Happy Christmas 2015

Happy Christmas 2015

                                              

Happy Christmas 2015 to all the readers of this blog. I hope you are all enjoying Christmas Day (or whenever you read this) whatever you are doing.

My holidays start on Christmas Day and I won’t be writing new posts during Christmas 2015, but will return to posting new stories on this blog in January 2016.

I hope everyone enjoys the Christmas season and the New Year. Happy Christmas!

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Wirral Council’s Cabinet agrees to consultation on £2.498 million of cuts

Wirral Council’s Cabinet agrees to consultation on £2.498 million of cuts

                                                             

There were hundreds of people at last Thursday’s Cabinet meeting.

In fact there were so many people present that the venue for the Cabinet Meeting that evening was moved from Committee Room 3 (maximum 46 people) at Wallasey Town Hall to the Civic Hall (maximum 370 people). However those maximum numbers are reduced further by about twenty if you bear in mind the ten councillors on the Cabinet plus senior management that support the Cabinet at its meetings.

Before the meeting started at 6.15pm there was a large protest outside Wallasey Town Hall.

As it was dark, at that time of the evening my photos of the protest haven’t come out very well. You should however be able to see the flags and some of the protest slogans in the pictures below (although I apologise that some are unreadable). The trade unions were protesting about the potential loss of jobs, there were those who use the Council’s services that are under threat there too.

protest outside Wallasey Town Hall 17th December 2015 before Cabinet meeting photo 1 of 6 thumbnail
Protest outside Wallasey Town Hall 17th December 2015 before Cabinet meeting photo 1 of 6 thumbnail

Continue reading “Wirral Council’s Cabinet agrees to consultation on £2.498 million of cuts”

Isn’t it time the barriers in local government were removed for disabled people?

Isn’t it time the barriers in local government were removed for disabled people?

                                                              

Birkenhead North Railway Station Park and Ride
Birkenhead North Railway Station Park and Ride

Although the above is not a photo of the car park mentioned below, the photo is merely to illustrate that it’s about car parking

If anyone wonders if I still do casework, I do (just a lot less than I used to). The below is casework for Leonora (although I feel strongly about it myself). She’s my wife so I’ll declare an interest now. She’s also involved in this blog too. She’s given me permission to publish it as it may be of wider interest to readers of this blog. A few typographical errors in my original email (such as Arriva Train Wales to Arriva Trains Wales) have been corrected in the version below.

Rt Hon Frank Field MP is our MP here in Birkenhead, Justin Tomlinson MP is the Minister for Disabled People, the car park is in Cllr Dixon’s ward, the reason it’s going to the two Cabinet Members should be self-explanatory, although outside of the Merseytravel area, Merseyrail trains stop at Chester and Arriva Trains Wales run Chester station. I’ve no idea what the transport authority is for this region (do any readers know)?

So far I’ve received one reply back from the personal assistant to Cllr Samantha Dixon (she has a personal assistant as she’s Leader of Chester West and Chester Council) and a bilingual reply in English & Welsh from Arriva Trains Wales.

However it’s only been two days so far and Christmas will no doubt affect how long messages take to return.


Subject: casework (public transport/equality issues in the Chester area) REF: LB

Circulation list:

CC: “Rt Hon Frank Field MP (MP for Birkenhead)”
CC: “Justin Tomlinson MP (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Disabled People)”
CC: “Councillor Louise Gittins (Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Culture, Leisure and Wellbeing (Chester West and Chester))”
CC: “Councillor David Armstrong (Cabinet Member for Legal and Finance (Chester West and Chester))”
CC: “Cllr Liam Robinson (Chair, Merseytravel)” CC: “Councillor Samantha Dixon (councillor for Chester City ward)”
CC: “Arriva Trains Wales”
BCC: Leonora Brace

Dear All,

I have been asked by my wife Leonora Brace to write to you on her behalf. If you wish to reply to her via post rather than email her address is Jenmaleo, 134 Boundary Road, Bidston, Wirral, CH43 7PH.

On the morning of Saturday 19th December 2015 we both visited the City of Chester.

To explain why we took the car I would like to make some general comments about Chester Railway Station first. We have tried travelling to Chester by train using our Merseytravel issued public transport passes, but unfortunately she cannot go through the ticket barrier as she has a walking stick and she has to use the side barrier. As the side barrier is for passengers travelling in both directions, sadly she has suffered many accidents in the past (for instance wheeled suitcases going over her foot from passengers coming the other way) causing her injuries.

So to avoid these safety issues, this is why I suggested we travel to Chester by car.

We used to travel to Chester using the Park and Ride outside of the City, but the Park and Ride bus driver stopped accepting our Merseytravel passes, so we stopped using the Park and Ride.

However, hopefully the above explains why despite our best efforts, problems with the public transport system in the Chester area meant in my view travelling by car on Saturday morning was the only reasonable option.

I had better point out at this stage that Leonora is issued with a Blue Badge by Wirral Council and as you can guess from the above comments has limited mobility.

I might point out that although the Blue Badge Scheme is administered locally by local councils, it is an international scheme, following legislation that applies throughout England therefore there is supposed to be some consistency across different areas.

We travelled to the Chester West and Chester car park on New Crane Street opposite Chester Racecourse.

On previous visits, she has just driven into the car park, displayed her Blue Badge and clock and there have been no problems.

This time however a barrier had been erected at the entrance to the car park.

From the passenger side the writing on the machine by the barrier was too far away to read and indeed Leonora tells me that it was impossible for her to read even on the driver’s side.

So I got out of the car, walked round to the machine and tried to understand the instructions. Despite having a university-level education I didn’t see anything referring to Blue Badge users, but there were instructions to press the intercom for assistance which I did.

I explained to the disembodied voice what the problem was and explained that we had a Blue Badge.

The disembodied voice asked if the Blue Badge had been issued by Chester West and Chester Council. Obviously as we don’t live in Chester West and Chester Council’s area, it was not and was issued by neighbouring Wirral Council.

The voice then said that if our Blue Badge wasn’t issued by Chester West and Chester Council then we couldn’t park there! I was amazed at how parochial this was! After all people with Blue Badges issued by Chester West and Chester Council are welcome to park in any Wirral Council car park! It didn’t seem fair.

I then had to explain what the disembodied voice had said to my wife (who hadn’t heard what he said due to hearing difficulties).

I asked the disembodied voice if there were car parks we could use our Blue Badge in, he said the nearest one was Frodsham Street and gave long and complicated directions.

Eventually we parked in one of the the disabled spaces at the car at the junction of Grosvenor Road/Castle Drive on the other side of Chester Racecourse. Despite my wife driving for a living as a paramedic the spaces there are badly designed and very difficult to get in and out of. Exiting such spaces you then have to go the wrong way round a one-way system, in our case delaying a coach entering the car park (otherwise we’re back to the barrier problem I mentioned earlier).

I might point out that this car park is so far away from the City Centre that we ended up not spending any money in Chester’s shops (the shops that financially support Chester West and Chester Council’s running of the cark parks through business rates).

I fully appreciate the need to combat climate change and if it wasn’t for the problems I outlined earlier I would happily travel to Chester by public transport without the need for having to interact with its arcane bureacracy.

I hope this was a one-off and a mistake and would like to say how much my wife and I enjoy our visits to Chester, however the following questions arise that I would appreciate a formal response to them.

1. Were we incorrectly informed about whether those with Blue Badges issued to those who live outside the Chester and West Council area can park in the New Crane Street car park opposite Chester racecourse and if so what are the arrangements for getting through the barrier? If a mistake was made will you apologise to Leonora?

2. Are you actively trying to deter people from doing travelling to Chester and spending money there? I noticed on previous visits the car parks were nearly full, however since the barriers have been put up they’re nearly empty. Is this part of Chester’s efforts to combat climate change and encourage greater use of public transport?

3. Why doesn’t the Park and Ride bus accept the passes issued to the elderly or disabled that can be used on all other buses in England? Surely this would be an extra source of income, therefore reducing the need for any taxpayer subsidy (if that is the case) and improving the financial sustainability of the service?

4. Why the distinction between Blue Badges issued to residents in the Chester West and Chester Council area and Blue Badges issued to residents outside Chester? Doesn’t it make little sense that a Wirral issued blue badge will be accepted in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Guernsey, Iceland, Isle of Man, Jersey, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland but apparently not Chester (which last time I checked was still part of the United Kingdom despite all the talk of an IN/OUT referendum)?

5. Bearing in mind my comments (and whereas I realise when it is busy a one-way system in in effect at Chester Railway Station), have you considered modifying the ticket barriers to have a side barrier on the left in addition to the one on the right? This would seem to reduce the chance of passengers colliding with each other.

6. Was there a consultation I missed on the car park changes? If so could you provide a link to the decision/report please about this?

7. There are a whole range of legal implications this raises (both national legislation and European level) and have these been properly thought through? I could probably write a further 2,000 words just on those alone.

Protected minorities being treated in this way has the potential to cause great upset (indeed that is why discrimination is unlawful) and there are times (as I’m sure we may not be the only people affected by these matters) that the public do not have the time, press and/or political connections or indeed understanding of this country’s politico-legal systems to make their voice heard. Before the above was implemented (such as the retrofitting of ticket barriers at Chester Railway Station and the barriers on the car parks) some thought should’ve been had as to the implications on society.

I look forward to reading your responses with interest. I sincerely hope that this was a one-off mistake caused by a misunderstanding, but look forward to reading your views and either proposals for changing the above problems or reasons why they cannot be changed.

Yours sincerely,

John Brace on behalf of Leonora Brace
and John Brace

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Marmaduke says goodbye to Mr Snake and his secrets (Part 2)

Marmaduke says goodbye to Mr Snake and his secrets (Part 2)

                                                

Tales of Marmaduke
Tales of Marmaduke

Continues from Marmaduke and the Ghosts (Part 1).

Mr. Snake had worked at the Squirrel School for a very, very long time. He was now Deputy Headmaster.

He was an unusual character that was often surrounded by clouds of smoke when he was outside the Squirrel School. However what was interesting about Mr. Snake was his secrets.

Either Mr. Snake was very lucky or had a special kind of magic as whenever one of the other staff at the Squirrel School found out about one of his secrets they vanished!

His boss the headmaster Mr. Burger had vanished over Christmas last year. There were many other people that had once worked there, but had left mysteriously once they had discovered a secret of Mr. Snake.

Two visitors to the Squirrel School, an Australian called Mr. Griffin and his friend Mr. Hobgoblin had tried to tell people about Mr. Snake’s secrets.

However many people they told about Mr. Snake’s secrets they didn’t get much further. Mr. Burger just told them they were wrong to say bad things about Mr. Snake.

Others said they didn’t understand the secrets and it was all very sad.

So many spells had been cast on the two ghosts to make them go away that they didn’t know much about Mr. Snake’s secrets.

Eventually Mr Hobgoblin got cross. He felt Mr. Snake wasn’t being fair and had too much power.

So he cast a spell called “I know” which meant the Squirrel School had to tell him Mr. Snake’s secrets.

Mr. Snake asked his good friend Mr. Journey to cast the counter-spell, “No you don’t know” instead.

And so it went on and on for a year until everyone, including those watching were quite exhausted.

ICO then told the Squirrel School to stop being so silly and tell Mr. Hobgoblin Mr Snake’s secrets.

Mr. Snake had had enough and decided it was time to go. Unfortunately his disappearing spell hadn’t worked on Mr. Hobgoblin and Mr. Griffin so he tried it on himself instead!

Marmaduke however felt sorry for Mr. Snake. So he asked his friends in the Red Gang and the Blue Gang to give him 49,000 gold coins and his pension early (at a cost of between 207,000 and 228,000 gold coins).

A promise was made to Mr. Snake that they would tell the ghosts to go away so they wouldn’t know.

However this made one of the ghosts angry, so Mr Journey told the pupils to tell the ghost that he could not talk, to just make an information request and go away!

The Head of the Yellow Gang Mr. Gilbert wasn’t happy with Mr. Snake leaving. He didn’t feel it was right. After all hadn’t Marmaduke told people the Squirrel School didn’t have any money left?

Mr. Snake left and soon found a job elsewhere thanks to his friends.

This story continue with Marmaduke in Going to the Dogs (Part 3).

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Why did Cllr Adrian “Father Christmas” Jones try to block scrutiny of £2.6 million given to Wirral Council to spend on the poor?

Why did Cllr Adrian “Father Christmas” Jones try to block scrutiny of £2.6 million given to Wirral Council to spend on the poor?

                                                

Leonora Brace and Councillor Adrian Jones in Birkenhead Christmas 2013
Leonora Brace and Councillor Adrian Jones in Birkenhead Christmas 2013

As you can see from the photo above (and let’s face it three days away from Christmas this is becoming topical), it’s well-known politician Cllr Adrian Jones dressed as Father Christmas and my wife Leonora Brace.

Yesterday (to my surprise), the Wirral Globe ran a story headlined Councillor scolds Wirral blogger over information requests about expenses. If you hadn’t guessed already, I’m the blogger (also described as online journalist) referred to in the article.

Now firstly, I’ve been taken back by all the positive comments people have left both to that article and on social media. It would probably take Christmas to respond to them all.

Firstly I will take this opportunity to wish Councillor Adrian Jones a happy Christmas. However this story isn’t really about him or myself. It’s a far more complicated saga than that. I’ve replied to a number of comments on social media to try and clarify some of it.

This story came about because of two other people who I am going to take the time to thank in this article (before I write any more about this subject).

Firstly, Heather Brooke (who indeed is somewhat of the inspiration behind the story). Heather Brooke wrote a book called Your Right to Know: a citizen’s guide to the Freedom of Information Act (available to read in Wirral Council’s libraries) and was the person that took to task the House of Commons/House of Lords over MPs’/Lords’ expenses (only to find herself scooped by a leak to the newspapers). She writes a blog here.

The second person I’d like to thank is Ted Jeory. He writes a blog here. His blog covers local politics in Tower Hamlets. He’s a former accountant, then newspaper journalist who now works for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

To be honest with you, in my opinion (although this is only an opinion) they are both far better at journalism than I am!

However back to the story (which isn’t just about Cllr Adrian Jones and myself but this is a good place to start). Before doing what we both do now, Cllr Adrian Jones and I came from the academic world (a somewhat different world to politics).

In the academic world, my question to Cllr Adrian Jones would be like the equivalent of an oral exam where I’ve challenged his more orthodox view of the political world. He’s then disagreed with me over some points and it’s all gone to peer review now and now everyones’ commenting on the merits of each sides’ arguments. Fine, fair enough, that much I can understand and yes there should be a public debate and discussion about politicians’ expenses beyond the walls of Wirral Council’s Council Chamber.

It makes more sense that instead of the Heather Brooke route of 5 years of court battles that it is much more cost-effective (as this is a worry of Cllr Adrian Jones’) to have this debate in the media instead.

The world of politics however is very different to the world of academia. Despite sharing some features in fact they’re like oil and water.

I am now going to sound terribly like an academic now and reference a tweet I wrote yesterday about the new Poor Laws (and by new I mean 1844).

The way I made the request to Wirral Council dates back to this legal right from Victorian times, but is still relevant today. It’s an important right that gives access to local voters (such as myself) on what public money is being spent on. I realise the Wirral Globe headline is about councillors’ expenses, however I will instead highlight another part of the request that probably won’t generate as many headlines in the newspapers. In fact on this topic I can only find one article written two years ago by the Wirral Globe.

I’m going to briefly mention an area that you may not have heard of, that Wirral Council was given a budget of £1,345,925 a year to spend on. It’s called the Local Welfare Assistance Scheme. The whole point of it (rather like the point of the Poor Laws) was to reduce poverty.

Wirral Council invoice Furniture Resource Centre
Wirral Council invoice Furniture Resource Centre

The thumbnail for this invoice will be hard to read (it does link to a higher resolution version), however it’s for a cooker, electric kettle and washing machine (total £778.20). This would have been given to someone who made an application under the scheme. The other invoices are for very similar items too such as microwaves. The whole point of it is to help people in need who are have emergencies. The scheme also covers basics such as food and utilities.

Admittedly there can be a lot of public debate over the best ways to help people and there is a detailed report on this on Wirral Council’s website and there are many party political aspects to this issue that I am trying very hard to avoid dwelling on

You may well say good for Wirral Council, isn’t it great that they spent £1.3 million a year on helping poor people? However this isn’t what happened. As estimated by one councillor at this meeting, Wirral Council so restricted (or didn’t publicise enough) what they were doing, that there was an estimated (this was cumulative so it was over two years) £2.1 million underspend of a £2.6 million budget.

Yes this was money given to Wirral Council for the relief of the poor, on which there was an estimated £2.1 million underspend. Bear in mind we often hear Wirral’s councillors repeat that they feel the government are not giving Wirral Council enough money!

By Cllr Adrian Jones’ logic (in answer to the request I put in), I should be restricted from enquiring and writing questions/requesting the invoices for the above matter because it costs too much (despite an estimated over £2 million underspend).

In doing so (oh dear, I’m about to make what could be construed as a party political point here so advance warning), it makes it far easier for the Conservative government to axe funding for this area (as indeed they have done so already). Why, because if Wirral Council blocks or delays press scrutiny of it, then there is little discussion of it in the media in defence of it.

Therefore national politicians think it can be cut as they look somewhat to the press as an indicator of public opinion.

I know his fellow Labour councillor Cllr Janette Williamson has spoken passionately in defence of her view that the underspend should be used for its intended purpose rather than swallowed up to be spent on something else by Wirral Council.

As it is Christmas, I’ll try and give some respite to Cllr Adrian Jones’ on the rather vexed issue of councillors’ expenses (which is the tip of massive iceberg of Wirral Council expenditure) and finish by making these points which because of the time of year probably fall into religion rather than politics.

I was brought up as a Catholic and part of those teachings are about seeking together the common good and well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable. There are many good things that Wirral Council does, but if you block my queries it makes it more difficult for me to write about it. Personally, it doesn’t bother me too much if you try to block me, but it seems to be unpopular with the people that you are there to serve. To give the Local Welfare Assistance Scheme issue as outlined above, councillor scrutiny on it was done behind closed doors, not in public but as a task and finish group.

The story then sadly becomes about the secrecy (which let’s face it is the kind of story about cover ups the rest of the press like to write about). Frankly if you do this it’s very good for my career and bad for Wirral Council’s reputation (although you know this already). In three days time it will be Christmas (on the day I’m writing this). Christmas is a time of year when society concentrates on the religious and there is a break from politics.

I don’t expect politicians or those working in the public sector to be saints, but I sincerely hope they know the difference between right and wrong (and yes my view of right and wrong is probably slightly different to yours and everybody else’s as right and wrong is subjective).

Although you may not believe this, I don’t wish to quarrel with Wirral Council or its councillors, in fact believe me I try my best not to interfere in your internal affairs. I just see your world from outside the goldfish bowl that is local politics rather than inside. Happy Christmas!

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