Why has Wirral Council sunk deeper into the quagmire of poor corporate governance surrounding a complaint about Cllr Steve Foulkes?

Why has Wirral Council sunk deeper into the quagmire of poor corporate governance surrounding a complaint about Cllr Steve Foulkes?

Why has Wirral Council sunk deeper into the quagmire of poor corporate governance surrounding a complaint about Cllr Steve Foulkes?

    
          
          
          
      

Councillor Steve Foulkes talks about the Mersey Ferries at a meeting of the Merseytravel Committee 7th January 2016
Councillor Steve Foulkes (left) talks about the Mersey Ferries at a meeting of the Merseytravel Committee 7th January 2016

Last night yours truly was witness to another spectacular example of democracy at Wirral Council gone wrong. Indeed from democracy being on merely life support, last night seems to have been an attempt to kill it stone dead.

In fact things have got so bad I am officially on strike for part of my job (Leonora can deal with things during this period), but I thought you should realise the reasons why (outlined below).

First, there needs to be some background to this. Panels which decide on complaints about councillors have in the past been decided in public despite officers’ recommendation otherwise such as this meeting in 2012 about an allegedly homophobic comment made by former Cllr Denis Knowles on Facebook.

On Monday evening, at a public meeting of all of Wirral Council’s councillors opposition councillors in the Lib Dem and Conservative parties referred to Labour’s plans to hold more meetings behind closed doors as wrong. The Conservative councillor David Elderton used the quote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.

However within less than 24 hours, Cllr Moira McLaughlin (Labour), Cllr Chris Blakeley (Conservative) and Cllr Phil Gilchrist (Lib Dems) were indeed having a private meeting behind closed doors about a complaint made about Cllr Steve Foulkes (Labour). There was indeed also one of the independent people (Brian Cummings) to oversee the process, although he too wasn’t invited to all of the meeting which was being held in private.

The rationale for having this meeting behind closed doors relies on Wirral Council exercising a legal power that was repealed by the government years ago. However the public must realise by now that that there’s an attitude at Wirral Council of completely ignoring the legal position by people who don’t care about the constitutional checks and balances on their power. Having in the past years cross examined both Wirral Council’s Monitoring Officer Mr Tour at a recent First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) hearing and a Wirral Council councillor (Cllr Alan Brighouse) as a defendant in the Birkenhead County Court, I know how strange the culture at Wirral Council is seen by the judiciary and how exasperating the judiciary seem to find the culture at Wirral Council.

Wirral Council exercising a legal power they do not have has become so routine!

The complaint was about Cllr Steve Foulkes, who had brought his legal representative along with him. Cllr Foulkes and his legal representative were allowed to address the Panel in closed session as to why it should not be held in public.

The public however (although technically Cllr Foulkes’ legal representative is also a member of the public) were not invited in so that their side could be heard. Some voices of course at Wirral Council are heard more loudly than others.

Previously Cllr Foulkes, referred to "natural justice" at Wirral Council shortly before the opposition councillors removed him as Leader of Wirral Council. Indeed this is an example of how politicians say one thing on Monday evening, yet behave differently on Tuesday evening.

Indeed getting Wirral Council to stick to its own constitution with its goals of consultation and openness when a "legal representative" is allowed to influence the Panel otherwise is impossible.

All the Panel members are drawn from Wirral Council’s Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee. Indeed it was at the last public meeting of that Committee that the Panel Members were decided.

Despite s.100/s.100E of the Local Government Act 1972 requiring sub-committees to meet in public (even if they then decide to exclude the public) and there being multiple legal representatives at this meeting to offer the Panel advice, Wirral Council seems to instead insist that we provide "evidence" that a sub-committee is a sub-committee and indeed of their legal obligations to hold sub-committees in public.

Indeed as evidence I quote from their own minutes of the Standards Committee meeting held on the 4th July 2011, which can be read on their website here:

"The Director of Law, HR and Asset Management informed the Committee that the report at Item No. 7 on the agenda – Review of a Recent Standards Complaint – had marked on it, in error, a paragraph (7c) of Part 1 to Schedule 12A of the local Government Act 1972 that did not exist."

Indeed if it is a sub-committee the legal requirement for 5 days published notice of the meeting and its agenda weren’t given either.

However for the last 5 years, Wirral Council’s councillors have relied on a legal provision that Bill Norman (previous Monitoring Officer) told them in 2011 "does not exist" as the reason for holding complaints about councillors behind closed doors.

Despite numerous revisions of their constitution they haven’t bothered to update it to take this out.

The Monitoring Officer commented on my views on this at the last public meeting of the Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee in response to a letter I wrote. He and I unfortunately disagree on a few points.

Sadly the main questions in that letter were left unanswered which led to the impasse last night. However despite the Monitoring Officer having legal obligations (see s.5A Local Government and Housing Act 1989), advising the panel was the Monitoring Officer’s line manager, the Deputy Monitoring Officer Joe Blott (Strategic Director for Transformation and Resources). For anyone reading this who’s not aware, the Strategic Director level at Wirral Council is basically someone who is line managed by the Chief Executive.

So it’s completely understandable that Mr. Tour can’t intervene when it involves his own line manager! After all even I wouldn’t be stupid enough to cheese off my line manager!

However, back to the meeting of the Panel itself. The meeting was adjourned, then Cllr Foulkes was invited back in. We went back to Committee Room 2 with him at about 6.50 pm, only for Cllr Foulkes to be asked to leave and for us to get shouted at.

Because of course the culture at Wirral Council is one of shouting at people. Since Emma Degg left (she was in charge of the public relations side of Wirral Council) there’s been a power vacuum (which perhaps partly explains this recent plan agreed on Monday morning for a Wirral Council newssheet being sent to residents monthly). Kevin McCallum does his best but after years of the press being bullied by politicians and frankly too much bad news to report on at Wirral Council relations between Wirral Council and the press have been problematic.

Indeed views were expressed to me that evening that employees would rather be getting on with their jobs rather than having to deal with meetings at Wallasey Town Hall.

The person who made this complaint (Cllr Jeff Green) along with the person it was about (Cllr Steve Foulkes) along with us (myself and Leonora Brace) were not allowed to go into the “meeting” in the two hours we were kept waiting apart from what I referred to earlier.

Possibly one or both were invited in after we left.

Oh and I forgot to say, Mr. Tour has advised councillors could (or possibly would) be subject to disciplinary procedures if they talk to the press about these matters.

So what is Cllr Foulkes accused of? He can’t tell us. He’s been gagged.

What is in Cllr Green’s complaint? He can’t tell us. He’s been gagged.

What are the Panel’s views (Cllr Moira McLauglin, Cllr Chris Blakeley and Cllr Phil Gilchrist) on the matter and indeed what was decided? You’re not allowed to know.

Indeed if the Panel decides Cllr Foulkes did nothing wrong and he decides he doesn’t want the decision made public indeed we may never know!

And the above sums up why it is getting nearly impossible to my job reporting on Wirral Council. I think it’s about time I started publishing election expenses returns instead, starting with two councillors who were on the Panel…

Updated 11th July 2016: I have made a FOI request for some of the documents for this meeting here.

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

7 Wirral Council councillors, 1 appointment to be longlisted & an HR consultant from Penna PLC; what could possibly go wrong?

7 Wirral Council councillors, 1 appointment to be longlisted & an HR consultant from Penna PLC; what could possibly go wrong?

7 Wirral Council councillors, 1 appointment to be longlisted & an HR consultant from Penna PLC; what could possibly go wrong?

                                                 

Please accept YouTube cookies to play this video. By accepting you will be accessing content from YouTube, a service provided by an external third party.

YouTube privacy policy

If you accept this notice, your choice will be saved and the page will refresh.

Employment and Appointments Panel (Head of Specialist Services) Wirral Council 10th December 2014 Chris Hyams explains the purpose of the meeting
Employment and Appointments Panel (Head of Specialist Services) Wirral Council 10th December 2014 Chris Hyams explains the purpose of the meeting

What I’m writing today is an insight into how Wirral Council rushes decisions, it doesn’t seem to follow proper decision-making processes, gets itself in a pickle and how it can bungle even something simple like deciding on a long list based on applications for a senior post at Wirral Council.

First you need to know a bit of background to this story. The current postholder with the title of Head of Specialist Services Emma Taylor (which is in the Families and Wellbeing Directorate) gave Wirral Council her three months notice two and half months ago and leaves at the end of this year. Due to her being one of the senior managers at Wirral Council it is politicians (not officers) that choose her replacement.

On 27th October 2014 the Employment and Appointments Committee (made up of Wirral Council councillors) met, decided on a panel to decide of 4 Labour councillors, 2 Conservative councillors and 1 Lib Dem councillor, the job description/person specification, terms of reference of the panel, to appoint Penna PLC as recruitment consultants (who get paid £15,000 for this recruitment) and also on the process and timescales.

The job was then advertised, applications were sought (which went to Penna PLC) and the closing date for applications was 5th December 2014. Below is a screenshot of the page on Penna’s website for it (currently here but as applications have closed this link may not work for long):

screenshot Lead Wirral website taken on 11th December 2014 Wirral Council Head of Specialist Services timetable
screenshot Lead Wirral website taken on 11th December 2014 Wirral Council Head of Specialist Services timetable

As you can see the closing date for applications for this post (which went to David Slatter of Penna PLC shown in the above video) is 5th December 2014.

On the 2nd December 2014 (before applications for the post had even closed), the agenda for the Employment and Appointments Panel (Head of Specialist Services) was published.

Items 3/4 on the original agenda stated:

“3. Exempt Information – Exclusion of Members of the Public

The public may be excluded from the meeting during consideration of the following items of business on the grounds that they involve the likely disclosure of exempt information.

RECOMMENDATION – That in accordance with section 100A (4) of the Local Government Act 1972, the public be excluded from the meeting during consideration of the following items of business, on the grounds that they involve the likely disclosure of exempt information as defined by the relevant paragraphs of Part 1 of Schedule 12A (as amended) to that Act. The public interest test has been applied and favours exclusion.

4. Appointment of Head of Specialist Services, Families and Wellbeing Department

To consider the applications for this post. ”

Interestingly between the agenda for this meeting being published and the version of the agenda we got handed out just before the public meeting started (late), agenda item 4 had been changed to add (Applications enclosed) (see below).

Employment and Appointments Panel (Head of Specialist Services) 10th December 2014 agenda
Employment and Appointments Panel (Head of Specialist Services) 10th December 2014 agenda

Now this is the weird aspect of this, the agenda published on 2nd December stated the public interest test had been applied (by a Wirral Council officer) stating no reason why the public were to be excluded, based on applications that were yet to be supplied by Penna until after the closing date of the 5th December.

Applications were circulated to those on the panel, I saw this with my own eyes being done in person on the evening before shortly before the Cabinet meeting on the 9th December 2014.

However a different bit of the Local Government Act 1972, s.100B (4) and (5) required the applications for item 4 to be circulated five clear days before the meeting (which obviously didn’t happen).

The law is quite clear that even for items where they are planning to exclude the press and public that this has to happen otherwise the item can’t be taken unless “by reason of special circumstances, which shall be specified in the minutes, the chairman of the meeting is of the opinion that the item should be considered at the meeting as a matter of urgency.” and I didn’t see that happen during the first three items.

The meeting itself started five minutes late as Cllr Tony Smith was late and was over by about half an hour later.

The other point I would like to raise is this? If the public and press were excluded, why was David Slatter of Penna PLC (who is neither a Wirral Council employee nor councillor) allowed to stay in the room? Shouldn’t he have left and why didn’t the Chair ask him to when we left?

However it often happens at Wirral Council meetings that the Chair assumes anyone sitting round the table the committee is sitting on is an employee or councillor. For example recently the Pensions Committee excluded the press and public from part of a meeting. We left, but their auditor from Grant Thornton stayed despite falling into the category of press/public just because they were sitting around the table, therefore it was assumed they could be there.

I’ve seen the same happen at many other Wirral Council public meetings too that go into private session. There are members of the public present but they stay and the meeting carries on despite them being excluded from the meeting. Maybe chairs don’t understand what exclusion of the public means?

Politicians (especially those chairing meetings) can’t have it both ways. If the committee agrees to exclude the public then public and press (not councillors and officers) have to all leave. Otherwise it makes a complete mockery of the law and brings Wirral Council’s decision-making into further disrepute!

Do chairs of public meetings at Wirral Council actually understand what they’re deciding? Are the legal advisers advising the committees aware of the laws about public meetings or do they (mainly) just only offer an opinion if asked for the sake of their careers and not “rocking the boat” with politicians who could get them suspended?

Or is the real answer that Wirral Council has outsourced even part of its HR function to the private sector so much that it couldn’t actually function without having the private sector present during private parts of public meetings when the private sector seemingly have no actual legal right to be there? Am I wrong to expect fairness in Wirral Council’s decision-making?

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this and will be interested to read the minutes of yesterday’s meeting when they are published too.

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

Wirral Council take over 19 months to respond to FOI request on Birkenhead Park and other matters

Wirral Council take over 19 months to respond to FOI request on Birkenhead Park and other matters

Wirral Council take over 19 months to respond to FOI request on Birkenhead Park and other matters

                                        

Please accept YouTube cookies to play this video. By accepting you will be accessing content from YouTube, a service provided by an external third party.

YouTube privacy policy

If you accept this notice, your choice will be saved and the page will refresh.

Birkenhead Park as it was in 2007.

Birkenhead Park in 2007 copyright John Brace
Birkenhead Park in 2007 copyright John Brace

I feel a bit sorry for Wirral Council’s legal department who seem to have given me the longest response to one of my FOI requests to Wirral Council ever which is in response to this ICO decision notice and a FOI request I made on 29th March 2013.

I’m beginning to think I should look for sponsorship from a black marker pen manufacturer as even the minutes they have supplied have been heavily redacted. Below is an example of set of minutes I’ve finally received, which is the minutes of the Birkenhead Park Advisory Committee meeting of the 17th October 2012. I think over 19 months is a record by Wirral Council for responding to one of my FOI requests.

Birkenhead Park Advisory Committee
Minutes of meeting 17th October 2012

Attendance
Chair: Cllr George Davies
Councillors: Cllr Denise Roberts, Cllr David Elderton, Cllr Cherry Povall, Cllr Stuart Kelly, Cllr Jean Stapleton, Cllr Alan Brighouse
Members: XXXXXXXXXXXX
Wirral Council Officers: XXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXXX

Item 1 Apologies
Cllr Brian Kenny, Insp Roy McGregor, XXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXXX

Item 2 Minutes of previous meeting
The minutes were accepted as a true record.

Item 3 Matters arising
Cllr Elderton raised an issue over traffic calming measures.
XXXXXXXXXXXX confirmed signage for the advisory speed limit had been approved by the Conservation Officer.
There was then a question over funding for the above and a request for legal advice on how this advisory speed limit could be made enforceable.

Item 4 Park Manager’s Report
XXXXXXXXXXXX reported the fall in the number of school visits and suggested possible reasons for it, including poor weather and the closure of two schools which regularly visited the park.
Cllr Stapleton asked why such small numbers from University Academy.
XXXXXXXXXXXX suggested the loss of the education officer has affected contact.
XXXXXXXXXXXX suggested a possible role for a volunteer to contact schools and encourage visits.

XXXXXXXXXXXX reported that the work experience programme was a real success as was the Physical Activities programme.
XXXXXXXXXXXX suggested that income from commercial activities could help with finances.
XXXXXXXXXXXX said an increase was required in commercial operations.
XXXXXXXXXXXX predicted that this will increase.

XXXXXXXXXXXX reported to the group regarding the park’s drainage.
It was agreed by all that exceptional weather this year had caused flooding and was unavoidable.

XXXXXXXXXXXX the Events Arena could take surplus water which will also enhance biodiversity.

XXXXXXXXXXXX referred to the increase in concreting over gardens which doesn’t allow the water to drain and thereby causes increased flooding.

XXXXXXXXXXXX reported on underground water tank proposed by United Utilities because of flooding to basements in Park Road South.
XXXXXXXXXXXX said there was a potential revenue asset from development of remaining plots in the park, and the United Utilities proposal to build a storage tank on the plot by Gothic Lodge would make this asset difficult to sell.

Cllr George Davies reported that the ESWA club was closing down and the building was for sale.
XXXXXXXXXXXX asked if the park could make use of the area.
Cllr George Davies suggested keeping eye on developments.

XXXXXXXXXXXX reported the launch of the Park Watch scheme, adding that members were being recruited before calling the first (inaugural) meeting.

XXXXXXXXXXXX gave a report on IRIMS Incident Reporting and Management System, saying there were some “glitches” remaining but it should be up and running in a couple of months.

XXXXXXXXXXXX reported on the new Dog Control Order being proposed to exclude dogs from all children’s play areas in Wirral. He also reported on the possibility of a further Dog Control Order requiring an owner to put a dog on lead if requested, currently the byelaws state only that the dog must be under control.
Cllr Elderton suggested publicising the result of any further action after the event be recorded.
XXXXXXXXXXXX expressed his concern at the nature and number of dog related incidents, suggesting the voluntary code of conduct was no good.

XXXXXXXXXXXX updated the group on the success of the Forest Schools initiative.

Item 5 Membership of Birkenhead Park Advisory Committee
Cllr George Davies requested to expand group to take in the councillor with cabinet responsibility for Cultural Services. This was agreed by all.

Item 6 Any Other Business
XXXXXXXXXXXX suggested an opportunity for external funding for restoration of the Jackson Memorial, Bandstand, Conservatory and Horticultural Training.
XXXXXXXXXXXX suggested that the Friends of Birkenhead Park be invited to submit a report to a future meeting.

Item 7 Date of Next Meeting
It was agreed to meet in Mid April 2013.

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

Councillors discuss schools, free school meals and 4 Wirral schools in special measures

Councillors discuss schools, free school meals and 4 Wirral schools in special measures

Councillors discuss schools, free school meals and 4 Wirral schools in special measures

                                 

Please accept YouTube cookies to play this video. By accepting you will be accessing content from YouTube, a service provided by an external third party.

YouTube privacy policy

If you accept this notice, your choice will be saved and the page will refresh.

Last night’s meeting of Wirral Council’s Attainment sub-committee started off well enough. Before the hour of six o’clock had even been reached, Cllr Moira McLaughlin was chomping at the bit to be made Chair. As there was only one Conservative councillor present and many, many Labour councillors, it was