What did a 3 year FOI battle with Wirral Council reveal about councillors’ equipment and training?

What did a 3 year FOI battle with Wirral Council reveal about councillors’ equipment and training?

                                                    

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

A fortnight ago, required to do so by ICO decision notice FS50596346 Wirral Council finally provided some more information in response to my FOI request first made on the 29th March 2013.

I will point out (in case you’re wondering why it has taken nearly three years to get to that point) that this request has also been the subject of two other ICO decision notices FS50509081 and FS50569254.

So far Wirral Council has stated that the information requested would cost too much (section 12), that to give me the information would be prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs (section 36), that they class that doing an internal review of that decision as vexatious (section 14) and now finally when all of those prior decisions have been proven to be flawed, they withheld some of the information requested claiming it’s personal information (section 40).

My feeling about this is that Wirral Council, who refer to their approach in public as open and transparent have tried to engage in attrition warfare with myself and the regulator ICO over this request.

Mind you this is Wirral Council. Wirral Council is where responses to FOI requests from the press get delayed because they have to be "signed off" by the former head of their press office Emma Degg and their Monitoring Officer Surjit Tour?

So what did I request that was released a fortnight ago? One document was minutes of the Members’ (Members’ means Councillors’) Equipment Steering Group meeting held on the 7th February 2013. The other document was minutes of the Members’ Training Steering Group held on the 19th March 2013.

Quite what is in these two documents that requires a nearly three year cover up about their contents, I’m not sure. The scanned pages Wirral Council have supplied for the meeting of the Members’ Equipment Steering Group and the Members’ Training Steering Group are unfortunately scanned at a low resolution which can make them hard to read. So I will reproduce them both below starting with the Members’ Equipment Steering Group. As that mentions audio recording and webcasting of committee meetings I will declare an interest.

The part of this request that relates to the minutes of a meeting of the Headteachers and Teachers Joint Consultative Committee I have appealed to the First Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) and am at the stage of awaiting ICO’s response to my appeal.



Actions from Members’ Equipment Steering Group Meeting held on 7 February 2013

  1. Actions from the last Meeting
    I Pads had been discounted at the last meeting.

  2. Members’ Homepage and Toolkit
    – Homepage
    Members would consider the proposed content and come back to XXXXXXXXXXXX with any suggestions for inclusion.

    – Toolkit
    The proposed detail of the Members’ Toolkit was endorsed and XXXXXXXXXXXX would progress it.

  3. Councillor Equipment Device Options
    XXXXXXXXXXXX would obtain a price for the following devices:
    430 i 5
    430 i 3
    A recommendation will be made to the Cabinet subject to price and specification
  4. Councillor Equipment Printer Options
    The preferred printer was HP Office Jet 8000. In exceptional circumstances only would a Member’s own printer be connected to the network.
  5. Wireless in Wallasey Town Hall
    All Committee Rooms in the Town Hall would have wifi facilities by the time Members were in possession of their new IT kit.

    Officers will look at the possibility of Members being able to receive emails on smart phones via wifi.

  6. Councillor Equipment Rollout Timetable
    – Personally owned Ipad
    A system would be purchased, configured and installed by IT Services to allow Members to use their own Ipads.

    – Laptop
    This was an option. Members will keep their existing bag.

    – Router
    This was an option.

    – Telephone Handsets
    Members would keep their existing handsets.

    – Furniture
    New furniture would not be purchased

    – Modern.gov Application
    Modern.gov could provide an Application so that Personal Devices could access "Exempt Items" at a cost of £3000. This would not be taken up

    – Political Offices
    Office staff would not be included in the new equipment roll out.

    – Windows XP and Office 2010

    – Broadband Choices

    – Further Members’ Survey

  7. Councillor Case Management Systems
  8. Use of Personal Electronic Devices
  9. Use of Councillors own equipment
  10. iPad and HP Slate Autumn Trial
  11. Audio Recording and Webcasting of Committee Meetings
  12. Date and Time of Next Meeting

    XXXXXXXXXXXX to canvass Members and arrange the next meeting.

  13. Any Other Business


Below should be the Action Minutes of the Member Training Steering Group held on the 19th March 2013. On the original there is a third column with OD (Organisational Development) Team written next to points two to nine. It’s easier to write this in HTML without creating the way it is laid out as a table so I have left this out. I’ve also left out the page numbers and the filename/path on Wirral Council’s computer that it’s stored. However these can be viewed on the original.


Action Minutes

Member Training Steering Group

19 March 2013

Apologies -: Surjit Tour, XXXXXXXXXXXX

Attending -: Cllr McLachlan (Chair), Cllr Clements, Cllr Glasman, Cllr Gilchrist, Cllr Harney, Cllr Hornby, Chris Hyams, XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

  1. Welcome and introductions

    The group welcomed XXXXXXXXXXX who is an associate tutor with the LGA and will be providing an overview of the Leadership Programme for Members

    Noted that Cllr Clements did not attend the last meeting and apologies had been received.

  2. Minutes and Matter Arising

    a) Terms of Reference
    Agreed that the Chief Executive would be included as support for the group.

    The group would continue to sign off requests for training and will continue to be mindful of the travel and accommodation costs.

    Agreed that OD would report back on a quarterly basis training approval decisions.

    Agreed to put the terms of reference into themes and circulate.

    b) Recruitment to Leadership Modules

    Agreed that Members should forward names to XXXXXX to reserve a place on the course and to contact XXX should they have any queries.
    An introduction session will run on the 10th April a Flyer will be sent out providing the details of the session. XXXXX explained that the Pre course briefing would cover an introduction to the programme followed by the completion of the Myers Briggs Type Indicator questionnaire as this would form the basis for the content on Module one, feedback would then be provided either face to face, which preferable or over the phone, prior to the programme commencing on the 8th May.

    It was noted that participants are required to attend both modules to benefit from the programme.

    c) Elected Member training onto the committee calendar

    Agreed to escalate the request to include members training from the skills for Wirral programme into the committee calendar.

  3. Standing Item – Training Update (since last meetings)

    a) 13th February – Developing the Council of the Future

    Noted that 30 attended the event with a mixture of feedback

    Agreed to chase up the feedback from this event and share with Members.

    Agreed to look at how Member’s could be provided with more opportunities to feedback and participate in these events.

    b) Public Health and Wellbeing: 20 February 2013

    Noted that 9 attended with very good feedback

    c) Understanding Local Government Finance: 27 February 2013

    Noted that 8 attended with very good feedback

    d) Media Skills

    Noted that 2 attended with very good feedback

    e) High Level Communications Skills

    Noted that 5 attended with very good feedback

    f) Attendance on training

    Agreed to continue to send reminders for training but as a rolling programme of events that month and to include flash reminder the day of the training that spaces are available.

  4. Standing Item – Upcoming training ( Members Development Programme)

    a) Effective Surgeries and Caseload Management Training

    Agreed to look at were we are up to with an Electronic System for case load Management. Meeting already arranged with IT to discuss this and Members IT training, feedback would be provided at the next meeting.

    b) Training Venues

    Agreed to look at other venues rather than The Laurie’s Centre for Elected Member training sessions and move the training already book to other venues, to minimise costs.

  5. Standing Item – Approved Duty Requests

    No outstanding approved duties

    a) Spending for Approved duties

    Members to discuss and feedback as to how they would like to spend monies for approved duties, agreed to monitor on a case by case basis.

    b) Feedback from Events Attended

    Agreed to look at feedback from events and if particularly effective consider developing a Wirral version of the event.

  6. Standing Item – Budget

    a) Profile 2012-2013

    Budget profile discussed and noted that there would be an under spend this year. Details shared with the group.

    b) Profile 2013-2014

    Approximately £13,000 has been committed to date. Budget to be monitored at each meeting.

    c) Spending for Approved Duties
    Agreed to explore options around external funding available.

  7. Members Development Charter.

    a) PDP Returns
    46 PDP have been completed with 6 scheduled for April. This would bring the total to 52 PDP completed, which takes us over the 75% requirement for completion of the Members Charter. Agreed to continue to encourage the completion of all outstanding PDPs.

  8. Members Development Programme Accreditation

    a) Agreed for flyer to be sent to all Elected Members to promote the programme

    b) Additional information from ilm to be sent to Cllr Harney

  9. AOB

    a) 4th April New Constitutional Event 6pm – 8pm Floral

    b) 16 May Key Transformation and Improvement Agenda Session
    Suggestion from Cllr Glasman Ethics and Conduct.

    c) Training for Members – Directorships and Trusts

    Advert to be sent to Elected Members when programme agreed

  10. Date and Time of next meeting

    30 April 2013 4 – 5.15pm



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The letter Wirral Council wrote gagging Councillor Gilchrist

The letter Wirral Council wrote gagging Councillor Gilchrist

The letter Wirral Council wrote gagging Councillor Gilchrist

                         

Just before Christmas started I published a letter from Cllr Phil Davies to Cllr Jeff Green that was also published on Wirral Council’s website.

To recap it involves a male senior councillor in the Labour Group who made an “adverse comment” about an unnamed senior employee at Wirral Council. The councillor admitted he did make the comment and a report was written detailing that this Labour councillor had breached the Code of Conduct.

Previously if there’s been a report detailing a councillor has breached the Code of Conduct, even if officers recommended the report be exempt, the Standards Panel have decided to make the report public as you can see from that previous blog post detailing a seven page report and two page appendix into an allegation that former Councillor Denis Knowles breached the Councillor’s Code of Conduct in relation to a comment he made online.

Since then, in the Summer of 2012 the legislation regarding complaints made about councillors breaching the Code of Conduct has changed. This explanatory note on Wirral Council’s website explains some of the changes, but basically there are now two legal requirements on Wirral Council. The first on Wirral Council is that it “must promote and maintain high standards of conduct by Member and Co-opted Members” (Members in this context means councillors and Co-opted Members means people co-opted to Council committees). The second legal requirement is that they must have arrangements in place for investigating allegations and making decisions on allegations. The policy on this is here, the new Code of Conduct here and a an online form for people to use is here. Wirral Council has also appointed four independent persons that have a role in determining whether complaints made are worthy of investigation.

The letter to Cllr Phil Gilchirst basically asking him to sign a commitment gagging him from talking to anyone about what was in the investigator’s report can be read by following that link and to my knowledge is published for the first time in full on this blog (although there is a Wirral Globe story headlined “Wirral Council accused of ‘over the top’ secrecy” that quotes from it).

So do you think we should return to making investigator’s reports public if they have a finding that a councillor (and he acknowledges that he did in this case) breached the Code of Conduct? Surely if the “senior officer” wants their name kept out of it, the report could be released with their name redacted and does not naming the councillor involved make people think that Wirral Council takes its legal obligation that it “must promote and maintain high standards conduct by Member and Co-opted Members” seriously? Please leave a comment if you have any thoughts on these questions.

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Council Excellence Overview and Scrutiny Committee (Wirral Council) 26th March 2013 Part 1 Spending Freeze, Overspends and Bad Debts

A report on the Council Excellence Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting (Wirral Council) of the 26th March 2013

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The agenda and reports for this meeting can be found on Wirral Council’s website and this blog post includes video of the meeting.

penguin with whipThe Chair welcomed everybody to the meeting, after a short discussion about filming he asked for any declarations of interest or party whip. No declarations of interest or party whip were made. The minutes of the meetings held on the 14th February 2013 and on the 30th January were agreed.

icicle Peter Timmins introduced the month 10 report on the overspend. He started by saying that they’d added £1 million to the budget of Adult Social Services, increasing the original overspend from £17 million to £18 million, however due to the spending freeze the overspend was down to just over £7 million, but that the month eleven report was just about to go to the Chief Officer’s Group which would add a further £200,000 reduction to the overspend.

Part 3 (page 9) of the report detailed the risks of overspends in adult and children’s social care and how they were in talks with Cheshire West and Chester Council about shared services. He felt they could do more on procurement to generate savings and clamp down on “rogue purchasing”.

sheep Cllr Gilchrist asked when the report on bad debts would be reported? Peter Timmins said it was going to a Special Cabinet meeting on the April 18th and that it had led to some interesting discoveries about the Pension Fund. He said they were looking at the processes involved.

Cllr Gilchrist asked about the changes in month ten compared to month nine. Peter Timmins said he would give Cllr Gilchrist the budget book which showed three years budgets which he hoped to have ready by the middle of April as it was now in draft form. They had also done a budget training session for councillors and planned to do more of these and were also training officers in budget management with aids to budget management put on their website. He described sending officers to budget management training courses using the metaphor of sending sheep to be dipped.

Council Excellence Overview and Scrutiny Committee Wirral Council 27th September 2011 Part 5 Budget Projections 2012/2015

Ian Coleman referred Cllr Brighouse to paragraph 4.5.1 on IT Services. He said that Cabinet had agreed to savings of £500,000 then £400,000 a year which by year 4 comes to £1.7 million. He said that each year the efficiency investment fund was used, mainly for staffing and needed to be replaced. Cllr Alan Brighouse asked a further question. Ian Coleman gave the example of a Director could need three staff costing £100,000. However these three staff costing £100,000 could lead to a £300,000 saving.

Cllr Brighouse asked about Early Voluntary Redundancy (£3 million)? Ian Coleman said till 2017 and referred to 5 years of pension contributions. Cllr Gilchrist pointed out that Early Voluntary Redundancies can be capitalised. Ian Coleman said they had applied for capitalisation of statutory redundancy pay which was used in 2010/2011. Also people were going in 2011/12. In May they had applied for 2011/12, they had applied for £4 million. There had been an outline agreement, with a detailed proposal going to the Department of Communities and Local Government. There would be a report to Cabinet.

Cllr Ron Abbey asked about the Public Works Board. Ian Coleman said the Treasury had increased the interest rate charged by the Public Works Board by 1%. This meant the cost of borrowing went up. There was a substantial amount of money at a reduced rate, but this was for councils which were housing authorities which doesn’t apply to Wirral as it transferred its housing stock.

Cllr Gilchrist said the report was noted.

Council Excellence Overview and Scrutiny Committee Wirral Council 27th September 2011 You Choose Budget simulator Part 2

Cllr John Hale asked a question about the consequences used for reduced budgets. He also asked about efficiency savings.

The Chair, Cllr Gilchrist said there was a ninety-three page guide. Cllr Ron Abbey said it was “only a tool” and a “means to an end”. Cllr John Hale said that there would’ve been a different response if efficiency savings had been used. Cllr Gilchrist referred to the Wirral Globe and a query that had been raised about the narrative. He mentioned figures of £35 million, savings of £25 million and £14 million. He asked for the query and the evidence.

Cllr Ron Abbey said it was made up of inflation, service driven costs and was a factual reality. Cllr Gilchrist referred to the London Borough of Redbridge’s results but asked how much the budget simulator costs. The answer given was £1,000 to £,3000. There would be an analysis done by postcode. Cllr Gilchrist referred to one of the 986 responses in Redbridge which was to cut the number of councillors and allowances.

Cllr Ron Abbey said that the evidence to the Independent Remuneration Panel stated that Wirral Council councillors were one of the lowest paid in North West England. He said that not all communities can gain access to computers, so the responses would be biased towards the rich. Cllr Steve Williams asked if there was any verification of postcodes. The answer was that they were not aware of any verification, but this was a YouGov issue.