Why has Wirral Council sunk deeper into the quagmire of poor corporate governance surrounding a complaint about Cllr Steve Foulkes?
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The rationale for having this meeting behind closed doors relies on Wirral Council exercising a legal power that was repealed by the government years ago.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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