Liverpool City Region Combined Authority Scrutiny Panel meets for 1st public meeting

Liverpool City Region Combined Authority Scrutiny Panel meets for 1st public meeting

Liverpool City Region Combined Authority Scrutiny Panel meets for 1st public meeting

Liverpool City Region Combined Authority Scrutiny Panel 29th October 2014 Mann Island, Liverpool
Liverpool City Region Combined Authority Scrutiny Panel 29th October 2014 Mann Island, Liverpool

The Liverpool City Region Combined Authority (created earlier this year) now has a scrutiny panel called the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority Scrutiny Panel.

As regular readers of this blog will know, Knowsley provides the administrative support for meetings of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority and its calendar of meeting can be viewed on Knowsley’s website, Merseytravel (now part of the Combined Authority) sorts out its own meetings and has its own calendar of public meetings on its own website and now the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority Scrutiny Panel is administered by Halton Council and you can view their calendar of its meeting here.

From a media perspective, the same public body having three different calendars for its meetings is somewhat unusual but there you go.

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Liverpool City Region Combined Authority Scrutiny Panel 29th October 2014 Part 1

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Liverpool City Region Combined Authority Scrutiny Panel 29th October 2014 Part 2

The meeting itself only lasted 24 and a half minutes (the meeting took longer than it should have due to a fire alarm test). The agenda was short so I’ll reprint it here with links to the eight reports:

1. Appointment of Chair and Vice-Chair
2. Appointment of Members to the Combined Authority’s Audit Committee

Additional documents:
Part 4 Section B Audit Committee, item 2

3. Role and Responsibility of the Combined Authority
4. Role of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority Scrutiny Panel
5. Development of a Work Programme
6. Combined Authority Forward Plan
Additional documents:
Forward Plan, item 6
7.
Calendar of Meetings

One interesting matter to note of local interest is that before the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority Scrutiny Panel had its first public meeting, one of its three (now reduced to two) representatives from Wirral Council (Cllr John Hale from the Conservative Group) had resigned.

That left Cllr Anita Leech as the only councillor from Wirral Council at its first meeting.

1. Appointment of Chair and Vice-Chair

Appointment of Chair
Cllr Kevan Wainwright (Hough Green, Halton Borough Council, Labour) was the only nomination for Chair.
Cllr Kevan Wainwright was elected as Chair.

The Chair thanked the other councillors for electing him and asked for apologies for absence. Apologies were given for Cllr Mike Sullivan (Labour, Wirral Council), Cllr Andy Burns (Labour) and Cllr Mark Dowd (Labour).

Cllr Anita Leech (Labour, Wirral Council) pointed out that Cllr John Hale (Conservative, Wirral Council) had resigned. The Chair replied that they were waiting for the [Wirral] Conservative [Group] to nominate a new councillor from Wirral [Council].

Appointment of Vice-Chair

Nobody made any nominations for Vice-Chair. So the Chair asked for nominations for Vice-Chair for a second time in saying “Come on ladies and gentlemen”. Cllr Andy Moorhead was proposed as Vice-Chair by Cllr Anita Leech and this nomination was seconded. There were no other nominations for Vice-Chair so Cllr Andy Moorhead became Vice-Chair.

The Chair congratulated Cllr Andy Moorhead on his election to Vice-Chair.

2. Appointment of Members to the Combined Authority’s Audit Committee

The Chair asked for nominations.

A councillor said, “Can I move *** councillor, *** ****?” The asterisks represent what I couldn’t hear as the councillor wasn’t close enough to their microphone. This nomination was seconded. This unknown person was appointed to the Audit Committee. They were all in favour.

The Chair pointed out that they needed a second nomination.

One of the male councillors present (that was not the Chair) nominated himself, he said, “I’ll self-nominate.” The Chair thanked him for his self-nomination. They were all in favour.

The rest of the meeting was discussion of the reports linked to above and can be watched in the two video clips above.

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Whistleblowers assembled in Committee Room 1 to hear apologies from Wirral Council over a toxic whistleblowing saga involving secrecy, national, local and regional government, internal and external audit, the private sector, ££££s, senior managers, contracts and Wirral Council

Whistleblowers assembled in Committee Room 1 to hear apologies from Wirral Council over a toxic whistleblowing saga involving secrecy, national, local and regional government, internal and external audit, the private sector, ££££s, senior managers, contracts and Wirral Council

Whistleblowers assembled in Committee Room 1 to hear apologies from Wirral Council over a toxic whistleblowing saga involving secrecy, national, local and regional government, internal and external audit, the private sector, ££££s, senior managers, contracts and Wirral Council

                                                 

Nigel Hobro (standing) addresses a special meeting of the Audit and Risk Management Committee of Wirral Council 8th October 2014 L to R Cllr Adam Sykes, Cllr David Elderton, Andrew Mossop, Surjit Tour, Nigel Hobro (c) John Brace
Nigel Hobro (standing) addresses the Audit and Risk Management Committee of Wirral Council 8th October 2014 L to R Cllr Adam Sykes, Cllr David Elderton, Andrew Mossop, Surjit Tour, Nigel Hobro (c) John Brace | still taken from video

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Above is a playlist of all parts of the Audit and Risk Management Committee (Wirral Council) meeting of 8th October 2014 held in Committee Room 1, Wallasey Town Hall starting at 6.00pm (apologies for recording problems)

Audit and Risk Management Committee
Cllr Jim Crabtree (Chair, Labour)
Cllr Ron Abbey (Vice-Chair, Labour)
Cllr Paul Doughty (Labour)
Cllr Matthew Patrick (Labour)
Cllr John Hale (Conservative spokesperson)
Cllr Adam Sykes (Conservative)
Cllr David Elderton (Conservative)
Cllr Stuart Kelly (Lib Dem spokesperson)

The Audit and Risk Management Committee of Wirral Council met for a special meeting about BIG/ISUS on the evening of 8th October 2014 whilst a thunderstorm raged outside Wallasey Town Hall. This was a continuing from its adjourned special meeting about the same topic on 22nd July 2014. For details of what happened at its meeting of the 22nd July 2014 see my earlier blog post Incredible first 5 minutes of Wirral Council councillors’ public meeting to discuss BIG & ISUS investigations.

The meeting started with a minute of silence for Mark Delap. Mark Delap was one of the Wirral Council employees that used to take minutes at its public meetings and had died recently.

After the minute of silence was over, the Chair asked for declarations of interest.

Cllr Matthew Patrick declared an interest due to a friendship with Nigel Hobro’s son (Nigel Hobro is one of the whistleblowers and spoke during the meeting itself).

Surjit Tour gave some brief advice to Cllr Matthew Patrick as to whether his interest was personal or prejudicial.

The Chair thanked Surjit Tour for the advice he had given to Cllr Matthew Patrick.

The Chair, Cllr Jim Crabtree then explained that there had been a lot of allegations since the issue had first been raised in 2011. There was a large volume of paperwork for the meeting, however details were redacted to protect businesses and companies. Also the names of officers and other people were blacked out. He also referred to commercial sensitivities and how they had gone to proper steps to protect identities.

He reminded people of the risk of legal challenge and Wirral Council’s liabilities. Cllr Crabtree asked everyone not to name names and continued by saying that any issues Wirral Council officers had addressed, they had done on behalf of the Council.

Cllr Stuart Kelly asked a question on the information that was redacted. He referred to a challenge to paragraph j, that was redacted in the papers to the July meeting, but was now provided. He wanted assurance from the legal officer Surjit Tour that the redactions were only in the categories as just outlined by the Chair.

Mr. Tour explained that the redactions had taken place to make sure that nobody by reasonable inquiry and information already in the public domain could piece together who or what the redacted information referred to and who the people redacted were. He added that in some cases it was unfortunately necessary to redact a lot of information mindful of what was already in the public domain, people could “fill in the gaps” which would expose Wirral Council to a liability.

The Chair invited Nigel Hobro to speak for at most fifteen minutes.

To be continued…

However below are some of my personal observations about this meeting I’ve started writing up above and a bit of a compare and contrast with two different special meetings of the Audit and Risk Management Committee held years apart (but both dealing with Wirral Council’s response to whistleblowers (one internal, one external).

It shows how history has a habit of endlessly repeating itself and is based on my opinion as one of the few people who was actually present at both meetings.

There are similarities between this public meeting and an earlier public meeting many years ago of the Audit and Risk Management Committee to decide on a response to the whistleblowing of former Wirral Council employee Martin Morton. Back then (years ago) there were arguments by politicians over a series of meetings over how much money should be paid back to those that were overcharged and to what year you go back to with the refunds.

Even when refunds were agreed by politicians, Wirral Council took so long that some of the people involved had died and in order cases (the ones that were still alive) the amounts were so large, that Wirral Council officers didn’t want to pay the people involved because they thought it would have a knock on effect on their benefits and officers doubted that some of the people had the capacity to be able to look after their own financial affairs.

Sadly the decision back then was fudged (which is partly what led to the problems later). Martin Morton’s concerns were also far, far wider than the overcharging issue, his concerns also involved allegations of the misuse of public money to fund organisations with links to serious and organised crime, serious allegations of serious crimes against vulnerable people who had apparently at the time not been investigated thoroughly enough, woefully poor corporate governance at Wirral Council, terribly weak political oversight due to put it frankly chaos back then and ultimately Mr Morton paid a personal price because people in Wirral Council tried to repeatedly punish him for daring to blow the whistle. Due to the large financial amounts involved, Cabinet had to sign off on the large expenditure that resulted.

One day before the AKA report was finally released to the public, the two middle managers involved in this matter were each paid a six figure sum each to leave Wirral Council.

At the earlier meeting (and at least one person on the Audit and Risk Management Committee is the same person as back then), the Chair back then accused one politician (Cllr Ron Abbey) of either not reading the papers for the meeting as they were asking questions that were already answered there or of completely misunderstanding what they had read (if they had read them). At this time the Chair was of a different political party to the Labour councillor (Cllr Ron Abbey) & in the interests of impartiality (with absolutely no offence meant towards one of my local councillors Cllr Jim Crabtree) many other local authorities have an unwritten rule that the Chair of the Audit and Risk Management Committee is not from the same political party as the ruling administration to ensure independence.

Knowing Cllr Crabtree as I do, I know that even if a councillor stepped out of line at a meeting he was chairing, even if the councillor was from the same political party as he was, Cllr Crabtree’s personality is such that he would frankly realise that it’s in the “public interest” to hold his fellow councillors to account even if he would have to be careful how he did this in public.

After it seems part of the reasons why Labour got a small majority on Wirral Council is because councillors from that party woke up the news that the Wirral public expected them to hold other politicians to account in public even if these were other councillors from the same political party.

Bill Norman (who left in somewhat mysterious circumstances in 2012) was the legal adviser to that earlier Audit and Risk Committee meeting years ago, not Surjit Tour as it is now. The issue of blacking out all the names (and other details) in the published papers was addressed by Bill Norman then with broadly similar reasons given to those given by Mr. Tour many years later. However I will point out that the culture of legal practice is such that confidentiality, especially when it comes to active proceedings is extremely important to maintain!

At the time this written material authored by Mr. Morton included in the papers for the meeting was also redacted, so this aspect of whistleblowing hasn’t changed much at all over the years at Wirral Council.

Wirral Council, back then and as it seems now has a fear of being sued. Although if they were open and transparent wouldn’t Wirral Council welcome judicial oversight of their decisions as it would give Wirral Council the chance for someone independent to look at it and the opportunity to defend themselves in court if they had done nothing wrong?

Perhaps it’s unfair to say a fear of being sued, it’s a fear at Wirral Council of being sued and losing and the results that flow from that which could be a combination of large financial penalties (or other things) as well as the fact that court reporters such as myself or the publications they publish in can’t actually be sued under British law for court reporting as long as we comply with the few rules that apply as court reporting attracts absolute privilege. All court hearings whether public or private are recorded by the court on tape anyway and in theory transcripts can be ordered.

Some may say for a large local Council (covering a population of ~320,000), whilst obviously they have their own organisational reputation to consider, that they seem unduly concerned at times at reputation management (although this is also a preoccupation of political parties) rather than dealing with matters in an entirely open and transparent way. There is a blurry line between the individual reputations of senior managers and politicians on one hand and the organisational reputation of the organisations they are either employed by or are elected to represent the views of the public at.

Some of the reports that went to the most meeting the day before yesterday, have been the subject of previous articles by me and FOI requests.

You can read my FOI request (25/8/13) for the report on ISUS here, which was refused on 23/9/13 and refused at internal review on 24/10/13. That external audit report can be read as part of the committee’s papers (see agenda item 2 and the links from this page on Wirral Council’s website if you wish to do.

Had the responses to those FOI requests been forthcoming and Wirral Council provided the information within weeks a lot more would have been in the public domain before the July and October meetings in 2014 of the Audit and Risk Management Committee meetings. Wirral Council instead chose to rely on exemptions to suppress the information and knew I was unlikely to appeal to ICO, as if I had I’d probably still be waiting for a decision!

Excessive secrecy just makes the public and press suspect that there’s a deliberate cover up or Wirral Council has done something it’s ashamed or embarrassed about. Usually the answer is a little more complicated than a conspiracy.

The Merseyside police investigation (which resulted in no charges) was used as an excuse by Wirral Council to deny FOI requests, not just about the one Grant Thornton recommended was referred to the police, but information in general about the other aspects too.

Wirral Council was recommended by the forensic arm of its external auditors to refer one very minor matter to the police. Wirral Council did and this was then used this as an excuse to delay and prevent further scrutiny. The police response (and I summarise) was that based on what they were told that there was insufficient evidence to charge somebody (or somebodies) with a crime. Remember criminal charges require basically two elements, proof that the alleged crime occurred and also generally for most criminal matters mens rea (proof of a “guilty mind” too). The latter is often harder to prove than the former, which is why defendants sometimes plead not guilty in order to get a jury trial! As Wirral Council actually carries out criminal prosecutions through the Wirral Magistrates Courts, I’m sure someone there who is actually aware of these matters!

This article is getting rather long and at the two thousand word mark I am somewhat digressing into related matters, although obviously it is not as long as the papers for that meeting which come in at the length of a medium-sized novel!

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The reasons why Wirral Council’s Lyndale School call in is being delayed

The reasons why Wirral Council’s Lyndale School call in is being delayed

The reasons why Wirral Council’s Lyndale School call in is being delayed

                                  

Labour's Cllr Tony Smith (Cabinet Member for Children and Family Services) explains at a Wirral Council Cabinet meeting why he thinks the Cabinet should agree to consultation on closure of Lyndale School
Labour’s Cllr Tony Smith (Cabinet Member for Children and Family Services) explaining at a Wirral Council Cabinet meeting why he thinks the Cabinet should agree to consultation on closure of Lyndale School (which is the decision that was called in)

I read the Wirral Globe article headlined “Town Hall bungle means Lyndale meeting called off” with interest as it was related to my earlier blog post headlined “Is the Lyndale School call in going to the wrong Wirral Council committee?”.

Basically Wirral Council is stuck (and apologies for the cliché) between a rock and a hard place. Their new constitution states call ins have to be decided by the Coordinating Committee, however a law (The Education (Parent Governor Representatives) Regulations 1999) means it has to be decided by a committee with parent governor representatives on and a previous case Transport and General Workers Union and Hilary Hollington v Wallsall Metropolitan Borough Council [2001] EWHC Admin 452 means that if they went ahead and made a decision on the Lyndale School call in by the Coordinating Committee without any parent governor representatives having a vote as part of that committee’s decision, then such a decision would almost certainly be quashed (based on that bit of case law) by a High Court Judge if any of the parents requested a judicial review.

The only committee that could legally decide the call in (that has parent governor representatives on it) is the Families and Wellbeing Committee (however for it to do so would currently be unconstitutional). There was a meeting scheduled of the Families and Wellbeing Committee for Thursday but it was mysteriously cancelled. If anybody knows what this cancelled meeting was about and if it was related to the call in please leave a comment.

So what happens next? Well the Coordinating Committee will meet on Wednesday 5th February as planned, but at the meeting will probably receive legal advice that they can’t make a decision on the call ins as they don’t have any parent governor representatives on their committee.

To progress with this matter will need a change to Wirral Council’s constitution. Such changes originate as a recommendation by the Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee first (usually on the advice of Surjit Tour), which next meets on the 24th February. A recommendation would then be made to change the constitution to Budget Council on the 25th February and presuming the change is agreed to, the call in will be decided on the 27th February by the Families and Wellbeing Policy and Performance Committee.

The quote from Cllr Leah Fraser in the Wirral Globe article of “The parents and staff of Lyndale School deserve better than this chaos” is one I agree with. Both the quotes of Cllr Phil Davies and Joe Blott leave out an important point not mentioned, which is that the parent governor representatives will have a vote in the decision over the call ins. I’m not sure if the Diocesan representatives have a vote too (it’s something I’d have to look into), but as far as I recall one of the two Diocesan representative positions on the Families and Wellbeing Policy and Performance Committee is vacant (although an appointment to it could be made at the next Council meeting).

However taking from 16th January (date of the original Cabinet decision) to 27th February (date of the proposed Families and Wellbeing Policy and Performance Committee to consider the call in) is a total of one month and eleven days. Certainly it is not ideal for the parents and staff of Lyndale School to face uncertainty over the outcome for such a prolonged length of time.

What Wirral Council’s constitution currently states on call ins is included at the end of this blog post. Changes to it will need to be made if the Lyndale School call ins are to be made by the Families and Wellbeing Policy and Performance Committee on the 27th February.

The controversial rewrite of Wirral’s constitution (which included changing the call in procedure) happened at an extraordinary meeting of Wirral Council last April.

Here are some quotes from what councillors said at the time back in April 2013 about the constitutional changes which Labour councillors voted for, but Conservative and Lib Dem councillors were opposed to.

Cllr Phil Davies (Labour’s Leader) (who recommended the constitutional changes which included changes to the call in system) said, “What are the aims of the changes we’re proposing? Well we want to clearly improve our governance and decision-making procedures.”

Cllr Jeff Green (Leader of the Conservatives) said, “One of the elements of these changes is to remove the Children and Young People’s and the Adult Social & Health and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committees. Given Wirral’s history …. it seems to me a backward and dangerous step to actually remove any of the scrutiny.”

Former Councillor Darren Dodd (Labour) said, “This is what the people of Wirral have been asking for, for for a very long time.”

Cllr John Hale (Conservative) said, “These proposals should be consigned to the dustbin where they belong”.

Cllr Chris Blakeley (Conservative) said, “Where will it end, what next? Will Wirral be twinned with Pyongyang?”

Cllr Tom Harney (Liberal Democrats) said, “We don’t know where we came from, we don’t know where we’re going.”

Excerpt from Wirral Council’s constitution on call ins

35. Calling in of decisions

(1) All decisions of:
(i) the Executive Board,
(ii) an individual member of the Executive Board or
(iii) a committee of the Executive Board, and
(iv) key decisions taken by an officer;
shall be published, and shall be available at the main offices of the Council normally within 2 days of being made. All members of the Council will be sent a copy of the decision.

(2) That notice will bear the date on which it is published and will specify that the decision will come into force, and may then be implemented, unless the decision is called in for scrutiny by 9a.m. on the Thursday following publication of a decision on Friday. (Adjusted by a maximum of one day in there is one or more Bank Holidays in that period)

(3) (a) During that period, the Chief Executive shall Call-In a decision for scrutiny by the Co-ordinating Committee if so requested by any six members of the Council who have given detailed reasons for the Call-In of the decision. The detailed reasons must be provided by the Lead signatory, by the Call In deadline. When a Call In is requested the Chief Executive shall liaise with the Member listed first on the Call-In schedule, to ensure there is sufficient information provided to enable the Call-In to proceed. As long as there is a clear reason given, the call-in should be allowed. He/she shall then notify the decision-taker of the Call-In. He/she shall call a meeting of the Committee on such date as he/she may determine, where possible after consultation with the Chair of the Coordinating Committee, and in any case within 7 working days of the decision to call-in.

(b) The relevant Chief Officer and all members will be notified of a call-in immediately and no action will be taken to implement the decision until the call-in procedure has been completed. A decision of the Cabinet, a committee of the Cabinet or individual Cabinet member may be called in only once.

(4) Having considered the decision, the Co-ordinating Committee may:-
(i) refer it back to the decision making person or body for reconsideration, setting out in writing the nature of its concerns or;
(ii) refer the matter to full Council. Such a referral should only be made where the Co-ordinating Committee believes that the decision is outside the policy framework or contrary to or not wholly in accordance with the budget. The procedures set out in those rules must be followed prior to any such referral.

(5) If a decision is referred back to the decision making person or body it shall be reconsidered in the light of the written concerns of the Co-ordinating Committee before a final decision is made.

(6) If following a call in, the Co-ordinating Committee does not refer the matter back to the decision making person or body and does not refer the matter to Council, the decision shall take effect on the date of the Co-ordinating Committee meeting. If the Co-ordinating Committee does not meet the decision shall take effect from the date when the Committee should have met.

(7) If the matter is referred to full Council and the Council does not object to a decision which has been made, then the decision will become effective on the date of the Council meeting.

(8) If the Council does object the Council may take a decision, which is outside the policy and budgetary framework. Otherwise the Council will refer any decision to which it objects back to the decision-making person or body, together with the Council’s views on the decision. That decision making body or person shall choose whether to amend the decision or not before reaching a final decision and implementing it. Where the decision was taken by the Executive Board as a whole or a committee of it, a meeting will be convened to reconsider within ten working days of the Council request. Where the decision was made by an individual, the individual will reconsider within ten working days of the Council request.

(9) Call-in should only be used in exceptional circumstances where members have evidence which suggests that the decision was not made in accordance with the principles of decision making in the constitution.

(10) Call-in and urgency
(a) The call-in procedure set out above shall not apply where the decision being taken by the Cabinet is urgent. A decision will be urgent if any delay is likely to be caused by the call-in process would seriously prejudice the Council’s or the public’s interest. The record of the decision and the notice by which it is made public shall state whether, in the opinion of the decision making person or body, the decision is an urgent one, and therefore not subject to call-in. The Chief Executive must agree both that the decision proposed is reasonably in all the circumstances and to it being treated as a matter of urgency. Decisions taken as a matter of urgency must be reported to the next available meeting of the Council, together with the reasons for urgency.

(b) The operation of the provisions relating to call-in and urgency shall be monitored annually, and a report submitted to Council with proposals for review if necessary.

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