Posted by: John Brace | 18th February 2020

Is Wirral Council deliberately trying to kill off any transparency about elections?

Is Wirral Council deliberately trying to kill off any transparency about elections?

                                             

By John Brace – Local Government Editor

Since the fiasco where Wirral Council decided to black out from the inspection copies all details of donations to political campaigns (rather than just the home addresses of individual donors contrary to Electoral Commission guidance) I’d decided instead during an inspection (which is free) to take my own copies as it saves 20 pence a page and having to ask Wirral Council to do it again after it gets done wrong the first time (which is annoying).

The legislation about this (to me) seemed exceedingly clear and somewhat not open to interpetation but for clarity states,

Copies of documents
7 (1) Where a document is made available for inspection under these Regulations, any person may make a copy (whether hand-written or by other means) of the whole or any part of it.
….
Return and declaration of election expenses
10.—(1) For the purpose of section 75(3) of the 1983 Act, the form of the return of election expenses shall be in Form C and the form of the declaration as to election expenses shall be in Form D.

(2) (repealed)

(3) The price of a copy of any such return, declaration or document shall be at the rate of 20p* for each side of each page.”

*this is the prescribed fee referred to in s.89(1)(b) of the Representation of the People Act 1983 (see below) where appropriate officer means Returning Officer.

89 Inspection of returns and declarations.

(1) Where the appropriate officer receives any return or declaration under section 75, 75A, 81 or 82 above he shall—

(b)if requested to do so by any person, and on payment of the prescribed fee, supply that person with a copy of the return or declaration and any accompanying documents.

 

So there I was taking photos of the documents during an inspection of the 2019 general election expense returns (as I have for the past at least seven years that have led to stories such as Frank Field’s election campaign spent £254.40 on balloon gas but what else was money spent on? and Should Frank Field have declared £2,000 USDAW donation to his 2017 General Election campaign in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests?).

Kate Robinson (Wirral Council) 2nd September 2015

Kate Robinson (Wirral Council) 2nd September 2015

In comes Kate Robinson (pictured above who is appointed by all Wirral Council councillors as the Electoral Registration Officer for Birkenhead, Wallasey, Wirral West and Wirral South constituencies).

She says to us both “You know the rules!” (so the legislation is read out to her) followed by her saying “Don’t quote the legislation to me!”

She demands that I delete the photos on the camera (when she doesn’t get her way on this) she takes away the inspection copies (before it is finished) and announces her intention to lock them in a safe.

So again – if I can get this straight – at Wirral Council (uniquely it seems) English law just means whatever a Wirral Council employee says it does (which is odd as I thought interpretation was generally a function reserved to the judiciary)?

Also somewhat ironically the law I thought that allowed me to take copies during an inspection (although according to Wirral Council does not) was introduced by the last Labour government and this is a minority Labour controlled Council.

I asked the Electoral Commission for their view on the above (I was referred to 2.34 of their published guidance), which unfortunately is silent on the issue of making copies during an inspection.

A few years ago I reported on an Employment Tribunal – the decision runs to 20 pages. In it there was judicial criticism of Kate Robinson’s management style that is referred to in that judgement as “poor management” and “rather crass”.

You’d also think that having declared a climate crisis Wirral Council would appreciate a solution that uses less paper and ties up less staff time.

So I’m curious – what do people think? Please leave a comment and let me know!

If you click on any of the buttons below, you’ll be doing me a favour by sharing this article with other people.


Responses

  1. A copy is a copy regardless of means of production.

    Saving the environment is of paramount importance.

    • Thanks for that comment John.

      You’re right that behaving in an environmentally sustainable manner is important. However regarding elections though – Wirral Council employees are personally appointed to positions such as Returning Officer or Electoral Registration Officer which they are paid extra for as they are then supposed to be personally accountable (but in that capacity they are outside the management structure of Wirral Council to prevent interference in the running of elections).

      • That is not my meaning, though.

        Regardless of position and responsibilities, the law must be considered carefully and acted upon.

        What does the Act mean with regards to copy and is WMBC being reasonable?

        • Thanks John.

          As far as I see it (apologies if this was unclear) – the Act (Representation of the People Act 1983) means if you request a copy from the Returning Officer (note different person to Kate Robinson above) there can be a charge made (of 20p/page).

          My view of the regulations (different legislation) up to this point which is not meant as legal advice (and I’ll point out that I’m not stating that’s Kate’s view) was that in addition to that that copies could be made during an inspection under different legislation.

  2. Enquire of Council what it considers to be different between copying by phone and copying by Council owned machine. It is possible to purchase a small photocopier that may be carried in a small bag. Would that be permissible?

    • Thanks for that comment.

      I was copying with a camera that is about the size of my hand.

      Liverpool City Council didn’t allow me to take copies during an inspection of local government candidate nomination papers either – instead insisting I buy copes from them at 10 pence a page.

      • As I have implied – when is a copy not a copy and how may it be taken? What would be the difference between the use of a Council-owned/rented machine or one of one’s own?

        • Difference is if the Council does it they incur the cost of paper, staff time and equipment costs in copying.

          A copy isn’t a chargeable copy if according to s.89 it’s not been made after a request for the copy has first been made to the Returning Officer and after payment has been made.

  3. This is Wirral Council we are talking about, and they seem to make their own rules up as they go,
    Said it before and will say it again, Boris needs to get rid of Councils!

    I have notice over the last few weeks repairs to roads, lamps etc has stopped, so no money left in the kitty

  4. Well done with your efforts, John B. It does not matter which Council it is or which officer you are dealing with. They are all aware that 95% of the time they can get away with anything.
    Neither does it matter what the law says because no one takes the authority to court. And if you complain to one of the regulatory bodies then they are generally useless. I see that the Electoral Commission have been of no help.

    It may be that Merseyside councils are worse than others, but possibly it is the same in most areas.

    • Thanks for your comment.

      You are right that the vast majority of people won’t hold councils to account through starting a legal case (partly because councils have effectively unlimited funds to spend on legal representation plus a large number of in house solicitors).

      • I think that most people are scared of going to a solicitor as they may end up with a big bill and little else.
        There is also a suspicion that courts will tend to believe and side with ‘authority’.

        • Thanks for your comment.

          It doesn’t seem to bother people with deep enough pockets to pay the bills of both sides and court costs (win or lose).

          But sometimes “test” cases have to be brought to clarify matters (especially if the legislation is recent) as there is no existing authority.

          That’s why it was so interesting when Employment Tribunal fees were abolished and refunded retrospectively after the Supreme Court case.

          However court/tribunal fees are only part of what factors into peoples’ assessment of the merits of starting or defending a case.

          • I did not know that Employment Tribunal fees had been abolished. As you know, from your own experience, there were already no fees for things like the Information Tribunal.

            Though there will, as you say, be other factors, the cost must be the biggest factor that deters people from going to court. Most people will be wary of what a solicitor might charge even if it never gets to court. And if is in any way a ‘test case’ or one that challenges the decision of an authority, then there is a big risk of having a huge amount of costs awarded against you if the judge decides in favour of the authority.

            • Thanks for your comment.

              The reason for no fees at the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) and appeals to the Upper Tribunal (Administrative Appeals Chamber) is because roughly 8-9% of information requests are classed as environmental information.

              The international treaty (Aarhus Convention) requires access to justice regarding these rights to be free of charge or inexpensive.

              The problem is that any FTT fee or Upper Tribunal fee that’s not free could be argued that it’s not “inexpensive” as it depends not just on the financial circumstances of the person involved but whether it would also deter a person from using the justice system to enforce such rights.

              However that is not to say that a future legal reform could just make the EIR cases free and charge for FOI – in fact I think FOI cases in the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court already attract court fees (just not many cases get that far).

              • Thank you for the information. You are certainly an expert on this!!!


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