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The Conservative amendment to the motion was withdrawn and the Labour amendment to have a task and finish group of councillors meeting to discuss FOI behind closed doors (again) on the subject (in the spirit of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

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

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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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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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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Wirral councillors agree 2 new policies on attendance management and discipline

Wirral councillors agree 2 new policies on attendance management and discipline

Wirral councillors agree 2 new policies on attendance management and discipline

                                               

Councillors at Monday night’s Council meeting approved two Human Resources policies (apart from the Mayor who abstained and Cllr Pat Cleary who voted against). These were the Human Resources Policy Update (including revised Disciplinary Policy and Procedure) and the Attendance Management Policy.

Approval of the Attendance Management Policy led to this exchange between Conservative Leader Cllr Jeff Green and the Labour Chair of the Transformation and Resources Policy and Performance Committee Cllr Janette Williamson.

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Councillor Jeff Green asks a question about a letter from UNISON at the Wirral Council meeting on the 12th October 2015
Councillor Jeff Green asks a question about a letter from UNISON at the Wirral Council meeting on the 12th October 2015

Cllr Jeff Green: Mr Mayor, am I allowed to ask a question on that particular item? I was just wondering as UNISON have written to me about this, I just wanted to know what the current position is.

Mayor Cllr Les Rowlands: Cllr Green, would you like to ask your question now?

Cllr Jeff Green: Yes Mr Mayor, the question is relatively straightforward. I’ve been written to, probably other colleagues have been written to by UNISON around the Attendance Management Policy and so on and I just wondered whether the Chair can update us on where we are with that letter and our discussions with the trade unions?

Councillor Janette Williamson responds to a question from Cllr Jeff Green at the Wirral Council meeting of the 12th October 2015 about UNISON
Councillor Janette Williamson responds to a question from Cllr Jeff Green at the Wirral Council meeting of the 12th October 2015 about UNISON

Cllr Janette Williamson (Chair of the Transformation and Resources Policy and Performance Committee): Well, firstly Jeff you did have a chance to ask your question before but chose not to do so. You had a chance to ask a Chair’s question before but chose not to do so.

This went before the Committee and received all party approval when it went there. We did have a request from a member of UNISON beforehand to attend and for him to ask a question and he decided not to errm on the night of that. It’s been agreed by the Committee and passed by every Member.


Here are links to the new policies on Wirral Council’s website.

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