EXCLUSIVE: 8 page briefing note leads to Wirral’s councillors agreeing to further FOI discussions behind closed doors

EXCLUSIVE: 8 page briefing note leads to Wirral’s councillors agreeing to further FOI discussions behind closed doors

                                                          

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Councillors discuss Wirral Council’s response to Freedom of Information Act requests at a meeting of the Transformation and Resources Policy and Performance Committee on the 3rd December 2015

Cllr Phil Gilchrist addresses the Transformation and Resources Committee about freedom of information requests 3rd December 2015
Cllr Phil Gilchrist addresses the Transformation and Resources Committee about freedom of information requests 3rd December 2015

Yesterday saw councillors discuss freedom of information requests and how Wirral Council handles them in response to this Lib Dem motion. As a number of the ICO decision notices are in response to my requests, I will declare an interest before writing any further.

Interestingly, the day before the Transformation and Resources Policy and Performance Committee met, Surjit Tour had written an eight page "briefing note" which was referred to by councillors during the debate.

The Conservative amendment to the motion was withdrawn and the Labour amendment to have a task and finish group of councillors meeting to discuss FOI behind closed doors (again) on the subject (in the spirit of openness and transparency of course!) was agreed.

You can watch the video of councillors discussing this item above.

However what will probably make more interesting reading is the briefing note itself which I reproduce below (it’s not published with the papers for the committee or indeed anywhere else). It’s a bit hard to summarise eight pages, but it’s basically eight pages of justification by officers that they’re doing their best they can on FOI (with the promise of improvements) and that it isn’t as bad as the bleak picture as painted by Lib Dem politicians. If the thumbnails are hard to read, they should each link to a more high resolution version of each page.

Surjit Tour briefing note on FOI to Transformation and Resources Policy and Performance Committee page 1 of 8 thumbnail
Surjit Tour briefing note on FOI to Transformation and Resources Policy and Performance Committee page 1 of 8 thumbnail

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Unilever starts construction on North West Innovation Centre aided by £4 million of Regional Growth Fund money

Unilever starts construction on North West Innovation Centre
aided by £4 million of Regional Growth Fund money

                                                   

Construction starts on Unilever's North West Innovation Centre L: Cameron Jones (Port Sunlight site leader) Unilever R: Dave Penrith (Vice President Technology & Engineering) Unilever
Construction starts on Unilever’s North West Innovation Centre L: Cameron Jones (Port Sunlight site leader) Unilever R: Dave Penrith (Vice President Technology & Engineering) Unilever

I rarely write stories based on press releases as churnalism isn’t the purpose of this blog, but this story about Unilever and the £4 million of taxpayers’ money it received for a new Advanced Manufacturing Centre in Port Sunlight is one of those rare exceptions.

Unilever (for those who don’t know) is a major employer on the Wirral and employ at Port Sunlight nearly as many employees as Wirral Council including Wirral Council’s own Cllr Steve Foulkes.

Wirral Council’ Planning Committee met on the 20th August 2015 earlier this year and approved plans for the Advanced Manufacturing Centre and you can view the plans on Wirral Council’s website and video of that meeting below.

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Wirral Council Planning Committee meeting of 20th August 2015 which starts at item 15 (planning application APP/15/00829) Unilever Plc, QUARRY ROAD EAST, BEBINGTON – Proposed combined research and development building with ground & first floor offices, conference facilities, warehousing and pilot plant chamber for R & D projects. Constructed within the existing Unilever campus/site to the south-west of the Port Sunlight conservation area. All associated highway access/egress to remain as existing. The proposed development retains the quantity of vehicle parking facilities, cycle parking and also pedestrian access arrangements on site on completion of this development.

Since the planning application was approved in August, work has recently started (as you can see from the first photo in this article). Unilever has received £4 million of Regional Growth Fund money (which they are matching with their own resources). Both Wirral Council and the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority have a role in the organisations that Regional Growth Fund monies are allocated to.

I recently brought up with the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority’s Audit Committee, that as the LCRCA now has a website that the Local Government Transparency Code 2015 means the LCRCA is required to publish information on its websites about grants over £500 such as Regional Growth Fund money (in fact this is a legal requirement). This was referred to Merseytravel’s Head of Internal Audit, yes the person who referred to some whistleblowing as "Mickey Mouse" and "complete nonsense" so I’m not holding my breath for a quick response!

I also raised it with the LCRCA Monitoring Officer Angela Sanderson. However the same Code apply to Wirral Council too.

Earlier this year, I exercised a right and request to inspect some information during the period over the summer about some of the payments Wirral Council make to businesses relating to the Regional Growth Fund. The regulations required Wirral Council to provide this within the three-week inspection period.

I barely got to see 10% of what I’d requested, not one page of the councillors’ expenses (perhaps a sore topic since publishing these last year) and despite pointing this out to the Monitoring Officer Surjit Tour via email, so far I have just received stony silence.

So that’s why I’m writing about the £4 million Unilever received of Regional Growth Fund based on a press release, because the mandatory openness and transparency that should be there at Wirral Council and the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority over how millions of pounds is spent doesn’t seem to be happening!

I will point out that the LCRCA state that they publish this information on Merseytravel’s website instead, however considering how many payments Merseytravel make over £500, however finding this sort of information is like finding a needle in a haystack!

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Wirral Council invests £38 million in company mired in allegations of bribery of foreign politicians and civil servants

Wirral Council invests £38 million in company mired in allegations of bribery of foreign politicians and civil servants

                                                                    

Pensions Committee (Merseyside Pension Fund) 16th November 2015 L to R Peter Wallach, Cllr Paul Doughty (Chair)
Pensions Committee (Merseyside Pension Fund) 16th November 2015 L to R Peter Wallach, Cllr Paul Doughty (Chair)

Towards the end of the BBC ten o’clock news yesterday evening after the stories about Syria, climate change and the doctors’ strike being called off there was a piece about British American Tobacco.

For those who don’t know Wirral Council (who manage the Merseyside Pension Fund) had (valued at March 2015) £38 million invested in shares in British American Tobacco. In fact it is their largest shareholding (see page 15 here). I will declare an interest as a close relative of mine is paid a pension by the Merseyside Pension Fund.

As the BBC only keep clips of the news available on BBC Iplayer for 24 hours, I felt it would be useful to have a transcript of the piece so that it reached a wider audience.

Huw Edwards: A BBC investigation has uncovered evidence of corruption and bribery at the UK’s fifth biggest company. BBC Panorama found British American Tobacco paid bribes to politicians and civil servants in countries across East Africa.

The illegal payments even undermined a United Nations initiative designed to save lives! The company could face prosecution around the world for failing to prevent bribery. BAT says it does not tolerate corruption.

Our special correspondent Richard Bilton reports.

Richard Bilton: This is northern Uganda, it’s tobacco country. Thousands of farmers work these hills, but there is another way to make money from this crop. We’re on our way to meet a very important man. This is a guy who helps to decide who gets to buy and sell tobacco and what we know about the man we’re on our way to meet is he’s corrupt.

This is Doctor Kasirivu Atwooki and we’ve seen documents that show he was paid $20,000 by BAT to change a parliamentary report. He doesn’t know, I know he’s corrupt.

If an MP, a sitting MP took a bribe, how would you feel about that?

Dr Kasirivu Atwooki: Well, that’s not acceptable.

Richard Bilton: You took a bribe though, didn’t you?

Dr Kasirivu Atwooki: Why should I?

Richard Bilton: You took $20,000 from BAT!

Dr Kasirivu Atwooki: From when?

Richard Bilton: In 2012.

Dr Kasirivu Atwooki: No, no, no, that’s not true!

Richard Bilton: Are you corrupt?

Dr Kasirivu Atwooki: I’m not!

Richard Bilton: The evidence suggests he is and we know because of this man. Paul Hopkins was in the Irish Special Forces before he joined BAT. He says he was told bribery was the cost of doing business in Africa.

Paul Hopkins: I was a commercial hit man. My job was to ensure that the competition never got a breathing space.

Richard Bilton: So BAT, they knew what they wanted you to do and they expected you to get on with it?

Paul Hopkins: Yes.

Richard Bilton: And that included bribing?

Paul Hopkins: Yes.

Richard Bilton: Breaking the law?

Paul Hopkins: Yes.

Richard Bilton: Applying pressure?

Paul Hopkins: Yes.

Richard Bilton: Undermining commercial rivals?

Paul Hopkins: Yes.

Richard Bilton: And you were happy to do that?

Paul Hopkins: Yes.

Richard Bilton: BAT sold 667 billion cigarettes last year and made £4.5 billion profit, but the documents Paul has supplied show employees paid bribes to change anti-tobacco legislation, damage rivals, even undermine the UN effort to save lives.

Bribes were paid to three officials connected to a World Health Organisation supported campaign which aimed to reduce tobacco related deaths. I showed our evidence to the woman who runs the campaign.

Richard Bilton: That’s BAT paying a representative $3,000. What do you feel about that?

Dr Vera Luiza Da Costa E Silva (WHO): It’s a company that is err irresponsible to say the least. It’s using bribery to profit at the cost of people’s lives, simple as that.

Richard Bilton: BAT failed to answer any of our questions directly. Mr Durante? So I caught up with Chief Executive Nicandro Durante as he arrived at work. Sir, can I ask you a quick question? I’m from Panorama, why did you not respond to our emails about bribery? Is that the nature of BAT Sir, that you just put up with bribery?

Richard Bilton: BAT has since told us, the truth is that we do not and will not tolerate corruption no matter where it takes place. Our accusers in this programme left us in acrimonious circumstances and have a vendetta against us. The whistleblower is due to meet investigators from the UK’s Serious Fraud Office this week to discuss the bribery secrets of one of the UK’s biggest companies. Richard Bilton, BBC News.

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In response to a FOI request Wirral Council pulls a rabbit out of a hat and the invoice mysteriously disappears!

In response to a FOI request Wirral Council pulls a rabbit out of a hat and the invoice mysteriously disappears!

                                                                 

John Booth with white rabbit
John Booth with white rabbit

Above is a picture of a magician with the famous white rabbit out of a magician’s hat trick. First the hat is empty, then the magician makes the white rabbit appear out of nowhere.

Wirral Council seem to be wanting to pull a similar magic trick when it comes to this FOI request. Let’s just recap what Wirral Council have stated so far.

On the 21st April 2015 Wirral Council refused this FOI request for the fees notes (note plural) on the basis of legal professional privilege (you can read the full text of that refusal here).

On the 11th June 2015 Wirral Council at internal review refused this FOI request for the fees notes (note plural) on the basis of commercial interests (you can read the full text of that refusal here). At internal review Wirral Council stated "The original responder considered the contents of the fees notes".

On the 27th October the Information Commissioner’s Office issued decision notice FS50585536 which required Wirral Council to produce the fees notes within 35 days.

On the 24th November Wirral Council produced one of the two which you can read about in Why did Wirral Council spend £48,384 on a London-based barrister in benefits battle with landlord?

However yesterday Wirral Council decided to show us all a magic trick.

The fee note for the £2,700 invoice, which they have been claiming for the past nearly nine months has been carefully considered by its officers when refusing this request (twice) has conveniently and somewhat mysteriously vanished.

Yes like the reverse trick of the white rabbit appearing out of nowhere and just when it would be contempt of court not to produce it, it vanishes!

Of course the observant among you will have long witnessed the "magic and miracles" that goes on at Wirral Council by its employees.

ED: 1/12/15 9:49 Just for clarity, here is the invoice this refers to which quite clearly states "See fee note attached for description of work".

I will finish with this clip of Sir Humphrey Appleby from Yes, Prime Minister. Wirral Council’s responses to FOI requests will be discussed by councillors on Thursday evening, in response to this Lib Dem motion.

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