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Posted by: John Brace | 17th April 2014

Councillor Adam Sykes wants Wirral Council to “be a guiding light for freedom of information for other councils”

Councillor Adam Sykes wants Wirral Council to “be a guiding light for freedom of information for other councils”

                        

Video of Wirral Council’s Transformation and Resources Policy and Performance meeting of the 14th April 2014. The item on the Freedom of Information Scrutiny Review starts at 1:53

The covering report for this item and the final report of the scrutiny review can be downloaded from Wirral Council’s website.

Below is a transcript of this item as it didn’t attract much discussion.

COUNCILLOR STUART WITTINGHAM
This is the final report, despite having draft as an imprint. I’m sure that when, if this evening agrees, this report goes to Cabinet the draft will be removed. I’d like to invite Adam if you want to introduce this item.

COUNCILLOR ADAM SYKES
Thank you Chair. Building on what’s on page twenty-seven in my opening statement basically we took upon this review as the Council had been under monitoring action from the Information Commissioner and had already improved its result on FOI to over 85%.

We didn’t want to merely reach the baseline, we wanted to exceed this figure and be a guiding light for FOI for other councils. So taking on various strands of the whole process, how actually it goes through the system to how we can improve items coming in, how they’re managed once they’re here and also how we can reduce the number of requests in the first place because obviously the actual costs of these FOI requests are quite significant.

It’s quite shocking actually well when you see how much we’ve spent on a weekly basis on FOI requests that could be better spent elsewhere in the Council. So, I don’t know whether I need to go into much more detail as the recommendations are all in the pack. Obviously we’re happy taking any questions, I’m sure the other members of the group are.

I’d just like to conclude by thanking the officers for their time in the you know producing the report, Jane Corrin, Surjit and also support from the scrutiny officer Mike and it was really very helpful and an interesting review to be part of.

COUNCILLOR STUART WITTINGHAM (CHAIR)
Thank you very much. Christina, do you have anything to add?

COUNCILLOR CHRISTINA MUSPRATT
Just apologies for being late.

COUNCILLOR STUART WITTINGHAM (CHAIR)
OK, I’d like to thank Adam and thanks to the officers for this overview and scrutiny review and thank both yourself and Christina for what I really think is a …

COUNCILLOR ANDREW HODSON (CONSERVATIVE SPOKESPERSON)
I was going to say members of the committee were told by the effective leader of yourself, Christina and Adam of all the work you’ve put in on this, but obviously if you wasn’t aware of … so very good.

COUNCILLOR STUART WITTINGHAM (CHAIR)
Yes, thank you. Right, Phil?

COUNCILLOR PHIL GILCHRIST (LIBERAL DEMOCRAT SPOKESPERSON)
Could I say that I welcome the sort of crisp and concise way that the report was written and the recommendations but might I asking while Mr. Blott’s beaming at the moment, through you Chair, whether we can perhaps have a bit of advice on what can be done with the search facility on the website. The work the committee sought was to try and reduce requests that could be answered in any other way and clearly when I try and find things searching it always says “are you sure you’ve spelt it right?” which is about the only guidance the website gives us.

I wondered if officers rather perhaps than note the use and power of that, whilst we were noting perhaps they could give advice on how it could be progressed elsewhere and what sort of timescale.

JOE BLOTT (STRATEGIC DIRECTOR FOR TRANSFORMATION AND RESOURCES)
Yeah, thank you Chair. Thanks very much indeed, I think a couple of comments on that. Certainly in terms of a response to the particular question from Councillor Gilchrist. Yeah, certainly as part of our overarching improvements to public access and our customer channels, anything we can do to improve, that that possibility will do so. In terms of timeliness of that, we are looking, we have launched the intranet as we know at the turn of this year, so that’s been reviewed and we are about to embark on a change to the internet access points as well. So I think your point’s well made.

It’s well timed and everything within a very short space of time we’ll be able to improve on that I think and anything we can do to improve the search arrangements in terms of behind our ICT program build we’ll certainly do that. Perhaps we could, if I can, if we note that as part of a minute item which we pick up in June to see where our business is up to.

COUNCILLOR STUART WITTINGHAM (CHAIR)
Any other comments?

JOE BLOTT (STRATEGIC DIRECTOR FOR TRANSFORMATION AND RESOURCES)
Thanks Chair, just if I may. They’re contained within the report anyway but I think it really does strike me as a really positive approach for the policy and performance committees to drill down into such matters and I think that from an officer perspective, to receive the balanced report is really encouraging. I think more than anything else it demonstrates progress that we had taken. I think it demonstrates progress that we were taking in advance of the ICO’s intervention, nevertheless quite clearly we were duty bound to follow that and I think it is important to see both in terms of context which I think is helpful on page nineteen in terms of the numbers of requests we get, but in terms of page eighteen in terms of how we responded to those requests but I guess as the report sets out it’s really important that this is a journey that we’re on here and we haven’t reached our end game yet.

The end game is the consistency of response times to the FOI requests that links heavily into Councillor Gilchrist’s point that the more information we can provide upfront, then hopefully less number of FOIs we’ll have to deal with which equally comes back to the Chair’s comments around the costs of FOI enquiries which are extremely high and I was quite sure in the briefing that we can use the resources to greater effect in terms of impact on service users and our residents.

So certainly from an officer perspective regarding the report, happy to again as an officer to accept all the recommendations and ensure they will see due progress over the coming months.

COUNCILLOR STUART WITTINGHAM (CHAIR)
Thank you Joe, Surjit do you have anything to add?

SURJIT TOUR
No.

COUNCILLOR STUART WITTINGHAM (CHAIR)
OK, anyone else got any further comments or questions? OK, I’ll move onto the recommendations. 4.1 agreed? It’s on page ten. 4.1 the Committee is asked to note the contents of the report. Agreed?

COUNCILLORS
Agreed.

COUNCILLOR STUART WITTINGHAM (CHAIR)
OK, at 4.2 we’re requested to consider whether or not we wish to refer the report to Cabinet. I suggest that we do, is that agreed?

COUNCILLORS
Agreed.

COUNCILLOR STUART WITTINGHAM (CHAIR)
Thank you.

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Responses

  1. We’ll believe when we see it!

    • Indeed.

  2. Does the 85% successful response rate include all those dismissed under s30 and other glib responses?

    • Yes and I think as I’ve pointed out before if you have a target response of x% answered within 20 days it encourages the use of an exemption in order to meet the target as it’s quicker to claim an exemption applies than taking the time to answer it.

  3. The blott and landscape joke is just too easy, too predictable.

    Having been branded “vexatious” 3 times by Surjit Tour, and having overturned two of them and currently working on rebutting the third……. and having witnessed a relatively recent report to councillors featuring a “Rogue’s Gallery of Problem Members of the Public (Asking Too Many Questions)”, these latest miserable contortions are frankly heaping insult upon historical slander.

    Not one of the wide selection of stuffed suits and wet blankets at the Town Hall has the courage to admit, refer to, much less describe in detail the broad legacy of MASSIVE failures they’re directly responsible for, which have become the stuff of legend.

    Thanks to the internet and local bloggers, people who these officials obviously despise, it’s ALL OUT THERE WHERE IT BELONGS. And it doesn’t matter how many times councillors / senior officers deliberately ignore it, gloss over or fall silent… the truth, i.e. the years of failure and abuse are here to stay and will be at citizens’ fingertips.

    Because Klonowski largely failed, the same councillors are STILL in situ, largely. So what does that tell you? It tells you there’s no accountability. It tells you there’s no disciplinary process for those above such tiresome processes. And it tells you to expect the worst.

    “Improvement in figures, now up to 85% of something or other” – manipulated upwards…? Who knows? You wouldn’t put it past them because most certainly – there’s absolutely no vestige of any cultural improvement, and the PR spin that dominates and oppresses the junior staff of this perpetual basket case has forced its way to the forefront once more.

    Are Surjit and Emma still screening FoI responses?

    http://wirralinittogether.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/foi-request-wirral-council-claim-that-my-david-garry-departure-request-is-vexatious/

    Do tell !

    • Well as you know one of my requests last year Wirral Council deemed to be vexatious (which is currently being considered by the ICO after I appealed). Wirral Council is delaying a decision on it by not replying to ICO, although ICO have said they’ll come to some sort of decision in the next four weeks.

      These days their favourite is s.36 (prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs) which can only be applied if in the “reasonable opinion” of Surjit Tour or Graham Burgess who are the only two “qualified persons” at Wirral Council that “disclosure of the information would or would be likely to inhibit the free and frank provision of advice or the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation or would otherwise prejudice, or would be likely otherwise to prejudice, the effective conduct of public affairs”.

      It’s a very wide exemption that covers advice by officers (or others), meeting minutes, discussions, agendas and seems to be the exemption they rely on when others don’t apply. It’s a bit like the new vexatious in a way but decided by people on a much more senior pay grade. If Surjit makes the original decision, then Graham Burgess deals with any internal review.

      There are arguments for and against whether publishing more information without people requesting it would lead to fewer FOI requests. For example when they started publishing the monthly information of details of things and services over £500 that they paid third parties for it led to hundreds of queries! So sometimes publishing more will lead to more FOI requests, not less.

      The history of what happened at Wirral Council is something that the public tends to want them to be totally open and honest about. Trouble is as far as they are concerned they want to move on and seem to think that talking about what happened in the past doesn’t help with that. With that sort of culture how can the culture be reassured that lessons have been learnt though?

      The officials don’t despise me, or if they do they don’t tell me to my face. I do remember just before the infamous Improvement Board meeting last November one of the strategic directors said to me that other councils didn’t have people like me paying so much attention to what goes on at Wirral Council compared to the previous council that that they had worked at. This strategic director didn’t mean it in a bad way, but implied it was a good thing.

      Some of the “Klonowski” councillors are no longer councillors, but disciplinary processes for politicians are generally up to political parties. As to your final question, I don’t know (maybe it’s answered in the final report). I do know the report did state that departments ask legal (which is headed by Surjit Tour) for advice on exemptions and that I seem to remember a reference (although I may be mistaken) in the report to press and PR (which is headed by Emma Degg) too.

  4. Klonowski pulled up short and failed to investigate councillors, which she could have done before making recommendations, I believe.

    This was a huge and quite deliberate oversight and very carefully calculated methinks. Biting the hand that’s been feeding you ££handsomely in the past is not good for secure levels of income paid for training the same councillors in the future.

    In other words, she had her own private interest in the eventual outcome of OUR investigation – which is quite bizarre and would never have been allowed to happen if there was adequate public oversight in this crazy borough..

    It’s all Jeff Green’s fault (for choosing her) and all Klonowski’s fault (for failing to turn the gig down). Maybe £370,000+ into her coffers was too strong an incentive.

    If Wirral Council had an external investigations policy or procedure to speak of, as do other councils, we wouldn’t have ended up with this perverse chain of events, and practically the same gang of self-serving chancers who got away with murder would be out on their backsides, possibly not disciplined but voted out on the back of democratic reportage of their corrupt ways.

    But instead we’ve got the ex leader being prepared for a shot at doing his level best to damage and demean the integrity of the position of Wirral Mayor.

    • If memory serves correct AKA were told not to investigate the councillor’s involvement because the complaints about them had been referred to the Standards Board for England by Wirral Council.

  5. Well for me a Foi made in July 2013 !!!! has finally been answered with truths on the asset transfer program.

    YES YES it was regretable that wirralbiz did not give the community groups sight of its invoices for business plans(New brighton community centre £7,800 +VAT!or a sack o shite) and wbc agree that they pught to have consulted the groups before paying the latter and the other 11 at £4,500 +vat each.

    Yes finally 10 months later they searched for the Fieldcrest limited invoices for many thousands , termed “wirralbiz development work”. The latter covering a period when I observed Mr P Davies of fieldcrest , prepare the bisd for ISUS contraC.T. Note that European rules strictly forbid state support for a competitive exercise and I believe these ivoices include payment for preparing the tender.

    What did they find?

    The invoices but no backing schedules to show what development work was performed. Now if there were no backing sheets why did WBC pay the invoices.? If there were such sheets whty have they disappeared? Lastly why not ask wirralbiz rither to justify the invoices or , if not, repay the sums.

    • In answer to your question because some Wirral Council employees saw what happened to Martin Morton when he rocked the boat, so if they had a family to support the last thing they would do is blow the whistle.

      How much does the total come to and are they likely to pay it back to Wirral Council voluntarily or will Wirral Council need a county court judgement first? If it was a council tax debt, Wirral Council would take them to court, then deduct money from earnings or benefits and/or send round the bailiffs or even put them in prison.

      So why for larger amounts do they seem so reluctant to sue, or are they worried as to what would come out in court like the Fernbank Farm fiasco referred to by some as ponygate?

  6. I think SiffleurdeCommune might agree there’s an embarrassment factor also here, involving what the council would regard as potential loss of face. Which is in their hands. With someone failing to pay their council tax, all the blame is with the offending individual, and the council can safely distance themselves. But not in this case.

    Are they grown up enough to admit to their own self-inflicted failings and the (hidden) reasons for them? I suspect not.

    It was they who chose WirralBiz as the BIG Fund advocate for small businesses. What a calamitous decision by somebody who I suspect stands to lose ‘prestige’ if events are not er… carefully managed, hence the glacial speed of events.

    • Well with the failure to pay council tax the council can’t totally distance themselves. Previously when the poor were on means tested benefits, they paid no council tax as it was covered by council tax benefit. When Wirral Council made a decision over the details of a new scheme, those on means tested benefits of a working age have to pay at least 22% of their home’s council tax liability. This is a much higher percentage than other councils and has led to thousands of people either not paying or underpaying. I think when the new scheme was brought in there was an estimate of an extra £500,000 in uncollected council tax. So the rise in uncollected council tax is an expensive problem of their own making. I know there are some Wirral Council employees that are mature enough to admit to their mistakes, apologise in public and do their best to fix things. However, usually the reasons for a failure involve more than one person as there are supposed to be checks and balances to mitigate the risk of human error. These individuals have a vested interest in downplaying or minimizing what happened, in the past this has manifested itself in half-truths, omissions and even barefaced lies. However, what are your thoughts on how this can be changed? Isn’t it just part of human nature that people will lie when they’re in trouble or was it made worse by the culture that prevailed at Wirral Council in the past?

  7. I accept and agree with all you say John. Council tax payers in Liverpool and others in the region have a far smaller percentage to cover than they do here – but Wirral Council’s Torylite executive prefers to clobber those who can’t pay.

    I think it IS a culture (and a greed) thing and not just human nature. The power was abused – they still clutch desperately to the same power.

    The LGA were called in by the council………… and the body that’s accustomed to fighting their corner did what they were expected to do – their day job – in return for the usual salaries / perks, all funded by us.

    They’ve “Improved” the way the council covers up, spins and presents its best face to the public, and sure as night follows day, the abnormal council continue to apply buckets of gloss to give a bogus impression that all’s well.

    • Have a read of my latest blog post Councillor Phil Davies agrees to pay extra £113,189 to Hoylake Golf Resort consultants based on secret report for an indication that not all is well with Wirral Council. Considering they’re currently consulting on closing Lyndale School it’s pretty bad timing to be making decisions like these that give the impression that golf matters more to the Labour administration than a school for severely disabled children isn’t it? Or were the details on this deliberately published the day before Good Friday so that most people in the press would be on holiday and by the time that they returned there would be other things to write about?

  8. […] On Thursday I wrote about the Transformation and Resource’s Policy and Performance Committee’s Scrutiny Review on Free…. […]

  9. How typically hypocritical of a Tory.

    Adam Sykes is currently chair of governors of Thingwall Primary School who are at present blatantly ignoring an FOI request despite an ICO direction to comply and a data protection subject access request in order to protect a head teacher who forced out 3 members of the leadership team in one term! All of this fully supported by Sykes.

    Some people need to put their own house in order before lecturing others. But that was never the Tory way was it!

    People should put thei

  10. […] and Resources Policy and Performance Committee on the 14th April. I wrote a transcript of what was said then back on the 17th April so I’ll be following the same format […]


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