A farce at Wirral Council’s public question time (Act 2, Scene 1) Is Wirral Council “open and transparent”?
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Wirral Council’s Public Question Time 14th December 2015
Before I write about the question I asked of Councillor Adrian Jones at public question time, I am going to explain some of the legal background, what’s happened so far and why there are echoes of the extreme lengths that the former Speaker of the House of Commons Michael Martin went to over MPs’ expenses.
There are a number of different laws (and a bit of history) here that apply to this, so I am going to start by explaining my understanding of them and explain why Cllr Adrian Jones has unfortunately fallen into the trap of believing things officers tell him and also getting bamboozled by some of the legal jargon. Here is a link to a transcript of a previous answer he gave.
I’m a local government elector here on the Wirral (basically that means I get to vote in elections to Wirral Council).
Each year, during the audit there is a period of about three weeks when local government electors have a legal right to inspect and receive free copies of accounts to be audited and copies of all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts relating to them.
Wirral Council can remove any details of employees, but has to seek the external auditor’s permission (in this case Grant Thornton) to remove anything else.
This is detailed in this piece of legislation Audit Commission Act 1998, s.15.
Once the inspection period ends, there is then a period when questions can be asked of the auditor followed by a period when formal objections can be raised or requests for a public interest report.
In case Wirral Council thinks I’m picking on it, this year I made requests to Merseytravel (part of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority), Merseyside Waste Disposal Authority (also called Merseyside Recycling and Waste Authority), Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority and Liverpool City Council.
Each of those other bodies managed to respond and provide the information for inspection more or less within the inspection period.
Two of these authorities (Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority and Merseyside Waste Disposal Authority) provided some of what I requested in electronic format.
For example this one contract that MFRA (Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority) has that comes to over 11,000 A4 pages I could’ve requested in paper format, but didn’t as I was quite happy to receive it on one DVD as opposed to three large boxes of paperwork. The £1.2 billion contract that Merseyside Waste Disposal Authority provided is over 800 pages long.
Wirral Council however decided that providing me with what I’d estimate at 10% of what I asked for was reasonable. It’s not!
These other public bodies I refer to are much smaller (in terms of staff and budget) than Wirral Council, yet by being flexible saved to give the example as outlined above the internal costs of copying a contract of over 11,000 pages in length. Had I requested such a contract from Wirral Council I would still be waiting as they would insist on supplying it in paper format!
So getting back to what I did request. I requested the 44 page contract that Wirral Council has for providing taxi services to councillors, the Highway Services Contract with BAM Nuttall (you can read the first 83 pages here) Wirral Council spend roughly £5 to £6 million a year on this and the contract variations to the Biffa contract (I’m still waiting for the latter).
In addition to this I requested various invoices and to inspect the councillors’ expenses (I haven’t seen any of the latter and received about one in ten of the former).
To give an example of some of the invoices I requested, it answered the details of Wirral Council spending ~£7.2 million on agency staff/consultants as opposed to hiring to these positions. It showed that in one case Wirral Council made a senior member of staff redundant, then hired agency staff (at a vastly increased cost) to do their job. You can view some of the invoices relating to that here.
There are other categories of public expenditure that I requested from Wirral Council that are in the public’s interest to know about too.
Indeed, Wirral Council’s Cabinet itself has referred to this blog in its decision making. The