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Council (Extraordinary) (Wirral Council) 30th April 2013 | Revisions to the Constitution | Cllr Blakeley “Where will it end, what next? Will Wirral be twinned with Pyongyang?”
The Mayor thanked Cllr Harney, he asked councillors to keep their speeches to three minutes so that everyone who wanted to could have a say.
Cllr Blakeley said he would stick to three minutes. He said that twelve years ago when the Cabinet form of local government had been started, there was a select committee for each portfolio. This was so there would be no overlap and Cabinet Members were invited along to be asked questions, he said “everything seemed to work ok”.
These were deemed to be “too unwieldy” and “taking too much of officer’s time” so they were reduced to six, although there were some overlapping responsibilities it “was in the main manageable and workable”. Now they [the Labour administration] wanted to cut six committees to three, which Cllr Blakeley regarded as “extremely dangerous”. Cllr Blakeley referred to the Children and Young Peoples Overview and Scrutiny Committee and high-profile cases that had happened in other Boroughs such as Victoria Climbié and Baby P.
He asked them not to forget the overcharging of vulnerable adults on Wirral. He said the new committee would have to “scrutinise these two vast departments”. Cllr Blakeley said, “This is typical of Labour’s control freak dictatorial ‘We know what’s best’ capacity”.
He said that Area Forums made a difference by “giving local people a real opportunity to have a say”, “yet here we have Labour wanting to grab power back to the centre” and that the new constituency committees would be given a “token amount of funding” far less than the funding to the Area Forums they replaced. Cllr Blakeley said it was a “failure to understand what people of this Borough want”.
On the changes to Council meeting procedures, he said if it went through it would “effectively gag councillors from debate in the Council Chamber and put even greater power in Labour’s hands”. Cllr Blakeley said, “Sadly tonight Mr. Mayor, we are witnessing the destruction of the last vestiges of democracy in Wirral and the residents of this Borough will be ruled by a controlling, tyrannical Labour Group”.
He referred to the refusal of the £1.3 million Council Tax Freeze Grant, increases to car parking charges, the brown bin charges and asked “Where will it end, what next? Will Wirral be twinned with Pyongyang?”
Council (Extraordinary) (Wirral Council) 30th April 2013 Cllr Jeff Green (Conservative Leader) responds to Labour’s proposed changes to the constitution with HD Video “We remember the libraries, we remember Martin Morton, we remember what you did in closing care homes, we will make sure that these issues are publicly debated whether the Labour Party likes it or not.”
Cllr Jeff Green: “We remember the libraries, we remember Martin Morton, we remember what you did in closing care homes, we will make sure that these issues are publicly debated whether the Labour Party likes it or not.”
Cllr Jeff Green said the changes would make it less possible for Martin Morton to blow the whistle under the new arrangements and to have it discussed. He said that although [the existing Constitution] didn’t stop it, it did put it on the record and gave them a chance to do something about it. Cllr Green said the changes would stop them even having a debate asking the Administration to explain themselves, which was partly why the Conservatives thought getting rid of scrutiny committees was “inappropriate”. He expressed his concerns about child protection, to a heckle of Luddite from the Labour benches.
Cllr Green said he was supportive of Area Forums, he had asked for a report on them six months ago at the Leaders Board, however the Chief Executive had never felt it appropriate to bring it back to be discussed. The report had gone to Cabinet instead of seeking all party support. Cllr Green felt the process used had been deliberate in an attempt to try to cause division. He felt the proposals hadn’t been thought through, were unclear and that the new area committees would receive a far meagre sum of money [than the existing Area Forums].
On the changes to Council meetings, Cllr Green felt the Administration would ask officers to write a two-sided report, which councillors could then ask questions on. He said that the councillors wouldn’t get an immediate answer, wouldn’t be allowed to ask a supplementary, but at the end the Cabinet Member would answer all the questions in five minutes.
Cllr Green was also concerned about removing the right of councillors to place on the agenda and have issues debated. He had asked how many other Councils don’t allow councillors to do this and had been told “not very many”. He claimed it was only on Wirral that there was a tendency to “pull power to oneself” and “to sweep any opportunity for backbenchers at all to raise issues and have them debated”. Cllr Green finished by saying, “We remember the libraries, we remember Martin Morton, we remember what you did in closing care homes, we will make sure that these issues are publicly debated whether the Labour Party likes it or not.”
Part two of a report on the sixth item of the Council’s Extraordinary meeting of the 30th April 2013 | Revisions to the Constitution | Cllr Phil Davies speaks for and Cllr Jeff Green against | Also HD video
The Mayor referred to Standing Order 5H. Cllr Phil Davies moved the revisions to the constitution, Cllr Ann McLachlan seconded them. There were two amendments, one was proposed by Cllr Jeff Green and seconded by Cllr Lesley Rennie, the second was proposed by Cllr Tom Harney and seconded by Cllr Phil Gilchrist.
The Mayor said he had been advised by the legal officer that Cllr Phil Davies had fifteen minutes and it would be dealt with as one debate only but with separate votes on the two amendments.
Cllr Phil Davies said he was moving the recommendation from Cabinet which had been forwarded to Council around the revisions to the Council’s constitution. He said that the changes that they were discussing had their origins in the recommendations from the Corporate Peer Challenge, which had taken place last October. It had resulted in a detailed report, which contained a recommendation that the Council should “take the urgent steps you have identified to strengthen governance, make sure you complete a full review of your decision-making currently including the Scheme of Delegation assuring the arrangements are understood and adhered to”.
He referred to a review of the overview and scrutiny system arrangements including how councillors were supported by the organisation and how they would get independent and impartial support from the Corporate Policy Unit. They had sought the expertise of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, whose director was present at one of their councillor seminars.
The Corporate Challenge Team had also noted they’d started to consider the role of Neighbourhood Forums, as part of this they’d looked outside Wirral for examples of good practice. Cllr Davies said these issues had already been included in the Improvement Plan, which was part of the work that the Improvement Board had carried out. In addition to this there had been a smaller group of councillors called the Democracy Working Group chaired by the Deputy Leader of the Council looking at governance issues. There had also been five events for councillors, which had been generally well attended as well as a questionnaire that had been sent out to all councillors.
Cllr Davies felt there’d been an exhaustive appraisal of all these matters in response to the recommendations of the Corporate Peer Challenge Team. He wanted to make it clear that the administration intended to continue to operate the Cabinet and Leader model, he acknowledged there was a difference of opinion on this issue between themselves and the other groups on the Council. Cllr Davies said he had not seen convincing evidence that changing back to the committee system would address all the issues that the Corporate Peer Team had raised in October.
He said the changes were predicated on the Council continuing to operate the Cabinet and Leader system with improvements, which they believed was the best model to take forward. His observation was that any model works best if all councillors and officers have a positive mindset and engage constructively, which was their key challenge in changing the culture of Wirral Council.
The aims of the changes were to improve their governance and decision-making procedures, ensure there was clarity about the role of officers and councillors, enhance the role of councillors not in the Cabinet through changing the scrutiny process, establish a new model of neighbourhood working achieving greater engagement with local residents and introduce a new procedure for Council so that it focuses on issues its responsible for and holds the Cabinet better to account.
Cllr Davies said this recognised the outcome of the elections by giving the ruling [Labour] Group appropriate authority to carry out its policies but at the same time having a transparent process for holding the [Labour] Administration to account. He said the changes gave the opposition opportunity to question the Executive and propose alternatives.
On scrutiny the six existing overview and scrutiny committees would be replaced with three policy and performance committees, which would broadly align with the three strategic directorates. There would also be a coordinating committee to oversee the new arrangements and deal with cross cutting matters. The key point he wanted to emphasise was that the new committees would be much more involved in influencing Council policy before it’s considered by the Cabinet. This would be moving away from the current model reacting to Cabinet decisions to a model which influenced policy.
To be effective it would need joint working between the Cabinet and the new committees particularly around the Forward Plan. He gave his assurance that they would seek a new relationship with the Policy and Performance Committees and where possible take on board their views before decisions are made.
The second change was the introduction of four committees based on the parliamentary constituencies to replace the existing network of eleven Area Forums. He claimed that the Area Forums cost £1,300 a year per each resident and that the footprint of the existing Area Forums was too small to coordinate services effectively to save money. Cllr Phil Davies said the new arrangements would save £391,000 would aim to have more strategic bodies with an emphasis on the priorities in the Neighbourhood Plans with an emphasis on tackling poverty and deprivation. Although these bodies would be initially given Council money, there was the expectation that this would be matched by money from other organisations. The Neighbourhood Officers would be based in each constituency whose responsibility would be to engage with local residents.
The third set of changes were to procedures for full Council, Cllr Phil Davies said it was his belief that the current format didn’t work, that councillors spent time trying to score political points against each other and often dwell on issues that the Council wasn’t directly responsible for. The intention of the changes was to move to a procedure which focused on services delivered by Wirral Council, with an emphasis on written reports by the Leader and Chairs of the new Policy and Performance Committees. All would be able to be questioned by a councillor. There would still be notices of motion on the agenda, but these would normally be referred to Cabinet or the relevant committee unless Council thought the issue was sufficiently important to be debated by full Council.
The scheme of delegation was also to be amended to introduce greater clarity and consistency around the roles of officers and councillors. He said that they intended that the new arrangements would apply from the start of the municipal year with the impact of the changes being monitored by the Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee and the Leaders Board.
He thanked all councillors who’ve engaged by attending seminars and filling out questionnaires. Cllr Phil Davies particularly wanted to thank the councillors on the Democracy Working Party. He said their aim was to improve governance and make sure they were more open and transparent about how they operate. Cllr Davies wanted to focus on taking the organisation forward on their key priorities which were tackling inequalities, delivering growth in Wirral’s economy and attracting new jobs and new investment and protecting vulnerable people. He also wanted to develop a new culture where they move away from a position where everything is politicised, to concentrating on practical improvements, which will improve the quality of life for residents who councillors represent. Cllr Phil Davies said the changes weren’t particularly radical, to quote a member of the Improvement Board, who attended the last councillor’s development evening, “They are not particularly transformational, they are what normal Councils do.” He said he hoped all councillors would engage with the new models of governance and resist the temptation to oppose everything without giving the changes a chance to work.
Cllr Jeff Green then addressed his amendment. He said nowhere in the Corporate Peer Challenge did it say they should remove the right of councillors to debate in the Council Chamber on behalf of their residents. He also said he didn’t think the Local Government Association Improvement Board had said it either. He said that it was possibly the last debate in the Council Chamber not approved by the Labour Party, as in the future the Labour Party would decide would could or couldn’t be debated in the Council Chamber.
Cllr Green said that Labour did have a majority and the right to determine the outcome of a debate, but what he took exception to what that they wanted to decide what is debated and what isn’t. He said that people were suffering due to the bin tax and increases in parking charges and the closure of…. At this point he was heckled by Labour councillors shouting bedroom tax.
Cllr Davies heckled and was rebuked by the Mayor. Cllr Green quipped that he was glad to see that Labour wanted to end Punch and Judy politics. He said residents were suffering under the bin tax, the increases in parking charges and the closure of day centres, it felt prosaic that they were having a debate on the constitution. The reason he found the constitution important was because he saw its role as protecting the public of Wirral from an over mighty administration.
Cllr Green said that it hadn’t taken very long for the administration and officers to determine “that’s all a bit messy having to go through these politicians, we just want to get on and do things”. He’d always said to officers that said that to him “perhaps you’re in the wrong job” and that councillors were inclined to think about the impact on their constituents.
One of the elements was to remove the Children and Young People and Health and Wellbeing scrutiny committees. Given Wirral’s history and the abuse of the most vulnerable in society and child protection issues it seemed to Cllr Green a “backward and dangerous step” to remove any of the scrutiny.
A report on the Council meetings (Wirral Council) of 11th February 2013 along with video footage of the latter. The first was an extraordinary meeting to confer the title of Honorary Alderman on Kate Wood. The second was a regular meeting with motions on local government funding, health, housing, elections, benefits, Area Forums, tax credits, payday loans, public sector contracts and Universal Credit.
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The first controversial point (at least if you’re a Conservative councillor) was the recommendation from Cabinet for approval by Council that Cllr Steve Foulkes be the Deputy Mayor for 2013/14. However to avoid any long drawn out debate on the merits of Cllr Foulkes as Deputy Mayor, the matter was simply noted on the basis that it’ll be decided at the Annual Council meeting of the 13th May 2013.
The second notice was a Conservative motion entitled Council Tax Referendum along with a Labour amendment and Lib Dem amendment.
Around this point I ran out of battery as the meeting was by now two and a quarter hours long.
The last notice of motion debated was a Lib Dem motion entitled Council Finances along with a Labour amendment.
A few of the motions not debated were unanimously agreed (well unanimous except for the abstention of the Mayor) (Vascular Services Review (about moving vascular services from Arrowe Park to the Countess of Chester), “Health Homes” and the Case for Selective Licensing of the Private Rented Sector and Construction Industry Blacklists).
For the rest of the motions and objections there were splits in the vote among party political lines. The first was “Attack on Democracy in Wirral” – a Conservative motion against the move to four yearly elections from 2015/6, the second was “The Empty Rhetoric of Localism” – a Labour motion about Council Tax Benefit, Crisis Loans and Community Care Grants, the third a Conservative objection against abolishing Area Forums and calling for consultation, the fourth a Lib Dem objection to abolishing Area Forums calling for it to be referred to a group of councillors to make recommendations on, the fifth a Labour motion entitled “Cuts to Tax Credits” (as well as a Conservative amendment and Lib Dem amendment), the sixth a Labour motion on “Payday Loans” (as well as a Conservative amendment and Lib Dem amendment), the seventh a Lib Dem motion on “Tax Avoidance and Public Sector Contracts” (as well as a Labour amendment) and the eighth a Lib Dem motion on “Universal Credit” as well as a Labour amendment.
The meeting finished with a number of changes agreed to committee places, after the recent by elections and resignation.