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The rationale for having this meeting behind closed doors relies on Wirral Council exercising a legal power that was repealed by the government years ago.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.

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Election result (Wirral Council, 2015): Leasowe and Moreton East: Labour hold (Ron Abbey)

Election result (Wirral Council, 2015): Leasowe and Moreton East: Labour hold (Ron Abbey)

Election result (Wirral Council, 2015): Leasowe and Moreton East: Labour hold (Ron Abbey)


Candidate Party Votes
Ron Abbey Labour 4,297
Denis Thomas Knowles Conservative 1,744
Jan Davison UK Independence Party (UKIP) 734
Craig John Reynolds Green Party 291

The turnout was 65.9% and the electorate was 10,764. This result was declared at 12:02.

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Merseytravel’s Head of Internal Audit brands some whistleblowing as “Mickey Mouse” & “complete nonsense”

Merseytravel’s Head of Internal Audit brands some whistleblowing as “Mickey Mouse” & “complete nonsense”

Merseytravel’s Head of Internal Audit brands some whistleblowing as “Mickey Mouse” & “complete nonsense”


ED 26/11/14 15:16 – Following a complaint from Merseytravel received on the 26th November 2014, the word “some” has been added to the headline for the purposes of clarity.

Declaration of Interest: The author of this piece was years ago involved as the Claimant in litigation against Merseyside Passenger Transport Authority (defendant) and Merseyside Passenger Transport Executive (defendant) that started and concluded in 2007 in the Birkenhead County Court. This was after first raising his concerns internally with its former Chief Executive Neil Scales and former Chair of Merseytravel Cllr Dowd. At this stage the matter could have been easily settled for £15 but Merseytravel chose at that stage not to.

Merseytravel’s legal costs in the matter were estimated at £thousands (which Merseytravel paid themselves and would have had to pay whether they won or lost). The increased legal costs of Merseytravel were partly because of what happened as detailed below.

During the case Merseytravel’s barrister (in my opinion a barrister is indeed slight overkill for a £15 claim in the small claims track in the county court, but I know now it’s common practice in the public sector to do this) had to (rather embarrassingly) ask for the permission from both the Claimant (myself) and the Birkenhead County Court to withdraw the first signed witness statement of their expert witness (a Merseytravel employee) after I pointed out a factual inaccuracy in their witness statement (that the witness (a Merseytravel employee) had indeed signed a statement of truth for).

Merseytravel also sought (initially but later changed their mind on that) in 2008 to withhold documents referred to from the Claimant that were referred to in their defence. If I remember correctly a Merseytravel employee stated to me at the time that such documents (which were details of their charging policy for lost Solo and Trio passes) were not for the public.

The final judgement in the case (by agreement by both Merseytravel and myself) was later modified by the Birkenhead County Court due to a factual error made by the Judge who had not taken into account an earlier application in the case and chosen to ignore me pointing this out to him at the time of the hearing.

Although the judge at the final hearing agreed with me that Merseytravel had discriminated against me three times because of a protected characteristic, the court accepted Merseytrave’s reliance on a statutory defence that discrimination on these three times was justified due to a “a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim” because of decisions by politicians.

The four councillors from Wirral Council at the time on Merseytravel (the Merseyside Passenger Transport Authority) were:

Cllr Ron Abbey (Labour)
former Cllr Denis Knowles (Labour at the time but switched to the Conservatives)

It is perhaps to be noted that as is relevant to how politicians and those in the public sector relate towards protected minorities (and this point here is obviously to do with attitudes towards a different protected minority) that Denis Knowles in 2012 later faced a Wirral Council Standards Hearing Panel hearing based on a complaint of Denis Knowles after a comment he left on Facebook about members of the LGBT community who were members of the Labour Party. He was suspended at the time from the Conservative Party.

former Cllr Jacqueline McKelvie (Conservative)
Cllr Dave Mitchell (Lib Dem)


A councillor asks a question about Merseytravel's whistleblowing policy at a public meeting of its Audit and Governance SubCommittee 24th November 2014
A councillor asks a question about Merseytravel’s whistleblowing policy at a public meeting of its Audit and Governance SubCommittee 24th November 2014

Cllr Steve Foulkes (Vice-Chair of Merseytravel’s Audit and Governance Sub-Committee) now part of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority sent his apologies to a public meeting to discuss Merseytravel’s whistleblowing policy and was not present.

Officers of Merseytravel were asking councillors for their comments on a draft whistleblowing policy which included such priceless paragraphs as:

“10.2 If you do take the matter outside Merseytravel, you should ensure that you do not disclose confidential information acquired during your employment unless it falls within the qualifying criteria for protected disclosures. Premature or inaccurate media exposure or adverse publicity may cause needless reputational damage, impede a proper investigation or cause unnecessary distress to individuals.”

I will translate those two sentences in the draft policy into what my interpretation of the intention behind it is and probably in much clearer English:

“10.2 If you rat on us to the press, not only will we [Merseytravel] start spinning to the press and refer to any damaging press report as “inaccurate”, we’ll go after you (despite what the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 c.23 states as we’re more bothered with our reputation and making sure that we control the flow of information about our organisation to both to the public and politicians.”

The references made during the public meeting itself to a hypothetical whistleblower as “Mickey Mouse” (whether made in jest or not) speaks volumes about cultural attitudes that still persist at Merseytravel.

However bearing in mind my unusually long declaration of interest made at the start of this piece, I had better not let how dysfunctional Merseytravel was in 2007 influence my reporting of it in 2014 as the Merseytravel politicians of 2014 are keen to put its somewhat chequered past behind it.

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Merseytravel’s (now part of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority’s) Audit and Governance Subcommittee public meeting of the 24th November 2014

The whistleblowing item (item 7) starts at 31m 48s into the meeting and can be watched above. The report and draft policy can be read on Merseytravel’s website.

Councillor Fulham at the meeting asked, “Thanks Chair. Errm, I appreciate that on page 48 of the agenda and at 7.4 in the policy, errm it says that this part of the that I’m looking at, I’ve found somewhere I’m looking at says this policy applies even if after investigation, disclosure is found to be incorrect or unfounded and there are statutory protections which the policy acknowledges for people who errm make a protected disclosure, that’s found out too. Well at the end of the process is found out not to be errm founded but it might be a reasonably held disclosure.

But what worries me is on page 46, where it says policy statement, under errm in chapter 4 “we will investigate all genuine and reasonable concerns”, but the way I would approach things, you can’t make an assessment whether it’s genuine or reasonable until you’ve investigated it? So it kind of precludes the investigation. So errm, why is that there?”

Stephanie Donaldson, Merseytravel’s Head of Internal Audit answered “OK, you’re absolutely right in so far as how can you tell that anything’s genuine or legitimate until you investigate it, so realistically everything will be investigated to a point.

However if something was found to be errm you know complete nonsense for want of a better word then that investigation would cease. We wouldn’t pursue investigating something which is you know completely unfounded or false then, but you’re right that there is the legislation requires that as long as it’s in the public interest it should still be investigated and that’s what the changes to the policy would fly at.

I suppose the purpose of that one in the policy statement and I will take some advice through you Chair from legal, is that errm, that if we received a complete nonsense of an allegation and it’s clearly complete nonsense from Mickey Mouse for example that we would not investigate that, there are boundaries aren’t there?

Errm, but you’re absolutely right to say that in a majority of I think all cases, it would be you have to undertake an investigation in order to assess its legitimacy.”

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Election results for Claughton (Labour Hold), Bidston & St James (Labour Hold) and Pensby & Thingwall (Labour Gain)

Election results for Claughton (Labour Hold), Bidston & St James (Labour Hold) and Pensby & Thingwall (Labour Gain)

Election results for Claughton (Labour Hold), Bidston & St James (Labour Hold) and Pensby & Thingwall (Labour Gain)


Claughton ward (declared at 11:55)

Name of candidate Party Votes
Denise Elizabeth ROBERTS Labour 1,912
Philip William Barrington GRIFFITHS UKIP 760
Barbara Vera SINCLAIR Conservative 522
Paul Thomas CARTLIDGE Green 222
Chris TEGGIN Liberal Democrat 172

Labour Hold

Bidston & St James ward (declared at 11:57)

Name of candidate Party Votes
Ann Rose Catherine MCLACHLAN Labour 1,701
Geoffrey Peter DORMAND Conservative 190
Colin DIGNAM-GILL Green 106
Roy John WOOD Liberal Democrat 53
Greg NORTH Trade Unionists and Socialists Against Cuts 43

Labour Hold

Pensby & Thingwall ward (declared at 12:06)

Name of candidate Party Votes
Louise Ann REECEJONES Labour 1,334
Denis Thomas KNOWLES Conservative 1,172
Damien William CUMMINS Liberal Democrat 390
Allen John BURTON Green 274

Labour Gain

Standards Hearing Panel 24/1/2012 Denis Knowles Part 4

When Denis Knowles, Rosemary Lyons and the public returned the Chair thanked them. He said after “careful consideration” and receiving legal advice they had reached a decision.

Stella Elliott said that had carefully listened to the representations by Denis Knowles, but it was the final view that counts. She said it was “unacceptable” and they are thankful. In regards to respect, disrepute and the equality enactments. They had noted he had undergone training and his contrition. He had learned his lesson and they also took on board his prompt actions and self-reform as well as his full cooperation.

The panel had decided not to sanction him.

The Chair thanked the panel, officers and others and closed the meeting.