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Posted by: John Brace | January 1, 2014

Have improvements to make Wirral Council’s decision making better got bogged down in bureaucracy?


Have improvements to make Wirral Council’s decision making better got bogged down in bureaucracy?

                                     

The New Year is a time of looking back to the previous year and forward to the new one. So please cast your minds back to November 2013 and a meeting of the Improvement Board held in public.

Prior to this there had been a short ten-day consultation on the Improvement Board Review report.

As the Improvement Board Review report is sixty-three pages long I will quote the sections I am referring to here about changes to the Audit and Risk Management Committee (the committee referred to in the quote from section 95 is Wirral Council’s Audit and Risk Management Committee):

20. Action Taken


20.4 It is proposed to strengthen the independent nature of the Audit and Risk Management Committee through the appointment of a majority of external members.” (page 15)

“PRIORITY 2: CORPORATE AND DECISION MAKING

95. It is proposed to strengthen the independent nature of the Committee through the appointment of a majority of external members.” (page 34)

“Next Steps

112. Compliance with the constitution will be through more rigorous challenge from Audit and Risk Management Committee. It is proposed that would be enhanced, by (subject to Council agreement) appointing a majority of independent members of the committee.” (page 37)

“SUMMARY OF NEXT STEPS FOR WIRRAL

167. A key challenge is to ensure compliance to the revised procedures. Compliance with the constitution will be through more rigorous challenge from Audit and Risk Management Committee. It is proposed that would be enhanced by (subject to Council agreement) appointing a majority of independent members of the committee. The Leader of the Council has indicated that he will develop a proposal for consideration by Councillors alongside the review of the Constitution.” (page 49)

Prior to the Improvement Board public meeting on the 15th November there were special meetings of both the Coordinating Committee and the Audit and Risk Management Committee to discuss the Improvement Board Review report.

The Coordinating Committee agreed this:

That this Committee welcomes the Report. It clearly states that the Authority is moving in the right direction.

This Committee pledges to play its full part in continuing that direction of travel.

All Members will be encouraged to engage in the next steps identified within the report.

We must not be complacent as we still need to improve in many areas identified in the report and embed positive changes.

We thank all members of the Improvement Board for their help.

We thank all employees and Members for their efforts in this journey of improvement.

We would recommend the approach adopted by the Local Government Association, in piloting sector led improvement, and would recommend it to others who find themselves in difficulties.

and the Audit and Risk Management Committee (by eight votes to one agreed):

(1) That this Committee welcomes the report of the Improvement Board, which draws attention to the significant progress Wirral has made in the last 20 months.

It recognises that there are still issues which need to be addressed but believes it is clear that Wirral is now an outward looking Authority – open to constructive criticism and willing to address problems when they occur.

We would recommend the sector-led approach to change and development to other authorities who find themselves in difficulty.

(2) That the thanks of the Committee be accorded to the Improvement Board, all staff and Members who have participated in the change process. It now remains for Members to continue to participate in their own development and not become complacent but ensure that change becomes embedded for the future.

(3) That the recommendations contained within the Review report be endorsed and that, subject to clarification as to the ownership of the steps required to support continued improvement, all Members be encouraged to engage in the work required in those areas.

Here is a transcript of the answer given to my question on this issue at the Improvement Board meeting of the 15th November 2013 on the issue of changes to the Audit and Risk Management Committee:

In the review report it states “it is proposed to strengthen the independent nature of the Audit and Risk Management Committee through the appointment of a majority of external members”. How many independent members of the Audit and Risk Management Committee will be appointed, who will they be appointed by and will the Audit and Risk Management Committee be chaired in future by one of these independent members?

You can watch Graham Burgess’s and Cllr Phil Davies’ reply to this question by following this link to footage of the Improvement Board meeting.

Graham Burgess replied, “In terms of the request to strengthen the independent nature of the Audit & Risk Management Committee. First of all I think it’s going to be proposed by the Leader of the Council that for the new municipal year, after the elections in May, that there should be a majority of independent people on the Audit and Risk Management Committee.

There’s only one other Council in the country that’s adopted this approach and the Leader may wish to speak for himself on this matter but I think it is, it’s got to be recognised I hope, the willingness of this Council to open itself up to external scrutiny by I don’t know the numbers yet because that’s going to be discussed, it will be and Phil’s agreed that it should be referred to the Council’s scrutiny committee to discuss the best way to do it, the best way to recruit them, the exact numbers, but certainly I think it’s really brave of him, the fact that this Council and the other one Council to open themselves up in this way.

And the sort of people who might be ?????, and again there’ll be discussions with scrutiny and looking at elsewhere and taking advice from audit. I suspect there’ll be a number of people with a financial background to challenge that.

There’ll be a number of people who can represent key community organisations and can represent individual voices on the Wirral. So there’ll be a mixture I suspect of professional and lay people who can judge whether this Council is actually operating well in terms of its audit responsibilities.

I think that’s another demonstration of the openness that Phil and all parties I suspect want going forward and to be challenged. So in theory and in practice in fact, the councillors can be out voted by the independent members on that panel.

Might I also say that the Council does intend, again this is not finalised to retain the Chair of that panel as a councillor. The majority will be non councillors and that’s because it’s still a Council committee and in terms of organising things we need the availability of a councillor to do that, but I don’t want to be drawn about that.”

Cllr Phil Davies: “Just a sentence to say I think it will enable kind of an ongoing challenge to be built into monitoring, reviewing how we go forward in terms of all of the issues that have been looked at by the Improvement Board over the last eighteen months.

So I think it’s just another kind of check going forward that we’ve got an external voice or external voices, not part of the Council to really scrutinise what we’re doing on our performance going forward and I welcome that.”

So just to go back to a quote from the Improvement Board review report “The Leader of the Council has indicated that he will develop a proposal for consideration by Councillors alongside the review of the Constitution.” Well on Monday 6th January 2014 at a special meeting of the Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee councillors (and the independent members of the Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee) will discuss a review of Wirral Council’s constitution and a survey of councillors. The survey itself states “This feedback will inform a full review of the Constitution that will be undertaken in January 2014″ asking for councillors to return the survey by the 7th January 2014 (the 7th January 2014 is stated on the survey, but the recommendation in the accompanying report states 24th January 2014).

Yet nowhere in the thirty-six proposed amendments to Wirral Council’s constitution is there even one that refers to appointing a majority of the Audit and Risk Committee as independent members. The Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee is the Council committee that proposes and scrutinises changes to Wirral Council’s constitution. So why haven’t changes to Wirral Council’s Audit and Risk Management Committee appeared on the Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee agenda for the meeting on the 6th January?

The Improvement Board will be returning in March 2014 to see the progress Wirral Council has made, so why the delay on this matter. Does it require the matter to be referred to the fifteen councillors on the Council’s Coordinating Committee to agree things like “the exact numbers” of independent members on the Audit and Risk Management Committee? If the intention is a majority of independent members that can outvote the councillors you merely have one more independent member than councillors and remove the casting vote of the Chair?

Where is the Leader’s “proposal for consideration by Councillors alongside the review of the Constitution” and why isn’t it included in the agenda of the Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee’s meeting of the 6th January? Why delay implementation of this until after the elections in May? Surely if it’s a “demonstration of openness” this could (as was indicated in the Improvement Board review report) be included in part of the January constitutional review and these changes to the constitution agreed at the Council meeting in either February or March?

At least then when the Improvement Board returned to check on progress in March (although the independent members wouldn’t have been recruited yet) the constitutional change to the Audit and Risk Management Committee could be pointed to as evidence that Wirral Council has actually implemented one of the Improvement Board’s recommendations?

If a simple recommendation to have a majority of the Audit and Risk Management Committee made up of independent people has to go to a meeting of the Coordinating Committee to be agreed in principle (November 2013), the Audit and Risk Management Committee to agree its recommendations (November 2013), then the Coordinating Committee (again to agree the details), then the Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee (to recommend the constitutional changes to Council), then full Council (to agree the constitutional changes), is it any wonder that the Anna Klonowski Associates report referred to the “bureaucratic machinations” of Wirral Council (which seem to still be alive and kicking) and that the Wirral public (as expressed at the public meeting of the Improvement Board in November) are sceptical that there is a political will to change Wirral Council in the direction of more openness in what most people would consider a reasonable timescale?

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Responses

  1. Independent audit and risk committee members would be a legacy for other controlling parties, other than Labour under Cllr Davies. There is yet more bad news on the way before the May elections and I guess a cosy, Labour-controlled committee would act again as a fire blanket.

    Why not start with an opposition-controlled audit and risk committee which could easily be arranged within the existing constitution. We have seen how nefarious it is for Labour to control the very watchdog on its own administratation, how it enables the fire blanket to be laid over the flares and fires of Labour’s own making.

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    • In other councils, it’s a tradition (although not formally written into their constitution) that the Chair of the Audit and Risk Management committee is always a councillor from one of the opposition parties.

      This means in those authorities the Chair of the Audit and Risk Management Committee can be as independent and robust in their criticism as they like without it being perceived as criticism of their own party member’s decisions.

      Other councils (including neighbouring Chester West and Chester and Liverpool) also have a standing agenda item for public questions. I know Chester West and Chester has this for their Cabinet meetings and Liverpool for their overview and scrutiny committee meetings.

      As we saw earlier in the year, the Conservative and Lib Dem members on the Audit and Risk Management Committee disagreed and voted against the Annual Governance Statement. However as Labour have a majority on the committee is was agreed with their votes.

      Audit and Risk Management Committee members also receive a monthly report on Internal Audit matters. Earlier this year one of the new councillors shared information in this with the press and was censured at the next committee meeting by the Chair for doing so.

      So yes, things could do with improving, but it seems there’s pressure from persons unknown to delay implementation until after the May elections…

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  2. I worry about this council’s understanding of the very concept of “independence”. The word is bandied around a lot and emblazoned shamelessly all across the “independent” reports carried out by Anna Klonowski, Richard Penn, Martin Smith and Rob Vickers.

    BUT…

    Unlike neighbouring councils e.g. #QuackCWaC, this council has no external investigations policy to speak of. It’s all done beyond public oversight and on a nod and a wink. Nobody is actually SEEN to declare that they have no prior association, connection or affiliation.

    Which is not exactly good for public confidence when you see that AKA had an interest in the outcome they themselves would reach (prior training sessions for senior officers and councillors were given), was actually paid £411,000+ and Rob Vickers got a bleedin’ job out of it. Was this because he arrived at the “right” conclusions for his two “independent” reports which failed to interview any whistleblowers (like Richard Penn, who also failed to interview the HESPE whistleblowers correctly)? Well, we’ll never KNOW because we weren’t allowed any public oversight into the crux of the process i.e. the original commissioning.

    All these issues are discussed here:

    http://wirralinittogether.wordpress.com/2013/10/06/breaking-scandal-torn-wirral-council-has-no-external-investigations-policy/

    Given the black as soot reputation of the place, they need to be watched VERY CLOSELY now when appointing so-called “independent” members of scrutiny committees.

    I predict the same old same old, and believe the corrupted ones will be doing their level best to populate these with their CHUMZ………….!!

    I might just apply for a position myself, to see what kind of short shrift I’m given, how quickly my collar is felt, how rapidly my feet leave the floor, and how expertly my wriggling form is dumped on the Town Hall steps……

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    • Well I’ll just briefly comment on the Richard Penn point you made. The Investigation and Disciplinary Committee meetings were by default public. In the hope they would decide to ignore officer’s advice over the exemptions I went to them. Got some nice photos and a few minutes of footage.

      Truth is every time they exclude the public councillors are supposed to weigh up the public interest arguments for and against before reaching a decision. The law even requires there to be a valid motion passed excluding the public. Their constitution requires a motion to be proposed, seconded and voted on but as someone who watches the footage how many times have you seen that happen?

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  3. Never…

    #WirralFail Council’s tagline = “A Law Unto Ourselves”

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  4. Desperately important that

    1. the chair of audit and risk is oppostion councillor

    2. desperate need for independent experts

    3. broken promises of Cllr Davies speak volumes about his equivocations

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    • 1. I agree.

      2. I agree.

      3. It’s disappointing what was said at the time didn’t happen. It’s a shame that one of the few recommendations arising from the Improvement Board’s work was not implemented in the timescale outlined.

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  5. Perhaps they were waiting for the humiliation of ***** cant even bring myself to write those words again- to be over before having the independents in. I expect a mobbing of Labour councillors on 22 Julty and have not yet received any decision over whether I am invited to speak there.

    They may fear it would be unpalatable listening when they can by equivocation pass through a relatively innocuous collection of words that will seal the ***** in its tomb now and forever, without casualties to reputations.

    One year on the erdf report STILL has not been written!

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    • My advice on the speaking issue is to ask the Chair of the Audit and Risk Management Committee who is Cllr Jim Crabtree.

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