What were the 9 most viewed stories on this blog over the last week?

What were the 9 most viewed stories on this blog over the last week?

                                                      

ICO Information Commissioner's Office logo
As nearly half of the stories this week are about freedom of information requests the logo above is of ICO (Information Commissioner’s Office) who are the regulator

It’s time again to look back at the 9 most viewed stories of the last week (with a few comments on each of them).

1. 5 different versions of one political cover up but which one will you choose?

The BIG/ISUS issues rumble on with a government minister making sure an audit report isn’t provided in response to a FOI request.

2. Isle of Man company cancels plans for ICT College in Birkenhead

Wirral Council is forced to go back to the drawing board on plans to lease the Conway Building and Hamilton Building in Birkenhead as Isle of Man based International Centre for Technology Ltd pulls the plug on the project.

3. Incredible: FOI reveals “the Council are seeking to draw a line under matters in relation to Mr Morton”

A FOI request reveals a behind the scenes email about how to manage Martin Morton.

4. Why after 2 years, 9 months and 13 days have Wirral Council U-turned on refusing a FOI request for minutes of the Safeguarding Reference Group?

Another story about a FOI request and a long running battle to persuade Wirral Council to produce minutes of a meeting about safeguarding.

5. Does fire safety construction flaw at PFI school affect Wirral schools?

A story about how a flaw at one of Merseyside’s school built using PFI led to fire safety problems, are any of the PFI schools on Wirral affected?

6. Is this what an “open and transparent” Council looks like?

A question answered by a number of blacked out pages from the BAM Nuttall Highway Services contract.

7. Deputy Chief Fire Officer Phil Garrigan tells councillors “90 working days” are lost each year in responding to FOI requests

Continuing a theme running through a number of these stories about freedom of information requests, Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service’s Deputy Chief Fire Officer Phil Garrigan gives his view on freedom of information.

8. Cllr Foulkes on Mersey Ferries “we cherish that service and want to maintain it”

Cllr Foulkes responds to the campaign to save Woodside ferry terminal.

9. Why is Merseytravel spending £57,000 + VAT to monitor this blog?

The top story in last week’s round up details how much Merseytravel spend on media monitoring.

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What’s in the 370 page whistleblowing report on Wirral Council’s grants to businesses?

What’s in the 370 page whistleblowing report on Wirral Council’s grants to businesses?

What’s in the 370 page whistleblowing report on Wirral Council’s grants to businesses?

 

ICO Information Commissioner's Office logo
ICO Information Commissioner’s Office logo

The BIG/ISUS whistleblowing issues have been already covered in extensive detail by this blog over the past few years. However the latest twist in this story was yesterday’s release of a 370 page 2012 internal audit report into the matter following ICO decision notice FS50559883.

Wirral Council have finally released an internal audit report dated 13th January 2012 that went to Bill Norman (then Monitoring Officer/Director of Law, HR and Asset Management at Wirral Council). Those with long memories will remember that Bill Norman was suspended later that year over the Colas matter, then in September 2012 councillors agreed he should receive £146k plus £5k legal expenses to leave.

Back to the BIG/ISUS matters and let’s just quickly recap the blog posts I’ve written on the many aspects of this matter as they provide some background. I’m sure there are one or two I may have left out (I remember I republished some of my earlier blog posts which contained the agreements for BIG/ISUS in the lead up to the special meeting of the Audit and Risk Management Committee last October).

So that’s a brief summary of developments so far? So what does the new information reveal? It’s a report by an auditor at Wirral Council which details the allegations the two whistleblowers made, the investigations into those allegations and the auditor’s opinion as to whether the whistleblowers were correct or not.

The executive summary runs from pages 9-16 and details the allegations made by the two whistleblowers and whether what was inspected during the investigation substantiated or refuted these claims. Pages 17-20 go through each of the allegations in detail as well as whether each allegation is correct or not and the implications that follow. Pages 21-45 are the main report which at the end contain 14 recommendations. Had some of these recommendations been implemented in 2012, some of the unanswered questions surrounding this matter would have been dealt with much earlier, such as the transfer of assets from Lockwood to Harbac.

At the special meeting of the Audit and Risk Management Committee in October 2014, councillors, officers and those speaking at the public meeting were warned not to refer to names of companies, yet the release of this 2012 audit report only removes the names of Wirral Council employees (and former employees). These matters are now out in the open (which should’ve happened before the Audit and Risk Management Committee met last year). Had this 2012 internal audit report been made available to councillors before that meeting the discussion may have been very different.

However it only came to light because of a FOI (Freedom of Information) request made by one of the whistleblowers and even then only after the Information Commissioner’s Office intervened with a decision notice. Certainly the whistleblowers must both feel vindicated by the conclusions reached in this detailed 2012 internal audit report.

The Liberal Democrat Group of councillors on Wirral Council plus the Green Party Councillor Pat Cleary have tabled the following Notice of Motion for the next Council meeting on the 12th October 2015 on the subject of FOI requests. It reads as follows:

OPEN GOVERNMENT ?

This Council recognises that the Information Commissioner’s Office, as the independent authority set up to uphold information rights in the public interest and to promote openness by public bodies, upheld 13 complaints against Wirral Council in the past year.

Of the 18 notices issued between 29 September 2014 and 24 August 2015, the majority (72%) of complaints were upheld.

Council believes that this is a matter for concern, requiring an explanation to its Members.

Council requests that lessons should be learned and applied from these decisions and questions whether Officers have been excessively cautious or defensive in their interpretation of the legislation.

Council, therefore, requests that the legislation is approached with greater regard to the ‘public interest test’ so that the risk of further reputational damage to Wirral can be reduced.

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ICO requires Wirral Council to supply internal audit report within 35 days

ICO requires Wirral Council to supply internal audit report within 35 days

ICO requires Wirral Council to supply internal audit report within 35 days

                                                  

ICO Information Commissioner's Office logo
ICO Information Commissioner’s Office logo

The Information Commissioner’s Office (which I will refer to as ICO) have issued a decision notice about a Freedom of Information Act request made by Nigel Hobro to Wirral Council. The unique number for this decision notice is FS50559883. It’s not yet on ICO’s website but should be in the near future. ED: Updated 04/09/2015 I looked on ICO’s website and it has been published since this article was written and decision notice FS50559883 can be viewed on ICO’s website.

The Freedom of Information Act request is for an “incomplete internal audit investigation report” and was originally made on the 20th August 2014.

As you can read on the whatdotheyknow.com website Surjit Tour (Monitoring Officer) of Wirral Council refused this request on the 26th November 2014 and at internal review it was refused by Eric Robinson (Chief Executive) on the 4th June 2015.

The reasons given by both Surjit Tour and Eric Robinson for not supplying the information requested (both times an apology was given for taking too long to reach a decision) were two-fold:

  • section 36(2)(c) Prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs
  • section 40(2) Personal information

The decision notice shows that ICO disagrees with the first of those reasons (section 36(2)(c)), but agrees with the second reason for part of the information (section 40(2)).

Interestingly the Information Commissioner’s Office agreed with Wirral Council that applying section 36(2)(c) was reasonable but disagreed with the public interest test element.

ICO requires Wirral Council to take the action below within 35 calendar days of the date of the decision notice dated the 24th August 2015. This is assuming that Wirral Council do not appeal the decision:

    "Disclose the withheld information with redactions made under section 40(2) for the names of individuals within the report"

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Whistleblowers assembled in Committee Room 1 to hear apologies from Wirral Council over a toxic whistleblowing saga involving secrecy, national, local and regional government, internal and external audit, the private sector, ££££s, senior managers, contracts and Wirral Council

Whistleblowers assembled in Committee Room 1 to hear apologies from Wirral Council over a toxic whistleblowing saga involving secrecy, national, local and regional government, internal and external audit, the private sector, ££££s, senior managers, contracts and Wirral Council

Whistleblowers assembled in Committee Room 1 to hear apologies from Wirral Council over a toxic whistleblowing saga involving secrecy, national, local and regional government, internal and external audit, the private sector, ££££s, senior managers, contracts and Wirral Council

                                                 

Nigel Hobro (standing) addresses a special meeting of the Audit and Risk Management Committee of Wirral Council 8th October 2014 L to R Cllr Adam Sykes, Cllr David Elderton, Andrew Mossop, Surjit Tour, Nigel Hobro (c) John Brace
Nigel Hobro (standing) addresses the Audit and Risk Management Committee of Wirral Council 8th October 2014 L to R Cllr Adam Sykes, Cllr David Elderton, Andrew Mossop, Surjit Tour, Nigel Hobro (c) John Brace | still taken from video

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Above is a playlist of all parts of the Audit and Risk Management Committee (Wirral Council) meeting of 8th October 2014 held in Committee Room 1, Wallasey Town Hall starting at 6.00pm (apologies for recording problems)

Audit and Risk Management Committee
Cllr Jim Crabtree (Chair, Labour)
Cllr Ron Abbey (Vice-Chair, Labour)
Cllr Paul Doughty (Labour)
Cllr Matthew Patrick (Labour)
Cllr John Hale (Conservative spokesperson)
Cllr Adam Sykes (Conservative)
Cllr David Elderton (Conservative)
Cllr Stuart Kelly (Lib Dem spokesperson)

The Audit and Risk Management Committee of Wirral Council met for a special meeting about BIG/ISUS on the evening of 8th October 2014 whilst a thunderstorm raged outside Wallasey Town Hall. This was a continuing from its adjourned special meeting about the same topic on 22nd July 2014. For details of what happened at its meeting of the 22nd July 2014 see my earlier blog post Incredible first 5 minutes of Wirral Council councillors’ public meeting to discuss BIG & ISUS investigations.

The meeting started with a minute of silence for Mark Delap. Mark Delap was one of the Wirral Council employees that used to take minutes at its public meetings and had died recently.

After the minute of silence was over, the Chair asked for declarations of interest.

Cllr Matthew Patrick declared an interest due to a friendship with Nigel Hobro’s son (Nigel Hobro is one of the whistleblowers and spoke during the meeting itself).

Surjit Tour gave some brief advice to Cllr Matthew Patrick as to whether his interest was personal or prejudicial.

The Chair thanked Surjit Tour for the advice he had given to Cllr Matthew Patrick.

The Chair, Cllr Jim Crabtree then explained that there had been a lot of allegations since the issue had first been raised in 2011. There was a large volume of paperwork for the meeting, however details were redacted to protect businesses and companies. Also the names of officers and other people were blacked out. He also referred to commercial sensitivities and how they had gone to proper steps to protect identities.

He reminded people of the risk of legal challenge and Wirral Council’s liabilities. Cllr Crabtree asked everyone not to name names and continued by saying that any issues Wirral Council officers had addressed, they had done on behalf of the Council.

Cllr Stuart Kelly asked a question on the information that was redacted. He referred to a challenge to paragraph j, that was redacted in the papers to the July meeting, but was now provided. He wanted assurance from the legal officer Surjit Tour that the redactions were only in the categories as just outlined by the Chair.

Mr. Tour explained that the redactions had taken place to make sure that nobody by reasonable inquiry and information already in the public domain could piece together who or what the redacted information referred to and who the people redacted were. He added that in some cases it was unfortunately necessary to redact a lot of information mindful of what was already in the public domain, people could “fill in the gaps” which would expose Wirral Council to a liability.

The Chair invited Nigel Hobro to speak for at most fifteen minutes.

To be continued…

However below are some of my personal observations about this meeting I’ve started writing up above and a bit of a compare and contrast with two different special meetings of the Audit and Risk Management Committee held years apart (but both dealing with Wirral Council’s response to whistleblowers (one internal, one external).

It shows how history has a habit of endlessly repeating itself and is based on my opinion as one of the few people who was actually present at both meetings.

There are similarities between this public meeting and an earlier public meeting many years ago of the Audit and Risk Management Committee to decide on a response to the whistleblowing of former Wirral Council employee Martin Morton. Back then (years ago) there were arguments by politicians over a series of meetings over how much money should be paid back to those that were overcharged and to what year you go back to with the refunds.

Even when refunds were agreed by politicians, Wirral Council took so long that some of the people involved had died and in order cases (the ones that were still alive) the amounts were so large, that Wirral Council officers didn’t want to pay the people involved because they thought it would have a knock on effect on their benefits and officers doubted that some of the people had the capacity to be able to look after their own financial affairs.

Sadly the decision back then was fudged (which is partly what led to the problems later). Martin Morton’s concerns were also far, far wider than the overcharging issue, his concerns also involved allegations of the misuse of public money to fund organisations with links to serious and organised crime, serious allegations of serious crimes against vulnerable people who had apparently at the time not been investigated thoroughly enough, woefully poor corporate governance at Wirral Council, terribly weak political oversight due to put it frankly chaos back then and ultimately Mr Morton paid a personal price because people in Wirral Council tried to repeatedly punish him for daring to blow the whistle. Due to the large financial amounts involved, Cabinet had to sign off on the large expenditure that resulted.

One day before the AKA report was finally released to the public, the two middle managers involved in this matter were each paid a six figure sum each to leave Wirral Council.

At the earlier meeting (and at least one person on the Audit and Risk Management Committee is the same person as back then), the Chair back then accused one politician (Cllr Ron Abbey) of either not reading the papers for the meeting as they were asking questions that were already answered there or of completely misunderstanding what they had read (if they had read them). At this time the Chair was of a different political party to the Labour councillor (Cllr Ron Abbey) & in the interests of impartiality (with absolutely no offence meant towards one of my local councillors Cllr Jim Crabtree) many other local authorities have an unwritten rule that the Chair of the Audit and Risk Management Committee is not from the same political party as the ruling administration to ensure independence.

Knowing Cllr Crabtree as I do, I know that even if a councillor stepped out of line at a meeting he was chairing, even if the councillor was from the same political party as he was, Cllr Crabtree’s personality is such that he would frankly realise that it’s in the “public interest” to hold his fellow councillors to account even if he would have to be careful how he did this in public.

After it seems part of the reasons why Labour got a small majority on Wirral Council is because councillors from that party woke up the news that the Wirral public expected them to hold other politicians to account in public even if these were other councillors from the same political party.

Bill Norman (who left in somewhat mysterious circumstances in 2012) was the legal adviser to that earlier Audit and Risk Committee meeting years ago, not Surjit Tour as it is now. The issue of blacking out all the names (and other details) in the published papers was addressed by Bill Norman then with broadly similar reasons given to those given by Mr. Tour many years later. However I will point out that the culture of legal practice is such that confidentiality, especially when it comes to active proceedings is extremely important to maintain!

At the time this written material authored by Mr. Morton included in the papers for the meeting was also redacted, so this aspect of whistleblowing hasn’t changed much at all over the years at Wirral Council.

Wirral Council, back then and as it seems now has a fear of being sued. Although if they were open and transparent wouldn’t Wirral Council welcome judicial oversight of their decisions as it would give Wirral Council the chance for someone independent to look at it and the opportunity to defend themselves in court if they had done nothing wrong?

Perhaps it’s unfair to say a fear of being sued, it’s a fear at Wirral Council of being sued and losing and the results that flow from that which could be a combination of large financial penalties (or other things) as well as the fact that court reporters such as myself or the publications they publish in can’t actually be sued under British law for court reporting as long as we comply with the few rules that apply as court reporting attracts absolute privilege. All court hearings whether public or private are recorded by the court on tape anyway and in theory transcripts can be ordered.

Some may say for a large local Council (covering a population of ~320,000), whilst obviously they have their own organisational reputation to consider, that they seem unduly concerned at times at reputation management (although this is also a preoccupation of political parties) rather than dealing with matters in an entirely open and transparent way. There is a blurry line between the individual reputations of senior managers and politicians on one hand and the organisational reputation of the organisations they are either employed by or are elected to represent the views of the public at.

Some of the reports that went to the most meeting the day before yesterday, have been the subject of previous articles by me and FOI requests.

You can read my FOI request (25/8/13) for the report on ISUS here, which was refused on 23/9/13 and refused at internal review on 24/10/13. That external audit report can be read as part of the committee’s papers (see agenda item 2 and the links from this page on Wirral Council’s website if you wish to do.

Had the responses to those FOI requests been forthcoming and Wirral Council provided the information within weeks a lot more would have been in the public domain before the July and October meetings in 2014 of the Audit and Risk Management Committee meetings. Wirral Council instead chose to rely on exemptions to suppress the information and knew I was unlikely to appeal to ICO, as if I had I’d probably still be waiting for a decision!

Excessive secrecy just makes the public and press suspect that there’s a deliberate cover up or Wirral Council has done something it’s ashamed or embarrassed about. Usually the answer is a little more complicated than a conspiracy.

The Merseyside police investigation (which resulted in no charges) was used as an excuse by Wirral Council to deny FOI requests, not just about the one Grant Thornton recommended was referred to the police, but information in general about the other aspects too.

Wirral Council was recommended by the forensic arm of its external auditors to refer one very minor matter to the police. Wirral Council did and this was then used this as an excuse to delay and prevent further scrutiny. The police response (and I summarise) was that based on what they were told that there was insufficient evidence to charge somebody (or somebodies) with a crime. Remember criminal charges require basically two elements, proof that the alleged crime occurred and also generally for most criminal matters mens rea (proof of a “guilty mind” too). The latter is often harder to prove than the former, which is why defendants sometimes plead not guilty in order to get a jury trial! As Wirral Council actually carries out criminal prosecutions through the Wirral Magistrates Courts, I’m sure someone there who is actually aware of these matters!

This article is getting rather long and at the two thousand word mark I am somewhat digressing into related matters, although obviously it is not as long as the papers for that meeting which come in at the length of a medium-sized novel!

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Incredible first 5 minutes of Wirral Council councillors’ public meeting to discuss BIG & ISUS investigations

Incredible first 5 minutes of Wirral Council councillors’ public meeting to discuss BIG & ISUS investigations

Incredible first 5 minutes of Wirral Council councillors’ public meeting to discuss BIG & ISUS investigations

                                

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Above is video of the entire special meeting of the Audit and Risk Management Committee (Wirral Council) on the 22nd July 2014

Below is a partial transcript of the first five minutes of a special meeting of Audit and Risk Management Committee on 22nd July 2014 to discuss the investigations into the BIG and ISUS programs.

COUNCILLOR JIM CRABTREE (CHAIR)
Good evening everyone, welcome to the Audit and Risk Management Committee. Errm

[Agenda item 1]Members’ Code of Conduct – Declarations of Interest.

Have we got any? No.

[Agenda] Item 2, minutes of the last meeting, are they agreed?

COUNCILLORS
Agreed.

COUNCILLOR JIM CRABTREE (CHAIR)
Thank you.

[Agenda] Item 3, Business Investment Grant (BIG) and the Intensive Startup Scheme (ISUS) Investigation.

There’s been concerns from Members about the lateness and thickness of this item and, if I can given the size of the document and the concern that Members have about the lateness of receiving this, and that along with the written address from Mr Hobro, I’d like to recommend an adjournment of a week and we convene back here next Tuesday. Problem?

COUNCILLOR JOHN HALE (CONSERVATIVE SPOKESPERSON)
I’ve got a problem with that Chair.

COUNCILLOR JIM CRABTREE (CHAIR)
You’re on holiday?

COUNCILLOR JOHN HALE (CONSERVATIVE SPOKESPERSON)
I won’t be back …..

COUNCILLOR JIM CRABTREE (CHAIR)
….?

UNKNOWN COUNCILLOR
I’m on holiday as well Chair.

COUNCILLOR JIM CRABTREE (CHAIR)
Sweet, (can’t be heard). Pardon?

GRAHAM BURGESS (CHIEF EXECUTIVE)
Chair is it alright if I cut in? Chair I was just saying that obviously, we’re entering the holiday season. It’s inevitable that there will be people on holiday throughout the holiday season so obviously I’m concerned both for the Members and Council to get this matter resolved as speedily but as comprehensively as possible.

So clearly, we’d urge you to consider the meeting adjournment, because clearly we feel that this matter for everybody’s interest needs to be considered as quickly as possible to the satisfaction of all the Members though.

COUNCILLOR JIM CRABTREE (CHAIR)
Thanks for that, so I’m going to move that as a recommendation and…

(murmuring by councillors)

COUNCILLOR LEAH FRASER
… point of order, … should … we’re doing…before we do… (turns on microphone) sorry Chair, could I suggest we make it in a fortnight? Normally you would liaise with the spokes of each party and obviously you haven’t spoken to Councillor Hale and it would help. I think he should be here at the next meeting. Thank you.

COUNCILLOR RON ABBEY (VICE-CHAIR)
Fifth of August then Chair.

COUNCILLOR JIM CRABTREE (CHAIR)
Fifth of August.

COUNCILLOR JOHN HALE (CONSERVATIVE SPOKESPERSON)
No, I won’t be back.

COUNCILLOR RON ABBEY (VICE-CHAIR)
Well the problem is you’re going to need to prolong it then and,

COUNCILLOR JIM CRABTREE (CHAIR)
Yeah and there’s certain of the officers that won’t be here on the 5th,

COUNCILLOR RON ABBEY (VICE-CHAIR)
people will not be their deputies?

(multiple councillors talking at once)

COUNCILLOR LEAH FRASER
….. Council.. stepped on…

COUNCILLOR JOHN HALE (CONSERVATIVE SPOKESPERSON)
I’ll be back around the 7th.

COUNCILLOR LEAH FRASER
….

COUNCILLOR PHILLIP BRIGHTMORE
Chair, am I correct in thinking that err if any party has one of their members away so then they can be substituted by a deputy and if indeed if one of those deputies then can’t make it then they can’t be substituted?

COUNCILLOR JOHN HALE (CONSERVATIVE SPOKESPERSON)
We do have deputies, even though we’re charged with finding a substitute spokesperson.

COUNCILLOR PHILLIP BRIGHTMORE
It remains the case you’ve got deputies you can call on.

COUNCILLOR STUART KELLY (LIBERAL DEMOCRAT SPOKESPERSON)
I think the reality is, I think that that would normally be the case but the reality is that from the time that we’ve had it, I dare say amongst the lead Members, the spokespeople, would have made an ??? effort to digest as much of it as we possibly can without any slight meant to any other Members who clearly they will have done that, but certainly the spokespeople would have attempted that.

I mean I think what we probably do need to settle on a date, at which I, John and yourself could be there. Certainly if we push it to the 12th of August then I’m in Butlins (laughing)..err..

COUNCILLOR LEAH FRASER
Who’s the Chair?

COUNCILLOR STUART KELLY (LIBERAL DEMOCRAT SPOKESPERSON)
I mean I’m available up to that date. In moving your recommendation Chair is it your intention that we have a real discussion on what we have in front of us so far?

COUNCILLOR JIM CRABTREE (CHAIR)
No, it’s not really worth breaking up the meeting when we’re halfway through, so it’s not worth having a new discussion tonight. Errm and we could go round all night and come to different dates couldn’t we? Just her and me and then the Monitoring Officer would be away.

COUNCILLOR DAVID ELDERTON
We’re relying on deputies. We’re relying on deputies because for all Members …all Members have problems if they’re not involved at all … basis that… would first, it’s the first time .. Chair… I’m looking for a way forward.

COUNCILLOR JIM CRABTREE (CHAIR)
What time do you leave next Monday John?

COUNCILLOR JOHN HALE (CONSERVATIVE SPOKESPERSON)
Early.

COUNCILLOR DAVID ELDERTON
We can’t be arranging times just to suit John Hale.

COUNCILLOR JIM CRABTREE (CHAIR)
No, no we can’t.

COUNCILLOR DAVID ELDERTON
It’s a service, I can easily update John Hale he comes back.

COUNCILLOR RON ABBEY (VICE-CHAIR)
Now we’re moving into the peak holiday period errm middle of August.

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