Wirral Council burying bad news in a supplementary agenda

 

OPINION PIECE BY JOHN BRACE

Normally the papers for a meeting have to be (it’s a legal requirement) published five days before a meeting on Wirral Council’s website expect in certain exceptional circumstances.

However when your report is the snappily titled Revenue Monitoring 2012/13 Month 4 (July 2012) detailing exactly why Wirral Council has a projected £14.4 million overspend (or at least it did at the end of July 2012, let’s hope it’s not more now two months later), it’s understandable why somebody wouldn’t want this going out with the regular agenda through the post to councillors on the Council Excellence Overview and Scrutiny Committee before the next meeting on Monday.

In fact publishing on Friday afternoon is a time-honoured way to “bury bad news”, and believe me the news is bad and explains the matters that led to the spending freeze about three weeks ago. By the time anybody has read it and has any questions, most of the relevant Monday to Friday 9-5 Council officers will be enjoying the weekend.

The advantage of course to the online version is it’s in colour, whereas to save costs the Council prints things in black and white (although obviously the lucky few councillors recently given iPads will be able to view it in colour).

However let’s have a look at the highlights and the slightly strange use of statistics and selective quoting of facts. The overspend for months 1 and 2 of Financial Year 2012/2013 seem to be missing from the graph, with no explanation given in the report as to why. However the projected overspends don’t seem to originate from the Department of Finance (who predict a £2.5 million overspend), but the two “usual subjects” of DASS (Department of Adult Social Services) at over £10 million of overspend and CYPD (Children and Young Peoples Department) at around £5 million.

Even the Department of Law, HR and Asset Management headed during some of this period by Bill Norman is projecting a £2 million overspend.

The report of course mentioned that the Labour Cabinet’s response this year has been to spend a further £677,000.

So how does this breakdown compare to what the Budget should be (according to report anyway)? The answer in the report is £3 million over budget on employee spend, £1.3 million overspend on premises and an £11.5 million overspend on “supplies and services”.

The report explains also why Cabinet had to dip into £7 million of reserves (the Working Neighbourhood Fund). So when will we find out what’s happened in month 5 (August), well that’ll be October 18th…. with the “Executive Team” of Council Officers finding out on 4th October… course if the CYPD had submitted the correct figures to the Department for Education then Wirral Council would have a further £1.6 million to spend on education. Oh well…

 

Cabinet (Wirral Council) 27th September 2012

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1. Declarations of Interest 00:01
2. Minutes of the last meeting

CHILDREN’S SERVICES AND LIFELONG LEARNING
3. Child and Family Poverty Budget Option

STREETSCENE AND TRANSPORT SERVICES
4. Highway and Engineering Services Contract – Value for Money and Annual Review
5. Highway and Engineering Services Contract – 2014 and Beyond
6. The Flood and Water Act 2010 – Ordinary Watercourse Consenting and Enforcement
7. West Kirby Marine Lake Refurbishment, Consultant Appointments – Contract Price Increase

REGENERATION AND PLANNING STRATEGY
8. Local Development Framework – Core Strategy – Publication of Proposed Submission Draft

HOUSING AND COMMUNITY SAFETY
9. Implementation of Local Authority Mortgage Scheme in Wirral

IMPROVEMENT AND GOVERNANCE
10. Recommendations from the Improvement Board
11. Any Other Urgent Business
12. Exempt Information – Exclusion of the Press and Public

STREETSCENE AND TRANSPORT SERVICES
13. Exempt Appendices – Agenda Item 4 Highway and Engineering Services Contract — Value for Money and Annual Review
14. Exempt Appendices – Agenda Item 5 Highway and Engineering Services Contract – 2014 and Beyond
15. Any Other Urgent Business Approved by the Chair (Part 2)

Merseyside Police Authority Transition Committee 27th September 2012 Part 1

I attended what could be the last ever meeting of the Transition Committee of the soon to be abolished Merseyside Police Authority (which will be abolished in November 2012).

We were the only public there, but there were plenty of Merseyside Police Authority Members (both councillors and independents), as well as MPA staff and Merseyside Police officers.

The Chair welcomed people to the meeting, and there were three apologies given. They were for Cllr Mrs Doreen Kerrigan (Labour), Cllr Simon Shaw (Liberal Democrat) and a third person I couldn’t quite hear the name of, but might have been Cllr Chris Blakeley (Conservative) who was absent from the meeting.

The Chair asked for any declarations of interest. There weren’t any made.

He asked if the minutes of the meeting held on the 23rd August 2012 were agreed.

Paul Johnson, Chief Executive and Treasurer said that in reference to the approvals for the Audit Committee, they were putting together adverts, so they would have a long list [of candidates] for when the Police and Crime Commissioner starts [in November 2012]. He referred to the debate about where best to put the advert, followed by an amusing joke that they wanted to make sure they didn’t just recruit accountants, but people who had were more rounded and had expertise in governance.

The minutes were agreed and the Chair moved to item 3 (Transition to New Police Governance Arrangements pg5-64), which was a report of the Chief Executive Paul Johnson.

A member of the MPA staff gave an update on the project plan and work and referred to the reference to the Audit Committee on page 8. She referred to the reference on page 9 to the letter from the Home Office [Rt Hon Damien Green MP, Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice] to Police Authorities dated 12th September 2012 [which was included as Appendix 3 (pages 63-64)]. The division of police staff into operational and non-operational roles was referred to. Once the Police and Crime Commissioner was elected [in November] there would be a period between then and April 2013 during which they would have to tell the Home Office. She also informed those present, that on the subject of police staff appeals, that they had written to police staff about the future position.

Paul Johnson, Chief Executive and Treasurer said they had received neither a positive or negative response from the trade unions, who had been present at the last meeting.

Cabinet (Wirral Council) 28th September 2012 Any Other Urgent Business Approved by the Chair

Any Other Business, Wirral Council’s Cabinet 28th September 2012

Interest declaration: The author is a member of a trade union and a member of the media affected by this law change.

There was an Any Other Business item at Wirral Council’s Cabinet last night, with a recommendation from Surjit Tour, the Acting Director of Law, Human Resources & Asset Management (which was agreed). It seems to be in response to a point I made a week ago by email to a Wirral Council councillor when the Cabinet agenda was published and follows on from this blog post, as the law referred to came into effect on the 10th September 2012.

I had previously brought it up with my trade union, that Wirral Council didn’t seem to be complying with the new law, which is why I followed the approach suggested and brought it up with Wirral Council’s legal team and the people involved. One councillor on the Cabinet has asked for an email about it which I will write in the near future.

URGENT BUSINESS

Recommendation

That Cabinet authorises the Council’s Chief Officers to seek all requisite consents and/or agreement on behalf of Cabinet from relevant persons as required by The Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 where an item to be considered by Cabinet includes exempt information and it is not possible to provide at least 28 clear days notice of that item.

Personally, it’s not quite resulting in the outcome of considerably more openness and accountability I had hoped for (although most legislation has caveats and loopholes that can be exploited). It is however, a step in the right direction as it (hopefully) provides a check and balance on the executive power of the all-Labour Cabinet’s future attempts to make decisions behind closed doors resulting in less scrutiny from the press and public, as really (because to do so without giving 28 days notice they have to first seek consent from the Chair of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee first) should (unless officers and councillors are deliberately trying to make an administration make major decisions in secret) only happen very rarely.

This seems to be one small step on the way to complying with the legislation (whether the spirit and intent behind the legislation is followed depends how Wirral Council implement it in practice), which means regulation 5(2) and 5(3) don’t have to be complied with (see regulation 5(6)) if the part of the meeting held in private is “urgent and cannot reasonably be deferred” and they get the agreement of the relevant Chair of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee (or if they’re not available others are mentioned)).

Personally as last night’s Cabinet meeting (it wasn’t a special meeting but a regular one) was in the calendar of meetings decided on the 12th April 2012 and it was a matter that had been known about since 26th June 2012, why wasn’t the 28 clear days notice given (which would’ve had to have been given around the end of August 2012)? Well firstly, the Colas matter did need urgent attention (as Colas have been behaving churlishly since the public interest report by the Audit Commission as to how the contract was awarded to them was published and announced they don’t want the contract past 2014. So who’s Cabinet Portfolio does these two items fall under? It’s Cllr Harry Smith’s (Labour), the Cabinet Member for Streetscene and Transport.

Personally I think it should be the relevant Cabinet Member or Cabinet asking for consent from another councillor rather than Chief Officers on their behalf, although the legislation can be interpreted in different ways. In my opinion what was agreed last night puts too much power in Chief Officer’s hands, whose powers of persuasion over Wirral councillors are well-known.

Sustainable Communities Overview and Scrutiny Committee (Wirral Council) 26th September 2012

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Sustainable Communities Overview and Scrutiny Committee (Wirral Council) 26th September 2012 Part 1 of 3
Sustainable Communities Overview and Scrutiny Committee (Wirral Council) 26th September 2012 Part 2 of 3
Sustainable Communities Overview and Scrutiny Committee (Wirral Council) 26th September 2012 Part 3 of 3