19 Wirral schools closed as teachers go on strike

19 Wirral schools closed as teachers go on strike

19 Wirral schools closed as teachers go on strike

Surjit Tour (Monitoring Officer (Wirral Council)) at the Coordinating Committee held on 15th June 2016
Surjit Tour (Monitoring Officer (Wirral Council)) at the Coordinating Committee held on 15th June 2016 who made the section 36 decision to withhold details of trade union discussions

Last month I was arguing at a public hearing of a Tribunal (First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights)) as the Appellant over in Liverpool why Wirral Council should release the minutes of the Headteachers’/Teachers’ Joint Consultative Committee. For those who don’t know this is a regular meeting at Wirral Council between politicians, senior management and trade union representatives.

Regular readers of this blog, Nigel Hobro and James Griffiths were both there watching.

Continue reading “19 Wirral schools closed as teachers go on strike”

A letter to all 66 councillors at Wirral Council on press freedom and censorship

A letter to all 66 councillors at Wirral Council on press freedom and censorship

A letter to all 66 councillors at Wirral Council on press freedom and censorship


Wirral Council bans filming and public from public meeting

A picture reminder above of times gone by at Wirral Council

Below is a communication I will be emailing to those listed below later.

Dear Surjit Tour,
senior management team (Wirral Council)
Rt Hon Frank Field MP

I am publishing this response which relates to a dispute between myself and Wirral Council.

I believe there should be openness and transparency when it comes to public bodies and the press.

I will firstly deal with the recent Youth and Play Service Advisory Committee meeting. Prior to the meeting, as some councillors and officers will already be aware the meeting was delayed starting because of the filming issue. As it was the first public meeting of the Youth and Play Service Advisory Committee since August 6th (which officially consists just of councillors) I was willing to accede to a request on this occasion and pointed out I was not setting a precedent.

Since that I have also filmed (last week) a public meeting of the Birkenhead Constituency Committee at which four young people spoke, along with a youth worker during that public meeting. There were no objections, before, during or after this meeting about me filming it. Nothing has been brought to my attention about this.

Earlier this year (on August 6th) the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014, which can be read at http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2014/2095/contents/made came into effect.

The effect of regulations 3-5 were to amend (and in some cases repeal) legislation about public meetings of bodies in England such as Wirral Council, but also public meetings of other public bodies such as the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority and the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority (amongst others).

Regulation 5 only at Wirral Council applies to Cabinet meetings, so I will be referring to regulations 3 and 4.

Regulation 3 alters the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960 and puts this legal duty on Wirral Council:

“in the case of a meeting of a relevant local government body, while the meeting is open to the public any person attending is to be permitted to report on the meeting.”

For the purposes of clarity Wirral Council is a “relevant local government body”. The definition of newspaper in that legislation is changed to include “in the case of a relevant local government body, for use in electronic or any other format to provide news to the public by means of the internet”.

There is a part added to state (which applies not just to meetings of Council, but also committees and subcommittees):

“(7E) Any person who attends a meeting of a principal council in England for the purpose of reporting on the meeting may use any communication method, including the internet, to publish, post or otherwise share the results of the person’s reporting activities.”

Therefore the law is quite clear on this matter.

On the 2nd December 2013 Council agreed the committee calendar for the 2014/15 Municipal Year. This includes the following entry for November 11th 2014: “COUNCIL (Youth Parliament)”.

The list of attendees is the list of 66 Wirral Council councillors and this meeting has in previous years been chaired by the Mayor. In fact the first item on the agenda is “Mayor’s Announcements”. The agenda frontsheet, which can be read on your website in fact states “Dear councillor
You are hereby summoned to attend a meeting of the Council to be held at 6.15 pm on Tuesday, 11 November 2014 in the Council Chamber, within the Town Hall, Wallasey”.

Therefore by your own words, by your own calendar and own agenda it is a meeting of all 66 councillors, chaired by the Mayor. It is therefore a meeting of a local government body and your arguments about the presence of young people (who like the councillors have been elected by their peers) somehow meaning that it should not be filmed are incorrect and frankly hard to comprehend. How can there be an expectation of privacy at a public meeting?

Wirral Council have no legal power any more to prevent filming at public meetings because the power you had in the past (but have no more) was as has been well documented abused numerous times and that is what led (in part) to the legislation change and repeals of earlier legislation that you relied upon previously. This change came into effect on 6th August 2014.

If Wirral Council carries on like this Wirral Council opens itself up to a legal challenge on ground of illegality, irrationality, proportionality, fairness and because of what happened at the Birkenhead Constituency Committee meeting legitimate expectation. These are also grounds in Wirral Council’s constitution for not engaging in what I perceive as misguided attempts to censor the media.

Wirral Council could also face a claim for human rights damages as the legal argument would be made that as a public body it was breaching s.6(1) of the Human Rights Act 1998, more specifically Article 10 (freedom of expression). As I’m sure you will be aware there is plenty of existing case law upholding the rights of individuals to political speech and against the strong desire of public bodies to suppress views they don’t want the public to hear.

As management, the trade union representative has discussed the matter with me and union rule 1 has been discussed which states “At all times upholds and defends the principle of media freedom, the right of freedom of expression and the right of the public to be informed.”

Therefore that trade union member would be quite within their rights to refuse to work on 11th November and Wirral Council carries on taking such an intransigent attitude, I would be forced to implement industrial relations contingency arrangements. This is therefore becoming an industrial relations matter both internally within this organisation and externally with yours.

I fully expect however based on recent past experience and a conversation I had on November 5th that Labour councillors will neither side with the trade unions or the press on this matter. I fully expect from past experience that it is always awkward particularly for some councillors to be seen to be either promoting trade union interests, good industrial relations, people’s human rights, constitutional decision-making or in fact the public interest.

It is perfectly clear (at least to me) from past decisions made at the political level exactly what Wirral Council’s current policy is on this. These past policy decisions made on this are quite clear that any filming, photography, audio recording or other types of recording (whether during public meetings or not) is unrestricted in Wirral Council buildings. That policy came about because one councillor took a photograph of another councillor eating if I remember correctly a sandwich.

The recent legal change just implements Wirral Council’s existing policy and puts it on a statutory basis with regards to public meetings.

I have had these arguments with Wirral Council over filming for a very, very long time. Wirral Council’s position and the position of various individuals has been made abundantly clear to me over the years. I have been shouted at during public meetings, bullied and treated badly which considering Wallasey Town Hall is also my workplace is not the way for anyone to be treated. I have also seen another member of the press working for a local newspaper mistreated in the same way by a senior politician.

There are many other important matters that we should all be concentrating our collective minds on rather than Wirral Council deliberately picking battles with the press, which do nothing to improve Wirral Council’s tarnished reputation or that of senior officers and councillors.

I am making my position as clear here as I can make it. The only advice I can give you at this stage is to seek external independent legal advice on your position before this matter ends up being independently adjudicated by a court and I suggest you circulate a report on this to all councillors and myself ahead of the 11th November meeting (if it takes place).

Yours sincerely,

John Brace

P.S. The Monitoring Officer comments verbally on November 5th 2014 on my report (without having read it himself) of the YPSAC public meeting and my description of the young person at that meeting. I deplore censorship of any kind and when it relates solely to the political views of an individual in a protected minority with disabilities even more so. Before the meeting was held I advised the Monitoring Officer that he could have advised councillors to exclude the press and public. The Monitoring Officer chose not to advise politicians to do so but instead to advise to adjourn the meeting if I attempted to film, audio record or photograph it.

There was also attempted censorship in February 2014 of the Coordinating Committee meeting to decide the call in to consult on the closure of Lyndale School. Again this was meeting involved the political views of parents of children with disabilities. The parents expressed the view to the Vice-Chair (chairing the meeting) at the time Cllr Steve Foulkes (who will also be chairing the meeting on 11th November) that they wanted it done in an open and transparent manner. So there seems to be a running theme here at Wirral Council of gagging the press trying to report on matters involving the disabled, which even hark back to the days of gagging one of your own former employees who used to work in your Adult Social Services department from raising with the press serious allegations of wrongdoing.

I find this all deeply worrying and possibly arguably allegedly breaches of other legal responsibilities you have which have been already repeatedly brought up in letters before with you which are already in the public domain.

I repeat here what your legal duty is as Monitoring Officer under s.5(2) of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 c.42:

“it shall be the duty of a relevant authority’s monitoring officer, if it at any time appears to him that any proposal, decision or omission by the authority, by any committee, [or sub-committee of the authority, by any person holding any office or employment under the authority] or by any joint committee on which the authority are represented constitutes, has given rise to or is likely to or would give rise to—

(a) a contravention by the authority, by any committee, [or sub-committee of the authority, by any person holding any office or employment under the authority] or by any such joint committee of any enactment or rule of law [or of any code of practice made or approved by or under any enactment]; or

(b) any such maladministration or injustice as is mentioned in Part II of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1975 (which makes corresponding provision for Scotland), to prepare a report to the authority with respect to that proposal, decision or omission.

Section 5 then states:

(5) It shall be the duty of a relevant authority and of any such committee as is mentioned in subsection (4) above—
(a) to consider any report under this section by a monitoring officer or his deputy at a meeting held not more than twenty-one days after copies of the report are first sent to members of the authority or committee; and
(b) without prejudice to any duty imposed by virtue of section 115 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 (duties in respect of conduct involving contraventions of financial obligations) or otherwise, to ensure that no step is taken for giving effect to any proposal or decision to which such a report relates at any time while the implementation of the proposal or decision is suspended in consequence of the report;

You as Monitoring Officer have statutory duties and there is a legal framework to follow when such matters involving Wirral Council’s decision making are raised with yourself and the Deputy Monitoring Officer.

It is of course up to yourselves what action you take (if any).

Wirral Council is not in the position where it can or it is advisable to censor the political views of the protected minorities of the Wirral population in an attempt to alter media reporting of Wirral Council activities or gag the press. These repeated attempts at censorship give me the personal impression that Wirral Council is not as open and transparent as Wirral’s politicians would claim it is. I am neither in a politically restricted post, nor am I a councillor or officer at Wirral Council.

There is therefore unless you propose either adjourning the Youth Parliament meeting (as you did with the YPSAC meeting) in response to the views in this letter or alternatively bringing a late report to the meeting of 11th November 2014 on this matter, I do not see that there is anything that can be done at this stage to resolve this current impasse.

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Labour councillors blame government for strikes in 1st ever film of a Merseyside Fire Authority meeting

Labour councillors blame government for strikes in 1st ever film of a Merseyside Fire Authority meeting

Labour councillors blame government for strikes in 1st ever film of a Merseyside Fire Authority meeting


Merseyside Fire and Rescue crew in James Street, Liverpool 2nd September 2014
Merseyside Fire and Rescue crew in James Street, Liverpool 2nd September 2014

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I attended (and filmed) a public meeting of Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority’s Consultation and Negotiation Sub-Committee yesterday afternoon. Since last visiting Merseyside Fire and Rescue Headquarters quite a while ago, the whole building has been rebuilt.

We arrived about half an hour before the meeting started and were asked to wait in reception. After about fifteen minutes (we had been told they were “running late” although the meeting started on time) someone came and took us to the meeting which was being held in the Temporary Conference Room on the first floor.

Thankfully there was a working lift which we used. The room had been set up up for the councillors on the Sub-Committee, fire officers and union representatives from unions such as the Fire Brigades Union. Microphones for everyone (with built-in speakers) were set out and tested before the meeting started.

Someone was even kind enough to put one of the speakers behind us so we could hear what was being said. Unlike Wirral Council there was no tea and coffee machine in the room drowning out what was said, but jugs of water and glasses were put out.

I informed someone of my intention to film the upcoming meeting and referred to the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014. In my opinion in response she looked rather crestfallen and left the room in a hurry (maybe to tell someone else).

During the meeting, due to everyone having a microphone (maybe Wirral Council prefers councillors to share as that way they can give the public the impression they’re too skint to afford a microphone for each councillor), there was none of the usual requests you get at Wirral Council public meetings from councillors to repeat what’s just been said as everybody could hear what was going on. In fact playing back the video of the meeting, the sound quality (often a complaint when I record meetings at Wirral Council whether they have microphones or not) was much, much improved.

Due to a current technical fault with one of the SD cards (I do have a backup card but it was impossible for me to predict at the start how long the meeting would last), I didn’t film in HD (which I would’ve preferred to do as that would have been broadcast quality) but instead in VGA. Apologies for the black boxes on the video, this was down to using the usual compression codec I use for HD which has a slightly different aspect ratio.

As having the tripod in front of me would’ve blocked a passageway and I didn’t want to argue about the interpretation of fire regulations with a bunch of fire officers, I put the tripod instead to the side which meant I did less panning and zooming than usual.

Before the meeting itself, I enquired about the West Kirby/Upton fire station plans and was told that a consultation with the public on that issue would be starting soon.

The agenda and reports are on the Mersey Fire and Rescue Authority website if you’re interested in reading them. As you are probably aware, there have been a number of days recently when fire officers have been on strike and anyone passing the new fire station in Birkenhead on those days will have seen the Fire Brigades Union picket.

The Chief Fire Officer, Dan Stephens did most of the talking at the meeting. His report gave an update on the weekly meetings with unions and a summary of progress on the issues.

There was currently a dispute with the Fire Brigades Union which would be going to a conciliation hearing on the 10th November, once the outcome of this was known he would report back to councillors and the committee.

He apologised for using MACC in an email and said it was “not a mistake he would be making again”. Referring to the civil disturbances in 2011, he considered that these had been managed on Merseyside more effectively than in other parts of the country due to excellent interagency work with the Merseyside Police on Operation Derwent.

However the command and control on the seventh floor of the police headquarters was “no longer fit for purpose”. He went into detail about a decision of the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority to engage with Merseyside Police on the Merseyside Joint Command and Control Centre in which both organisations would work along with the North West Ambulance Service.

The Joint Command Centre had gone live in early July and he went into detail about the shift patterns outlined in paragraphs nine to fourteen. He wanted to highlight the “outstanding achievement” to have “got to this point” but that the Merseyside Police were training their call handlers and he went into some of the differences as to how Merseyside Police and Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service deal with emergency calls.

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The Chair, Cllr Jimmy Mahon (Labour, Sefton) gave his congratulations to the Chief Fire Officer and said there had been the concern that in order to work properly the Control Centre should be in Merseyside.

The Chief Fire Officer continued with talking about the arrangements that they’d put in place for when fire officers were on strike in a dispute over pension reform. He made it clear that it wasn’t a localised dispute on Merseyside, but a national dispute between the Fire Brigades Union and the government over which Mersey Fire and Rescue Authority didn’t have any real influence over which had been the subject of previous reports.

He wanted the dispute itself “resolved as quickly as possible” and commended the FBU as they took a “responsible approach” on Merseyside and also gave them his thanks. Moving on to the collective agreement with the Fire Brigades Union and Fire Officers Association over twenty-four working, there was one location in Croxteth where it was allowed to due to an “operational rationale”. He went into some detail about how twenty-four hour working freed up rota days and other impacts of it.

Referring to the “acute pressure” of “financial challenges” he said that it wouldn’t get easier in 2015/16 and the final two paragraphs of his report were about an independent review of conditions of service. In his opinion the questionnaire contained loaded questions and it had been a Fire Brigade Union recommendation that they shouldn’t take part in the survey. He put on record that he couldn’t be a stronger advocate of the whole time duty system and that he would take questions on his report.

Two trade union representatives replied and also referred to the national issues, challenges, how they were never going to agree to everytying but the Fire Brigade Union representative felt that things were going forward and that both sides were pragmatic. The FBU representative said that they’d used all procedures, asked for external assistance and hopefully both sides had an open mind.

Councillor Leslie T Byrom (Labour, Sefton) made comments about the Ken Knight review and the government’s response to it, as well as a related resolution at the LGA Conference.

He used the analogy of a teenager only being able to afford the cheapest insurance for their first car, but gradually moving up to comprehensive insurance. In his opinion Merseyside had the equivalent of comprehensive insurance in its fire cover. The councillor didn’t want to revert to an inferior service. He referred to the recent terrorism alert change and how fully staffed authorities “can send boots on the ground” but that they had to lobby hard to explain the advantages.

Cllr Linda Maloney (Labour, St Helens) said that she had asked the St Helens’ Human Resources officer for advice on the redundancies issue. The advice she had received was that Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service was being very lenient compared to other councils in making people redundant. She wanted to put on record the work they did keeping full-time firefighters and engines to keep Merseyside safe.

Cllr Tony Robertson (Lib Dems, Sefton) asked a question about the questionnaire. The Chief Fire Officer replied that it had to be returned by the 19th September, but that their submission would be reported back.

There weren’t any meetings of a committee to formally approve it before the deadline, but said that if he was being cynical he’d have taken the view that it was almost a response to the Fire Brigades Union strike action, however he was conscious he was being filmed so was a little circumspect.

Cllr Tony Robertson said that he understood.

Cllr Roy Gladden (Labour, Liverpool City Council) referred to if they wanted to get the person they wanted in a position, they they just needed to sort out the shortlist in relation to the questionnaire. He felt other parts of the country didn’t need full-time firefighters and referred to Devon and Cornwall. The independence vote in Scotland was also referred to and also discussions across the country where they were fed up with being told what’s best for them in that part of the country.

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No matter what happened on the 18th September he felt they should be demanding a better say in what happened regionally and locally and no matter what government there was he wanted the power base lowered so that Merseyside would decide what’s best for them. As elected representatives they could come to the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority and disagree and he would be very surprised to be in a situation where they all agreed on everything as “one of us” would be “out of order”. The unions would at times disagree fundamentally with the way forward. However he wanted to make clear this was a national strike and that the government was using finance to look at the service.

The Chair, Cllr Jimmy Mahon (Labour, Sefton) agreed.

Cllr Roy Gladden (Labour, Liverpool City Council) then said the following:

“Just one quick thing which I think you mentioned before, we’ve got cameras. Are we going to be writing to Mr. Pickles asking him if we can have a makeup room before we go out? *laughter* I’m a bit concerned that it’s err, you know splashed across the national and worldwide media and at least I want to get me hair dyed and me makeup on so I don’t look horrible. Well I’m just making sure, I hope Mr. Pickles wouldn’t mind as he’s insistent upon this that we have our makeup room in future.

Having been at the BBC, I mean it really isn’t like that, I might not come along if I haven’t had my hair done. So I just hope in the future, we’ll put it down Chair. Some of us don’t need our hair cutting.”

Chief Fire Officer Dan Stephens said, “Just two things Chair, I thank Councillor Gladden for his last comment and second justly to reassure Councillor Gladden that he looks as devilish as ever..”

Unknown councillor “That’s enough, that’s enough. Meeting closed, thank you.”

Chief Fire Officer Dan Stephens said, “What I would say is, I could use this opportunity to my Ice Bucket Challenge, I nominated Eric Pickles, unfortunately he’s not yet responded to the challenge I’ve put down to him so maybe this is my opportunity to reinvigorate that challenge to him and I shall leave that at the behest of our guests further to the meeting to give some thought as to whether they would like to send that through to him and I will pause at that point Chair having committed career suicide.”

The Chair asked, “Can we have a copy?” to which I replied “ok”. He replied, “It will be interesting to have a look at to see how we’re mentioned. That’s the end of the meeting.”

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