What’s in the 370 page whistleblowing report on Wirral Council’s grants to businesses?
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).
- Grant Thornton confirms whistleblower’s concerns about Wirral Council’s business grants program (16/7/13) Nigel Hobro asks questions of Cllr Phil Davies at a public meeting which leads to the publication of the executive summary of Grant Thornton’s report into the BIG matters.
- Million pound contract between Wirral Council and Enterprise Solutions (NW) Ltd for ISUS scheme was never signed (22/8/13) This blog post was about the contract between Wirral Council and Enterprise Solutions (NW) Ltd for the ISUS (Intensive Start Up Scheme) not having been signed. At the special meeting of the Audit and Risk Management Committee in October 2014 former Strategic Director for Regeneration and Environment Kevin Adderley did claim that a signed version had eventually been found and brought it to that meeting.
- BIG/ISUS Reports: Wirral Council and Merseyside Police in “Alice in Wonderland” (4/10/13) Wirral Council and Merseyside Police respond to FOI requests for the reports for Grant Thornton’s (Wirral Council’s auditor) report into the ISUS matters. Wirral Council state they can’t release it because they’ve referred the matter to Merseyside Police, a Detective Chief Inspector for Merseyside Police states that "This matter is currently in the hands of Wirral Borough Council" and suggests that I make a FOI request to Wirral Council.
Or as I sum it up "Wirral Council won’t say anything because it’s in the hands of Merseyside Police, but Merseyside Police say it’s "currently in the hands of Wirral Borough Council".
- Wirral Council plays the Regeneration Game (badly) 30/12/13 Over Christmas I write a long blog post which is a guide to the BIG Fund/ISUS/Working Neighbourhood investigation so far.
- REVEALED: Grant Thornton’s previously secret £50,0000 report into how Wirral Council played the regeneration game (18/7/2014) Grant Thornton’s report (costing £50,000) into the BIG (Business Investment Grant) side of the allegations is published.
- Incredible first 5 minutes of Wirral Council councillors’ public meeting to discuss BIG & ISUS investigations (23/7/14)A special meeting of the Audit and Risk Management Committee to discuss the matter is held, then adjourned.
- 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 (10/10/2014)The Audit and Risk Management Committee (after a three-month adjournment) meets again. The agenda reports pack for that meeting comes to a hefty 58 megabytes and 628 pages (some heavily redacted). Councillors discuss the matter.
- I ask the Chair of the Audit and Risk Management Committee Cllr Jim Crabtree for an update at the Policy Council meeting on the 8th December 2014 (8/12/2014) Although I don’t think I blogged about this question and answer (you can watch the 3 minutes of question and answer on a Youtube video, if I remember correctly DCLG [Department for Communities and Local Government] were conducting their own investigation into the same matters and Wirral Council were awaiting the release of that report.
- ICO [Information Commissioner’s Office] issue decision notice FS50559883 (24/8/2015) This is in response to a refusal by Wirral Council of a FOI request from one of the whistleblowers for the 2012 internal audit report.
- ICO requires Wirral Council to supply internal audit report within 35 days (1/9/2015) I write about the ICO decision notice (FS50559883) and how Wirral Council will have to release the internal audit report.
- Kevin Adderley’s early retirement request is agreed by the Employment and Appointments Committee behind closed doors on the 21st September 2015
- The internal audit report into the BIG/ISUS whistleblowing is released by Wirral Council (28/9/2015) in response to the ICO decision notice
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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