Why am I angry at Wirral Council for allegedly breaking more laws to cover up a 3 year investigation and subsequent decision by three councillors as to why Councillor Steve Foulkes broke the Code of Conduct and should apologise for leaking information about Councillor Jeff Green to the press?

Why am I angry at Wirral Council for allegedly breaking more laws to cover up a 3 year investigation and subsequent decision by three councillors as to why Councillor Steve Foulkes broke the Code of Conduct and should apologise for leaking information about Councillor Jeff Green to the press?

Why am I angry at Wirral Council for allegedly breaking more laws to cover up a 3 year investigation and subsequent decision by three councillors as to why Councillor Steve Foulkes broke the Code of Conduct and should apologise for leaking information about Councillor Jeff Green to the press?

                                        

Councillor Steve Foulkes (Labour) (right) speaking at a recent meeting of the Birkenhead Constituency Committee (28th July 2016) while Councillor Pat Cleary (Green) (left) listens
Councillor Steve Foulkes (Labour) (right) speaking at a recent meeting of the Birkenhead Constituency Committee (28th July 2016) while Councillor Pat Cleary (Green) (left) listens

17/8/16 Amended to correct name of Phil Goodman to Peter Goodman.

Firstly, I’m cross with Wirral Council.

What is it this time you may wonder?

Well I have a long list of grievances, but not being a Wirral Council employee no formal route (ok I could bring some of these up with my trade union) to take these to a grievance hearing, nor the time or inclination at this stage to get the judiciary involved.

I’m cross at being denied (along with my wife) to be present at what I perceive to be (in part) to be a public meeting of the Standards Panel on the 28th June 2016 in Committee Room 2 at Wallasey Town Hall, Brighton Street, Seacombe, CH44 8ED starting at 6.00pm.

I’m cross at being shouted at by junior public facing employees of Wirral Council who I will gladly name here from what I remember as Shirley Hudspeth (Legal and Member Services) and Peter Goodman (whatever the facilities management side of Wirral Council is called as frankly I’ve lost track of restructures? Is it infrastructure, asset management something like that?) with their view that it was a private meeting, but I’m not cross at them in a major way because I’m more cross at what I presume are their senior manager/s or senior manager/s from another department at Wirral Council who told both of them to say this to me (even though it isn’t true) as it seems a senior manager/s at Wirral Council would stoop that low as to instruct junior employees to do what they (senior manager/s) should have the guts to do face to face themselves.

I’m cross at Wirral Council for its website not working as I write this at democracy.wirral.gov.uk so I can’t include links or refer to the details. But yeah, whoever’s job it is to fix it may be on holiday.

I’m cross at a senior manager (Joe Blott) and his external legal adviser (whose name I can’t recall without checking Wirral Council’s website that isn’t working). Yes the external legal advisor is the guy in this photo as I wasn’t allowed to be at or film him at the public bit of the Standards Panel meeting (and just as an aside this law allows me to film such public meetings even if I’m not physically in the room, which I suppose next time if I’m not allowed actually in the room for a public meeting I’ll have to do the filming either through the meeting room door or from the car park outside!)

However in Joe Blott’s defence I don’t think he understood why the legal advice he got was flawed and had the external legal advisor pointed out why it was flawed he’d have had to have criticised his client (Wirral Council) which is a big no-no if he ever wants further work from Wirral Council in the future.

I’m not cross with Surjit Tour who seems to have a conflict of interest. But if he does have one, Joe Blott is supposed to deal with it!!!

I am cross with the fact that 5 clear working days notice of the date, time, agenda and reports (if not recommended to be heard in closed session) for the Standards Panel meeting on the 28th June 2016 was not given by the 20th June 2016, but instead yesterday the 3rd of August 2016.

I’m cross that a complaint about a councillor (Cllr Steve Foulkes) as to what happened in July 2013 has taken Wirral Council around three years to resolve.

I’m cross that Patricia Thynne in her report refers to myself as having filmed a Youtube video referred to when I didn’t film it and it was indeed someone else! I’m also cross with myself that relying on Patricia Thynne’s report I then left a comment on the Wirral Leaks blog only to be embarrassed into being told it is a mistake in her report.

I’ve recently learned that Cllr Gilchrist was the Chair of the Standards Panel, I’m cross that I wasn’t allowed to go to the public bit of the Standards Panel meeting where this was decided on the 28th June 2016 to find this out and had to wait around a month to know whether it was Cllr Chris Blakeley or Cllr Phil Gilchrist.

I’m cross that in messing up what’s detailed above Wirral Council is relying on a legal power that was repealed years ago.

I’m cross that for reasons of internal capacity here I didn’t take things further over what happened to us at the meeting on the 28th June 2016 whether by letter or subsequent legal action against Wirral Council.

However, moving to the complaint itself, yes I was there in the public gallery in July 2013 in the adjournment while it happened. Yes Cllr Steve Foulkes came in and spoke with Liam Murphy (referred to as Person C). Yes, I was too far away (at the other end of the public gallery to hear what they were saying). Yes I remember Mr Nigel Hobro coming in to the public gallery at this point and wanting to speak with Liam Murphy but getting the brush off.

Yes, my opinion (not that it matters really) is that I think it is fair that Cllr Foulkes should apologise.

However, isn’t it ironic that as Cllr Foulkes previously made a complaint about Cllr Chris Blakeley talking to the Liverpool Echo about whether Cllr Foulkes should be made Mayor (a complaint that Cllr Chris Blakeley was cleared of as you can read about here) that Cllr Chris Blakeley should then be on the Standards Panel to decide about a complaint about Cllr Foulkes leaking information to a Liverpool Echo journalist? Or is that just karma?

Yes Person C in the report is Liam Murphy. Yes I feel sorry for him, yes it is a breach of journalistic ethics to reveal the source of information, but by the sounds of it he (Liam Murphy) was being used by Cllr Foulkes anyway for political gain.

As to the payoff to Emma Degg, her initial silence (prompted in part it seems by the payment of public money), followed by what I presume was a guilty conscience, well at least she finally did the right thing!

As to the allegation that witnesses “colluded” to bring down Cllr Foulkes, well Patricia Thynne feels this is not credible. I will comment however that unless you are in disguise, nobody knows what you look like or in an echo chamber, it’s frankly foolish in the extreme to bring up anything confidential (whether in conversation or by passing it to them) with a journalist when you have people watching you do it, in a public place, in a public building, in the adjournment to a high-profile public meeting.

However Cllr Foulkes’ explanation is he was under a lot of pressure.

Tip for people reading this, if you want in the future to leak something to me, there’s the post (probably the most secure method), email or telephone (if you want the intelligence agencies to read/listen to it in transit) or other ways of sending it to me online.

Yes you can talk to me or hand me things in person, but there are always people watching!

I did ask Cllr Steve Foulkes in person at the end of the Birkenhead Constituency Committee meeting on the evening of Thursday 28th July 2016 to comment on the complaint. He refused to comment directly on the matter (I presume following Mr. Tour’s advice to councillors to keep their mouth shut) and referred me to Wirral Council instead.

So yes, I’m still cross and Wirral Council is finally well dealing with what should’ve been done properly the first time!!!

By first time, I don’t just mean the original complaint (that this morphed into), but what happened at the Standards Panel meeting too.

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What’s in the 370 page whistleblowing report on Wirral Council’s grants to businesses?

What’s in the 370 page whistleblowing report on Wirral Council’s grants to businesses?

What’s in the 370 page whistleblowing report on Wirral Council’s grants to businesses?

 

ICO Information Commissioner's Office logo
ICO Information Commissioner’s Office logo

The BIG/ISUS whistleblowing issues have been already covered in extensive detail by this blog over the past few years. However the latest twist in this story was yesterday’s release of a 370 page 2012 internal audit report into the matter following ICO decision notice FS50559883.

Wirral Council have finally released an internal audit report dated 13th January 2012 that went to Bill Norman (then Monitoring Officer/Director of Law, HR and Asset Management at Wirral Council). Those with long memories will remember that Bill Norman was suspended later that year over the Colas matter, then in September 2012 councillors agreed he should receive £146k plus £5k legal expenses to leave.

Back to the BIG/ISUS matters and let’s just quickly recap the blog posts I’ve written on the many aspects of this matter as they provide some background. I’m sure there are one or two I may have left out (I remember I republished some of my earlier blog posts which contained the agreements for BIG/ISUS in the lead up to the special meeting of the Audit and Risk Management Committee last October).

So that’s a brief summary of developments so far? So what does the new information reveal? It’s a report by an auditor at Wirral Council which details the allegations the two whistleblowers made, the investigations into those allegations and the auditor’s opinion as to whether the whistleblowers were correct or not.

The executive summary runs from pages 9-16 and details the allegations made by the two whistleblowers and whether what was inspected during the investigation substantiated or refuted these claims. Pages 17-20 go through each of the allegations in detail as well as whether each allegation is correct or not and the implications that follow. Pages 21-45 are the main report which at the end contain 14 recommendations. Had some of these recommendations been implemented in 2012, some of the unanswered questions surrounding this matter would have been dealt with much earlier, such as the transfer of assets from Lockwood to Harbac.

At the special meeting of the Audit and Risk Management Committee in October 2014, councillors, officers and those speaking at the public meeting were warned not to refer to names of companies, yet the release of this 2012 audit report only removes the names of Wirral Council employees (and former employees). These matters are now out in the open (which should’ve happened before the Audit and Risk Management Committee met last year). Had this 2012 internal audit report been made available to councillors before that meeting the discussion may have been very different.

However it only came to light because of a FOI (Freedom of Information) request made by one of the whistleblowers and even then only after the Information Commissioner’s Office intervened with a decision notice. Certainly the whistleblowers must both feel vindicated by the conclusions reached in this detailed 2012 internal audit report.

The Liberal Democrat Group of councillors on Wirral Council plus the Green Party Councillor Pat Cleary have tabled the following Notice of Motion for the next Council meeting on the 12th October 2015 on the subject of FOI requests. It reads as follows:

OPEN GOVERNMENT ?

This Council recognises that the Information Commissioner’s Office, as the independent authority set up to uphold information rights in the public interest and to promote openness by public bodies, upheld 13 complaints against Wirral Council in the past year.

Of the 18 notices issued between 29 September 2014 and 24 August 2015, the majority (72%) of complaints were upheld.

Council believes that this is a matter for concern, requiring an explanation to its Members.

Council requests that lessons should be learned and applied from these decisions and questions whether Officers have been excessively cautious or defensive in their interpretation of the legislation.

Council, therefore, requests that the legislation is approached with greater regard to the ‘public interest test’ so that the risk of further reputational damage to Wirral can be reduced.

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ICO requires Wirral Council to supply internal audit report within 35 days

ICO requires Wirral Council to supply internal audit report within 35 days

ICO requires Wirral Council to supply internal audit report within 35 days

                                                  

ICO Information Commissioner's Office logo
ICO Information Commissioner’s Office logo

The Information Commissioner’s Office (which I will refer to as ICO) have issued a decision notice about a Freedom of Information Act request made by Nigel Hobro to Wirral Council. The unique number for this decision notice is FS50559883. It’s not yet on ICO’s website but should be in the near future. ED: Updated 04/09/2015 I looked on ICO’s website and it has been published since this article was written and decision notice FS50559883 can be viewed on ICO’s website.

The Freedom of Information Act request is for an “incomplete internal audit investigation report” and was originally made on the 20th August 2014.

As you can read on the whatdotheyknow.com website Surjit Tour (Monitoring Officer) of Wirral Council refused this request on the 26th November 2014 and at internal review it was refused by Eric Robinson (Chief Executive) on the 4th June 2015.

The reasons given by both Surjit Tour and Eric Robinson for not supplying the information requested (both times an apology was given for taking too long to reach a decision) were two-fold:

  • section 36(2)(c) Prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs
  • section 40(2) Personal information

The decision notice shows that ICO disagrees with the first of those reasons (section 36(2)(c)), but agrees with the second reason for part of the information (section 40(2)).

Interestingly the Information Commissioner’s Office agreed with Wirral Council that applying section 36(2)(c) was reasonable but disagreed with the public interest test element.

ICO requires Wirral Council to take the action below within 35 calendar days of the date of the decision notice dated the 24th August 2015. This is assuming that Wirral Council do not appeal the decision:

    "Disclose the withheld information with redactions made under section 40(2) for the names of individuals within the report"

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Whistleblowers assembled in Committee Room 1 to hear apologies from Wirral Council over a toxic whistleblowing saga involving secrecy, national, local and regional government, internal and external audit, the private sector, ££££s, senior managers, contracts and Wirral Council

Whistleblowers assembled in Committee Room 1 to hear apologies from Wirral Council over a toxic whistleblowing saga involving secrecy, national, local and regional government, internal and external audit, the private sector, ££££s, senior managers, contracts and Wirral Council

Whistleblowers assembled in Committee Room 1 to hear apologies from Wirral Council over a toxic whistleblowing saga involving secrecy, national, local and regional government, internal and external audit, the private sector, ££££s, senior managers, contracts and Wirral Council

                                                 

Nigel Hobro (standing) addresses a special meeting of the Audit and Risk Management Committee of Wirral Council 8th October 2014 L to R Cllr Adam Sykes, Cllr David Elderton, Andrew Mossop, Surjit Tour, Nigel Hobro (c) John Brace
Nigel Hobro (standing) addresses the Audit and Risk Management Committee of Wirral Council 8th October 2014 L to R Cllr Adam Sykes, Cllr David Elderton, Andrew Mossop, Surjit Tour, Nigel Hobro (c) John Brace | still taken from video

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Above is a playlist of all parts of the Audit and Risk Management Committee (Wirral Council) meeting of 8th October 2014 held in Committee Room 1, Wallasey Town Hall starting at 6.00pm (apologies for recording problems)

Audit and Risk Management Committee
Cllr Jim Crabtree (Chair, Labour)
Cllr Ron Abbey (Vice-Chair, Labour)
Cllr Paul Doughty (Labour)
Cllr Matthew Patrick (Labour)
Cllr John Hale (Conservative spokesperson)
Cllr Adam Sykes (Conservative)
Cllr David Elderton (Conservative)
Cllr Stuart Kelly (Lib Dem spokesperson)

The Audit and Risk Management Committee of Wirral Council met for a special meeting about BIG/ISUS on the evening of 8th October 2014 whilst a thunderstorm raged outside Wallasey Town Hall. This was a continuing from its adjourned special meeting about the same topic on 22nd July 2014. For details of what happened at its meeting of the 22nd July 2014 see my earlier blog post Incredible first 5 minutes of Wirral Council councillors’ public meeting to discuss BIG & ISUS investigations.

The meeting started with a minute of silence for Mark Delap. Mark Delap was one of the Wirral Council employees that used to take minutes at its public meetings and had died recently.

After the minute of silence was over, the Chair asked for declarations of interest.

Cllr Matthew Patrick declared an interest due to a friendship with Nigel Hobro’s son (Nigel Hobro is one of the whistleblowers and spoke during the meeting itself).

Surjit Tour gave some brief advice to Cllr Matthew Patrick as to whether his interest was personal or prejudicial.

The Chair thanked Surjit Tour for the advice he had given to Cllr Matthew Patrick.

The Chair, Cllr Jim Crabtree then explained that there had been a lot of allegations since the issue had first been raised in 2011. There was a large volume of paperwork for the meeting, however details were redacted to protect businesses and companies. Also the names of officers and other people were blacked out. He also referred to commercial sensitivities and how they had gone to proper steps to protect identities.

He reminded people of the risk of legal challenge and Wirral Council’s liabilities. Cllr Crabtree asked everyone not to name names and continued by saying that any issues Wirral Council officers had addressed, they had done on behalf of the Council.

Cllr Stuart Kelly asked a question on the information that was redacted. He referred to a challenge to paragraph j, that was redacted in the papers to the July meeting, but was now provided. He wanted assurance from the legal officer Surjit Tour that the redactions were only in the categories as just outlined by the Chair.

Mr. Tour explained that the redactions had taken place to make sure that nobody by reasonable inquiry and information already in the public domain could piece together who or what the redacted information referred to and who the people redacted were. He added that in some cases it was unfortunately necessary to redact a lot of information mindful of what was already in the public domain, people could “fill in the gaps” which would expose Wirral Council to a liability.

The Chair invited Nigel Hobro to speak for at most fifteen minutes.

To be continued…

However below are some of my personal observations about this meeting I’ve started writing up above and a bit of a compare and contrast with two different special meetings of the Audit and Risk Management Committee held years apart (but both dealing with Wirral Council’s response to whistleblowers (one internal, one external).

It shows how history has a habit of endlessly repeating itself and is based on my opinion as one of the few people who was actually present at both meetings.

There are similarities between this public meeting and an earlier public meeting many years ago of the Audit and Risk Management Committee to decide on a response to the whistleblowing of former Wirral Council employee Martin Morton. Back then (years ago) there were arguments by politicians over a series of meetings over how much money should be paid back to those that were overcharged and to what year you go back to with the refunds.

Even when refunds were agreed by politicians, Wirral Council took so long that some of the people involved had died and in order cases (the ones that were still alive) the amounts were so large, that Wirral Council officers didn’t want to pay the people involved because they thought it would have a knock on effect on their benefits and officers doubted that some of the people had the capacity to be able to look after their own financial affairs.

Sadly the decision back then was fudged (which is partly what led to the problems later). Martin Morton’s concerns were also far, far wider than the overcharging issue, his concerns also involved allegations of the misuse of public money to fund organisations with links to serious and organised crime, serious allegations of serious crimes against vulnerable people who had apparently at the time not been investigated thoroughly enough, woefully poor corporate governance at Wirral Council, terribly weak political oversight due to put it frankly chaos back then and ultimately Mr Morton paid a personal price because people in Wirral Council tried to repeatedly punish him for daring to blow the whistle. Due to the large financial amounts involved, Cabinet had to sign off on the large expenditure that resulted.

One day before the AKA report was finally released to the public, the two middle managers involved in this matter were each paid a six figure sum each to leave Wirral Council.

At the earlier meeting (and at least one person on the Audit and Risk Management Committee is the same person as back then), the Chair back then accused one politician (Cllr Ron Abbey) of either not reading the papers for the meeting as they were asking questions that were already answered there or of completely misunderstanding what they had read (if they had read them). At this time the Chair was of a different political party to the Labour councillor (Cllr Ron Abbey) & in the interests of impartiality (with absolutely no offence meant towards one of my local councillors Cllr Jim Crabtree) many other local authorities have an unwritten rule that the Chair of the Audit and Risk Management Committee is not from the same political party as the ruling administration to ensure independence.

Knowing Cllr Crabtree as I do, I know that even if a councillor stepped out of line at a meeting he was chairing, even if the councillor was from the same political party as he was, Cllr Crabtree’s personality is such that he would frankly realise that it’s in the “public interest” to hold his fellow councillors to account even if he would have to be careful how he did this in public.

After it seems part of the reasons why Labour got a small majority on Wirral Council is because councillors from that party woke up the news that the Wirral public expected them to hold other politicians to account in public even if these were other councillors from the same political party.

Bill Norman (who left in somewhat mysterious circumstances in 2012) was the legal adviser to that earlier Audit and Risk Committee meeting years ago, not Surjit Tour as it is now. The issue of blacking out all the names (and other details) in the published papers was addressed by Bill Norman then with broadly similar reasons given to those given by Mr. Tour many years later. However I will point out that the culture of legal practice is such that confidentiality, especially when it comes to active proceedings is extremely important to maintain!

At the time this written material authored by Mr. Morton included in the papers for the meeting was also redacted, so this aspect of whistleblowing hasn’t changed much at all over the years at Wirral Council.

Wirral Council, back then and as it seems now has a fear of being sued. Although if they were open and transparent wouldn’t Wirral Council welcome judicial oversight of their decisions as it would give Wirral Council the chance for someone independent to look at it and the opportunity to defend themselves in court if they had done nothing wrong?

Perhaps it’s unfair to say a fear of being sued, it’s a fear at Wirral Council of being sued and losing and the results that flow from that which could be a combination of large financial penalties (or other things) as well as the fact that court reporters such as myself or the publications they publish in can’t actually be sued under British law for court reporting as long as we comply with the few rules that apply as court reporting attracts absolute privilege. All court hearings whether public or private are recorded by the court on tape anyway and in theory transcripts can be ordered.

Some may say for a large local Council (covering a population of ~320,000), whilst obviously they have their own organisational reputation to consider, that they seem unduly concerned at times at reputation management (although this is also a preoccupation of political parties) rather than dealing with matters in an entirely open and transparent way. There is a blurry line between the individual reputations of senior managers and politicians on one hand and the organisational reputation of the organisations they are either employed by or are elected to represent the views of the public at.

Some of the reports that went to the most meeting the day before yesterday, have been the subject of previous articles by me and FOI requests.

You can read my FOI request (25/8/13) for the report on ISUS here, which was refused on 23/9/13 and refused at internal review on 24/10/13. That external audit report can be read as part of the committee’s papers (see agenda item 2 and the links from this page on Wirral Council’s website if you wish to do.

Had the responses to those FOI requests been forthcoming and Wirral Council provided the information within weeks a lot more would have been in the public domain before the July and October meetings in 2014 of the Audit and Risk Management Committee meetings. Wirral Council instead chose to rely on exemptions to suppress the information and knew I was unlikely to appeal to ICO, as if I had I’d probably still be waiting for a decision!

Excessive secrecy just makes the public and press suspect that there’s a deliberate cover up or Wirral Council has done something it’s ashamed or embarrassed about. Usually the answer is a little more complicated than a conspiracy.

The Merseyside police investigation (which resulted in no charges) was used as an excuse by Wirral Council to deny FOI requests, not just about the one Grant Thornton recommended was referred to the police, but information in general about the other aspects too.

Wirral Council was recommended by the forensic arm of its external auditors to refer one very minor matter to the police. Wirral Council did and this was then used this as an excuse to delay and prevent further scrutiny. The police response (and I summarise) was that based on what they were told that there was insufficient evidence to charge somebody (or somebodies) with a crime. Remember criminal charges require basically two elements, proof that the alleged crime occurred and also generally for most criminal matters mens rea (proof of a “guilty mind” too). The latter is often harder to prove than the former, which is why defendants sometimes plead not guilty in order to get a jury trial! As Wirral Council actually carries out criminal prosecutions through the Wirral Magistrates Courts, I’m sure someone there who is actually aware of these matters!

This article is getting rather long and at the two thousand word mark I am somewhat digressing into related matters, although obviously it is not as long as the papers for that meeting which come in at the length of a medium-sized novel!

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Wirral Council plays the Regeneration Game (badly)

Wirral Council plays the Regeneration Game (badly)

Wirral Council plays the Regeneration Game (badly)

                                

Just before Christmas started Wirral Leaks asked for a guide to the BIG Fund/ISUS/Working Neighbourhood investigation. Well where to start?

BIG stands for business investment grants. ISUS stands for intensive start-up support.

BIG is not to be confused with Think Big (marketed under the rather terrible catchphrase Think Big! Think Wirral). Think BIG was for grants of over £20,000 and as far as I know isn’t included in the whistleblowing allegations. Think BIG had a budget of £300k a year in Wirral Council’s budget from 2009/10 and is now called the Think Big Investment Fund.

Business Investment Grants (for under £20,000) were awarded to companies that were successful in applying for a business investment grant. Grant Thornton (who are also Wirral Council’s auditors) were asked in October 2012 for a quotation for work to look into the whistleblowers’ concerns. As a result of this work, two reports were produced and sent to Wirral Council. One report was on BIG and the other on ISUS.

In response to a question from Nigel Hobro to Cllr Phil Davies at the full Council meeting in July, Wirral Council published the summary of Grant Thornton’s report into the BIG program.

I made a Freedom of Information request for Grant Thornton’s ISUS report in August 2013. On the 23rd September 2013 Wirral Council stated that “the report, which has been reported previously, has been handed over to the Police for their consideration, in accordance with the recommendations contained within the report” and refused providing the report using a s.30 exemption (Investigations and Proceedings conducted by Public Authorities).

I asked for an internal review as the investigation had been carried out by Grant Thornton UK LLP (who isn’t a public authority). Another factor I pointed out was that Wirral Council weren’t bringing criminal proceedings, but instead passing it to the police. I also pointed out that s.30 was a qualified exemption and subject to a public interest test (which Wirral Council hadn’t included in its original reply).

Wirral Council’s response to the internal review was that they still refused to release the report. However they did provide further detail as to why. Firstly they stated that the investigation into the BIG and ISUS program was done independently of Grant Thornton’s role as Wirral Council’s auditors. This was to “review the earlier investigation conducted by the authority’s Internal Audit section and to conduct their own investigation into these allegations” and referred to an assurance by Grant Thornton that their work on BIG & ISUS was independent to that of their work auditing Wirral Council’s accounts.

Wirral Council regarded the work that Grant Thornton had done on BIG and ISUS as on Wirral Council’s behalf, therefore in Wirral Council’s view a s.30 exemption still applied. Stating this in English only a person with a legal background would write “as such Section 30 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 is still appropriate as the investigation was conducted by an organisation acting on behalf of the organisation.” Despite referring it to the police, Wirral Council gave the impression they hadn’t made their minds up as to whether they would start a criminal prosecution themselves. However if they hadn’t made their mind up already not to institute criminal proceedings on this why refer it to the police?

In a concession though, they did agree with me that the original refusal should have included Wirral Council considering the public interest test. The person doing the internal review did carry out a public interest test (of sorts).

They gave many reasons against disclosure (and none for). The reasons they gave were that they regarding it being in the public interest not to disclose the report were that “the investigatory process is safeguarded“, that it would “undermine an investigation/prosecution of criminal matters“, “dissuade members of the public from reporting potential or actual wrongdoings“, “undermine the prosecution process and the role of the criminal courts” and “could prejudice the right to a fair trial“.

However, there is more than this in this story. As referred to in this previous blog post headlined “Million pound contract between Wirral Council and Enterprise Solutions (NW) Ltd for ISUS scheme was never signed” and referred to at 1.16 to 1.22 of Grant Thornton’s report the contract between Wirral Council and Enterprise Solutions Limited (also known as Wirral Biz) was never signed (a copy of the unsigned contract is linked to from that blog post).

Therefore Enterprise Solutions (NW) Ltd don’t regard it as a binding contract. Enterprise Solutions (NW) Ltd are quoted in Grant Thornton’s report as stating in a letter to Wirral Council from December 2012 “this company has nothing to hide in relation to its involvement in any of the above programmes [one of which was the BIG programme] on which it provided services. We are therefore prepared to grant access on the basis requested, on the understanding that your costs of the exercise are borne by the Council.

Despite this commitment by Enterprise Solutions (NW) Ltd to Wirral Council by letter in December 2012, that they had “nothing to hide” Grant Thornton state in 1.21 of their report that “we have not been given access to the documentation retained by the company concerning the services it provided under the BIG programme and have, therefore, been unable to discuss these with Enterprise Solutions.

Complicating the matter further, Wirral Council was also in receipt of money from the (since abolished) North West Development Agency in the form of grants. This was for the ISUS (intensive startup side of things). The first ninety pages of the contract with the North West Development Agency is here and a further thirty-six pages here.

The North West Development Agency money given to Wirral Council under the terms in the contract (one hundred and twenty-six pages isn’t the whole contract as there were pages on publicity requirements I haven’t scanned in yet) came from Europe. Just to complicate things even further, Wirral Council also used Working Neighbourhood Funds money to fund these programs.

The whistleblowers’ concerns were that companies that didn’t qualify for grants were given them. On the BIG side, applications were first reviewed by the BIG Panel then the award of the grants were agreed by Wirral Council’s Cabinet (not part of public meetings of Cabinet but in private after the press and public were excluded) due to “commercial confidentiality“.

Grant Thornton looked into the applications of six companies that had applied for business investment grants. In five of these they found “financial anomalies” which were not explained to the BIG Panels. Four of these five were “significant anomalies” which had not been brought to the BIG Panel’s attention. The types of anomalies are outlined in 2.33 but ranged from accounts that indicated that the applicant had paid unlawful dividends (contrary to the Companies Acts) to balance sheets were one year’s opening balance didn’t match the previous year’s closing balance.

One applicant had included a £500 grant from Wirral Council in its accounts, which had been received four months before the accounting period that the accounts covered. Grant Thornton recommended that out of the six applications it looked at that Wirral Council should claw back the grant to the company referred to as BIG6 and refer that application to the police (which happened at some point earlier this year).

I asked Merseyside Police some questions in September about their investigation in September. The reply I got from a Detective Chief Inspector Gareth Thompson was “This matter is currently in the hands of Wirral Borough Council and any requests for information you have should be directed to them, perhaps by way of a Fredom of Information enquiry” (yes freedom is spelt incorrectly in the reply, but to be fair to Detective Chief Inspector Gareth Thompson I would guess that freedom is a word used very rarely by police officers).

This blog post contains a transcript of the answer given to Nigel Hobro by Cllr Phil Davies back in July 2013.

So who knows what’ll happen next in this overly complicated saga? Who knows? Certainly my attempts to make inquiries have been stonewalled (apart from the contracts which I’ve published). However there is an unconfirmed rumour that DCLG (the Department for Communities and Local Government) are going to clawback grant money from Wirral Council in 2014 which could come to a six-figure amount.

So there you have it, nearly everything I know about the BIG/ISUS saga and Wirral Council.

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