Surjit Tour tells Wirral Council’s councillors that they have to accept filming at their public meetings

Surjit Tour tells Wirral Council’s councillors that they have to accept filming at their public meetings

Surjit Tour tells Wirral Council’s councillors that they have to accept filming at their public meetings


Birkenhead Constituency Committee (10th April 2014) Birkenhead Town Hall
Left to Right Surjit Tour (Head of Legal and Member Services), Councillor George Davies, Rt Hon Frank Field MP (Chair), Dawn Tolcher (Birkenhead Constituency Manager)

In an update to the blog post headlined Does Pickles think that Wirral Council’s £22,500 newspaper plan “pours taxpayers’ money down the drain”?, something seems to have happened “behind the scenes” as Surjit Tour had this to say to councillors on the subject at last night’s Transformation and Resources Policy and Performance Committee on an item about the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 (the bit he says about Wirral Council’s compliance with the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity is the relevant part):

“Thank you Chair, just very briefly taking you through this particular report. It’s a report that’s already been considered by the Audit and Risk Management Committee on the 14th March and the report seeks to summarise the key provisions of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014.

On the 13th August of 2010 the government announced its intention if you recall to abolish the Audit Commission and replace it with a decentralised process and arrangements with regard to the audit of public bodies. This Act seeks to set out the necessary framework in relation to the audit arrangements and I’ll turn your attention if I may to page fifty-seven of the report and that provides an explanatory note in terms of the key features of the current and new arrangements that are being introduced.

Paragraph 2.1 sets out and highlights features of the new arrangements and notably the abolition of the Audit Commission and with a view to arrangements being put in place. Under the new arrangements public bodies will be required to appoint an external, independent auditor on the advice of an independent audit panel. The audit panel which the Council must have in place and each local authority is required to have that audit panel in place to discharge their responsibilities, the appointment of an auditor. Various other… may be deferred on that particular panel by the Secretary of State.

The make up of that particular panel it talks about in the report of the recommended changes in the explanatory forward. The actual amend to the legislative framework with regards to council tax referendums and the revised measures to ensure local authorities’ compliance with the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity.

The Act also then introduces greater transparency and openness to meetings of Council meetings in particular by allowing local residents to film, tweet, blog and access the information in relation to decision-making in those committees. So it goes further than just the filming and the arrangements that we currently have.

We also then have arrangements and changes with regards to any local audit, taking account value for money elements which needs to be also factored in and we have a transfer of responsibilities of setting a new code of audit practice going now to the National Audit Office as part of these arrangements. So you see that in a bit more detail in paragraph three some of those provisions there in more detail.

In terms of our current arrangements, there are outsourcing arrangements in place and as you know we have Grant Thornton who is the external auditor for Council and that arrangement continues until 2017 at which point arrangements will be put in place for the appointment of a new local auditor and this is where the new local auditor panel will be engaged in the procurement of that particular body.

There will be a series of approved, accredited firms that will be able to do that and they will be made subject to assessment and criteria by the Financial Reporting Council and relevant professional accountancy bodies who are regulated in the provision of local government services.

In terms of the panel itself, details of its make up are set out in paragraph six of the explanatory note and this is where we need to have a panel which would consist of a majority of independent members and it would be chaired by an independent member. Now our Audit and Risk Management Committee can act as the Council’s auditor panel under the act if so required and if we need to appoint individuals then there’ll be a process that’ll need to be gone through.

You’ll recall that the Audit and Risk Management Committee, in fact it happened last year, indicated that it wished to be a majority of members of the Audit and Risk Management Committee to be independent and there will, arrangements are in hand to make those necessary arrangements. However the Secretary of State is still yet to publish regulations in relation to this particular Act, particularly the criteria and it needs to be expanded on what appears in the Act itself. So the draft regulations are not complete in terms of what the criteria will be for the appointment of independent members and as such a decision has been taken to await the Act or indeed those final regulations to ensure that any appointment that is made is compliant with those regulations.”

The Chair said, “Thanks Surjit, any questions, comments? Pat?”

Cllr Patricia Glasman said, “Paragraph 2.1.5 access information relating to the decisions made in those meetings, I wonder if you could just expand a little bit on that specifically the Pensions Committee we have attachments which are not available to the public. It’s business meetings and I just wondered was there any change to really the way those are treated?”

Surjit Tour replied, “No, there’s no, those changes with regards to information at committees considering the exempt schedules, the schedules before them so those provisions remain unchanged. This is very much the ability to report in open session at committee meetings, individuals being able to not only film, but to tweet, blog information in real-time and as decisions are made.”

The Chair said, “If there’s no further questions, can we agree the recommendations on page fifty-five, 11.1 agreed?”

The Committee agreed the following recommendation:

That the Committee notes the Report and Appendix 1 concerning the changes being introduced by the Audit and Accountability Act 2014 and its implications.

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Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP, Parliamentary ping-pong, “democracy dodgers” and the £556,789 in “forgotten cuts” at Wirral Council

Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP, Parliamentary ping-pong, “democracy dodgers” and the £556,789 in “forgotten cuts” at Wirral Council

Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP, Parliamentary ping-pong, “democracy dodgers” and the £556,789 in “forgotten cuts” at Wirral Council


Shortly before Christmas Wirral Council had a “budget options” meeting after the What Really Matters consultation. At this meeting cuts, based on the public response to the consultation for 2014/15 were in principle agreed to. Strictly speaking it was a new budget and policy framework that was agreed to. The budget for 2014/15 is to be decided in March 2014, based on the assumption that Council Tax on Wirral would rise by 2% in 2014/15.

So just to recap, the Labour administration have ruled out a Council Tax referendum. The reason they give is that the large cost of the referendum that would fall on Wirral Council (if you can remember the amount they quoted please leave a comment about what it was and who said it). This is despite the law (The Local Authority (Referendums Relating to Council Tax Increases) (Date of Referendum) (England) Order 2013) that states a Council Tax increase referendum would have to be held on the 22nd May 2014 (the same day as the joint European & local Council elections). I’m not sure if the estimated figure a councillor quoted last year for a Council tax increase referendum took into account the reduced cost of the referendum due to holding other elections on the same day (or whether the cost quoted assumed the referendum would be held separately to other elections in which case the estimate is too high).

Labour’s budget assumption therefore assumes that Council Tax will rise by 2% (without the need for a referendum) to lessen the need for further cuts they’d have to make if the rise was any lower or Council Tax was kept the same. The Labour administration have also ruled out accepting a Council Tax Freeze grant equivalent to a 1% rise if they agreed to keep Council Tax the same as last year.

However Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP has different plans and according to an article last week in the Guardian based on leaked Cabinet letters wants to reduce the threshold to 1.5% and refers to councils that rise Council Tax by only two percent as “democracy dodgers” and “believes they need to be punished to show the government is trying to control the cost of living”. Furthermore Pickles states “he wants to stop councils or police bodies being able to exempt some spending from the cap.”

This article in the Bristol Post before Christmas also quotes the Rt Hon Eric Pickles from a statement in relation to council tax increases “as being particularly open to representations suggesting that some lower threshold be applied to councils, given the strong need to protect taxpayers wherever possible from unreasonable increases”.

So what has this got to do with Parliamentary ping-pong? Well the Local Audit and Accountability Bill is heading to its next to the last stage (starting on 21st January) called “parliamentary ping-pong” before the last stage “Royal Assent” and it becomes law. Crucially the section on Council Tax referendum calculations (s.41) comes into force (see s.49) when the act receives Royal Assent and changes the formula of how a yearly Council Tax increase is arrived at.

In future once the Local Audit and Accountability Bill becomes an Act, the calculation of Council Tax rise includes not just Wirral Council’s share of the Council Tax bill, but also (if I’ve read the bill correctly and please leave if a comment if I’m wrong) the other levying bodies that form part of Council Tax bills too. This means the yearly increase in Council Tax requirements in the budgets of the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority and the Police and Crime Commissioner for Merseyside would affect what the percentage increase would be.

It looks from the wording of the Local Audit and Accountability Bill (and a lot of recent regulations) that this will come into effect for the 2014/15 financial year. As the basis by which a Council Tax rise is calculated will change, £556,789 is my rough estimate of what changing the threshold from 2% to 1.5% will be as the true amount of extra cuts will depend on what the Merseyside Police and Crime Commissioner’s and Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority’s Council Tax requirements for 2014/15 are.

At Wirral Council’s Coordinating Committee meeting (held yesterday at the time of writing), in item 8 (policy update), councillors on the committee will have read in their papers on page 2, under Implications for the Local Audit and Accountability Bill “Budget Strategy considerations may also be impacted by the changes to the Council Tax threshold for triggering a referendum.”

Yet curiously not one of the councillors of the fifteen on the Coordinating Committee asked how much changing the Council Tax threshold for triggering a referendum would affect the budget strategy considerations or to my recollection anything at all about how a change to the Council Tax threshold would affect the 2014/15 Budget.

So is this £½ million of cuts at Wirral Council that councillors seem to be unaware of going to result in a further twelve-week consultation (or will the responses to the What Really Matters consultation be reused)? If any of these further cuts require ninety days consultation with the trade unions will this mean that they will only be realised as part-year savings in 2014/15?

There does seem to be one concession the Liberal Democrats have received though. Any regulations the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP decides to do with council tax increase referendums has to by law be also agreed with Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP first.

So what do you dear reader think? Will Cllr Phil Davies be saying of the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP something similar to the famous Laurel and Hardy quote “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!”. With exquisite timing, Wirral Council’s Labour administration will have to agree the budget for 2014/15 around the end of February 2014 meaning these extra cuts will probably feature in the local election period in the lead up to polling day on the 22nd May.

Certainly this apparent lack of a plan B will have to be explained when the Improvement Board returns in March. As the Rt Hon Ed Balls MP (Labour’s Shadow Chancellor) said last October about Labour’s economic competence, “we are going to win based upon our experience, our track record, our credibility”.

Oh and if you think the projected underspend of £884,000 will mean a further £½ million of cuts won’t have to be made in 2014/15 you’d be wrong.

£250,000 of the underspend will probably be agreed tonight to go towards the clean up and repairs to infrastructure in New Brighton following the bad weather. A further £519,000 of the underspend has been earmarked for future restructuring costs leaving (at current estimates) only a projected underspend of £115,000 that can count towards an estimated a £½ million of cuts required if the Coalition government reduce the Council Tax increase referendum threshold to 1.5%.

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