What’s happening in the week ahead in local government (30/11/15 to 4/12/15)? (Wirral Council, Merseytravel, Merseyside Police and Crime Panel, House of Commons and House of Lords)

What’s happening in the week ahead in local government (30/11/15 to 4/12/15)? (Wirral Council, Merseytravel, Merseyside Police and Crime Panel, House of Commons and House of Lords)                                                                     I thought it would be a good idea to restart a regular feature I used to do on this blog which was looking to the week ahead … Continue reading “What’s happening in the week ahead in local government (30/11/15 to 4/12/15)? (Wirral Council, Merseytravel, Merseyside Police and Crime Panel, House of Commons and House of Lords)”

What’s happening in the week ahead in local government (30/11/15 to 4/12/15)? (Wirral Council, Merseytravel, Merseyside Police and Crime Panel, House of Commons and House of Lords)

                                                                   

Cllr Chris Blakeley addressing Wirral Council Regeneration and Environment committee about a new fire station in Saughall Massie September 2015
Cllr Chris Blakeley addressing Wirral Council Regeneration and Environment committee about a new fire station in Saughall Massie September 2015. A decision in September 2015 was deferred by councillors but will be decided this week.

I thought it would be a good idea to restart a regular feature I used to do on this blog which was looking to the week ahead with a brief summary of what’s happening.

Wirral Council’s Families and Wellbeing Committee meets tomorrow (Tuesday 1st December) at 6.00pm at Wallasey Town Hall. There are no motions on the agenda but councillors will discuss the all age disability strategy and the day services local authority company called Wirral Evolutions.

Wednesday evening sees the high-profile issue of a fire station at Saughall Massie return for a debate by the Regeneration and Environment Committee. Also to be debated is a motion on Wirral’s nuclear industries. The changes to how Wirral Council will deal with objections to traffic regulation orders (already agreed by the Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee will also be discussed. This public meeting also starts at 6.00p.m.

On Thursday you are literally spoilt for choice for public meetings and if I wished I could probably spend all day filming them!

The Merseyside Police and Crime Panel meets starting at 10.00am in the Council Chamber in Huyton. On the agenda are updates on serious and organised crime, the appropriate adult scheme, sustaining excellence, a home office pilot for mental health nurses to be colocated in custody suites, a night-time levy consultation (the consultation has already finished but just applies to Liverpool and 70% of the levy on licenced premises will go the police for policing Liverpool’s night-time economy), proposals for future Chief Constable recruitment and other routine items.

The Merseytravel Committee of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority meets starting at 2.00pm in the Authority Chamber, 1st floor, No. 1 Mann Island, Liverpool, L3 1BP.

Other than minutes and the co-option of Cllr Joan Lilly (who replaces the late Cllr Sharp), councillors will hear an update on smart ticketing, discuss the Merseytravel Fees and Charges Review for 2016/17 and a report on delivering an improved bus "offer".

Then in the evening at Wallasey Town Hall starting at 6.00pm Wirral Council’s Transformation and Resources Policy and Performance Committee meets. Councillors will debate a motion on freedom of information requests proposed by the Lib Dems (I should declare an interest here as it relates in part to Information Commissioner’s Office decision notices that relate to my requests), security of access to Council issued devices and a report on the Council’s social media policy and its appendix.

On that last report I should also declare an interest as their current social media policy by my initial reading of the policy/report to councillors seemed to state that Wirral Council employees (unless they can prove some business need such as the press office) were prevented from accessing this blog, the associated Facebook Group, Twitter account and as mentioned in the report itself also video of public meetings of Wirral Council on Youtube. However a reader has left a helpful comment stating that this blog isn’t blocked which is useful information I am interested to know.

I’d better declare a financial interest as Youtube pays me a very small amount in royalties from videos I’ve filmed (and by small I mean £1.10p for October 2015). In fact Wirral Council blocks employees from watching its own Youtube channel.

If the new policy goes ahead, Wirral Council employees will be allowed to read this blog (after writing this a reader left a comment to say they already can despite this blog falling into the social media category) and the above sites that fall into the social media category in their breaks.

However Big Brother, sorry Wirral Council will be watching what they get up to, so who knows what red flags you’ll raise if you read this blog or Wirral Leaks or well something really subversive like Wirral Council’s Youtube channel!

So that’s the round up for the week, I used to also provide a quick overview of what’s happening this week local government wise in two more open and transparent public bodies the House of Commons/House of Lords which you can watch online.

This afternoon starting at 4.00pm the Communities and Local Government Select Committee will discuss the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill. The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill has implications for Merseyside over an elected Mayor in 2017 and the devolution changes that have already received a lot of press coverage. As I’ve seen at least one local government officer here in Merseyside refuse to answer politicians’ questions about the government’s side of what’s happening, this looks like an interesting opportunity to hear about what’s happening from another perspective.

Tomorrow starting at 9.25am, the Public Bill Committee will discuss the Housing and Planning Bill. At the same time (starting at 9.30am) the Education Select Committee will discuss Holocaust Education and in the afternoon starting at 3.00pm the Treasury Select Committee will ask questions of the Chancellor on the Comprehensive Spending Review (which is only partly related to local government). In the House of Lords a Select Committee will be discussing the built environment starting at 10 am.

On Wednesday morning starting at 8.55am the Second Delegated Legislation Committee will discuss the Draft Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (Codes of Practice) (Revision of Code E) Order 2015. For those not familiar with police procedure Code E relates to the audio recording of interviews with suspects. Starting at 9.30am the Work and Pensions Select Committee will discuss the local welfare safety net, also at 9.30am the Education Select Committee will discuss regional school commissioners, the Treasury Select Committee will continue debating the Comprehensive Spending Review starting at 2.15pm and the Public Accounts Committee will discuss reform of the rail franchising programme.

Thursday sees more discussion of the Housing and Planning Bill by the Public Bill Committee in two sessions starting at 11.30am and 2.00pm. The House of Lords Select Committee will continue to discuss the built environment and hear from a former Chief Executive of the Planning Inspectorate.

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Why did Wirral Council pay £700.43 for a private company to check when a fire alarm went off at Irby Library?

Why did Wirral Council pay £700.43 for a private company to check when a fire alarm went off at Irby Library?

                                                        

Wirral Council invoice Dante Irby Library £700.43 thumbnail
Wirral Council invoice Dante Irby Library £700.43 thumbnail
Wirral Council invoice Dante Wallasey Town Hall £671.33 thumbnail
Wirral Council invoice Dante Wallasey Town Hall £671.33 thumbnail

Above are a couple of invoices from Dante Group to Wirral Council. Of course on the Dante theme, Wirral Council has its own version of the nine circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno.

Limbo is the circle that whistleblowers are sent to, lust has already been covered by the more tabloid leaning Wirral Leaks, gluttony (some politicians have fallen into this trap and it’s a shame unlike the House of Commons they don’t have to get up and stretch their legs when voting), greed is too massive a topic to go into in detail, anger (again too many examples of politicians losing their temper), heresy seems to be the circle of hell politicians fall into when somebody disagrees with them, thankfully Wirral Council is not in control of the Armed Forces so violence is rare, but allegations of fraud (which whistleblowers repeat until they’re blue in the face) still ring in the ears of those who have given up listening and of course the ninth circle of hell is one that’s wrapped up in the tapestry of Wirral’s politics treachery.

However back to the invoices (the thumbnails above link to more readable versions), the first is for one of the two most sensitive issues in Wirral’s politics that begin with l which is libraries (the other being Lyndale).

I explained to a colleague (not hard to work out who) that this invoice was for being called out to Irby Library because a fire alarm was beeping and asked her to guess how much is was for. As readers of this blog may already know Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service since 2012 don’t attend non domestic premises when an Automatic Fire Alarm goes off.

So on the 28th July 2014, Wirral Council asked Dante Group to attend Irby Library. According to something scribbled on the invoice it states "mess left (something undecipherable) by library staff Sat 26".

The public are being told that public sector bodies have no choice but to outsource to the private sector because it’s cheaper. Wirral has what used to be called the Community Patrol (before enforcement of littering got outsourced to Kingdom Security earlier this year and I think what’s left is now called the Corporate and Community Safety Team). Part of the role of the Community Patrol was to keep an eye on Wirral Council’s buildings and land.

If it was still dealt with in-house and if the Community Patrol took the long way round to Irby library, spent the whole day there and sent a team of three to investigate (along with meal expenses) I’m sure the costs wouldn’t never be as high as £700.43.

However that’s what Dante charged Wirral Council for the call out.

The other invoice for £671.33 is for fitting 1 x 8W emergency lighting tube and 4 emergency light fittings at Wallasey Town Hall and 4 12 volt batteries. Surprisingly (despite the parts) the invoice comes to £671.33 (less than the call out to Irby Library).

So if Wirral Council are paying out £700.43 each time the fire alarm goes off in a library, can they really honestly say the reason they have reduced library hours (which no doubt has led to more expensive invoices as it’s increased the hours each week libraries are closed) is because of lack of money?

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SATIRE: What if the Saughall Massie fire station decision was a sports event?

SATIRE: What if the Saughall Massie fire station decision was a sports event?

SATIRE: What if the Saughall Massie fire station decision was a sports event?

Councillors on Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority (30th June 2015) voting in favour of closure of Upton and West Kirby fire stations and asking Wirral Council for the land and planning permission for a new fire station in Saughall Massie
Councillors on Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority (30th June 2015) voting in favour of closure of Upton and West Kirby fire stations and asking Wirral Council for the land and planning permission for a new fire station in Saughall Massie
Dan Stephens (Chief Fire Officer) answers questions at a public consultation meeting in Saughall Massie to discuss proposals for a new fire station (20th April 2015)
Dan Stephens (Chief Fire Officer) answers questions at a public consultation meeting in Saughall Massie to discuss proposals for a new fire station (20th April 2015)
Cllr Chris Blakeley addressing Wirral Council Regeneration and Environment committee about a new fire station in Saughall Massie September 2015
Cllr Chris Blakeley addressing Wirral Council Regeneration and Environment committee about a new fire station in Saughall Massie September 2015

SPORTS COMMENTATOR JOHN BRACE: Next week, we’ll be seeing another thrilling political battle between Cllr Chris “Bruiser” Blakeley (in the blue corner with a picture of a Conservative whip on his chest) and Dan “The Fireman” Stephens in the flaming red corner (and a picture of a fireman’s axe on his chest). Who will win following this encounter? This is a battle that the public think both of them can’t win.

SPORTS COMMENTATOR 2: There’s a bit of history between these two characters isn’t there?

SPORTS COMMENTATOR JOHN BRACE: Yes, this whole fire station issue is part of the reason Chris Blakeley lost his job working for Esther McVey in May, but since then he’s had more time for campaigning. The kudos for stopping a new fire station in Greasby went to Esther McVey’s rival Margaret Greenwood (now an MP). The two (Cllr Blakeley and Dan Stephens) have had heated exchanges at a number of public meetings and are bitterly opposed on this sensitive political issue.

SPORTS COMMENTATOR 2: But what happened last time?

SPORTS COMMENTATOR JOHN BRACE: The Labour referee Cllr Mike Sullivan declared it a draw on points and decided to call it off for another night. No one had invited Dan Stephens along to that meeting so it would’ve been wrong to let Cllr Blakeley win under such circumstances.

SPORTS COMMENTATOR 2: But strictly speaking Dan Stephens wasn’t the officer behind all this?

SPORTS COMMENTATOR JOHN BRACE: Yes that’s true. The man with the plan for this was Deputy Chief Executive Kieran Timmins (his line manager was Dan Stephens). However Kieran Timmins has been made redundant. So nobody can ask him questions. The land aspects of Mr. Timmins’ job are now under the remit of Deputy Chief Fire Officer Phil Garrigan.

SPORTS COMMENTATOR 2: So if asked, Dan Stephens can deny all knowledge of the emails released under a Freedom of Information Act request or in fact anything to do with all this?

SPORTS COMMENTATOR JOHN BRACE: His answer at an earlier public meeting was he hadn’t written the emails, then from memory a Labour councillor on the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority (who had released the emails) just claimed the Tories were just making it all up.

Although Dan Stephens would be aware of this matter, it would be Mr. Timmins/Phil Garrigan that would be involved in the details. I’m sure Phil Garrigan will brief him ahead of next week’s meeting with answers to questions that are likely to be asked and/or be there in person.

SPORTS COMMENTATOR 2: So what does Dan want?

SPORTS COMMENTATOR JOHN BRACE: He has to work within the agreed policy. The politicians directed him to ask for the land at Saughall Massie and planning permission (or at the very least he has to find somewhere to build a new fire station if the politicians want one).

SPORTS COMMENTATOR 2: So what does Cllr Blakeley want?

SPORTS COMMENTATOR JOHN BRACE: For Dan Stephens not to get the land at Saughall Massie and planning permission and if he has to build a fire station to do it somewhere else.

SPORTS COMMENTATOR 2: I see, and after over 2 years of political arguing has anything been actually decided?

SPORTS COMMENTATOR JOHN BRACE: Councillors on Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority did decide to go ahead and ask Wirral Council for the land at Saughall Massie and planning permission.

An interesting twist however, is that Cllr Blakeley seems to be have been stabbed in the back twice by his own side on this issue as both the Conservative government have offered Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service a grant towards the costs of a new fire station and fellow Conservative councillor Cllr Lesley Rennie voted for it too.

SPORTS COMMENTATOR 2: So you’re saying in over 2 years and perhaps millions of words, all that’s happened is arguing, Esther McVey losing her seat and endless rounds of consultation over the £millions this could all cost?

SPORTS COMMENTATOR JOHN BRACE: Yes.

SPORTS COMMENTATOR 2: And nobody thought it a good idea and value for money or sensible to just actually sit down and talk through these issues?

SPORTS COMMENTATOR JOHN BRACE: Officers did that, but thought councillors would just happily rubber stamp it. Large numbers of the public getting grumpy about a political decision makes politicians nervous. Nervous politicians don’t like to make unpopular decisions unless they know the facts so they delay making a decision.

However councillors on the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority seemed quite happy to have the people pay for taxis to and from public meetings, showing that a decision by a politician is only unpopular if the public actually knows about it.

SPORTS COMMENTATOR 2: So you’re saying that endless public meetings, consultations, press coverage and over 2 years of political arguments is because no consensus or compromise has been reached?

SPORTS COMMENTATOR JOHN BRACE: Yep, but it’s been great for our viewing and circulation figures isn’t it!?

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Does Wirral Council believe that the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government?

Does Wirral Council believe that the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government?

Wirral Council Cabinet meeting at Birkenhead Town Hall Thursday 12th March 2015 Left to right Surjit Tour, Cllr Phil Davies and Joe Blott
Wirral Council Cabinet meeting at Birkenhead Town Hall Thursday 12th March 2015 Left to right Surjit Tour (Monitoring Officer), Cllr Phil Davies (Leader of the Council) and Joe Blott (Strategic Director (Transformation and Resources))

I was planning on writing today about the implications of the Comprehensive Spending Review (however that’s something that would really benefit from a very in-depth piece), but Wirral Council have published an interesting document about Cabinet meeting report protocol.

That probably sounds rather boring, but it shows the informal arrangements that everyone knew existed behind the scenes before reports were published are being put on a more formal footing.

Although much of it is probably the rather dry nuts and bolts and let’s face it there will still be people submitting reports late and chairs not following procedures with regards to late reports, it does seem an attempt at least to make what the press and public end up reading at least not full of obvious errors (and I’m not talking about spelling mistakes).

The report does state what I knew already, that the SLT (Senior Leadership Team or senior managers at Wirral Council) see reports before they’re published and have a chance to suggest edits.

Even before each public Cabinet meeting happens, Cllr Phil Davies has a meeting of his Cabinet (called a briefing) which the officers are expected to attend (usually in what’s called the Cabinet Briefing Room behind locked doors at Wallasey Town Hall) where he goes through the entire agenda and matters are discussed in private.

Interestingly, this report shows that the Cabinet briefing is used as a filter and the Cabinet briefing can be used to change the reports that are later published. I presume this practice of writing reports by committee leads to some bits being watered down.

There are also four compulsory steps a report has to go through before the press or public see it. It seems reports have to be run by legal (which makes me laugh considering some of the legal howlers I’ve pointed out on this blog over the years), human resources (which is understandable as many of the decisions are going to have HR implications), finance (again understandable) and the Head of Service (which has been standard practice for years anyway). As there are vacant heads of service posts, in that situation the relevant strategic director signs it off.

However there is one very important group of people this all leaves out, the public. Anyone involved with politics will of course comment and say that the last group of people involved in political decisions are the public.

This is what Wirral Council’s constitution states about decision-making:

13.2 Principles of decision-making
All decisions of the Council will be made in accordance with the following principles:

(i) proportionality (i.e. the action must be proportionate to the desired outcome);
(ii) due consultation and the consideration of professional advice from officers;
(iii) respect for human rights;
(iv) a presumption in favour of openness;
(v) clarity of aims and desired outcomes; and
(vi) Wednesbury* reasonableness (i.e. the decision must not be so unreasonable that no reasonable Council could have reached it, having taken into account all relevant considerations, and having ignored irrelevant considerations).

*This piece is too short to provide an in-depth description of the legal definition but it refers to the case law definition of "unreasonable" which is a reference to a Court of Appeal case from 1947, [1947] 2 All ER 680, [1947] EWCA Civ 1, [1948] 1 KB 223, [1948] KB 223.

Every policy disaster (whether the library closure fiasco which resulted in a public inquiry or half a dozen others I could mention here) has resulted because the public weren’t involved (or were involved/consulted but politely ignored by politicians and officers who had the arrogance to think they knew better) and/or the above principles weren’t followed.

Let’s take the Fort Perch Rock car park charging U-turn as an example. Principle (ii) above states the "consideration of professional advice from officers" yet officers didn’t tell them that if they started charging at Fort Perch Rock car park then the lease the Council had for the Marine Point development would lead to charges at hundreds of spaces at the other currently free car parks.

No, it fell to a local blogger to publish the pages of the lease, a large petition against it of thousands of people and a campaign against the charges from a former Conservative councillor in the marginal seat of New Brighton. This was despite Labour’s backbench councillors warning the Cabinet at at least one public meeting not to go ahead with plans for charging.

Next week, the Transformation and Resources Committee will discuss the high-profile issue of a fire station in Saughall Massie. At the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority meeting earlier this year where the decision was made, the petition organiser was given five minutes to speak and a delegation from the Saughall Massie Conservation Society was also given the opportunity to speak for up to five minutes.

Yes, you are probably going to say, this ties in with (iii) above, respect for human rights as article 21, which Wirral Council signed up to when Cllr Adrian Jones was Mayor quite clearly states

(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.
 

Notice the importance of that word directly or through freely chosen representatives (that is politicians).

The other public bodies I report on either have mechanisms written into their constitution (for example Liverpool City Council has a regular public question time slot at many of its meetings and I’ve mentioned the mechanisms that Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority has), so people can exercise their rights at public meetings and have their say before the decision is made.

At Wirral Council the public at public meetings get frustrated and heckle instead (then get told to shut up by the Chair or clear off which does show some politicians’ attitude towards the public outside of elections).

The Chair at last night’s meeting (despite his wish to get home in time to watch Coronation Street) tried to let many taxi drivers have their say (some more than once) before the decision to consult on increasing hackney carriage fares was made (if a decision is made following the consultation it’ll mean fares go up in time for Christmas).

Yet if there’s one point I am trying to make from this maybe boring piece about Wirral’s politics, it’s that the public should be more involved and you don’t encourage the public to turn up by expecting them to sit through meetings in silence and not have any influence over decisions that are going to affect their lives.

At the moment taxi drivers have more influence over decisions as there is a Joint Consultative Committee that meets regularly behind closed doors than I do over say Wirral Council’s filming of public meetings policy.

Yes, this probably sounds like as to why it’s a good idea to have politicians, or for the kind of public interest journalism I spend a lot of time doing but the point I’m trying to get at is one that Wirral’s political system doesn’t seem to have quite grasped which is "the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government".

At Wirral Council this seems to have morphed in the past to "the will of the officers shall be the basis of the authority of government" (and we expect politicians to rubber stamp decisions we refer to them).

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Why did Wirral Council spend £48,384 on a London-based barrister in benefits battle with landlord?

Why did Wirral Council spend £48,384 on a London-based barrister in benefits battle with landlord?

                                                          

ICO Information Commissioner's Office logo
ICO Information Commissioner’s Office logo

For those who don’t remember Wirral Council’s motto is "by faith and foresight" and last night’s meeting of Wirral Council’s Audit and Risk Management Commmittee (which you can watch in full by following that link) had a number of comments and queries by councillors about why when Wirral Council seeks legal advice from outside third parties, the usual procurement rules don’t apply.

By strange coincidence, that very day and an hour before the Audit and Risk Management Committee started, Wirral Council finally responded (in part) to a Freedom of Information Act request of mine made on the 23rd March 2015 for a two-page fee note for the services of a barrister called Miss Jennifer Richards QC.

Many justifications were made at the Audit and Risk Management Committee meeting for Wirral Council’s legal expenditure, such as paying for the best advice. Miss Jennifer Richards QC’s services came with a price tag of £48,384 so I’m not surprised that Wirral Council spent 8 months wasting my time and theirs by arguing about whether I should have access to this (until the Information Commissioner’s Office issued decision notice FS50585536) which I can summarise in the following sentence.

Stop being silly Wirral Council and just give John a copy of the invoices within 35 days (or appeal within 28 days) otherwise it may be dealt with as contempt of court)!

Although this may seem for a small amount of legal expenditure in the grand scheme of things, it’s just one of a series of legal expenses for Wirral Council in a case that ended up in the Court of Appeal and is in some ways connected to the Anna Klonowski Associates/Martin Morton issues and Wirral Council’s Department of Adult Social Services.

You can read that final Court of Appeal judgement online for yourself ([2012] AACR 37, [2012] EWCA Civ 84, [2012] PTSR 1221, [2012] WLR(D) 31), but this was an appeal from an earlier decision to the Upper Tribunal of the Administrative Appeals Chamber, see [2011] UKUT 44 (AAC).

As referred to in that later decision it was about “a protracted dispute between Salisbury Independent Living (“SIL”) and Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council (“the local authority”) concerning housing benefit claimed by SIL to be due to its tenants and former tenants.

I have mentioned in a question at a public meeting to a councillor before that there is a cost to the public purse in legal expenses for Wirral Council not resolving issues and then these matters ending up being adjudicated by the courts.

In the interests of openness and transparency I am reproducing the invoice supplied below in full (the scan with bits blacked out by Wirral Council is of a rather poor quality).

Thirty Nine Essex Street (or 39 Essex Chambers) is the name of the London-based chamber of barristers. Weightmans is a firm of solicitors that does a lot of work for Wirral Council.

DX stands for document exchange (it’s a system that legal practices use for exchanging documents). DWP stands for Department for Work and Pensions. It seems this invoice is for the earlier Upper Tribunal stage of the legal proceedings (I hate to think what the total legal expenditure comes to for this whole case as that decision was then appealed by Wirral Council to the Court of Appeal).

Yes there are typos in the invoice (which I’ve left in the copy below). If I’ve made any mistakes in typing it up compared to the original please leave a comment pointing out where I’ve made a mistake.

In converting it from print to HTML I’ve tried to keep the formatting as close to the pr