Wirral Council Employee Survey 2013: Industrial relations: a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma

Wirral Council Employee Survey 2013: Industrial relations: a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma

Wirral Council Employee Survey 2013: Industrial relations: a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma

                                                                                  

One of the quandaries you face in the press is just what you do over leaked documents. When I was working in print it was easy, the procedure was everything just had to be double sourced. With Wirral Council that has in the past often caused problems as two bits of Wirral Council would flat-out contradict each other over the same facts!

The particular document I am referring to is the Ipsos Mori “Wirral Council Employee Survey 2013”. This contains such classic lines such as:

“The contents of this report are of a commercially sensitive and confidential nature and intended solely for the review and consideration of the person or entity to which it is addressed. No other use is permitted and the addressee undertakes not to disclose all or part of this report to any third party (including but not limited, where applicable, pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act 2000) without the prior written consent of the Company Secretary of Ipsos MORI.”

Well thank goodness for a s.30 exemption to the copyright laws for the press is all I can say.

In an “open and transparent” public sector, where Wirral Council wanted to show how it had emerged from the nightmare of its past “industrial relations” issues, here’s just one industrial relations issue that would not be happening:

a) employee appeals/grievance hearings of Wirral Council employees now decided by Wirral Council management behind closed doors instead of councillors (unlike other local councils) at public meetings behind closed doors. Yes it was a Labour administration and Labour councillors that decided to change the constitution and go against the trade unions on that one!

b) excessive secrecy on HR matters (but I’m the press and I would say that wouldn’t I?), however it’s not just me but others that state the same thing?

The whole ninety-page document that is the Wirral Council Employee Survey 2013 (before you get to the appendices) is the kind of thing that councillors, the public, employees and others should be able to read, but I’m sure management would rather not like to ever see the light of day.

However considering management’s view on leaks, especially matters that relate to Graham Burgess, I will just remind people of part of the Chief Executive’s job description as Head of Paid Service:

“To act as Head of Paid Service to the Council and to provide workforce leadership for the Council.”

In other words the buck stops at him. OK answerable to the public then are councillors who are Cabinet Members, but from an officer perspective ultimately Graham Burgess (or whoever replaces him after the end of this year) sets the culture of the organisation when it comes to workforce matters.

For example is Wirral Council an organisation where councillors, management and the trade unions work harmoniously in partnership or is it one where senior officers (backed up by councillors) make veiled threats to cancel a meeting because of industrial relations matters in an attempt to somewhat avoid legal protections in order to damage openness and transparency?

It was during Graham Burgess’ tenure as Chief Executive/Head of Paid Service that the changes to the grievance and appeals procedures were changed. One of the reasons given at the time was that with large-scale redundancies, councillors would’ve been snowed under dealing with employee appeals.

That may be a legitimate reason to put forward for the change (and yes I have heard at least one former councillor moan during a public meeting about how terribly long-winded some employee appeals/grievances were). However taking councillors out of grievance appeals meant that any future whistleblowers would only be heard by management. Then management have a vested interest in making sure issues are resolved behind the scenes (such as paying off whistleblowers to leave and keep quiet) and then the underlying issues are not talked about by councillors in public meetings (making life easier for management) or indeed written about in the press.

I think it is about time I published some of the Human Resources related invoices to do with Employment Tribunals and employee issues so that the public can see how expensive to the public purse it is to not have effective internal processes to deal with employee matters. Previously such procedures (despite their flaws) relied not on the more independent decisions of councillors but now it’s purely officers who decide instead. I’m not saying councillors would make decisions that were less likely to result in large expensive legal bills, it’s just I personally disagree (a rare political point on my part) with the lack of political oversight in employee matters as it means councillors are less likely to know what’s going on.

I fully realise matters have been dealt with behind closed doors, but there is a point where too much secrecy can be counter productive in the public sector as it results in no one being personally accountable for the results of their actions.

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Improvement Board (15th November 2013) The next five minutes (a transcript)

Improvement Board (15th November 2013) The next five minutes (a transcript)

Improvement Board (15th November 2013) The next five minutes (a transcript)

                                   

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A previous post on this blog deals with the first five minutes of the Improvement Board meeting. Since then over roughly a week since the video of the Improvement Board meeting was uploaded to Youtube, the first part of the meeting has been viewed nearly two hundred times at the time of writing! As there was such interest in it, I thought I’d continue with a transcript of the meeting, carrying on where I left off which was five minutes and twenty-four seconds in.

Joyce Redfearn (Chair, Improvement Board): We’re going to move on in terms of making sure we get through the questions. John Brace, are you present, yeah?

John Brace: As there are quite a lot of questions and they’re in here already, I’m quite happy with you reading them out if that would be speeding things up a bit.

Joyce Redfearn (Chair, Improvement Board): I think that’s really helpful of you and thank you for submitting it in advance, because people have the script in front of them and because it’s long, I won’t actually read it out as we did in one of the other sessions if that’s alright, but we will let you come back when we’ve given the answer, unlike the other sessions, in terms of if there are supplementary questions or points that you feel we didn’t cover from your email, ok? Thank you. Graham do you want to go?

Graham Burgess (Chief Executive, Wirral Council): Just in response to the first question which relates to a whole series of appendices to the AKA report, our view is that err all the appendices actually contain very sensitive personal information and to release those appendices would be in breach of data protection and also the duty we have to individuals who gave us information in confidence, or in relation to their own personal medical or financial circumstances. Therefore it’s our view that it would be inappropriate to release those documents as they contain a whole host of sensitive information. Clearly these matters can be tested, if you wish to test our view, via FOIs and the Information Commissioner, but so far our position has been and has not been challenged in respect of those appendices. It’s our view as you can see from some of them anyway, clearly showing they do contain very sensitive personal information.

Joyce Redfearn (Chair, Improvement Board): I think that was recognised within the question, certainly in terms of one of the appendices, thank you.

Cllr Jeff Green (Leader, Conservative Group): Yeah, can I just check when the Chief Executive said ‘we decided’ who the we were?

Graham Burgess (Chief Executive, Wirral Council): Well it’s the Council, I clearly represent the Council.

John Brace: Sorry, as I’m entitled to a supplementary on that. In relation to that list, I know that there were councillors present at that one and that was used as a justification that councillors had signed off on the special charging policy, so if you released it with the other names blacked out, wouldn’t that mean people could have at least a bit of accountability as to who the people were who agreed to that?

Graham Burgess (Chief Executive, Wirral Council): Can I also say Chair that with your agreement it would be the intention of the Council to print all these questions, place all these questions on our website and all the answers to them as well so it can be available for people who couldn’t make it at this meeting so they can see what we’re saying.

In respect of that, obviously this is a question that only came in at five o’clock last night which was reasonable and obviously your supplementary has just been asked now so I’d need to probably go away and take advice on that point and we’ll give you the answer both to you John personally and put the answer on the website for everybody to see and certainly Joyce and the Improvement Board will take that into account when they write the final report.

Joyce Redfearn (Chair, Improvement Board): So thank you, for that particular question, it’s really helpful. Do you want to keep on going in terms of the series of questions because we’ve got them in front of us?

Graham Burgess (Chief Executive, Wirral Council): The next question I think refers to the Martin Smith report and again our position is the Martin Smith report was redacted as it contained personal information and the Council has a legal obligation with regards to public disclosure of that information to the individuals mentioned in that report.

The Council’s responsibility extends not only to the public, but to any person or body to which the information relates, the Council considers every case on its merits and maintains its position that disclosure is not appropriate in these circumstances. Once again there are ways of challenging the Council, via the Information Commissioner another way if you think the Council is being unreasonable and the Council has and will always respond to the Information Commissioner’s ruling.

I would say however that perhaps the most important part of that report particularly is the recommendations around our whistle blowing, grievances and bullying policies, all of which have been progressed in line with that report and all of which is referred in response to critical incidents report that’s also considered by the Audit Committee last night.

Joyce Redfearn (Chair, Improvement Board): Thank you, is there anything further as you’re present that you want to ask? Move onto the councillors point which is in the next question.

Graham Burgess: Thank you, I’ll just stay standing up, shall I?

Joyce Redfearn (Chair, Improvement Board): Yeah, I think you should, you could keep your jacket off.

Graham Burgess (Chief Executive, Wirral Council): Again it’s a similar point that the Council does have responsibilities to the individuals named in these reports and this must be considered in relation to disclosure and redaction. Full disclosure of the Martin Smith report would in the Council’s opinion contravene its legal obligations under the Data Protection Act, with regards to upper management’s control of information in its possession.

Once again there are ways of challenging the Council independently if people have a different view and I would encourage people if they don’t agree with the Council’s position to challenge us and we will state our case to the Information Commissioner or any other relevant body. We believe as well as obligations to the public as a whole, we have obligations to individual members of staff, public, service users to protect their interests and that’s why we’re acting in this way.

If however, people think we’re wrong, then it’s worth challenging our position and we welcome people challenging our position. Thank you.

Member of public heckling: You’re wrong, you welcome challenges, you’re wrong. You’re far from being open and transparent and that’s ridiculous. I apologise to you all for that.

Graham Burgess (Chief Executive, Wirral Council): Can I just say?

Joyce Redfearn (Chair, Improvement Board): That’s your view, so I, what we will do is allow further questions and comments at the end and I understand that was a heartfelt, but we’ll go through the series if that’s ok with you.

Member of public who previously heckled: Apologies about the time you take on this decision.

Graham Burgess (Chief Executive, Wirral Council): Can I just say clearly if people think we are wrong, that’s perfectly right to challenge us and there are ways of processing those and it can be challenged independently and we welcome those challenges and if we are wrong of course we will publish the documents.

12:04

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