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Posted by: John Brace | 10th October 2014

Whistleblowers assembled in Committee Room 1 to hear apologies from Wirral Council over a toxic whistleblowing saga involving secrecy, national, local and regional government, internal and external audit, the private sector, ££££s, senior managers, contracts and Wirral Council

Whistleblowers assembled in Committee Room 1 to hear apologies from Wirral Council over a toxic whistleblowing saga involving secrecy, national, local and regional government, internal and external audit, the private sector, ££££s, senior managers, contracts and Wirral Council

                                                 

Nigel Hobro (standing) addresses a special meeting of the Audit and Risk Management Committee of Wirral Council 8th October 2014 L to R Cllr Adam Sykes, Cllr David Elderton, Andrew Mossop, Surjit Tour, Nigel Hobro (c) John Brace

Nigel Hobro (standing) addresses the Audit and Risk Management Committee of Wirral Council 8th October 2014 L to R Cllr Adam Sykes, Cllr David Elderton, Andrew Mossop, Surjit Tour, Nigel Hobro (c) John Brace | still taken from video

Above is a playlist of all parts of the Audit and Risk Management Committee (Wirral Council) meeting of 8th October 2014 held in Committee Room 1, Wallasey Town Hall starting at 6.00pm (apologies for recording problems)

Audit and Risk Management Committee
Cllr Jim Crabtree (Chair, Labour)
Cllr Ron Abbey (Vice-Chair, Labour)
Cllr Paul Doughty (Labour)
Cllr Matthew Patrick (Labour)
Cllr John Hale (Conservative spokesperson)
Cllr Adam Sykes (Conservative)
Cllr David Elderton (Conservative)
Cllr Stuart Kelly (Lib Dem spokesperson)

The Audit and Risk Management Committee of Wirral Council met for a special meeting about BIG/ISUS on the evening of 8th October 2014 whilst a thunderstorm raged outside Wallasey Town Hall. This was a continuing from its adjourned special meeting about the same topic on 22nd July 2014. For details of what happened at its meeting of the 22nd July 2014 see my earlier blog post Incredible first 5 minutes of Wirral Council councillors’ public meeting to discuss BIG & ISUS investigations.

The meeting started with a minute of silence for Mark Delap. Mark Delap was one of the Wirral Council employees that used to take minutes at its public meetings and had died recently.

After the minute of silence was over, the Chair asked for declarations of interest.

Cllr Matthew Patrick declared an interest due to a friendship with Nigel Hobro’s son (Nigel Hobro is one of the whistleblowers and spoke during the meeting itself).

Surjit Tour gave some brief advice to Cllr Matthew Patrick as to whether his interest was personal or prejudicial.

The Chair thanked Surjit Tour for the advice he had given to Cllr Matthew Patrick.

The Chair, Cllr Jim Crabtree then explained that there had been a lot of allegations since the issue had first been raised in 2011. There was a large volume of paperwork for the meeting, however details were redacted to protect businesses and companies. Also the names of officers and other people were blacked out. He also referred to commercial sensitivities and how they had gone to proper steps to protect identities.

He reminded people of the risk of legal challenge and Wirral Council’s liabilities. Cllr Crabtree asked everyone not to name names and continued by saying that any issues Wirral Council officers had addressed, they had done on behalf of the Council.

Cllr Stuart Kelly asked a question on the information that was redacted. He referred to a challenge to paragraph j, that was redacted in the papers to the July meeting, but was now provided. He wanted assurance from the legal officer Surjit Tour that the redactions were only in the categories as just outlined by the Chair.

Mr. Tour explained that the redactions had taken place to make sure that nobody by reasonable inquiry and information already in the public domain could piece together who or what the redacted information referred to and who the people redacted were. He added that in some cases it was unfortunately necessary to redact a lot of information mindful of what was already in the public domain, people could “fill in the gaps” which would expose Wirral Council to a liability.

The Chair invited Nigel Hobro to speak for at most fifteen minutes.

To be continued…

However below are some of my personal observations about this meeting I’ve started writing up above and a bit of a compare and contrast with two different special meetings of the Audit and Risk Management Committee held years apart (but both dealing with Wirral Council’s response to whistleblowers (one internal, one external).

It shows how history has a habit of endlessly repeating itself and is based on my opinion as one of the few people who was actually present at both meetings.

There are similarities between this public meeting and an earlier public meeting many years ago of the Audit and Risk Management Committee to decide on a response to the whistleblowing of former Wirral Council employee Martin Morton. Back then (years ago) there were arguments by politicians over a series of meetings over how much money should be paid back to those that were overcharged and to what year you go back to with the refunds.

Even when refunds were agreed by politicians, Wirral Council took so long that some of the people involved had died and in order cases (the ones that were still alive) the amounts were so large, that Wirral Council officers didn’t want to pay the people involved because they thought it would have a knock on effect on their benefits and officers doubted that some of the people had the capacity to be able to look after their own financial affairs.

Sadly the decision back then was fudged (which is partly what led to the problems later). Martin Morton’s concerns were also far, far wider than the overcharging issue, his concerns also involved allegations of the misuse of public money to fund organisations with links to serious and organised crime, serious allegations of serious crimes against vulnerable people who had apparently at the time not been investigated thoroughly enough, woefully poor corporate governance at Wirral Council, terribly weak political oversight due to put it frankly chaos back then and ultimately Mr Morton paid a personal price because people in Wirral Council tried to repeatedly punish him for daring to blow the whistle. Due to the large financial amounts involved, Cabinet had to sign off on the large expenditure that resulted.

One day before the AKA report was finally released to the public, the two middle managers involved in this matter were each paid a six figure sum each to leave Wirral Council.

At the earlier meeting (and at least one person on the Audit and Risk Management Committee is the same person as back then), the Chair back then accused one politician (Cllr Ron Abbey) of either not reading the papers for the meeting as they were asking questions that were already answered there or of completely misunderstanding what they had read (if they had read them). At this time the Chair was of a different political party to the Labour councillor (Cllr Ron Abbey) & in the interests of impartiality (with absolutely no offence meant towards one of my local councillors Cllr Jim Crabtree) many other local authorities have an unwritten rule that the Chair of the Audit and Risk Management Committee is not from the same political party as the ruling administration to ensure independence.

Knowing Cllr Crabtree as I do, I know that even if a councillor stepped out of line at a meeting he was chairing, even if the councillor was from the same political party as he was, Cllr Crabtree’s personality is such that he would frankly realise that it’s in the “public interest” to hold his fellow councillors to account even if he would have to be careful how he did this in public.

After it seems part of the reasons why Labour got a small majority on Wirral Council is because councillors from that party woke up the news that the Wirral public expected them to hold other politicians to account in public even if these were other councillors from the same political party.

Bill Norman (who left in somewhat mysterious circumstances in 2012) was the legal adviser to that earlier Audit and Risk Committee meeting years ago, not Surjit Tour as it is now. The issue of blacking out all the names (and other details) in the published papers was addressed by Bill Norman then with broadly similar reasons given to those given by Mr. Tour many years later. However I will point out that the culture of legal practice is such that confidentiality, especially when it comes to active proceedings is extremely important to maintain!

At the time this written material authored by Mr. Morton included in the papers for the meeting was also redacted, so this aspect of whistleblowing hasn’t changed much at all over the years at Wirral Council.

Wirral Council, back then and as it seems now has a fear of being sued. Although if they were open and transparent wouldn’t Wirral Council welcome judicial oversight of their decisions as it would give Wirral Council the chance for someone independent to look at it and the opportunity to defend themselves in court if they had done nothing wrong?

Perhaps it’s unfair to say a fear of being sued, it’s a fear at Wirral Council of being sued and losing and the results that flow from that which could be a combination of large financial penalties (or other things) as well as the fact that court reporters such as myself or the publications they publish in can’t actually be sued under British law for court reporting as long as we comply with the few rules that apply as court reporting attracts absolute privilege. All court hearings whether public or private are recorded by the court on tape anyway and in theory transcripts can be ordered.

Some may say for a large local Council (covering a population of ~320,000), whilst obviously they have their own organisational reputation to consider, that they seem unduly concerned at times at reputation management (although this is also a preoccupation of political parties) rather than dealing with matters in an entirely open and transparent way. There is a blurry line between the individual reputations of senior managers and politicians on one hand and the organisational reputation of the organisations they are either employed by or are elected to represent the views of the public at.

Some of the reports that went to the most meeting the day before yesterday, have been the subject of previous articles by me and FOI requests.

You can read my FOI request (25/8/13) for the report on ISUS here, which was refused on 23/9/13 and refused at internal review on 24/10/13. That external audit report can be read as part of the committee’s papers (see agenda item 2 and the links from this page on Wirral Council’s website if you wish to do.

Had the responses to those FOI requests been forthcoming and Wirral Council provided the information within weeks a lot more would have been in the public domain before the July and October meetings in 2014 of the Audit and Risk Management Committee meetings. Wirral Council instead chose to rely on exemptions to suppress the information and knew I was unlikely to appeal to ICO, as if I had I’d probably still be waiting for a decision!

Excessive secrecy just makes the public and press suspect that there’s a deliberate cover up or Wirral Council has done something it’s ashamed or embarrassed about. Usually the answer is a little more complicated than a conspiracy.

The Merseyside police investigation (which resulted in no charges) was used as an excuse by Wirral Council to deny FOI requests, not just about the one Grant Thornton recommended was referred to the police, but information in general about the other aspects too.

Wirral Council was recommended by the forensic arm of its external auditors to refer one very minor matter to the police. Wirral Council did and this was then used this as an excuse to delay and prevent further scrutiny. The police response (and I summarise) was that based on what they were told that there was insufficient evidence to charge somebody (or somebodies) with a crime. Remember criminal charges require basically two elements, proof that the alleged crime occurred and also generally for most criminal matters mens rea (proof of a “guilty mind” too). The latter is often harder to prove than the former, which is why defendants sometimes plead not guilty in order to get a jury trial! As Wirral Council actually carries out criminal prosecutions through the Wirral Magistrates Courts, I’m sure someone there who is actually aware of these matters!

This article is getting rather long and at the two thousand word mark I am somewhat digressing into related matters, although obviously it is not as long as the papers for that meeting which come in at the length of a medium-sized novel!

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Responses

  1. Ron Abbey. Isn’t he the councillor who enquired at a finance meeting whether an “Investment Vehicle” was a taxi?

    • I do remember him saying that at a previous meeting. However by the way he said it then, I think it is likely that Cllr Ron Abbey was using a form of jokey humour in order to make a point about the problems politicians face in trying to understand financial jargon in papers for Audit and Risk Management Committee meetings (maybe the clue about financial jargon in in the name of the committee itself?).

      • Ah! He’s got a sense of humour. Brilliant. I apologise for the misunderstanding if you’re reading this Councillor Abbey.

        Ok, a misunderstanding on my part, but let’s look at your oppo James Crabtree.

        Maybe he was also joking when he described “data protection” in one of his emails, copied to Labour chums, as “a load of tosh”? Haha ! Or maybe he was being serious?

        People do start to wonder, does this elected representative potentially think the BIG / ISIS meeting, where £millions have potentially been pilfered, is crucial to democracy and the stewardship of our public money… or does he think this too is “a load of tosh”?

        Also, going back a bit further, did he think the theft of £736,756.97 from sitting duck learning disabled tenants over a period of up to 9 years was “a load of tosh”?

        Consequences, if you’re reading this, dear boys, consequences……………..

        • Cllr Ron Abbey is also Chair of the Mersey Port Health Authority (which is a joint committee with councillors from other authorities).

          That’s a strange organisation, that has more politicians in charge of it than employees (imagine how many politicians there’d be at Wirral Council if number of politicians > number of employees?) and described by Cllr Ron Abbey (elected Chair at its previous meeting) as “Cinderella”.

          As discussed at the meeting itself, the situation was complicated by the government decision to abolish the NWDA. Therefore if national government decide they want to clawback grant money, it will be up to Wirral Council to say yay, nay or “sue us if you dare”.

          Like with everything though it’s a very complex saga that involves contract management, the private sector and a complex web of things that work on paper but not in practice.

          I will point out from what I remember Cllr Jim Crabtree wasn’t Chair of the Audit and Risk Management Committee in the “Martin Morton” era.

          What Cllr Crabtree made of that at the time and what statements he might or might not have made, in the fog of years of public meetings quite frankly I forget.

          This was in the before filming era you see, I did have notebooks with handwritten notes from such meeting (no jokes please about whether they’re high level notes), but the ink is slowly fading on such matters as they pass into the realms of history…

          You are right Cllr Jim Crabtree was my opponent in the Bidston & St. James election in 2012.

          A decision made during that elections was that Bill Norman (Returning Officer) accepted his nomination (and that of other candidates such as myself so the election was contested).

          Bill Norman’s subsequent suspension and the “conspiracy of silence” from Wirral Council led to the first time that I ever filed a judicial review. It never however got past the permission stage.

          The High Court Judge wasn’t going to play ball with me querying the outcome of the election and why Wirral Council had given Cllr Jim Crabtree an incomplete set of nomination papers and the one point about whether or not Jim Crabtree was actually legally disqualified from standing or not.

          The HCJ’s argument was that I should’ve filed a court case before the ballots were counted (among other arguments).

          Also the HCJ pointed out I should’ve filed an election petition (which you have to provide £thousands in a deposit for which I didn’t have) and then basically “single handedly” unless you have money to waste on such matters run a privately initiated criminal trial alleging electoral maladministration on the part of Wirral Council officers. If I lost such a matter I’d have to pay the other sides’ legal costs and probably legal costs of the other candidates too.

          My argument was I was the only candidate that had submitted the nomination forms in Bidston & St. James as required by law as elements required in law were missing from the other candidate’s nomination papers.

          That also Wirral Council had accepted nominations that did not have mandatory elements to them by not checking them properly.

          That the Returning Officer Bill Norman had been asked by me to exercise his power to disqualify such other candidates (including the winning candidate Jim Crabtree) which is a legal power the Returning Officer did have but chose not to exercise and that Wirral Council accepted allegedly invalid nominations which was a flagrant breach of the regulations on Wirral Council’s part.

          It is however entirely understandable that the other candidates just signed their nomination forms, without fully checking what they were signing or whether everything that should have been there was there! I’m not implying any deliberate wrongdoing on their part over a genuine error.

          However thanks to the decision of a HCJ and silence from Wirral Council, …permission to proceed to a hearing was denied and frankly I don’t have the resources to challenge Wirral Council (who frankly had just suspended most of its senior management) on what was essentially a legal longshot to avoid the problems associated with election petitions.

          If Cllr Jim Crabtree is reading this and as one in receipt as one of the “interested persons” of the court papers, I know this caused a bit of a rift.

          However this is all classed as court reporting and therefore I’n being very careful how I phrase this comment!

          He got more votes than me, the legal system doesn’t want to intervene, so that’s the end of the matter whatever the potential rights/wrongs of the situation are.

          The gist of it is… Wirral Council never pay for their own mistakes, they just suspend a Returning Officer, pay him off a large sum of money and then rely on a HCJ to make sure it’s never actually heard in a court of law leaving me in the strange situation whereby I feel my own human rights to free, fair and open elections have been overriden by Wirral Council’s incompetence!

  2. Many thanks to John Brace (oh, and Uncle Eric) for bringing us this valuable peek beneath the glossy coat and into the murky world of Torylite local politics.

    It’s plain as the nose on your face, despite “Tosh” Crabtree periodically glazing over, that they’re as callous, cruel, crooked, complicit and corrupt as the Tories ever were.

    • Whatever colour of party is in charge such as green, red, blue or yellow (* other colours of political parties are available), the issues are basically:

      a) the public want politicians to manage public matters in the public interest by taking into account the public’s views and not defaulting to tangled webs of secrecy and coverups

      b) employees are required in order to implement the policy and budget decisions of the politicians. Ultimately at the top the senior managers are answerable to politicians, who are in turn answerable to the public. .

      c) politicians scrutinise officers and vice versa, it’s called checks and balances, which is the only way the system can actually work as it should!!!

  3. Forgive me JB, but I never noticed no-one being answerable to no-one round this neck o’ the woods.

    Ever……………… :))

    • Yeah because the system doesn’t work because people are essentially flawed.

      However that’s why we have the ballot box and political parties. Remember you get two votes next year, one for MP, one for councillor!

      Maybe in practice no one is answerable but in reality… everyone (including me) has to conform to a certain behavioural expectation otherwise there are consequences further down the line for the individuals involved or society at large.

  4. A hollow victory for the whistle-blowers. How sincere the apology is remains to be seen,but does it make up for the mental anguish and material loss incurred by the ‘blowers. More seriously is the alleged false hoods made by some senior officers,some still in the Council employ. Is there to be any apology from those who have ‘trousered ‘ a not so little nice wedge,and disappeared off the scene,not all melted into the leafy lane of neighbouring councils.

    • Looking in on this matter from a somewhat independent perspective and knowing some of the people involved, I think nobody really thought it would get to this.

      However people overestimate either the power politicians, or the press, or senior managers have.

      A lot of the work at Wirral Council is done by frontline staff, senior managers are far removed from the detail and the day to day running of matters such as contract monitoring.

      Therefore senior managers can’t be expected to know what’s actually going on in their own departments unless:

      a) it’s actually to do with the person that line manages them or people that they directly line manage or

      b) they’re told by either people that work there, politicians or outside third parties.

      People are only human, they can’t always read minds and often managers have to implement decisions made above their pay grade or make recommendations based on incomplete information.

      The BIG/ISUS contracts are extremely complex contracts that people would have been paid money to manage. This is people not at the level of the Kevin Adderley or the David Balls of this world but at a more frontline level.

      However with these people I refer to essentially being junior employees, such people have either already left the organisation due to how long ago this was or are leaving the big cheeses to take the flak of the politician’s questions.

      They did admit Wirral Council wasn’t very good at record keeping/retrieval during the meeting itself. If the basic administration of being able to get at a signed copy of a contract isn’t there, then even the best, most wonderful manager in the world is going to struggle to respond to internal or external audit when they ask for documents…
      It’s all a bit mysterious really!

  5. Reblogged this on Wirral In It Together and commented:
    A nasty state of affairs, which dragged on for years. The wretchedness of this was never acknowledged by now outgoing CEO Graham Burgess. It looks like rather than recognise dodgy behaviour for what it was, he tried his best to sweep the theft of public money on a grand scale under the expensive, spanking new Town Hall carpet.

    • Well Graham Burgess believes what he is told by fellow officers. Like any good leader he has to stick up for him team.

      One of the people involved, Kevin Adderley is a strategic director who Graham Burgess line manages.

      I agree with much of what Graham Burgess said at the meeting, but I have heard similar things said before.

      He was trying to placate politicians who have frankly been kept in the dark for too long. The politicians will never be told the full story and management’s defence seems to be one of blaming it on to be quite frank rather basic things that have gone wrong such as:

      a) not being able to locate signed contracts for major contracts of £millions of public money

      b) when contract breaches are identified and the auditors are sent in to the contractor, the contractor refuses to cooperate (which is written into the contract) because the contract was never signed

      The basics of getting contracts signed before starting working and paying invoices is something the Council will have to get right in the future, otherwise they can never enforce any term of the contract.

      A lot of these projects were dealt with at public meetings, but with the press and public excluded (on the recommendation of officers) and politicians told to keep things confidential.

      However officers always worry politicians will consider it in the public interest to leak matters to the press on an anonymous basis.

      The fact Wirral Council monitors the emails accounts of politicians means they are forced to be more secretive…

      So officers won’t talk about it, politicians are not allowed to and the press is kept in the dark. These levels of secrecy allow things to happen behind closed doors and serious matters to be hushed up.

      By the time matters reach me, it’s a confusing tale I have to make sense of to write about and financial reporting isn’t my forte! So on the plus side I’ve learnt a bit when writing about these matters. Stuff about contigencies, liabilities, auditors and well enough stuff about contract management to probably work in that area!

      I don’t profess to be an expert, neither are the politicians, but it is obvious senior management at Wirral Council need to default to openness and honesty rather than secrecy, coverups and half truths to try and deflect the rare times proper scrutiny of matters from politicians actually happens!

  6. G’day John

    These people even at the lower levels are grown ups that earn a lot of money.

    Don’t get contracts signed, for God’s sake……..

    I do hope Burgess spills the beans he is no fool.

    Ooroo

    James

    Ps Raworth and his moll are complete muppets that can’t do simple sums and took them for hundreds of thousands of pounds.

    The NOKIA is being charged up.

    • satire/sarcasm warning

      Fictional Labour politician: Don’t you realise the high cost to Wirral Council for pens to sign contracts as a result of evil Coalition government red tape! The government expects us to sign contracts but won’t pay us the extra money we require for pens! Vote Labour and we will ensure every employee is issued with at least ten pens every year at no cost to the taxpayer as they will carry advertising from a third party!

      Fictional Conservative politician: As the party of business, we naturally deplore Labour’s policy on pens. Our government would have liked to supply Wirral Council with pens but as everyone knows the Lib Dems wouldn’t let us!

      Fictional Lib Dem politician: We disagree with both the Tories and Lib Dems on their policy on pens. Our policy is that employees and politicians should not be receiving pens at the public expense when this money could be spent on schools or hospitals. Instead we propose a “bring your own pen to work policy” which we will be debating at our next conference. If adopted by the party, much like our policy of abolishing tuition fees, our MPs can then do the complete opposite to party policy because the Conservatives will naturally block our attempts to ensure that people bring their own pen to work. Oh well. Vote Lib Dem next May, if anyone of you are still listening!

  7. […] Burgesski’s head ( fashion tip from Her Ladyship: Comrade needs a haircut)…….. SEE HERE  So from his usual observation point on the front row the ever perceptive Mr.Brace drew […]

  8. Thew audience, members of whom had any contact details for me, did the next morning express their outrage at the conduct of the meeting-“stitch-up”, “pantomime” and “grossly unfair” is a selection of the terms used.

    A bank manger who had resigned from the BIG panel as he perceived there to be an absence of any “due diligence” at the meetings, attended to partly to express his gratitude that whistleblowers had highlighted the wastre of scanty and precious Wirral regeneration funds.

    Will Redfearn is correct , the material loss and mental anguish suffered by whistleblowers, are in no way relieved by this meeting and the thanks accorded by Mr Crabtree at its conclusion. The more so are they unassuaged as , impotent to intervene. I had to listen to the same misrepresentations I had advised Committee members, being peddled once again once I had finished my address.

    When the erdf report comes out I intend to make public and in detail a list of the untruths and contradictions enunciated by officers at this meeting. I will refer them back to the precise moment on John brace’s tape when they are uttered and provide references to published documents that gainsay the incorrect statements.

    One matter was never raised, and not by me as I was chivvied along by the Chair. The elephant in the room.

    In the summer of 2009 critically WBC was invoiced over £10k by wirralbiz for “Professional Development”. The allegation , dismissed inaccurately in D Garry’s report on ISUS, relates to the strong likelihood that the invoice was for preparing the ISUS tenders in May 2009 and in August 2009.

    WBC preferred to report back on an FOI that they knew not what the invoices were for, which is comical in itself-that “Bad Old Council” that Cllr Kelly referred to near the end of the meeting. This is preferable to locating the backing sheets to the invoice and admitting that an “open tender”, for which 20 tender documents were issued, was perverted by the subsidizing of a “preferred candidate”.

    If proven the consequences would be two-fold

    1. The clawback of the entire £880k from erdf
    2. potential lawsuits for waste of time and for loss of ISUS profits from any bidders who answered the tender proposals

    The probability of WBC having paid for a preferred bid is strong in that

    1. the timescales of the invoices are concurrent with the two bids, to join the approved list of Service Providers to NWDA, and to WBC to be their chosen Service Provider
    2. The dates of work done by the subcontractor are not covered by any other invvoice from that subcontractor ( who never knowingly undersold his services oir indeed failed to invoice his time)(

    3. I remember his preparing the bids in conclave with M Raworth

    4. I remember the conspiratorial discussion Subcontractor to Raworth “Whatr shall i put on the invoiices?”

    Raworth to subcontractor “Professional Development” whist both cast a guilty look towards myself who entered the invoices into the accounting system

    DEFINITIVELY THE ELEPHANT IN THE COMMITTEE ROOM


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