quote from Cllr Jeff Green “The Cabinet really must start thinking things through before making such critical decision on the future for Wirral residents. The anguish and alarm the decision to close Ridgeway created was wholly avoidable by a simple application of common sense, it would also have prevented this subsequent embarrassing climb down.”

Now, five years later when somebody else is Cabinet Member for Education (Cllr Tony Smith) and Cllr Phil Davies is Leader of the Council where have those fine principles of pragmatism that Cllr Phil Davies displayed back in 2009 gone? Where is the politician’s desire to actually represent the views of thousands of people that signed a petition against closure of Lyndale? Try replacing Ridgeway in those quotes with Lyndale and you will get the following two quotes (the kind of words I’m sure plenty of people wish Cllr Phil Davies would actually say):

Cllr Phil Davies that it was a “pragmatic decision, based on the clear view from Lyndale that they do not want to be part of these options” and “We are not going to force the school to close and be part of a review which they now no longer wish to be involved in.”

and Cllr Jeff Green “The Cabinet really must start thinking things through before making such critical decision on the future for Wirral residents. The anguish and alarm the decision to close Lyndale created was wholly avoidable by a simple application of common sense, it would also have prevented this subsequent embarrassing climb down.”

Certainly if those words were said today (and for the sake of everyone involved in this let’s hope something similar is said in the near future!), Cllr Jeff Green’s position would seem to be entirely consistent over time if you compare Ridgeway in 2009 to now. Ridgeway of course is and was back then a much larger school that Lyndale is, so therefore had the clout back then and political influence to make sure it was never closed.

Why does the Cllr Phil Davies of 2014 over Lyndale not display the same sense of pragmatism he showed over Ridgeway in 2009? What’s happened in the last five years? I know U-turns are embarrassing for politicians to make, but he should take a really long, hard look at one of his predecessors as Leader of the Council Cllr Steve Foulkes who refused to U-turn on library closures until the Minister launched a public inquiry and learn the lesson that that it can be disastrous for the Labour Group’s reputation to rely on the “professional” advice of Wirral Council officers and listen to those Wirral Council officers more than the views of many Wirral residents. Aren’t politicians supposed to be there to represent the public in the political process?

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Is Lyndale School under threat just so Wirral Council can provide a further £2 million to a company that already has plenty?

                                             

Councillor Tony Smith (Cabinet Member for Children and Family Services) at the Special Cabinet Meeting of 4th September 2014 to discuss Lyndale School L to R Cllr Stuart Whittingham, Cllr Tony Smith, Cllr Bernie Mooney and Lyndzay Roberts

Councillor Tony Smith (Cabinet Member for Children and Family Services) at the Special Cabinet Meeting of 4th September 2014 to discuss Lyndale School L to R Cllr Stuart Whittingham, Cllr Tony Smith (Cabinet Member for Children and Family Services), Cllr Bernie Mooney and Lyndzay Roberts

Last Thursday morning I visited Lyndale School in Eastham. This was my first visit, although regular readers of this blog will know that I have written extensively on the topic and filmed many public meetings of Wirral Council on the many stages involving its potential closure in January 2016.

Regular readers of this blog will also know that despite promises made in February 2014 by senior officers at a call in that matters would be dealt with in a completely “open and transparent” way, that the recent 13 page letter received from Surjit Tour turned down a request for a meeting between myself and Wirral Council on this matter.

Thankfully the Lyndale School appears to be behaving in a far more “open and transparent” way than Wirral Council is!

I wanted to start this piece by describing my impressions of the school as some of my observations about a visit to Lyndale School raise further unanswered questions.

On the same plot of land as the Lyndale School is also Eastham Youth Centre. Clearly the current consultation is about the Lyndale School, however I know relatively little about this Youth Centre. Is this Youth Centre open, closed, working or threatened with closure itself? I don’t really know the answer to that question and would appreciate somebody better informed, or more closely connected to Eastham than I to leave a comment.

Moving to the Lyndale School itself, it looks from the outside like many other primary schools do on the Wirral. Unlike when I went to school in the 1980/1990s where there literally was an “open door” policy at primary schools, these days (as is common with all other schools on the Wirral now) you need to press a buzzer on an intercom system to be let in.

There is then a reception area on the right, which at the time of my visit had many stuffed toy animals on the counter. To the left is a visitors book for visitors to sign and visitors badges on which the names of visitors can be written. On the wall is also a photo of each member of staff who works there and their job title.

My personal view on the latter point, is that organisations that do such a thing, tend to be more open and transparent than those who try to hide behind a bewildering, faceless and largely unaccountable bureaucracy.

As we had both been walking up from Eastham Rake train station, someone we both knew, who lives in Eastham had been passing in their car and had kindly offered us both a lift to the Lyndale School. So we both arrived earlier than I expected, which gave me a chance to see people coming and going for a while and how things were going. Despite the pressures the Lyndale School is going through, staff were professional and the “open door” policy referred to at the call in I saw in action as one of the parents arrived while we were waiting. If a decision is made to close the Lyndale School, this is one of the matters that the parents of the children at Lyndale School have expressed concern about as they cannot see this in operation at the other schools suggested.

There is obviously a lot of trust that exists between the parents of children at Lyndale School and the staff there. Certainly there is (despite the stress the School is under because of the political issues) a lot of goodwill between the parents and staff at the school. That’s something that never appears on Wirral Council’s balance sheet as it’s something that can’t be quantified. This is part of the reason the parents of children at Lyndale School want the School to stay as it is, as they don’t see the same ethos at Lyndale School at either Stanley School or Elleray Park.

Echoing what I have heard Julia Hassall (Director of Children’s Services at Wirral Council) say many times, I will also make the following point. Some schools are closed down because they are “failing schools”. Lyndale School doesn’t fall into that category and that is not one of the reasons behind the consultations on its closure. I wish to make that as clear as I can (as has Julia Hassall at many public meetings). The view from the public can be to jump to the conclusion that schools are only threatened with closure because things at them are going pear-shaped. This is not the case at Lyndale School and I will also point out that no final decision on closure of Lyndale School has yet been made by Wirral Council’s Cabinet.

I have referred before in articles describing Lyndale School as a “hospital school” as personally I think it is probably a more accurate description of what goes on in Lyndale School. Think of the political fuss that would happen if say in the lead up to a General Election (and I’ll point out now that I know of no such plans) that there was a consultation on closing the children’s ward and the hospital school at Arrowe Park Hospital? Think of it purely from that perspective and you can perhaps see how emotional an issue it is for both the people directly involved and the wider community.

There are many new matters involving Lyndale School I could write about but instead I will explain what I was at Lyndale School for. There was a very interesting meeting of the Friends of Lyndale School Association held there which was a private meeting, so there is a limit about what I will write here about it.

However, I had better explain what and who the Friends of Lyndale School Association are. The Friends of Lyndale School Association are a small charity set up in March of this year and registered with the Charity Commission in June. Their charitable objects are:

To advance the education of pupils in the school in particular by:
developing effective relationships between the staff, parents and others associated with the school;
engaging in activities or providing facilities or equipment which support the school and advance the education of the pupils.

It’s hard to describe exactly what the Friends of Lyndale School Association is, but the closest easily understood comparison to it, is a parent-teacher association or PTA for the Lyndale School. As with all PTAs they raise money to be spent on their charitable objects and you can (if you wish) donate to them online on the webpage on Justgiving website for the Friends of Lyndale School Association.

If the Lyndale School closes, the Friends of Lyndale School Association have made it clear that any remaining funds would be donated to Claire House (which is a children’s hospice on the Wirral). The Wirral Globe are also printing interviews with the parents of Lyndale School (which if you wish to read the first three are on the Wirral Globe website starting here, continuing here and the most recent one is and I will at this stage (and I don’t often do this about someone else in the local media) thank Emma Rigby of the Wirral Globe for her reporting in the Wirral Globe of this story.

Yesterday evening there was supposed to be a meeting of all councillors at Wirral Council. However as most people probably know already a lot of public sector unions went on strike and that meeting was shifted to the evening of the 20th October 2014. One of the matters on the agenda is a minority report (no not the film Minority Report with Tom Cruise this refers to something different) but a minority report about the recent Lyndale School call in.

In fact there are five minority reports about various matters. There is one about the Lyndale School call in submitted by various councillors in the Conservative Group that you can read on Wirral Council’s website. The minority report procedure hasn’t been used for a long time and I think most people are unsure whether it’s an item that could trigger a debate or whether it would just be voted on. Had it not been for the strike yesterday, this would probably have already happened.

After the call in meeting on 2nd October 2014, the second consultation on closure of Lyndale School should’ve started as the Cabinet delegated this matter to Julia Hassall. She therefore probably knows more the timescales than I do. As far as I know (and Wirral Council’s constitution has been through a lot of changes in the past few years), a decision of a call in committee is still implemented by officers even if a minority report is submitted to the next Council meeting (which should’ve taken place yesterday evening but was I would guess put back a week because of the strike).

My concerns about the entire process in this matter over the last year and how this has all been done I’ve written about before. I am not going to repeat myself here. There are however concerns about corporate governance at Wirral Council about this matter that I haven’t expressed in public.

Personally I think it is a crying shame, that on an issue as sensitive as Lyndale School, that all political parties now represented on Wirral Council (whether Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem or Green) can’t come to an agreement (behind closed doors if need be) to pause this whole process and have a review.

Wirral Council claim that they can’t keep the Lyndale School open in 2015-16 due to a shortfall between what the Lyndale School predicts they will need and what Wirral Council is willing to give them. The shortfall will be
~£190,000.

I have written on this blog before that Wirral Council could easily find this small amount of money if they wished and move it around from existing budgets if the political will was there. In fact papers that went the Wirral Schools Forum last week showed that through reductions in this year’s budget they found ~£2 million. So where’s this money going? It’ll be put in a reserve and used next year to go to Wirral Schools Services Limited who have a PFI Schools contract for various schools (and two city learning centres) with Wirral Council as part of a ~£12 million/year contribution.

Wirral School Services Limited’s account show that for 2014 they had £1.93 million in cash assets, which is £6.33 million in assets minus their £4.39 million in liabilities.

What’s amazing is that a Labour Council, who trumpets its “socialist values” in election leaflets, it is seemingly happy to make £2 million of cuts in year to the Wirral Council’s Schools Budget for this year (which obviously need Wirral Schools Forum approval and Cabinet approval) to help plug a financial gap in the 2015-16 Schools PFI contract, but when it comes to an amount ten times smaller than that to be found no report I’ve seen so far even lists finding the money to keep Lyndale School open in 2015-16 (from such as underspends in existing budgets) as an alternative option!?

Despite the words of Wirral Council in the past that they would put vulnerable people such as the pupils of Lyndale School first, it seems that the school is under threat whilst capitalist greed gobbles up the available funds. If Wirral Council so wished, it could either end or renegotiate the Schools PFI contract. The schools system should not be run to feed the profits of private companies!!! Nor should vulnerable children have such a low priority!!! These are two of my main frustrations with the current situation.

I will repeat again, if you wish to donate to the Friends of Lyndale School Association you can here. The Justgiving website takes a 5% cut of all donations and charges £18 a month to the Friends of Lyndale School Association. However the other 95% (minus £18/month) is paid directly to them.

I know I will continue to get criticism (and I really don’t mind comments on this blog attacking me) from some quarters for how I’m reporting the Lyndale School issue, there has been however nothing so far that convinces me that all the decisions taken by Wirral Council so far have either been taken in the right way or for the right reasons. If everything was done so far “by the book” and in an “open and transparent” way, I would not be as irked by how the matter has happened as I am.

On a personal note, I realise there has been a deterioration in relations between Wirral Council and those associated with the Lyndale School. If other special schools on the Wirral think they will escape whilst Wirral Council’s focus is on Lyndale School, they will need to have a drastic rethink and not bury their heads in the sand. I will repeat here what I said at Lyndale School on Thursday.

There is a current consultation that the government is running on the draft Schools and Early Years Finance (England) Regulations 2014. These are the regulations (a type of law) that Wirral Council has to conform to when setting schools’ budgets annually.

At the moment, because of a part of the law known as the “minimum funding guarantee”, for this 2014-15 year Wirral Council could not drop school budgets such as Lyndale Schools by more than 1.5% based on what their previous year’s budget allocation was.

However the draft regulations being consulted on, whereas they (in draft form) keep the minimum funding guarantee for mainstream schools, get rid of the current minimum funding guarantee for special schools. Personally and I’m going to get quite political now, I think it is morally wrong to protect mainstream funding for mainstream schools, but at the same time allow local councils to (if they so wish) to totally change the budget (and therefore nature) of special schools which can in extreme cases ultimately force them to close. Obviously the draft regulations may be altered post consultation, but you can respond to that consultation run by the Department of Education here. That consultation closes this Friday (17th October) at 5.00pm.

If the new regulations (following consultation) abolish the existing legal protections for special school budgets, it will be perfectly legal for local councils (such as Wirral Council) to come up with a schools funding formula for 2015-16 that leads not just to the potential closure of schools such as the Lyndale School but dramatically changes the funding allocated to other special schools as the new banding system was agreed earlier this year at a call in a controversial 8:7 vote.

Wirral Council has shifted money out of the agreed budget for special schools to cross subsidise other parts of the education system, such as PFI. This is of course entirely legal if officers get the necessary approvals from the Wirral Schools Forum and others. However in other local authorities, an underspend in the special education side of matters would not be used to plug financial holes and financial instability elsewhere. Other Schools Forums take the prudent approach that underspends on the special educational needs side are put in financial reserves earmarked for that area of education.

The spare capacity such as underspends of money that was agreed should be spent in the special schools system, has instead been used to cross subsidise other parts of Wirral Council’s Schools Budget. The money however always seems to flow out of the special schools system and never back to it. Had these political decisions not been made, there would be more than enough money to keep Lyndale School open (at least for the 2015-16 year and possibly beyond). However instead the influence of a large company such as Wirral Schools Services Limited with large financial reserves has been listened to, whilst the pleas of Lyndale School parents merely to continue with what they already have, have so far been met with a lack of political will to explore alternative options and a knee jerk reaction to blame the situation on the Coalition government, the Church of England and even the Lyndale School itself, without apparently getting across to the public the personal responsibility that politicians at Wirral Council must take for each decision they make.

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Is freedom of the British press over as UK blogging enters the age of George Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth” (1984)?

                                              

Ministry of Truth George Orwell 1984 comment removed

Ministry of Truth George Orwell 1984 comment removed

As I run a blog, I will declare an interest at the start of this article in that I am the operator of this blog. Before anyone accuses me of bias again (I will point out that much of the below is an opinion piece based on a recent court case, legal changes and experience).

One of the things I enjoy about writing (and reading other blogs) is that people do leave comments (although many others read without leaving a comment). The United Kingdom is however not an ideal place to base a high-tech business, which is part of the reason that in an ideal world doing what I do, I wouldn’t be based at all in the UK but somewhere that doesn’t have such a peculiar regulatory environment.

Previously the UK was well-known for its “libel tourism” because of the way the courts here operated when it came to libel. However from past cases certain things can’t be libelled, such as a political party or a local council. Even on matters published abroad, in the past lawyers had preferred to sue in the UK because of the way the court system was here and how easy it was to win their case (and how disastrous financially for the defendant even if they won!).

A lot of the laws that govern the media in this country were based on print publications and arguments about censorship have raged for centuries. A lot of the laws were written before the internet actually happened and were frankly, well overdue for reform. Eventually reform came.

For an example of what used to happen, I direct you to the case of what happened involving Carmarthenshire County Council. Details of the judgement in Thompson v James & Anor ([2013] EWHC 515 (QB) can be read by following that link.

Please note this next bit is in reference to Wales (a country within the UK that borders the Wirral but has a different set of laws and legal system (as well as political system) to here in England).

A local blogger there, Mrs Thompson sued the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council Mark James, alleging that he had libelled her. This was in reference to a letter written from Mark James that referred to Mrs Thompson that was published on another blog (that is not the blog of Mrs. Thompson) that writes under the nom de plume madaxeman.

When sued, the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council used public funds to pay his legal costs (Carmarthenshire County Council had provided him with an indemnity for his legal costs) and his legal team also counterclaimed against Mrs Thompson for references made about Mr. James on her blog which he took exception to.

The court dismissed Mrs Thompson’s libel claim, but upheld Mr James’ counterclaim.

Although the audit bodies in Wales in relation to Carmarthenshire County Council have questioned the issue of whether using public funds for his employer to pay the Chief Executive’s legal costs in a libel lawsuit is actually lawful, Mark James is now vigorously pursuing enforcement of the court order he was granted against Mrs Thompson through a Land Registry charge on her property in respect of damages awarded to him and the defendant’s legal costs (paid for by the taxpayer).

Partly to prevent the courts getting completely clogged up with libel cases (because let’s face it if everyone who had ever had anything written about them untrue online actually filed a lawsuit with the court that would happen), whereas in the past somebody could sue not only the author of a comment, but the publisher and the editor as well, the law was changed. The UK ended up with a new libel law (Defamation Act 2013), which completely reformed the old libel laws, introduced defences of truth, honest opinion and publication on a matter of public interest and also new regulations were introduced that came into force on 2nd December 2013.

The new libel law also introduced a test that had to met. Any statement that was claimed to be defamatory had to have “caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant”. The new regulations are referred to as the Defamation (Operators of Websites) Regulations 2013 and cover comments left on blogs.

This blog (and comments left on it) fall under the new regulations as I’m the operator of the blog and am based in the UK. In theory if I wasn’t based in the UK but the people leaving the comments were, their comments would probably fall under the new regulations too.

In relation to user generated content (such as comments) on blogs, it means that now the operator of the blog (such as myself) is not liable if the operator of the blog follows the rather strict procedure laid down in the regulations when a complaint is made.

The regulations can be read online, but basically as an operator of a blog if a complaint (that falls within the regulations or even a defective notice) is made about a comment on my blog, I have to within 48 hours (assuming the commenter complained about actually has provided an email address) get in touch with the poster of the comment and they then have 5 days to respond. I also at this stage contact the complainant too.

If no response is received from the person who left the comment within 5 days, the comment is removed, otherwise I’m in breach of the regulations. The person who left the comment has five days to respond and the regulations give them a variety of options which partially determine what happens next. For example they can withdraw their comment in which case it is removed at that point. There are however other options also available to them.

Other larger technology businesses aren’t entirely happy with the current regulatory framework under which they have to operate here in the UK and have published transparency reports as to complaints received and outcomes. I have decided it is high time that I did this too, especially considering the views of the media on censorship.

Out of many thousands of comments currently on the blog since the new regulations came into effect on the 2nd December 2013 there have been complaints so far about two. Detail is provided below.

However, I’d like some feedback from you the reader as to the level of detail provided below and how open and transparent I am being. Are there things you think I should include in future reports, that I am not including currently?

Obviously in the case of complaint #1 I’m not allowed to republish the original comment as that has concluded and the author of the comment has withdrawn it. However there seems to be a general pattern emerging as to the type of stories I get requests for comments to be removed on, doesn’t there?

==============================================================================================================
STATUS: Completed (comment removed 4th July 2014 see here)

Complaint number: Complaint #1

Comment author: John Hardaker

Complainant: Surjit Tour of the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral (Wirral Council)

Article comment attached to: Graham Burgess invites Wirral Council councillors to 5 days of the Open Golf Championship

Outcome: Comment author (Mr. Hardaker) decided to withdraw comment and text of comment was edited out with details inserted explaining why.

Note: see also partial transcript of BBC Radio Merseyside broadcast at Councillor Walter Smith “I must say I enjoyed lavish hospitality” which discussed this.

===============================================================================================================
STATUS: Completed (comment removed 13th October 2014)

Complaint number: Complaint #2

Comment author: James Griffiths

Complainant: He/she have chosen to remain anonymous

Article comment attached to: Graham Burgess (Chief Executive) announces he will retire from Wirral Council on 31st December 2014

Outcome: Comment author (Mr. Griffiths) sent email wishing to withdraw comment.

Note:

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

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