What happened while Cllr Denise Roberts was Chair of MFRA’s Audit Sub-Committee?

What happened while Cllr Denise Roberts was Chair of MFRA’s Audit Sub-Committee?

                                     

Cllr Denise Roberts (Chair, Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee) (27th November 2014)
Cllr Denise Roberts (Chair, MFRA (Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority) Audit Sub-Committee at a previous meeting of the MFRA)

The author of this is the appellant in a First-Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) case involving Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority.

There have been serious corporate governance allegations raised about how MFRS (Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service) has been managed and led during the period when Wirral Council Councillor Denise Roberts has chaired the MFRA (Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority) Audit Sub-Committee.

MFRS’s press office was approached to provide a press officer for today’s public meeting of its Audit Sub-Committee. However that request for a press officer was refused. A reply received from a senior manager who intervened in our request stated that a press officer is not able to attend this and indeed future public meetings due to “other responsibilities”.

Ultimately it is up to you dear reader to try and understand the reasons why such a decision would be taken.

Clearly Wirral Cllr Denise Roberts (Chair of MFRA’s Audit Sub-Committee) is not entirely to blame as reports to the Audit Sub-Committee she chairs (including to today’s meeting) have been either inaccurate or misleading (or indeed both at the same time) and indeed her time on the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority comes to an end in a week.

Instead, Cllr Brian Kenny and Cllr Chris Meaden will replace Cllr Denise Roberts and former Labour Cllr Steve Niblock as two of Labour’s representatives from Wirral Council on the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority. Both Conservative Cllr Lesley Rennie and Labour’s Cllr Jean Stapleton remain.

It remains to be seen whether a future Chair of the Audit Sub-Committee continues with Cllr Denise Roberts’ approach and what happens next.

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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?

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?

                                                   

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

Before I start this epic tale, I would just like to point out that someone has started a petition demanding an apology from the Labour administration at Wirral Council for their answer at the last Council meeting about information requests and their poor record on FOI requests.

A long time ago (29th March 2013), I made this FOI request for the minutes of meetings that happen behind closed doors (not public meetings) for committees that councillors sit on. Part of this request (part 26) was for minutes of the Safeguarding Reference Group.

I think it is better to provide a chronology at this stage as to how this part of the request went (references are to this part of the request).

29th March 2013 FOI request made.
29th April 2013 Internal review requested due to lack of reply.
30th April 2013 Internal review sent by Wirral Council. Request refused on cost grounds (section 12), but offer made to send minutes of Safeguarding Reference Group.
30th April 2013 Clarification over meaning of request sent/internal review as response on 30th April 2013 was first response.
30th July 2013 Internal review changes reason from cost grounds (section 12) to vexatious or repeated request (section 14).
14th August 2013 Decision appealed to Information Commissioner’s Office.
19th June 2014 Wirral Council amends reason for refusal from vexatious or repeated request (section 14) to cost grounds (section 12).
8th September 2014 ICO issue decision notice FS50509081. Decision notice overturns cost grounds (section 12) reason, finds Wirral Council failed to provide advice and assistance (section 16) and hasn’t responded to request within 20 days (section 10(1)). Wirral Council given 35 days to provide information or different reason.
4th November 2014 FOI request for minutes of Safeguarding Reference Group refused on section 40 (personal data) grounds.
12th November 2014 Internal review of 4th November 2014 decision requested.
30th April 2015 After ICO intervention Wirral Council replies. Wirral Council refuses internal review on section 14 (vexatious or repeated request) grounds.
Unknown date Decision appealed to ICO.
29th July 2015 ICO issued second decision notice (FS50569254). Decision notice overturns section 14 (vexatious or repeated request) reason for all of request except adoption/fostering panel part. Finds Wirral Council have breached section 10 (again).
3rd September 2015 Wirral Council respond to decision notice FS50569254. Minutes of Safeguarding Reference Group now refused on section 36 (prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs) and section 40 (personal data).
7th September 2015 Decision appealed to Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).
11th January 2016 Wirral Council supply minutes of Safeguarding Reference Group held on 19th April 2011.

Wouldn’t it have just been easier (as they made the offer to send the minutes of the Safeguarding Reference Group in April 2013) to supply these minutes then? How much officer time was wasted in refusing six pages of minutes on a committee that 7 councillors sat on and at least 5 senior managers (although one wasn’t present for the meeting).

The sixteen page serious case review about Child A, Child B, Child C & Child D referred to in the minutes dated 6th April 2011 can be found on Wirral Council’s website.

Three of the 7 councillors present are no longer councillors and at least three of the senior managers have either gone into early retirement or left Wirral Council.

There are 4 parts in the six pages of minutes where names have been blacked out. Did it really take 2 years, 9 months and nearly a fortnight to do this?

What was the point in spending over 2 years and 9 months refusing this request? The minutes they’ve supplied refer to a further meeting on the 20th July 2011 so although this is welcome, they may not be the right ones! I requested the minutes of the meeting immediately before my request on the 29th March 2013. Is the implication that the incoming minority Labour administration in 2011 scrapped the Safeguarding Reference Group (which was re-established on the 15th December 2014)? I’m not sure!

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Who are the 20 Pledge Champions and how has Wirral Council’s Cabinet changed?

Who are the 20 Pledge Champions and how has Wirral Council’s Cabinet changed?

Who are the 20 Pledge Champions and how has Wirral Council’s Cabinet changed?

                                               

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Wirral Council’s Cabinet meeting held on the 5th November 2015

Cabinet (Wirral Council) 5th November 2015 Councillor Phil Davies asks Surjit Tour to introduce the report on Cabinet portfolios and Pledge Champions
Cabinet (Wirral Council) 5th November 2015 Councillor Phil Davies asks Surjit Tour to introduce the report on Cabinet portfolios and Pledge Champions

Yesterday’s Cabinet meeting agreed changes to which area each councillor on the Cabinet covers and some minor changes to how each Cabinet portfolio’s description.

Instead of two Deputy Leaders at Wirral Council (Cllr George Davies and Cllr Ann McLachlan) there will now be only one Deputy Leader (Cllr Ann McLachlan).

You can read a list of the revised roles for each Cabinet portfolio holder on Wirral Council’s website.

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 Davies Leader of the Council Finance
Leader of the Council Strategic and Policy Oversight

Councillor Ann McLachlan Joint Deputy Leader of the Council Governance, Commissioning and Improvement
Deputy Leader of the Council Transformation and Improvement

Councillor George Davies Joint Deputy Leader of the Council Neighbourhoods, Housing and Engagement
Housing and Communities

Councillor Adrian Jones Support Services
Resources: Finance, Assets and Technology

Councillor Christine Jones Adult Social Care and Public Health
Adult Care and Public Health

Councillor Tony Smith Children and Family Services
Children and Families

Councillor Pat Hackett Economy
Business and Tourism

Councillor Bernie Mooney Environment and Sustainability
Environmental Protection

Councillor Chris Meaden Leisure, Sport and Culture
Leisure and Culture

Councillor Stuart Whittingham Highways 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.

20 PLEDGES

PEOPLE CHAMPION
   
Older People Live Well Irene Williams
Children are ready for school Walter Smith
Young people are ready for work and adulthood Phillip Brightmore
Vulnerable children reach their full potential Treena Johnson
Reduce child and family poverty Angela Davies
People with disabilities live independently Rob Gregson
Zero tolerance to domestic violence Janette Williamson
   
BUSINESS  
Greater job opportunities in Wirral Joe Walsh
Workforce skills match business needs Jean Stapleton
Increase inward investment Matthew Patrick
Thriving small businesses Denise Realey
Vibrant Tourism economy Matt Daniel
Transport & Technology infrastructure fit for the future Ron Abbey
Assets and buildings are fit for purpose for Wirral’s businesses Denise Roberts
   
ENVIRONMENT  
Leisure and cultural opportunities for all Christine Spriggs
Wirral residents live healthier lives Steve Foulkes
Community services are joined up and accessible Christina Muspratt
Good quality housing that meets the needs of residents Steve Niblock
Wirral’s Neighbourhood are safe Brian Kenny
Attractive local environment for Wirral residents John Salter
 

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People power leads to Wirral Council U-turn on sale of Rock Ferry High School woodlands

People power leads to Wirral Council U-turn on sale of Rock Ferry High School woodlands

People power leads to Wirral Council U-turn on sale of Rock Ferry High School woodlands

                                                 

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Wirral Council’s Cabinet meeting of the 10th September 2015. The item on Rock Ferry High School starts at 17 minutes and 16 seconds

Cabinet discusses the future of Rock Ferry High School 10th September 2015 L to R Cllr Chris Meaden Cllr Pat Hackett Cllr Adrian Jones
Cabinet discusses the future of Rock Ferry High School 10th September 2015 L to R Cllr Chris Meaden Cllr Pat Hackett Cllr Adrian Jones

The issue of what happens to the former Rock Ferry High School site was on Wirral Council’s Cabinet agenda for a decision at last Thursday’s meeting.

Included with the reports for the meeting were details of the public meetings held. In case anyone has forgotten, one of the public meetings sparked a series of bizarre stories in the Liverpool Echo about what happened in the lead up to the 2015 General Election. The story continues with a Wirral Globe article and a Green Party investigation clearing its members of what Frank Field accused them of doing (which is that exceptional case of a party sticking by and believing its own members and not throwing them to the wolves when an influential member of another political party complains).

Maybe the Green Party aren’t like other political parties who take a "guilty until proven innocent (and we the party will decide upon what prove innocent means)" approach and grill the party member when a complaint happens. No I’m not referring to the recent suspensions of councillors in the Wirral Labour Group… but my own personal experience of the Lib Dems taking seriously a party political complaint about me from former Labour Cllr Harry Smith (sent to both me and the party with a Wirral Council "With compliments slip").

In essence his complaint was that when he was Vice-Chair of the Pensions Committee (the Pensions Committee manages the Merseyside Pension Fund worth £billions which has over a hundred thousand people either pensioners or employees part of it) I put in a leaflet to people in the Bidston & St James ward that he didn’t go to a meeting that reported the Merseyside Pension Fund had dropped by hundreds of millions of pounds.

His complaint was that he decided to go on holiday instead (he didn’t send a deputy to the meeting) and that my leaflet wasn’t unfair personally to him because it led to people going to his surgery and asking him questions (because and I mean this with a lot of dripping sarcasm of course, obviously the last thing a local councillor is paid a generous allowance of thousands of pounds a year for is to actually have to deal with the public and see what I write below for why the Labour Group of 2015 takes a different view on representing the public to Harry Smith). Therefore former Cllr Harry Smith (around the time of a one week suspension as a councillor for not apologising properly for bullying) wanted disciplinary action taken against me by the Lib Dem Party for telling the Bidston & St James residents the truth.

Ultimately the Lib Dem Party (who then were always very keen to curry favour with other political parties) gave him and his fellow Labour party members their way in 2011 but the Lib Dems (under a lot of pressure to get rid of me) did it so badly, the Birkenhead County Court ruled one of the Lib Dem councillors, the local Birkenhead party and indeed the whole Lib Dem Party had broken the law in doing so.

Thus proving that politicians are terrible at realising that there are legal limits on what they should or shouldn’t do. As many will know, the political class have an arrogant view at times that rules and laws apply to everyone but them! The MP expenses scandal showed that.

However to be fair (and hopefully as balanced as I can be) to the Lib Dem Party, their view is that an unlawful decision still stands and court orders should be flouted (and then the Lib Dem Party wonders why it lost 49 MPs at the recent General Election?)

As former Cllr Harry Smith didn’t get his way over that complaint he tried to stop filming of a public meeting of Pensions Committee meeting stopped, telling others on the Pensions Committee it I was because I was a member of a political party (at the time a lie as I wasn’t a member of the Lib Dems then, due no doubt in part to his complaints and moaning about me "blotting my copybook" as one party member put it). A rather young fellow Labour councillor had the gall to tell him such a point was irrelevant which really got him going, however I am digressing into stories from yesteryear. It was suggested to me recently that I should be more positive (however remembering how former Cllr Harry Smith used to be is enough to spoil anyone’s good mood)!

Returning to the Cabinet meeting, Cllr Adrian Jones explained that Rock Ferry High School had closed in 2011. He outlined the process that had to be followed if the Rock Ferry High School and the playing fields were to be used for a different purpose and that this required government approval from the Minister. He summarised the efforts so far on finding an alternative educational use for the buildings which unfortunately had not panned out.

The costs (business rates and security) of managing the vacant site were costing Wirral Council money. The original intention had been for Wirral Council to sell the buildings and playing fields. However following public consultation and "opposition" to disposal of the site, a compromise position had been found or as Cllr Adrian Jones put it, “However, we are a listening Council and following extensive public consultation it was evidenced that there was a very significant amount of opposition to that proposal.”

He went on to say that this option would produce a reduced capital receipt to Wirral Council, but this would allow the Residents’ Association to bring forward proposals for the playing fields and woodland.

Cllr Adrian Jones proposed the following recommendation.

"It is recommended that:

17.1 Cabinet approves the submission of the application to the Secretary of State for Education for the disposal and change of use of the former Rock Ferry High School.

17.2 Approve the mixed use option for the site as outlined in 6.4

17.2 Approve officers to progress development proposals to site (area A) for residential development in accordance with local planning requirements

17.3 Work with the newly formed Rock Ferry Residents Association to bring forward proposals for the management of the site (areas B and C)"

For the purposes of information 6.4 (which recommendation 17.2) of the report refers to states:

6.4 Take account of local views and develop a mixed use option for the site

(i) area (A) i.e. the main school site, development for housing

(ii) areas (B) and (C) the former playing field site could be considered for community asset transfer for continued sport use and open space. This is of particular interest to the residents in the area and plans for the management and development of the area are being considered. Football clubs in the area have expressed an interest and there are opportunities for obtaining grant funding. This area was previously designated as school playing fields and the only community use was through lettings agreed with the school, general community access was not endorsed.

Areas B and C are detailed in the report. Areas B and C are playing fields and area A covers the buildings and part of the playing fields.

Councillor Chris Meaden pointed out that it was in her ward and referred to "slightly heated meetings" that she had attended and that they’d listened to the residents, changed the recommendations so that the woodland was kept and the sports field. She thanks the residents of Rock Ferry and that "we hope we’ve proved ourselves to you"

Cllr Meaden went on to thank Jeannette Royle (Senior Manager, Asset Management), David Armstrong (Assistant Chief Executive) and David Ball (Head of Regeneration) for attending the meetings and she wanted to thank them for their support and their efforts in listening to residents.

The recommendation were agreed by Cabinet.

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INCREDIBLE: £2,877.35 spent by Wirral Council last year in previously hidden payments on taxis for Labour councillors!

INCREDIBLE: £2,877.35 spent by Wirral Council last year in previously hidden payments on taxis for Labour councillors!

INCREDIBLE: £2,877.35 spent by Wirral Council last year in previously hidden payments on taxis for Labour councillors!

                                                              

Hackney carriage by Ed g2s
Hackney carriage by Ed g2s

Hackney carriage by ed g2stalkOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Every year, a legal requirement on Wirral Council means that they have to publish for each councillor how much was spent on travelling and subsistence allowances for each councillor.

The list published for 2013/14 is on Wirral Council’s website.

Last year I made a Freedom of Information Act request for a breakdown of payments made to three taxi firms (A.P. Contract Hire Ltd, Wallasey Cars Limited and Wirral Satellite Cars Limited) for taxi journeys made by councillors paid for by Wirral Council.

Here is the breakdown for each councillor, taxi firm and total amount for that financial year.

AP Contract Hire
Cllr Irene Williams £11.20
Cllr Phil Davies (Plus 3 Staff) £54.00
Cllr Steve Niblock £51.00

AP Contract Hire Total £116.20

Wallasey Cars
Cllr Bill Davies £25.00
former Cllr Brian Kenny £5.00
Cllr Christina Muspratt £10.10
Cllr Irene Williams £46.20
Cllr Joe Walsh £50.60
Cllr Moira McLaughlin £197.10
Cllr Pat Hackett £700.00
Cllr Steve Niblock £442.90
Cllr Tony Norbury £13.00

Wallasey Cars Total £1,489.90

Wirral Satellite Cars
Cllr Bill Davies £106.65
Cllr Chris Meaden £6.70
Cllr Christina Muspratt £159.40
Cllr Denise Realey £20.10
Cllr Harry Smith £25.20
Cllr Irene Williams £117.70
Cllr Joe Walsh £184.55
Cllr Moira McLaughlin £558.20
Cllr Phil Brightmore £7.30
Cllr Steve Foulkes £17.50
Cllr Steve Niblock £16.00
Cllr Tony Norbury £51.95

Wirral Satellite Cars Total £1,271.25

Grand Total £2,877.35

An amount of £10.20 for an Anne Davis for Wallasey Cars was also included in the response to my request, but as there is no councillor called Anne Davis, I have not included this amount in the figures above.

One thing to be noted is that all the councillors in this list are from the same party (Labour Party). Let’s take one councillor’s taxi expenses at random and compare them to the published list for 2013/14.

Cllr Moira McLaughlin’s taxi rides came to £197.10 with Wallasey Cars and £558.20 with Wirral Satellite Cars (total £755.30).

However next to Cllr Moira McLaughlin’s name on the published list of expenses are two entries. £40.10 for “expenses” and £167.29 for subsistence. This comes to a total of £207.39 that comprises the items detailed in the blog post expense claim forms for Councillor Moira McLaughlin 2013 to 2014. The taxi rides with Wallasey Cars and Wirral Satellite cars don’t appear at all despite regulation 15 requiring that Wirral Council publish the total annual sum paid by it for each councillor’s travel and subsistence allowance.

Taking another councillor from the list above, £700 was spent on taxi rides for Cllr Pat Hackett with Wallasey Cars. Yet when you read the published list for 2013/14 his expenses are down as £0 and travel expenses £0.

I would suspect that if I went through the list of councillors above I’d find that none of these taxi rides appear on the list that’s published each year. The response to my FOI request contains the line “The use of taxis’, and the associated costs, has been in connection with legitimate Council business.”

This all reminds me of that quote from Wirral Council’s former Chief Executive Graham Burgess of “We need to spend less on ourselves and more on services” and I wonder what the £2,877.35 spent on taxi journeys for councillors could have been spent on instead.

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