Councillors vote 2:1 to hold meeting about complaint about Cllr Reecejones in private
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After the bizarre scenes last year at a public meeting of the Standards Panel where the press were barred from the meeting there was another meeting of Wirral Council’s Standards Panel yesterday.
Unusually, in addition to ourselves there were around a dozen members of the public behind us.
The meeting started with Surjit Tour asking for nominations for Chair. Cllr Chris Blakeley nominated Cllr Phil Gilchrist, this was seconded by Cllr Moira McLaughlin. There were no other nominations for Chair.
The Chair then asked for declarations of interest.
Cllr Moira McLaughlin stated (pointing out it was not a pecuniary interest) that at some point in the past she had had a conversation with one of the Complainants, but that it had been in the presence of Surjit Tour and having taken advice from Surjit Tour that it didn’t prejudice her taking part in the hearing.
The Chair explained that item 3 set out the Code of Conduct and the protocol used for determining complaints.
Item 4 on the agenda was the proposed exclusion of the press and public. The Chair referred to the reports and appendices. There was the investigator’s report and appendices that included an internal audit report.
Then he said they needed to consider the principle of how much of the meeting to have in public, whether it should all be in public, whether part of it should be in public and whether documentation could be released.
He asked Mr. Tour (Monitoring Officer) for advice on these issues.
Mr. Tour said that part of the process was to consider whether it was a matter to be considered in exempt session or in part or in full in open session.
In his view the appendices referred to, in relation to the investigator’s report did contain personal information and third-party information relating to individuals which had not been redacted. The version in the private document pack was the full details and unredacted version of those appendices. In light of the fact that they contained personal information, his advice was that those appendices are not disclosed into the public domain and that the Standards Panel should move the exemption in relation to those specific appendices.
However Mr Tour continued in saying that the investigator’s report had been written in a way that allowed it to be released into the public domain, if the Standards Panel was so minded, in that personal information did not appear in it and that the information in it had been anonymised.
With regards to the issue of whether the proceedings about the investigator’s report should be held in private or in open session, Mr Tour said that in light of the fact that some of the information the Panel would consider is in relation to the report and appendices and the appendices contain personal information, his advice would be that the matter be heard in private session, in order to fully explore all elements of the evidence in relation to the matter.
He said that the Standards Panel was required to consider in all circumstances of the case, the public interest in maintaining the exemption and whether that outweighed the public interest in disclosing the information.
Mr Tour said that those were the Standards Panel’s options.
The Chair said that it was his opinion that the investigator’s report should be made public at “an appropriate time” after checking to see if there were any aspects that might need to be redacted. He had read all the appendices and was conscious that there were certain things that might identify individuals or families and comments made about families, but that he’d like to hear other Panel Members’ views on it being held in public. He said that there was an interest in the case by the public, however if they were to have frank discussions, it may be difficult to have those discussions in public. He wanted to hear the views of the members of the Panel surrounding those issues asking Cllr Moira McLaughlin first.
Cllr Moira McLaughlin said she agreed with the Chair that they’d get a better picture of what the situation was if they could have open conversations and they wouldn’t be able to do that unless they passed the exemption. She was happy with the investigator’s report being made public after the Standards Panel meeting had finished. Cllr McLoughlin said that the outcome of the Standards Panel would have to be reported to the Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee which would meet in public at some future point. She agreed with the Chair that they move the exemption.
The Chair then asked Cllr Chris Blakeley for his opinion. He said he disagreed with the Head of Law [Surjit Tour] and Cllr McLaughlin. He said that it had generated a lot of public interest and he believed it should be heard in the public domain. Cllr Blakeley had heard what the Head of Law said about the appendices, but that they could be made public with redactions. He believed the investigator’s report should be made public, but that it was in the public interest that they were seen to be open and transparent and that the Standards Panel carried it out in open session with no exemption.
Cllr Phil Gilchrist said he had considered the points raised and had been pondering on them for several days and the issue was maintaining public confidence in their system. In his view the public were interested that they had a system that listens to cases “fortunately very rarely” and that this was only the second case the Standards Panel had considered. He was anxious that as much as possible should be open, but he’d thought carefully about what might be censored in open proceedings, not because they wanted to hide anything, but that it had become a very fraught and difficult matter having read the correspondence.
In his view they were more likely to be able to probe thoroughly if the proceedings were in private, but he was assisted that a redacted version of the investigator’s report should be made public as quickly as possible after the proceedings. Also he felt the conclusion should be published as quickly as possible and made available. He wasn’t clear what date the Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee might meet, that the decision of the Standards Panel might go to. Having heard Cllr Blakeley’s plea for openness, he said that they had to exercise a degree of caution, but to publish the investigator’s report as soon as possible but have the proceedings in private.
He asked Cllr Chris Blakeley if he wished to have a vote on it. Cllr Chris Blakeley indicated that he would.
From the Chair, Cllr Phil Gilchrist moved that proceedings continue in exempt session, but that as soon as practicable or possible, Wirral Council publishes the investigator’s report and the decision and ensure that it’s appropriately publicised.
Cllr Chris Blakeley asked if the Chair could take that in two parts, because he agreed with the second part, but not with it being in private session.
The Chair said that he was happy to take it in two parts. He first asked for a vote on whether to hold the proceedings entirely in public. He moved from the Chair, that in those circumstances they would hold discussions in private. Cllr Moira McLaughlin seconded that.
Cllr Chris Blakeley said he would vote against that and asked for his vote to be recorded in the minutes.
Cllrs Gilchrist and McLaughlin voted in favour, Cllr Blakeley against, so the motion to hold the rest of the meeting in private was agreed on a majority of two votes in favour with one against.
The Chair said that the second issue was about publication, he thought that the Panel agreed that the investigator’s report should be published as quickly as possible if necessary with redactions, but redactions to be kept to a minimum so that the flow wasn’t disturbed but he understood that certain individuals may have to have their identity protected or aspects of their case examined. He trusted that could be done without losing what was in it?
Mr Tour said that releasing the report could be done “fairly quickly”, but the redactions to the appendices may take more time. So if the Panel was content with the report being released in Mr Tour’s opinion it could be done in the next few days.
If the Panel approved the procedure today, then the redactions to the appendices would take place and they would be released as soon as practicable.
The Chair asked Mr Tour for timescales for that and asked for a limit?
Mr Tour said two weeks from tomorrow [tomorrow being the 16th June 2017].
Mr Tour was asked if this was in reference to the appendices to which he answered yes.
The Chair asked about the internal audit report which was one of the appendices?
Mr Tour answered that it was one of the appendices so was included as part of the redactions. Once the decision was complete he said they could share the investigator’s report, once the decision was finalised in reference to publication which he anticipated would be done by early mid-week.
The Chair thanked him for his advice. He said that they had come to a majority view that the public and press should be excluded, he was conscious from where he was sitting that there were a number of members of the public, but it was a matter that they had thought about and they hadn’t taken the decision lightly. He respectfully asked the members of the public not taking part to leave. Cllr Gilchrist was grateful for their presence and assured them that a decision would be communicated as quickly as possible.
The Chair wanted to identify all those round the table to show that they were a party to discussions. He was taking it that anyone sitting on the rows in the public gallery are members of the public and not part of their discussions.
Mr Tour said they need to clarify the role of individuals and if they were to move from the public gallery to the table.
The Chair said he would just clarify that because of the movement of people. He was going to go round the table and establish who everyone is, because he only knew Cllr Louise Reecejones and the sign language interpreters.
Cllr Gilchrist pointed out that he was quietly spoken, genuinely quietly spoken and wore a hearing aid and that he had difficulty hearing certain things. In the proceedings he would endeavour to keep his voice as clear and thoughtful as possible, he would ask everybody taking part to speak as clearly as possible. That was to ensure all involved and all members of the Panel could hear proceedings.
If documents or pages were referred to, he asked to give people time to find those. He said he would start with the sign language interpreter. Cllr Gilchrist asked if he had been speaking at a speed that helps? He asked if Cllr Louise Reecejones could clearly see the sign language interpreter to take account of what the interpreter was interpreting for the Chair?
Cllr Louise Reecejones said that she could see the sign language interpreter clearly but she only had vision in one eye so she might ask for breaks.
The Chair asked if she wished to move so she could clearly see?
She answered that she could clearly see, but it was a long time to watch interpreters.
The Chair asked for Cllr Louise Reecejones to give an indication if she had difficulty, in which case the Panel could have rest periods if that was polite or short breaks. He said that if there was a point that she was flagging and it was difficult, if she could kindly indicate and let the Panel know so that they would know she needs that time.
Cllr Louise Reecejones said she would, but that they would usually see her eyes water. The Chair asked her to just indicate.
The Chair asked to go round the table starting with the sign language interpreter and to establish who all the citizens were.
The sign language interpreter said that she and Claire were interpreters this evening and that they were both interpreters.
The Chair asked for names.
[Apologies if some of the names that follow are misspelt].
The sign language interpreter said she was Rose Hart and Claire answered that her name was Claire O’Donoghue. The Chair thanked them both and said that when people were taking part it was more courteous to address people by name.
The next two were Tamsin Coates (Complainant) and Catherine Griffiths. The Chair asked for a moment to scribble the names down. Jessica Smythe said she was one of the complainants followed by Nicki Evans.
Then there was Jean Robinson of Overchurch Residents Association. Cllr Moira McLaughlin asked for her role.
Jean said she was the Chair of Overchurch Residents Association.
Cllr Moira McLaughlin said it was Nicki’s role she hadn’t caught.
Nicki Evans said she was there to support Jessica [Smythe].
Jean Robinson said that she was the Chair of the Overchurch Residents Association who were one of the Complainants.
The Chair asked for her name again to which she answered Jean Robinson.
Next to Jean was Maria Partner (Residents Association and Complainant) followed by Jean Hartley (Overchurch Residents Association).
The Chair said that from memory all the people and bodies were all referred to in the documentation in some form or another.
Next to speak was Alison Lowton the external investigator, the Chair welcomed her.
Professor Ronald Jones introduced himself as the independent person. The Chair said there was a point in the procedure when Professor Jones would be invited to comment and take part.
Councillor Reecejones introduced herself as a councillor for Pensby and Thingwall ward. The Chair asked if people were happy with him using their Christian names?
Next to Councillor Reecejones was Alison Spencer-Square who described herself as a companion for Cllr Reecejones.
The Chair asked if Shirley Hudspeth had caught her surname? She said it was Spencer-Square and Shirley Hudspeth asked her to write it down.
The Chair said that they’d established that all the people round the table were involved in matters and would take part and were going to give information or support each other, he believed that all was left in the public gallery were members of the public. He explained that they had taken a decision to hold the proceedings in private, a majority decision of the Panel, he therefore asked the public to leave. He thanked the public for their attendance.
The public left and the meeting continued in private.
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