A number of other major developments are ongoing, including:
Negotiations are ongoing with Neptune Developments for the sale of three sites at Europa Boulevard to provide a replacement swimming pool and fitness suite, Budget Hotel, Food court and Fast Food Drive-through. Allied to this as Phase 2 will be the grant of an intermediate lease of
Birkenhead Market to Neptune to safeguard its continued operation, with a view to the eventual grant of a restructured lease to facilitate the development of a smaller market which will, in turn, release land for the reconfiguration of The Grange.
The proposal to establish the Isle of Mann University ICT Faculty in Birkenhead is still being worked on. This will utilise the Conway Building and Municipal Building in Cleveland Street. Proposed Heads of Term have been prepared in anticipation of confirmation from the University that funding is in place.
In other words, Wirral Council plan to grant Neptune an intermediate lease of Birkenhead Market, then "develop" a smaller market so that some (or all) of where Birkenhead Market is at present can be sold to become part of the Pyramids and Grange Shopping Centre.
Will will the promised consultation with the public over Neptune’s plans for Birkenhead Town Centre happen?
Meanwhile across the road from Birkenhead Market, Wirral Council look set to lease the Conway Building to what’s down in the report as the "Isle of Man University", but is more likely to be the Isle of Man College at the University of Chester.
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Does Wirral Council believe that the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government?
I was planning on writing today about the implications of the Comprehensive Spending Review (however that’s something that would really benefit from a very in-depth piece), but Wirral Council have published an interesting document about Cabinet meeting report protocol.
That probably sounds rather boring, but it shows the informal arrangements that everyone knew existed behind the scenes before reports were published are being put on a more formal footing.
Although much of it is probably the rather dry nuts and bolts and let’s face it there will still be people submitting reports late and chairs not following procedures with regards to late reports, it does seem an attempt at least to make what the press and public end up reading at least not full of obvious errors (and I’m not talking about spelling mistakes).
The report does state what I knew already, that the SLT (Senior Leadership Team or senior managers at Wirral Council) see reports before they’re published and have a chance to suggest edits.
Even before each public Cabinet meeting happens, Cllr Phil Davies has a meeting of his Cabinet (called a briefing) which the officers are expected to attend (usually in what’s called the Cabinet Briefing Room behind locked doors at Wallasey Town Hall) where he goes through the entire agenda and matters are discussed in private.
Interestingly, this report shows that the Cabinet briefing is used as a filter and the Cabinet briefing can be used to change the reports that are later published. I presume this practice of writing reports by committee leads to some bits being watered down.
There are also four compulsory steps a report has to go through before the press or public see it. It seems reports have to be run by legal (which makes me laugh considering some of the legal howlers I’ve pointed out on this blog over the years), human resources (which is understandable as many of the decisions are going to have HR implications), finance (again understandable) and the Head of Service (which has been standard practice for years anyway). As there are vacant heads of service posts, in that situation the relevant strategic director signs it off.
However there is one very important group of people this all leaves out, the public. Anyone involved with politics will of course comment and say that the last group of people involved in political decisions are the public.
This is what Wirral Council’s constitution states about decision-making:
13.2 Principles of decision-making
All decisions of the Council will be made in accordance with the following principles:
(i) proportionality (i.e. the action must be proportionate to the desired outcome);
(ii) due consultation and the consideration of professional advice from officers;
(iii) respect for human rights;
(iv) a presumption in favour of openness;
(v) clarity of aims and desired outcomes; and
(vi) Wednesbury* reasonableness (i.e. the decision must not be so unreasonable that no reasonable Council could have reached it, having taken into account all relevant considerations, and having ignored irrelevant considerations).
Every policy disaster (whether the library closure fiasco which resulted in a public inquiry or half a dozen others I could mention here) has resulted because the public weren’t involved (or were involved/consulted but politely ignored by politicians and officers who had the arrogance to think they knew better) and/or the above principles weren’t followed.
Let’s take the Fort Perch Rock car park charging U-turn as an example. Principle (ii) above states the "consideration of professional advice from officers" yet officers didn’t tell them that if they started charging at Fort Perch Rock car park then the lease the Council had for the Marine Point development would lead to charges at hundreds of spaces at the other currently free car parks.
No, it fell to a local blogger to publish the pages of the lease, a large petition against it of thousands of people and a campaign against the charges from a former Conservative councillor in the marginal seat of New Brighton. This was despite Labour’s backbench councillors warning the Cabinet at at least one public meeting not to go ahead with plans for charging.
Next week, the Transformation and Resources Committee will discuss the high-profile issue of a fire station in Saughall Massie. At the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority meeting earlier this year where the decision was made, the petition organiser was given five minutes to speak and a delegation from the Saughall Massie Conservation Society was also given the opportunity to speak for up to five minutes.
Yes, you are probably going to say, this ties in with (iii) above, respect for human rights as article 21, which Wirral Council signed up to when Cllr Adrian Jones was Mayor quite clearly states
(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.
Notice the importance of that word directly or through freely chosen representatives (that is politicians).
The other public bodies I report on either have mechanisms written into their constitution (for example Liverpool City Council has a regular public question time slot at many of its meetings and I’ve mentioned the mechanisms that Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority has), so people can exercise their rights at public meetings and have their say before the decision is made.
At Wirral Council the public at public meetings get frustrated and heckle instead (then get told to shut up by the Chair or clear off which does show some politicians’ attitude towards the public outside of elections).
The Chair at last night’s meeting (despite his wish to get home in time to watch Coronation Street) tried to let many taxi drivers have their say (some more than once) before the decision to consult on increasing hackney carriage fares was made (if a decision is made following the consultation it’ll mean fares go up in time for Christmas).
Yet if there’s one point I am trying to make from this maybe boring piece about Wirral’s politics, it’s that the public should be more involved and you don’t encourage the public to turn up by expecting them to sit through meetings in silence and not have any influence over decisions that are going to affect their lives.
At the moment taxi drivers have more influence over decisions as there is a Joint Consultative Committee that meets regularly behind closed doors than I do over say Wirral Council’s filming of public meetings policy.
Yes, this probably sounds like as to why it’s a good idea to have politicians, or for the kind of public interest journalism I spend a lot of time doing but the point I’m trying to get at is one that Wirral’s political system doesn’t seem to have quite grasped which is "the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government".
At Wirral Council this seems to have morphed in the past to "the will of the officers shall be the basis of the authority of government" (and we expect politicians to rubber stamp decisions we refer to them).
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I thought it would be useful to explicitly state each Cabinet’s former title and its new title (along with the councillor that now holds that role). Old titles are in italics. New titles are in bold. None of the councillors on the Cabinet have changed.
Councillor Phil DaviesLeader of the CouncilFinance Leader of the CouncilStrategic and Policy Oversight
Councillor Ann McLachlanJoint Deputy Leader of the CouncilGovernance, Commissioning and Improvement Deputy Leader of the CouncilTransformation and Improvement
Councillor George DaviesJoint Deputy Leader of the CouncilNeighbourhoods, Housing and Engagement Housing and Communities
Councillor Adrian JonesSupport Services Resources: Finance, Assets and Technology
Councillor Christine JonesAdult Social Care and Public Health Adult Care and Public Health
Councillor Tony SmithChildren and Family Services Children and Families
Councillor Pat HackettEconomy Business and Tourism
Councillor Bernie MooneyEnvironment and Sustainability Environmental Protection
Councillor Chris MeadenLeisure, Sport and Culture Leisure and Culture
Councillor Stuart WhittinghamHighways and Transport Transport, Technology Strategy and Infrastructure
In addition to those changes, Cabinet will now meet on Monday mornings at 10.00am starting in 2016.
Also decided were a number of Pledge Champions. The role of each Pledge Champion will be to make sure there is action on a specific pledge in the Wirral Council Plan: a 2020 Vision (formerly called the Corporate Plan).
Twenty councillors (all from the ruling Labour Group) were appointed as Pledge Champions (a role that Cllr Phil Davies pointed out at the Cabinet meeting doesn’t mean these councillors receive increased allowances). A list of who the Pledge Champions are (along with which pledge they are the champion for) was handed out at the Cabinet meeting and is below (but without the bullet points next to each pledge which was on the original). The pledges are in three broad themes of people, business and the environment.
Older People Live Well
Children are ready for school
Young people are ready for work and adulthood
Vulnerable children reach their full potential
Reduce child and family poverty
People with disabilities live independently
Zero tolerance to domestic violence
Greater job opportunities in Wirral
Workforce skills match business needs
Increase inward investment
Thriving small businesses
Vibrant Tourism economy
Transport & Technology infrastructure fit for the future
Assets and buildings are fit for purpose for Wirral’s businesses
Leisure and cultural opportunities for all
Wirral residents live healthier lives
Community services are joined up and accessible
Good quality housing that meets the needs of residents
Wirral’s Neighbourhood are safe
Attractive local environment for Wirral residents
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EXCLUSIVE: Wirral Council continues its multi year battle to keep the 320,000+ Wirral people and press completely in the dark on councillors’ expense claims but in an exclusive you can now read 44 pages of the taxi contract for councillors
EXCLUSIVE: Wirral Council continues its multi year battle to keep the 320,000+ Wirral people and press completely in the dark on councillors’ expense claims but in an exclusive you can now read 44 pages of the taxi contract for councillors
Updated: 16:56 7th October 2015: 3 minutes after this blog post was published Wirral Council got in touch about my request under the The Re-use of Public Sector Information Regulations 2015. Wirral Council asked for more time to reach a decision (which seems to be on line one page one of their big book of responses. 😉
However I have written back (and carbon copied in Surjit Tour) explaining that Regulation 5(5) excludes such documents because in order to access them I had to prove a legal interest (in this case being a local government elector for the Wirral area) during the 2014/15 audit.
This does mean that as this matter has been resolved, I will be publishing more information unearthed during the audit in the future, such as the Bam Nuttall contract.
Those who pay close attention to this blog will realise I haven’t published anything on this blog for a week. Apologies for that and here is an explanation. For some of that time I wasn’t well and the combination of nights of disrupted sleep due to dogs barking outside/helicopters/extremely noisy weather*(*take your pick as that’s just one night) resulted in severe lack of sleep that made me feel so ill that the last thing I wanted to do is write (and believe me I have to feel very ill not to want to write).
The closest I can describe it to is like suffering from something like jet lag from sleep deprivation (which didn’t help me get better as quickly as I should and had the opposite effect). So apologies if I have either been slow (or not responding at all) to emails and comments. I just haven’t been particularly up to the art of stringing together words into real sentences as typing and actually using my joints to type just made the pain worse. So if I’ve written any emails to you over the past week or so where I seem unusually cranky or cheesed off hopefully this explains why.
However I was better yesterday but was busy doing writing of a different sort, which forms part of what I’m going to write about today.
This blog post is a new chapter in a long running saga about taxis, Wirral Council and secret expenses system. However the story has got far wider than that.
First, before I get into fourth gear of what is a story that seems to now have more interesting angles than the Watergate affair and as this blog is read in many countries around the world I need to explain.
For reasons far too complex to go into here, Wirral Council tends to go in for similar types of high political drama that surrounded the Watergate affair, except people very, very rarely resign (resigning being a once in a blue moon event at Wirral Council that tends to really take people by surprise). This was summed up by the attitude of the former Improvement Board at a public meeting who I will paraphrase here, no one is ever held personally accountable and you mustn’t name names (as if you name names that’s blaming people)! My own personal political philosophy is there are always matters people are personally accountable for, but organisational failings of checks and balances and abuses of power have more serious outcomes for society as a whole than people (or even groups of people) behaving badly. However I digress and I need to briefly summarise the story so far as this is starting to have echoes of the MP expenses scandal. In fact not just echoes but marked similarities.
Wirral Council (official long name the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral) has sixty-six councillors (for foreign readers unfamiliar with the word councillor it’s a form of politician). Nearly every year the people who get to vote on the Wirral (Wirral’s population was estimated at 320,295 in mid-2013 according to the Office for National Statistics) get to choose a candidate. The candidate with the most votes (and I’ll leave out a long argument as to why the First Past the Post system that is used for this is unfair and the merits of STV [single transferable vote] for another day) becomes a politician called a councillor. The person who is elected (unless it’s in a by-election) is then elected and called a councillor generally for a four-year term of office.
During their term of office they receive allowances, but there is also an expenses system too. Under our "democracy" (although technically the United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy) politicians such as councillors are answerable to the people.
Many politicians stand for re-election (there are no term limits for being a councillor so for some people it can become a "job for life" (however as councillors on Wirral Council are not employees and not MPs (Members of Parliament) they don’t get a gold-plated pension)) so if you’ve been a bad sort of politician and stand for re election (or if you’re a good politician but are very bad at actually communicating this to the public and/or your political party does bad things) you’ll lose your seat. This is the greatest form of accountability to the public.
Wirral Council are legally required to keep a record of all payments made under the scheme (whether to councillors themselves or to third parties). These records are required to be "be available, at all reasonable times, for inspection and at no charge" to any local government elector for the Wirral area.
However the right to copies of such information is wider than that as under the regulations "any person" can request copies.
This is a bit of a laugh really, as it takes Wirral Council months merely to assemble such information on councillors (therefore strictly speaking the information isn’t available at all reasonable times for inspection breaching one of the regulations).
I am however taking about a thousand words so far and slightly digressing from the points I wanted to make (which wasn’t just about local government record keeping).
Another part of the regulations requires an annual list to be published by Wirral Council for each councillor for the total of allowances & expenses claimed by each councillor for the previous financial year. This way the public can see what councillors are personally receiving (or is being paid on their behalf to third parties) in relation to their duties. Some councillors chose to claim no expenses at all.
However it probably requires a certain amount of forensic accountancy to prove that the expenses lists as published by Wirral Council have been incorrect and they have been for many years.
I am now going to refer to why this happened and what Wirral Council needs to do to correct this and why despite it being pointed out to them they probably won’t bother as to Wirral Council getting things right seems to be too much effort and too expensive as the politicians decide on an annual revenue budget of hundreds of millions of pounds a year and large amounts of capital expenditure too.
At the moment the published expenses lists are only part of the story. Based on looking at a similar situation at Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority, what the public are actually told about is probably only approximately 50% (or half for those who don’t understand percentages) of what is actually claimed in expenses.
It has become a party political issue which is illustrated by this quote from the Leader of Wirral Council Cllr Phil Davies in this Wirral Globe article earlier this year. Again members is referring to councillors (our members refers to the councillors who are part of the ruling Labour Group on Wirral Council).
Asked why only Labour councillors appeared on the list, Cllr Davies said: “The reality is that quite a lot of our members don’t have cars, so they need to use taxis to get to council meetings. If they had cars then they would be making a claim on council expenses for their car allowance, but they don’t. There are more Labour councillors who don’t have a car than those from other parties. These are legitimate claims within the budget of the council for elected members to allow them to do their jobs. Quite often taxis are the only form of transport they can use to get to their meetings.”
Apart from this having echoes of militant Labour delivering redundancy notices to all Liverpool City Council staff by taxi, basically this is a councillor (Leader of the Labour Group) somewhat begrudingly explaining about a secret expenses system for claiming taxis that the public and the press are presumably deliberately kept in the dark about. Wirral Council has known about this corporate governance matter about councillors expenses but despite claiming it would fix it has refused to do so. These figures for taxis (which come to £thousands) don’t appear in the annually published lists) and as detailed in the Wirral Globe article (based in part on my earlier story on the matter) that are used exclusively by one political party (Labour) are according to Cllr Phil Davies justified.
Cllr Phil Davies wears many hats, one as Leader of the Labour Group of councillors, one as Leader of Wirral Council (with the Cabinet portfolio for finance and corporate governance) and a third as a local councillor. The quote referred to above makes Cllr Phil Davies sound like a union rep for the other Labour councillors trying to keep hold of an expensive perk for his fellow politicians.
This has parallels with the approach by Michael Martin MP when he was Speaker of the House of Commons over the MP’s expenses scandal. Michael Martin MP saw himself as a representative of his fellow politicians and eventually had to resign because of the fallout over MP expenses when a national newspaper (in an example of chequebook journalism) bought and published the information. This ultimately led to a lot of embarrassment and prison sentences for some politicians (but ultimately reform of the system) whereas councillors at Wirral Council don’t even get the bare legal minimum of scrutiny of their expenses due to poor corporate governance (which is a matter that the person with democratic acccountability to the public is Cllr Phil Davies).
He compares Labour councillors’ use of taxis to a car mileage allowance used by other councillors. However the latter appears in the annual lists, but Labour’s use of taxis doesn’t. In order for the people to know what’s going on and compare one to the other they have to both appear.
I hope this doesn’t come across to people as an attack on Labour politicians or Labour Party, it’s not. If this was being done by Conservative, Lib Dem, Green Party or other sorts of politicians I would be writing this same sort of blog post.
However it reminds me of an email exchange I had before the General Election with a Labour Party member. They told me that they couldn’t campaign against their own party on an issue (I think it may have been about Lyndale School or possibly some other controversial issue) as instead their efforts were better put into getting Labour elected nationally into government in 2015.
Their view was once elected a Labour government in 2015 would have power and therefore be able to solve the policy problem. It was a stark example of how political parties may have individuals that care about policies, but ultimately as a group the Labour Party wasn’t interested in campaigning for something popular with the public (therefore winning votes and support) which may have ultimately led to them winning the 2015 General Election. This point was pointed out to them many times in the lead up to the election by the press and others.
Instead the Labour Party decided to pursue a strategy of ignoring public opinion, brazenly going for power at all costs, then got confused when the Conservatives got a majority and Labour lost seats.
I will point out that when I was a former member of the Lib Dems, there was a controversial joint Labour/Lib Dem policy decision to close half of Wirral’s libraries. I expressed my views against this in Lib Dem party meetings, stubborn councillors decided play brinkmanship, there was a public inquiry and the whole thing descended into farce and fiasco with a lot of people losing face over the whole matter. I even got ticked off by Sue Charteris as I unfortunately turned up about fifteen minutes late to the public inquiry (which was being filmed) and was told off for having the temerity to discreetly take a photo of what was going on (an omen of the later long running battles over filming public meetings).
At no point do I remember telling anyone within or outside the Lib Dem party (I decided to leave the Lib Dems in January 2012 and indeed sued the entire Liberal Democrat party for breaking the law, had my day in court and won), sorry I personally believe half of Wirral’s libraries shouldn’t close, but I refuse to campaign against the combined Labour & Lib Dem Parties as it’s important that I instead put my efforts into making sure the Lib Dems became the sole party of national government in 2015.
I think if I had made such claims fellow party members would’ve asked me if I was being sarcastic or not thinking straight. My position on the disastrous policy was well known, my views were dismissed partly because of my youth (one party member referred to me as a "baby" during a party meeting) although I doubt the full story about what happened internally within the Lib Dem Party over its politicians setting an unlawful budget will ever be told. The problem with that coalition is the buck could always be passed to Labour just as two halves of the recent 2010-2015 Coalition government could do with each other. The Lib Dem Party has always made it clear to me that they don’t care about the reputational consequences of its politicians or employees breaking the law. As obeying the "rule of law" is a part of democracy it makes me wonder how they have the gall to truthfully call themselves the Liberal Democrats.
However I am going off track in an explanation of the terrible policy failings of party politics and the errors of judgement of politicians (who seem to have a blind spot when it comes to abuses of power) that make unpopular decisions that are not only unlawful but not supported by their own political party either.
This article is going to be about the nuts and bolts of the Passenger Transport Contract issue though.
Last year, Wirral Council agreed to a one-year Passenger Transport Contract worth about £4.1 million. It’s possibly worth more than this as there’s an option in the contract for a one year extension. However I’m not sure if the £4.1 million figure relates to the one or two years of the contract.
This contract is with a company called Eyecab Limited based in Upton (Upton makes a lot of geographical sense for a taxi company to base itself as it’s in the middle of the Wirral).
The contract is divided up into four parts called lots. I’d better describe what each lot is about.
This lot is for transporting children with special educational needs and/or disability from home to school and school to home. It also covers transport for children in care. Children in care is a term that those involved in social work might be more familiar as looked after children. If you’re still not familiar with the term looked after children it refers to for example (but not exclusively) to those in foster care for whom Wirral Council is their "parent". It also covers transport for vulnerable adults to day centres.
Lot two is for ad hoc travel for children with special educational needs and/or disability, vulnerable adults and children in care by taxi, people carrier or hackney carriage (black cab).
The third lot is for journeys by taxi to work and training for Wirral residents (where journeys start or end in East Wirral) known as the "Maxi Taxi". This is to "support individuals travelling to locations not served by traditional public transport and too far or too unsafe to cycle to."
On that latter point, in my younger days I classed a 16 mile cycle ride as not too far and for many years regularly used to cycle a 7 mile round trip to work and back. I’m presuming the "too unsafe" comments are in relation to the rise in people killed and seriously injured on Wirral’s roads since that time. However as you can take the bike on a Merseyrail train (and most areas of Merseyside are within one mile of a train station). It is possible to use bike, train, bike as I did for many years as a university student and for work travelling all over Merseyside as the trains run from very early in the morning to very late in the evening.
I’ll just quote the official description for this lot. "This contract is for ad hoc journeys by taxi to allow Wirral Councillors to travel to various venues across Wirral.
This contract will allow Wirral Councillors to travel around Wirral on official Council business. The times will vary and may include evenings and weekends."
Much as I would happily write about the millions spent by Wirral Council on lots 1-3, effectively lot 4 is the focus of this piece.
During the audit I requested the contract with Eyecab Limited. I did this as I’m a local government elector for the Wirral area using Audit Commission Act 1998, s.15. I will add here that this is the last year I can do this as that right has now been repealed by the previous Tory/Lib Dem government.
(a) the safeguard of the independent auditor deciding what is personal information (not relating to officers) rather than the body itself and whether this can or can’t be redacted from information supplied has been removed,
(b) showing perhaps a Tory philosophy that will no doubt fill my Labour-leaning readers with glee as another example of government pandering to the sorts of commercial interests that make large donations to the Conservative Party, an extra category of withholding information on grounds of "commercial confidentiality" has been added.
I will point out that Wirral Council has withheld some information from the contract supplied to me. The phone number for Eyecab Limited is such a secret that presumably Wirral Council got permission from its auditors to withhold it.
When the phone number for Eyecab Limited is in the Yellow Pages as 0151 201 0000 (therefore hardly confidential after all please leave a comment if you ever heard of a taxi company that deliberately keeps its phone number a secret?), I do wonder why Wirral Council just make work for themselves (and me) in blacking such information out.
Other information that has been withheld has been pricing information and routes.
On the subject of Wirral Council and its well paid auditor Grant Thornton, when I complained to Grant Thornton about one of contacts to blow the whistle to (Ian Coleman on page 36) having received early retirement from Wirral Council two years before this contract even started, I got an email back stating that contracts weren’t to do with the accounts, therefore weren’t the auditors’ responsibility.
Auditors it seems such as Grant Thornton don’t know what they’re doing (maybe Wirral Council could ask for a refund of their fee when they get things wrong) so they just seem to spout nonsense like this in an attempt to fob people off.
As nobody is ever personally accountable in local government I will spare the particular auditor’s blushes by merely quoting from the email and my reply without naming names. It shows however that some auditors in my opinion are about as much use as a chocolate fireguard (a general point aimed at the entire accounting profession rather than this particular auditor).
I think the term is fobbing off as from other bloggers I know that auditors up and down the country are trying to evade their responsibilities in law by giving this sort of reply to local government electors. The likes of Cllr Ron Abbey (who I recently heard being critical of local government electors exercising their rights with auditors at a Merseytravel meeting because of the cost) would probably not approve of me teaching an auditor they’re wrong as the cost of this (in the form of increased external audit costs) is falling on the taxpayer (whereas sadly my advice and grumpiness is not something I can charge them for).
"Dear Mr Brace
I have now had an opportunity consider the contents of your email to me of 6 September 2015.
I understand from your email that you have exercised your rights under the Audit Commission Act to inspect certain documents associated with Wirral Council’s accounts for 2014/15, including a Passenger Transport Contract with a specific contractor named in your email. You highlight that page 36 of the contract identifies the individuals who should be written to in the event of a whistleblowing complaint. The second of these names is the former Director of Finance who left the council 2012. You have asked us to explain why someone who ‘was not an employee of Wirral Council at the time the Passenger Transport Contract was put out to tender (or when the contract was agreed) … was he included as a whistleblowing contact in the contract?’
I have carefully considered this matter and I am not sure this is a valid question that it is appropriate for us to answer. As you highlight the power to question the auditor is set in section 15(2) of the Audit Commission Act 1998. Although interested persons can ask questions of the auditor, the questions must be about items in the Council’s account. It seems to me that your question is not about an item of account and therefore we are not in a position to respond to your question. It seems to me that your question is more appropriately addressed to the Council.
In summary, I would suggest that you contact the Council with your specific request for information.
It is currently our intention to close the audit of the Council’s 2014/15 accounts by 30 September 2015.
I hope that is helpful in clarifying the position.
I however have learnt the art of being concise in emails and played this game of re educating the external auditor in the trump suit of 3 High Court Judges. Here is one of my replies (which meant the auditor had to change their mind).
I would also like to point out that a Court of Appeal case established beyond a doubt that contracts are part of the accounts. See  EWCA Civ 1214 .
So as three High Court Judges seem to agree with my interpretation, I would ask you to reconsider..
As you would probably say in tennis, game, set and match to me (not that I’m competing with an auditor, it’s just well whether deliberately or by accident they don’t really seem to know what they’re actually doing or the legal framework within which they operate properly but what’s new eh?).
However if I wanted to blow the whistle on the contract about taxis for councillors (and there are many reasons why one should), the contract suggests I blow the whistle to a person who was granted early retirement by Wirral Council in 2012.
Bear in mind this contract isn’t just about councillors and their taxi journeys. It’s also about children with disabilities & vulnerable adults. It is possible a family member might have cause for concern that they wish to raise. If so they could be directed to a person who doesn’t even work for Wirral Council.
Back however to lot 4 and taxis for councillors. As a reward for having to read through nearly 3,000 words of my ranting about poor corporate governance, I have a reward for you dear reader but I want to first explain the price at which publication of this contract comes.
First I had to request it during the audit. Wirral Council exceeded the time limits set down in law for giving it to me so I had to wait a bit longer. I then had to travel for a meeting at a Wirral Council building just off Hamilton Square to inspect it and pick up a copy.
It comes to 43 pages (even after the information has been removed I referred to earlier). I then had to scan these pages in one at a time (because that’s the way my A3 scanner works). I made a request to Wirral Council under The Re-use of Public Sector Information Regulations 2015 to publish it.
Despite this request being made some time ago, I have not received a response back from Wirral Council. As my communications to Wirral Council often seem to disappear into if I was being charitable what must be a black hole operating in one of its departments that sucks up my emails, I’m having to use my editorial discretion to use the part of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1998, s.30 that deals with criticism, review and news reporting. I’m also covered bythe Data Protection Act 1998, s.34 in that its been made available to the public (myself) therefore isn’t subject to the non-disclosure provisions of the data protection legislation.
The way I have digitised this contract was by taking the 73 image files, putting them in OpenOffice Writer one at a time and creating a PDF file. However this file (as each page is an image) comes to 124 megabytes. As Wirral Council raided a reserve for high speed internet access some time ago, not only would this use up a lot of space but peoples’ internet speeds would mean it would take a long time to download.
I therefore spent one work day (yesterday) initially typing up the contract only using images for those that needed it (a MaxiTaxi logo and some signatures). This is very boring and time consuming work, but part way through I found a way to speed things up dramatically by putting the multi-page pdf file through FreeOCR.
The versions of the contract I finally ended up with are far easier to read than the version provided to me by Wirral Council. For those with disabilities, the text can now be magnified without just blowing up the blemishes too. The file sizes of the new files (and I’m providing it in multiple versions because I’m trying to be helpful) are massively smaller.
I have not included the Wirral Council logos and replaced these with (Wirral Council logo). As you can see from the image above it’s the five Ws logo with WIRRAL in bold letters. The typographical errors in the contract (such as the many instances of Disclosure and Baring (rather than Barring) Service), missing full stops etc I’ve left in and not corrected. I hope people appreciate the work put into producing it and I realise it has probably been hard work reading through over 3,000 words to reach this point.
A bit like Schrödinger’s cat, although I requested this contract and the what must be about ~6 monthly invoices that relate to it during the audit, I can only at this point in time observe one (the contract).
Wirral Council are still stalling me on inspecting and receiving copies of the monthly invoices for councillors journeys by taxis. Anyone would think that Wirral Council hasn’t quite got the staff to deal with the sort of investigative journalism I tend to be good at. However as the taxi contract is used solely by the ruling Labour Group councillors I can see how it would be in no officers’ interests to actually comply with the legal deadline for this as no doubt I would publish them which would cause politicians to be embarrassed. Wirral Council are &improving& their website, the legal notice they’re required to publish on their website with the deadline on has also vanished at the time of writing.
Certainly I await to see what other corporate governance horrors Wirral Council get up to and will (hopefully) keep readers of this blog advised of what’s happening. In the meantime at the end are the pages of contract information.
This does raise a lot of questions but I will just concentrate on one which seems to demolish one of the reasons given for this contract. When Councillor Adrian Jones read out an answer to me prepared for him by officers at a public meeting as reported previously he stated, "The Council has negotiated competitive prices and entered into contracts with a local taxi company to provide transport for Members in accordance with the Members Allowances Scheme. The taxi company submits its invoices and the details of the Members that used the taxis each month directly to the Council for payment. The advantage of this arrangement is that the cost of transport by taxis is always at the negotiated rate and is a more efficient way to manage the service."
It does raise an interesting point though as the pricing information for councillors’ journeys by taxi are included. In the method statement that Eyecab Limited completed when bidding for lot 4 (councillors’ taxi journeys) Eyecab Limited stated on page 34 of 40 "Eye Cab is an all Hackney taxi firm vehicles range from five passenger seats to seven passenger seats at present we operate approximately twenty seven vehicles this number is increasing on a regular basis."
When I heard Cllr Jones’ answer about "competitive prices" anyone hearing it would think that it was stating that taxis through this contract are better value for money (in terms of the actual cost of the taxi ride) than a councillor paying for it themselves, then claiming the money back.
However having read the contract and that I know now that Eyecab Limited is an all hackney carriage company, I’m puzzled. That’s because the prices at which all hackney carriages on Wirral charge is set by Wirral Council. Therefore for the same journey surely all hackney carriages would charge the same amount and it wouldn’t be cheaper doing it through a contract. When you factor in the costs of putting this contract out to tender (yes I realise lot 4 is part of a wider contract however potential contractors had to bid on each lot separately), the costs of procurement will outweigh any efficiency saving from just having to pay a monthly invoice rather than when councillors claim on an ad hoc basis.
A small saving does occur because Wirral Council isn’t actually doing it legally and including these amounts in the annual lists but by small saving I’m talking about an employee cost time of maybe £50-£60.
However by not doing it that way it increases costs elsewhere at Wirral Council, for example the cost of processing FOI requests, providing me with a redacted copy of the contract during the audit, providing me (hopefully eventually) with the underlying invoices etc and of course the expensive cost in senior officer time (probably an employee on ~£80 an hour) in having to answer questions posed by me to Councillor Adrian Jones at a public meeting.
The point I will finish on is that Wirral Council doing things the right way and legal way saves money in the long run in the communications you get from people trying to persuade Wirral Council just to do things the right way.
However officers across local government (in fact some have even said this to my face) see this sort of press scrutiny as a drain on "scarce resources".
In other words, the kind of major embarrassing politically sensitive fiascos (politicians’ expenses just being the tip of an absolutely massive corporate governance iceberg) I write about on my blog probably cause no end of awkward questions behind the scenes from politicians to those on high 5 figure and 6 figure salaries as to why things aren’t right.
I’m sure some people paid by the taxpayer well above my pay grade don’t always see the sort of journalism as a good thing for their future career prospects. I’m pointing out things to the world that if the checks and balances that these employees are supposed to be were working properly would be spotted internally and corrected.
Some bureaucrats (while stating they welcome accountability) I’m sure don’t really feel it’s right that they should be under a legal requirement to hand over embarrassing information to me, that’ll then form stories that politicians will read (or in the case of video watch) and use to hold the bureaucrats to account.
It’s the way I’ve been trained though and the independence of the press is something that this country should value.
Please note, although I proofread the contract before publishing due to the poor quality of the original pages at times the OCR program has misidentified one character incorrectly such as the postcode CH44 8ED, the OCR program has outputted as CH44 BED (page 23 of 40). The other errors (typographical such as baring for barring & punctuation such as missing full stops) were made in the original document.
UPDATED: Cabinet to make decision next month on Birkenhead Market lease
UPDATED: Cabinet to decide on Birkenhead Market lease next month
07/10/2015 19:01 Although at the time this was written a decision was expected by Wirral Council’s Cabinet on Birkenhead Market in October 2015, Wirral Council have since this story was written put back a decision on this matter to November 2015. This story was originally published on 8th September 2015, but has been updated on the 7th October.
Last Friday, Wirral Council added a new item to their Forward Plan (the Forward Plan is a list of upcoming topics that decisions will be made on) called Birkenhead Market – Lease. It’s down for a decision to be made by Wirral Council’s Cabinet in OctoberNovember 2015.
Further details can be found on Wirral Council’s website, but it’s a key decision because of the “significant people impact”.
It will be at least 28 days (which doesn’t include the 4th September 2015 or the date of the Cabinet meeting) so the earliest Cabinet meeting this could be decided at is the one on the 8th October 2015 this could be decided is November 2015.
First the history of the matter. Cabinet in a behind closed doors meeting on 5th December 2002 after a bidding process awarded the bid for market operator for Birkenhead Market to Mr. Lawrence Embra. However the minute text states very little detail.
It’s been a while since I read the Birkenhead Market lease and I’ve no idea which aspect of the lease the upcoming Cabinet decision relates to.UPDATED: 12/9/15 Wirral Council confirm that this is about the rents.
However this is where is starts to get complicated.
There’s a sublease between Birkenhead Market Limited and Birkenhead Market Services Limited for part of the ground floor of the Birkenhead Market Hall.
There’s an underlease between Birkenhead Market Limited and Wirral Borough Council.
Finally (well almost finally) there’s a lease between Birkenhead Market Limited and Wirral Borough Council for the premises at Birkenhead Market, Birkenhead. It’s part of this last document (without schedules and one of the plans) that are below.
The schedules*(see below) detail the history for each market stall followed by plans. The first plan (unfortunately Crown copyright) shows the Birkenhead Market Hall and the surrounding road system (which is similar to this plan on Wirral Council’s website. It shows what the half-width of the Birkenhead Market Service Road is, there are then internal plans of the market and the layout of the toilets.
*The schedules are a table with the following column headings: date, nature of document (such as tenancy agreement, copy assignment, licence to assign/change of user and memorandum of rent review), parties and document numbers. These are for the following market stalls A1, A2, A3, A4, A5, A6, A7, A8, B41 and B56, B42, B43 and B54, B45 and B46, B47/50, B48 and B49, B51, B52, B55, C97/112, C98 and C99, C100, C101, C102 and C107, C103 & C106, C104, C105, C108, C109, C110, C111, CP1/2, CP3, CP4, CP5, CP6, CP7, CP8, CP9, CP10, CP11, CP12, CP13, CP14/15, CP16, CP17, CP18, CP20, CP21, CP22 & CP23 & CP24, CP26, CP27, CP28, CP29, D9, D10/11, D12, D13, D14, D15, D16, D17, D18/19, D20, D21/D22, D23/24, D25, D26/27, D28, D29/30, D31, D32, D33, D34/35, D36, D37/38, D37 & D38, D39, D40, E57/58, E59, E60, E61, E62, E63, E64/65, E66, E67, E68, E69, E70, E71, E72, E73, E74, E75, E76, E77, E78, E79, E80, E81, E83, E84, E85, E86, E87/88, E89, E90, E91, E92, E93, E94, E95, E96, F113, F114 and F115 and F139, F116, F117, F118, F120, F121, F122, F123, F130, F124, F125 and F128, F126, F127, F129, F133, F134 and F135, F136, F137 and F138, F140, F141, F142, F143, F144, F145, F146, F148, F150 and F151, F152 and F153, F154, F155, F156, F157, F158 and F159, F162 and 163, F165, F167, F168, G20, G23, G24, G25, G26, G27, G28 and G29, P4, P5, P6, P7 and P8, P9, P10, P11, P12, P13, P14, P15, P16, P17 and P18, P19, P36, P37 and P38, P39, P40 and P41, P42 and P43, P44 and P45, P46, G30, G31, G32, G33, G34, G35, P1 and P2, P3, P47, P48 and P48 and V2. Now you’ve seen how long this list is you’ll understand why I didn’t scan these pages in too (but it goes some way to explain the significant people impact).
I realise the plans can be hard to read so each plan should be linked to a higher resolution version. The thumbnails of the lease pages seem readable so I have left them as they are. Hopefully more will be known nearer the time as to what specifically this decision is about.