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Posted by: John Brace | 8th October 2013

Irony is alive and kicking at Wirral Council: Freedom of Information and Policy Council

Irony is alive and kicking at Wirral Council: Freedom of Information and Policy Council

                                 

I was reading through the Council’s final Annual Governance Statement which is on the agenda for Thursday’s Cabinet meeting and came across this gem in it which is about principle 4 (taking informed and transparent decisions which are subject to effective scrutiny and managing risk).

“In December 2012, the Information Commissioner’s Office announced that Wirral would be monitored for three months after concerns emerged regarding the timeliness of responses to freedom of information requests. The Council has also put in place robust processes to respond to freedom of information requests which are regularly reviewed by the Chief Executive’s Strategy Group to ensure that a timely response is provided. These improved processes are having a significant impact on the Council’s response to freedom of information requests.”

At the start of September I made this perfectly reasonable request for the minutes of the Chief Executive Strategy Group meetings of the 5th June 2013 and the 30th August 2013. No response came from Wirral Council within twenty days (they are required by the Freedom of Information Act to respond within twenty working days). So on the 2nd October I requested an internal review and a week later, still no reply from Wirral Council.

Therefore this raises the following questions:-

1. If the Council does have “robust processes to respond to freedom of information requests” how did this one slip the net?

2. How regularly is “regularly reviewed”? I suppose this one is also an answer to how often does the Chief Executive’s Strategy Group (or its subcommittees) meet, monthly, quarterly?

3. Why didn’t the Chief Executive’s Strategy Group make sure a “timely response was provided” to this request?

4. Does “improved processes are having a significant impact on the Council’s response to freedom of information requests” mean they’ve given the council employees involved a big book of FOI exemptions as it’s quicker to turn a request down however thin the reason for the exemption rather than spend time answering it?

Another curious paragraph I found in the same document was this:-

“An annual Policy Council meeting will take place with the first scheduled for November 2013 in order to discuss, debate and further shape the future purpose of the organisation and its response to key national and local drivers. Policy Council will play a direct role in informing the annual review of the Corporate Plan and future savings for the Council, as well as contributing to the development of a longer term vision for the borough in 2030 in partnership with other key stakeholders. A state of the borough report is being prepared as the foundation for developing this long-term vision.”

Curiously the only Council meeting in November scheduled in the calendar is the Youth Parliament meeting on the 12th. Surely this is not what’s meant by a “Policy Council”? The mystery of this is easily solved when you look at the calendar for December and on the 18th there’s a “Budget and Corporate Plan” Council meeting.

At the bottom of this document that I’ve already heavily quoted from is space for the signatures of the Leader of the Council and the Chief Executive both putting their names to this following statement:

“We are aware of the implications of the review of the effectiveness of the adequacy governance framework and are absolutely committed to addressing the identified weaknesses and ensuring continuous improvement of the system is in place.

We are pleased that considerable progress has been made to address the significant governance issues identified and this is acknowledged by the Council’s recent Corporate Peer Challenge. However, it is also recognised that a number of the developments that are being put in place have recently been agreed and require implementation and
robust review.

We will take prompt actions over the coming year to ensure that all of the above matters are addressed as appropriate to enhance our governance arrangements further. Many improvement actions represent work already in progress and we are committed to increasing the pace of these actions. We are satisfied that these steps will address the need for improvements that were identified in our review of effectiveness and will monitor their implementation and operation as part of our next annual review.

Let’s hope the “robust review” of the Council’s corporate governance arrangements result in changes rather than the “robust processes to respond to freedom of information requests” which just seem to have led to more Freedom of Information requests turned down so the Council can meet its target and tell to the Information Commissioner’s Office that things have improved.

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Responses

  1. Hear, Hear though I would say that, wouldn’t I. As predictable as the lines of vague intention demonstrated by this council document signed by the Chief Executive.

    How about just saying we continue in our Governance to prevent embarrassing information from getting out and about in order to protect our salaries, allowances and pensions! We have been given a brief by Local Government Acts far too wide in its scope for our modest abilities and too wide for us with the monies at our disposal to fill the gap. Nevertheless if going through the motions in this (previously) backwater we can get generously paid then so be it and soon all this commotion will fall away and we can get back to drawing handsomely without being observed.

    • Well it hasn’t been signed yet by the Chief Executive as it has to be agreed first by Cabinet on Thursday evening.

      There is also a caveat in the legislation on audit rights exempting the salaries of employees from scrutiny by the public (although this doesn’t prevent the public requesting the underlying documentation for allowances councillors claim). As part of the annual accounts though, the salary and pension details of employees above a certain level has to be provided though.

      It’s a common refrain of local government though that national government through legislation puts a legal requirement on them to do something without the an increase in grant to do so. That’s partly why local councils have the freedom to set their own Council Tax levels (albeit a rise above a certain percentage is subject to a referendum) so if local needs and priorities require a higher budget the politicians can agree one.

      As to the commotion falling away, well the commotion seems to be getting louder rather than quieter…

      • I slipped the “to be” from the post in error. The refrain is perfectly justified and I would much rather listen to it than have to read the limpid prose offered by WBC in its hazy-mazy pronouncements. Why do they utilise Newspeak when the truth will set you free?

        • Because the truth would make them unemployed (or if a politician unelectable for being too honest). In the party political speak of Wirral Council the Labour administration has to constantly tell the public that the “Tory-led government” for their problems… preferably when Conservative councillors are around so they can provoke a reaction…

  2. No surprises there,no wonder whitewash is in short supply!

    • Well probably the person writing it believes it. I am surprised at the mistake over the month of the Council meeting as this would imply documents on agenda of public meetings at Wirral Council aren’t being fact checked before they’re published.

  3. […] He said that they’d be having an annual policy Council meeting in November of this year to look at the future direction of the Council and refresh the Corporate Plan. Ed – The policy Council meeting will be in December as was mentioned in an earlier blog post. […]

  4. […] He said that they’d be having an annual policy Council meeting in November of this year to look at the future direction of the Council and refresh the Corporate Plan. Ed – The policy Council meeting will be in December as was mentioned in an earlier blog post. […]

  5. […] He said that they’d be having an annual policy Council meeting in November of this year to look at the future direction of the Council and refresh the Corporate Plan. Ed – The policy Council meeting will be in December as was mentioned in an earlier blog post. […]

  6. […] He said that they’d be having an annual policy Council meeting in November of this year to look at the future direction of the Council and refresh the Corporate Plan. Ed – The policy Council meeting will be in December as was mentioned in an earlier blog post. […]

  7. […] He said that they’d be having an annual policy Council meeting in November of this year to look at the future direction of the Council and refresh the Corporate Plan. Ed – The policy Council meeting will be in December as was mentioned in an earlier blog post. […]


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