WIRRAL COUNCIL goes to the dentist: a short play about FOI and local government
The below is written in memory of my late Great-Uncle Joe who before he retired taught dentistry. I am currently writing an e-book about freedom of information of which the below is an excerpt.
WIRRAL COUNCIL, a "most improved" Council is in the dentists’ chair looking worried.
Hovering above the patient in the dentists’ chair is MR BRACE, the dentist. Every tooth of WIRRAL COUNCIL he has taken out before is displayed proudly in a cabinet in the waiting area and visitors leave comments about them.
WIRRAL COUNCIL (mumbling and looking worried): You want to take my teeth out, again!? So the public can look at my teeth!?
MR BRACE: Only some of them, don’t worry you’ll grow new ones! Or I could take X-rays of them instead?
WIRRAL COUNCIL (mumbling): I’ll have to think about this and get back to you in twenty working days.
Twenty working days pass. Nothing happens. MR BRACE phones WIRRAL COUNCIL.
MR BRACE: You said you’d get back to me!
WIRRAL COUNCIL (alarmed): Sorry, it will all cost too much and end up taking over 18 and a half hours of my time! (slams the phone down)
MR BRACE rings WIRRAL COUNCIL again.
WIRRAL COUNCIL (even more alarmed): Sorry now you’re just being… vexatious! (slams the phone down again)
MR BRACE rings ICO and tells them what happened.
A year later WIRRAL COUNCIL rings the dentist.
WIRRAL COUNCIL: Sorry I’ve changed my mind you’re not being vexatious, but it’ll still cost too much!
ICO after a year of scratching their head tell WIRRAL COUNCIL it won’t cost too much.
WIRRAL COUNCIL takes some of its teeth out (reluctantly) and hands them to the dentist. It claims despite conducting a thorough search of its own mouth, that the teeth it thought it had, and claimed it had and had been telling everyone it used for chewing food for two years, aren’t actually there.
It tells MR BRACE and ICO that he cannot have the other teeth because they contain "personal data" and after consulting its solicitor that to hand over some teeth would be "prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs".
MR BRACE asks WIRRAL COUNCIL to think again. WIRRAL COUNCIL says no, so he asks ICO.
WIRRAL COUNCIL (after trying to ignore MR BRACE) tells him and ICO that MR. BRACE is being vexatious and he can have no more of its teeth.
Then WIRRAL COUNCIL changes its mind and over two years after this saga started, hands over one more of its teeth (but with bits blacked out). Eventually it removes the blacked out bits.
ICO tell WIRRAL COUNCIL it is being very naughty with MR BRACE, feels sorry for Wirral Council so it let’s it keep one tooth, but also says to stop calling MR BRACE vexatious. ICO asks WIRRAL COUNCIL to provide a fresh response.
WIRRAL COUNCIL doesn’t like this!
WIRRAL COUNCIL just refers MR BRACE and ICO to its earlier decisions.
MR BRACE contacts ICO again. However ICO conveniently lose what most of what MR BRACE told them.
ICO tell WIRRAL COUNCIL once again it is wrong, ICO tell WIRRAL COUNCIL to hand over two more of its teeth.
MR BRACE thinks the whole thing (now lasting over 3 years) is getting very silly indeed!
So he asks for a meeting, where independent people at a "Tribunal" can decide whether WIRRAL COUNCIL should have to hand over its teeth (whether blacked out or not).
WIRRAL COUNCIL hands over two more of its teeth, again with bits blacked out.
WIRRAL COUNCIL hires a barrister to plead with the Tribunal to help keep its teeth.
ICO says its not going to come to such a meeting about WIRRAL COUNCIL‘s teeth but sends a written response.
A hearing date is set (16th June 2016 starting at 10:00am at The Employment Tribunal, 3rd Floor, Civil & Family Court, 35 Vernon Street, Liverpool, L2 2BX) and the rest is yet to be decided!
But why is making a simple FOI request like pulling teeth?
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Who wouldn’t want you to read this story about the election of 4 Wirral councillors?
Who wouldn’t want you to read this story about the election of 4 Wirral councillors?
George Orwell “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”
This is a tale of power, money, elections and the public right to know. What happens next following this is a reflection of the society we all live in. I strongly suspect that very little will result. I’ve used my editorial independence to write this as my conscience is clear if these matters are in the public domain.
I would like to point out that until recent years the chairs of committees at Wirral Council were shared across the political parties. Labour however decided in the recent past that they wanted to keep the power that rests with chairs to themselves. Therefore that is the reason why all the main characters in this are Labour politicians. It’s nothing personal and I have no axe to grind against the Labour Party.
Like all good stories this tale indeed starts well before the election started. However, we will skip ahead to the beginning of the elections in 2016.
All candidates have to fill out what are termed nomination papers and deliver these nomination papers to Wirral Council by a deadline to be included in the election. The four candidates this tale (who were each elected as councillors) are Anita Leech, Janette Williamson, Mike Sullivan & Bill Davies (real name William Davies).
During the election (but not now after the result is declared) you have a legal right to inspect the nomination papers and request copies. I requested these 4 nomination papers from the Returning Office Eric Robinson.
In addition to the nomination papers, in order to be a valid and legal nomination various pieces of legislation need to be attached too. These pieces of legislation deal with who is disqualified from being elected. I presume the point of having to attach these for a valid nomination is to prevent candidates and agents at a later date claiming ignorance of what they mean.
The declaration they each have to sign (which also has to be witnessed) states the following,
“I declare that to the best of my knowledge and belief I am not disqualified for being elected by reason of any disqualification set out in, or decision made under, section 80 of the Local Government Act 1972, section 78A of the Local Government Act 2000 or section 34 of the Localism Act 2011 (copies of which are printed overleaf), and I do not hold a politically restricted post, within the meaning of Part 1 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989, under a local authority, within the meaning of that Part.”
The nomination papers of each candidate are linked to at the end of this article.
The first part of section 80 declares:
“ 80 Disqualifications for election and holding office as member of local authority.
(1) Subject to the provisions of section 81 below, a person shall be disqualified for being elected or being a member of a local authority … if he—
(a) holds any paid office or employment (other than the office of chairman, vice-chairman or deputy chairman [or, in the case of a local authority which are operating executive arrangements which involve a leader and cabinet executive, the office of executive leader or member of the executive]) appointments [or elections] to which are or may be made or confirmed by the local authority or any committee or sub-committee of the authority or by a joint committee [or National Park authority] on which the authority are represented or by any person holding any such office or employment; or
So what does that mean? Well he above also means she, but the employment bit means councillors cannot also be employees of Wirral Council as it represents a conflict of interest. Section 81 provides an exception for teachers and other people employed by schools (who are technically classed as local council employees) to be elected as councillors.
As you can see from the above, any Leader of a Council or Cabinet Member is also not excluded from being elected on those grounds.
Edited: 9/5/16 It’s been pointed out that s.80(1)(a) is open to different interpretations and chairman could be interpreted as all people with the title of Chair or just the Chair of Wirral Council (the Mayor). The guidance the Electoral Commission produce for Returning Officers on the matter is here and makes it very clear about the disqualification of candidates represented on outside bodies. That guidance however makes it clear that the relevant dates about disqualification (as determined in previous legal cases) are the date of nomination and the date of election.
Each of the four candidates I name above were at the time of their nomination and election holders of paid office at Wirral Council. I outline below which paid offices they held and the annual amounts they received. These are additional allowances in addition to the basic allowances they receive as councillors.
Anita Leech – Chair of the Planning Committee (£4,585) Janette Williamson – Chair of the Transformation and Resources Policy and Performance Committee (£4,585) Mike Sullivan – Chair of the Regeneration and Environment Policy and Performance Committee (£4,585) Bill Davies – Chair of the Licensing, Health and Safety and General Purposes Committee (£4,585) and Chair of the Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee (£1,375).
None of these four individual resigned their chairs before the date they were elected and they continue receiving allowances for these at the time of writing.
I presume the whole point of this is to ensure a level playing field and free, fair and open elections. After all if one candidate can turn round and say “Vote for me, I’m Chair of the Planning Committe” and in theory use their taxpayer funded paid office to pay for their election expenses is that fair?
The observant among you will have already realised that the above disqualification also rules out those councillors representing the Council on outside bodies (off the top of my head the Police and Crime Panel, the Merseytravel Committee (or other committees of the Combined Authority) and the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority) are a few that I could name.
However I am not covering these here and it’s up to you the reader if you wish to explore whether any candidates in the election would seem to be disqualified on these grounds.
So what you may say? Even if the above four resigned, that would leave 35 Labour councillors and only 27 opposition councillors. As I say, I haven’t considered whether any candidates would be disqualified on any other grounds and as the deadline for submitting election expenses is a month away I haven’t inspected the declared election spending of candidates too.
However as the public have a right to know, here are the nomination papers of the four candidates I have named above.
Obviously the individuals (and their agents) have some unanswered questions as to whether they knew the above at the time of their nomination. It is only however my job to observe this anomaly and report on it, rather than be in a position to take action to resolve the matter one way or another.
The nomination papers are multi-page TIFF files as these were the format supplied by Wirral Council. I have not converted them to image files that can be read by a browser as I felt it best to leave them as they originally were.
I will end this with a big caveat, the above is merely how it seems from here. The people named could be totally ignorant of what disqualifies people from being a councillor (which would seem to be a difficult position to maintain as they had to include the legislation with their nomination papers). I could be wrong and the above could just be an arcane legal point.
What is the Willy Wonka metaphor for the election of 23 Wirral councillors?
I’m going to use a rather strange metaphor to describe the last set of Wirral Council elections, which may seem odd to start with.
It’s a scene from the film version (called Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) of the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Sadly I couldn’t find an HD version that includes the part before they enter the tunnel and just after as the lower quality versions don’t have the same impact. This is from the 1971 version (I’m showing my years now), not the 2005 remake with Johnny Depp.
The background to the scene (apologies here if you are familiar with the book or film for telling you what you already know) is that each of the children have won a golden ticket to tour Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory accompanied by one family member. All of them, along with Willy Wonka at the head of the boat are travelling in a paddle boat paddled by some Oompa-Loompas down a river of chocolate.
Just as at the start of every election everything seems rosy and wonderful and things are going to get better, then the boat enters the tunnel.
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The tunnel scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Inside the tunnel, people on the boat are scared and frightened by the scenes that are displayed on the wall of the tunnel and some want the journey to stop. I might point out that people in an election vote for irrational reasons, which is why fear (of what’ll happen if they vote for the “wrong” candidate or party) works so well.
Some of the people on the boat think Willy Wonka played by Gene Wilder has lost the plot and don’t know how to react to what he says (or sings).
The boat abruptly stops at the end (the end of the election in this metaphor) and they find everything is back to normal and they are outside the Invention Room.
So (as all Roald Dahl stories have hidden meanings), I look forward to people’s interesting comments identifying who the people in this metaphor represent and what I truly mean!
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