Why did Cllr Adrian “Father Christmas” Jones try to block scrutiny of £2.6 million given to Wirral Council to spend on the poor?
As you can see from the photo above (and let’s face it three days away from Christmas this is becoming topical), it’s well-known politician Cllr Adrian Jones dressed as Father Christmas and my wife Leonora Brace.
Yesterday (to my surprise), the Wirral Globe ran a story headlined Councillor scolds Wirral blogger over information requests about expenses. If you hadn’t guessed already, I’m the blogger (also described as online journalist) referred to in the article.
Now firstly, I’ve been taken back by all the positive comments people have left both to that article and on social media. It would probably take Christmas to respond to them all.
Firstly I will take this opportunity to wish Councillor Adrian Jones a happy Christmas. However this story isn’t really about him or myself. It’s a far more complicated saga than that. I’ve replied to a number of comments on social media to try and clarify some of it.
This story came about because of two other people who I am going to take the time to thank in this article (before I write any more about this subject).
Firstly, Heather Brooke (who indeed is somewhat of the inspiration behind the story). Heather Brooke wrote a book called Your Right to Know: a citizen’s guide to the Freedom of Information Act (available to read in Wirral Council’s libraries) and was the person that took to task the House of Commons/House of Lords over MPs’/Lords’ expenses (only to find herself scooped by a leak to the newspapers). She writes a blog here.
The second person I’d like to thank is Ted Jeory. He writes a blog here. His blog covers local politics in Tower Hamlets. He’s a former accountant, then newspaper journalist who now works for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
To be honest with you, in my opinion (although this is only an opinion) they are both far better at journalism than I am!
However back to the story (which isn’t just about Cllr Adrian Jones and myself but this is a good place to start). Before doing what we both do now, Cllr Adrian Jones and I came from the academic world (a somewhat different world to politics).
In the academic world, my question to Cllr Adrian Jones would be like the equivalent of an oral exam where I’ve challenged his more orthodox view of the political world. He’s then disagreed with me over some points and it’s all gone to peer review now and now everyones’ commenting on the merits of each sides’ arguments. Fine, fair enough, that much I can understand and yes there should be a public debate and discussion about politicians’ expenses beyond the walls of Wirral Council’s Council Chamber.
It makes more sense that instead of the Heather Brooke route of 5 years of court battles that it is much more cost-effective (as this is a worry of Cllr Adrian Jones’) to have this debate in the media instead.
The world of politics however is very different to the world of academia. Despite sharing some features in fact they’re like oil and water.
I am now going to sound terribly like an academic now and reference a tweet I wrote yesterday about the new Poor Laws (and by new I mean 1844).
@GSwinburn #citizenaudit goes back to the Public Health Act 1875 & the new Poor Laws (1844), so Wirral hasn't had much time to adapt has it?
— John Brace (@level80) December 21, 2015
The way I made the request to Wirral Council dates back to this legal right from Victorian times, but is still relevant today. It’s an important right that gives access to local voters (such as myself) on what public money is being spent on. I realise the Wirral Globe headline is about councillors’ expenses, however I will instead highlight another part of the request that probably won’t generate as many headlines in the newspapers. In fact on this topic I can only find one article written two years ago by the Wirral Globe.
I’m going to briefly mention an area that you may not have heard of, that Wirral Council was given a budget of £1,345,925 a year to spend on. It’s called the Local Welfare Assistance Scheme. The whole point of it (rather like the point of the Poor Laws) was to reduce poverty.
The thumbnail for this invoice will be hard to read (it does link to a higher resolution version), however it’s for a cooker, electric kettle and washing machine (total £778.20). This would have been given to someone who made an application under the scheme. The other invoices are for very similar items too such as microwaves. The whole point of it is to help people in need who are have emergencies. The scheme also covers basics such as food and utilities.
Admittedly there can be a lot of public debate over the best ways to help people and there is a detailed report on this on Wirral Council’s website and there are many party political aspects to this issue that I am trying very hard to avoid dwelling on
You may well say good for Wirral Council, isn’t it great that they spent £1.3 million a year on helping poor people? However this isn’t what happened. As estimated by one councillor at this meeting, Wirral Council so restricted (or didn’t publicise enough) what they were doing, that there was an estimated (this was cumulative so it was over two years) £2.1 million underspend of a £2.6 million budget.
Yes this was money given to Wirral Council for the relief of the poor, on which there was an estimated £2.1 million underspend. Bear in mind we often hear Wirral’s councillors repeat that they feel the government are not giving Wirral Council enough money!
By Cllr Adrian Jones’ logic (in answer to the request I put in), I should be restricted from enquiring and writing questions/requesting the invoices for the above matter because it costs too much (despite an estimated over £2 million underspend).
In doing so (oh dear, I’m about to make what could be construed as a party political point here so advance warning), it makes it far easier for the Conservative government to axe funding for this area (as indeed they have done so already). Why, because if Wirral Council blocks or delays press scrutiny of it, then there is little discussion of it in the media in defence of it.
Therefore national politicians think it can be cut as they look somewhat to the press as an indicator of public opinion.
I know his fellow Labour councillor Cllr Janette Williamson has spoken passionately in defence of her view that the underspend should be used for its intended purpose rather than swallowed up to be spent on something else by Wirral Council.
As it is Christmas, I’ll try and give some respite to Cllr Adrian Jones’ on the rather vexed issue of councillors’ expenses (which is the tip of massive iceberg of Wirral Council expenditure) and finish by making these points which because of the time of year probably fall into religion rather than politics.
I was brought up as a Catholic and part of those teachings are about seeking together the common good and well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable. There are many good things that Wirral Council does, but if you block my queries it makes it more difficult for me to write about it. Personally, it doesn’t bother me too much if you try to block me, but it seems to be unpopular with the people that you are there to serve. To give the Local Welfare Assistance Scheme issue as outlined above, councillor scrutiny on it was done behind closed doors, not in public but as a task and finish group.
The story then sadly becomes about the secrecy (which let’s face it is the kind of story about cover ups the rest of the press like to write about). Frankly if you do this it’s very good for my career and bad for Wirral Council’s reputation (although you know this already). In three days time it will be Christmas (on the day I’m writing this). Christmas is a time of year when society concentrates on the religious and there is a break from politics.
I don’t expect politicians or those working in the public sector to be saints, but I sincerely hope they know the difference between right and wrong (and yes my view of right and wrong is probably slightly different to yours and everybody else’s as right and wrong is subjective).
Although you may not believe this, I don’t wish to quarrel with Wirral Council or its councillors, in fact believe me I try my best not to interfere in your internal affairs. I just see your world from outside the goldfish bowl that is local politics rather than inside. Happy Christmas!
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