Wirral Council recommends councillors agree to advice that those who contact the press about complaints about councillors are “compromising their position”!

Wirral Council recommends councillors agree to advice that those who contact the press about complaints about councillors are “compromising their position”!                                          As some of the below relates to the press in general I am declaring an interest as that’s my paid occupation. On Thursday evening starting at 5.00pm in Committee Room 3 in Wallasey … Continue reading “Wirral Council recommends councillors agree to advice that those who contact the press about complaints about councillors are “compromising their position”!”

Wirral Council recommends councillors agree to advice that those who contact the press about complaints about councillors are “compromising their position”!

                                        

Cllr Denise Roberts (Chair, Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee)  (27th November 2014)
Cllr Denise Roberts (Chair, Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee)

As some of the below relates to the press in general I am declaring an interest as that’s my paid occupation.

On Thursday evening starting at 5.00pm in Committee Room 3 in Wallasey Town Hall Wirral Council’s Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee meets for a special public meeting.

The papers and agenda for the meeting have been published on Wirral Council’s website, including a 44 page supplementary agenda published late.

Often the motivation at the past at Wirral Council with regards to late papers not sent out with the agenda/reports for the meeting are that it is a way for officers to really make sure something is "rubber-stamped" (and if you really want it rubber-stamped just hand out about two dozen pages of information at the meeting itself on the basis that those on the Committee won’t have time to read it before reaching a decision).

I’ve written an email below which explains my position (in the interests of openness and transparency it is below). I look forward to the meeting itself to see what is decided.


Subject Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee (Special Meeting) 2nd June 2016 item 4 (Appointments of Panels)
From John Brace <john [at] johnbrace.com>
To Cllr Denise Roberts (Chair, Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee) deniseroberts@wirral.gov.uk
Copy Cllr Moira McLaughlin (Vice-Chair, Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee) moiramclaughlin@wirral.gov.uk, Cllr Ron Abbey ronabbey@wirral.gov.uk, Cllr Brian Kenny briankenny@wirral.gov.uk, Cllr Chris Blakeley chrisblakeley@wirral.gov.uk, Cllr David Elderton, Cllr David Elderton davidelderton@wirral.gov.uk, Cllr Gerry Ellis gerryellis@wirral.gov.uk, Cllr Phil Gilchrist philgilchrist@wirral.gov.uk, Cllr Jean Stapleton jeanstapleton@wirral.gov.uk, Cllr Eddie Boult eddieboult@wirral.gov.uk, Surjit Tour surjittour@wirral.gov.uk, Shirley Hudspeth shirleyhudspeth@wirral.gov.uk, Press Office (Wirral Council) pressoffice@wirral.gov.uk
Reply-To John Brace <john [at] johnbrace.com>
Date Today (31st May 2016) 8:39 am

To: Cllr Denise Roberts (Chair)
Cllr Moira McLaughlin (Vice-Chair)
Cllr Ron Abbey
Cllr Brian Kenny
Cllr Paul Stuart c/o Shirley Hudspeth
Cllr Chris Blakeley
Cllr David Elderton
Cllr Gerry Ellis
Cllr Phil Gilchrist
Cllr Jean Stapleton
Cllr Eddie Boult
Professor Ronald Samuel Jones c/o Shirley Hudspeth
Brian Cummings c/o Shirley Hudspeth
Chris Jones c/o Shirley Hudspeth
Surjit Tour
Press Office (Wirral Council)

Dear all,

I do not have email contact details for the independent members on the Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee and Cllr Paul Stuart and hope that Shirley Hudspeth can give them either a copy of this at the meeting itself, or may know their email addresses to forward them a copy of this email.

I know that two councillors (Cllr Brian Kenny and Cllr Gerry Ellis) are sending deputies and am sending a copy of this both to the councillor deputising and the councillor they are deputising for. If any other councillors are planning to send a deputy to the meeting feel free to forward this to the deputy.

This email is in relation to item 4 (Appointments of Panels) on the agenda of the Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee meeting to be held on the 2nd June 2016.

The papers for this were published late and can be found in the supplementary agenda. Please note that in order for the committee to consider material published after the 5 clear working days before the meeting, it’s a legal requirement that both the Chair (presumably Cllr Denise Roberts) accepted this item of other business and the reasons for accepting it late are recorded in the minutes. I’m sure Mr. Tour will be familiar with this as it formed the basis last year as to my formal objection to the 2014/15 accounts of the Merseyside Pension Fund (administered by Wirral Council) with the result being that the Pensions Committee had to arrange a further meeting to properly approve the accounts.

However, I have some general questions/queries. In the interests of openness/transparency I’m publishing this email, so it’s not confidential.

1) As the people proposed to be on the Standards Panel & Standards Appeal Panel are also members of the Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee are both panels being categorised by Wirral Council as a sub-committee, similar to how the Licensing Act Sub-Committee members are also drawn from its parent committee?

2) In the proposed protocol it states,

“12.5 Anyone involved with the investigation will be advised that they may be compromising their position if they communicate with the media on matters relevant to the investigation whilst the investigation is ongoing and that any communication that is made should emanate from the Council’s communication team.”

The legal requirement for secrecy of those involved with the investigation of complaints about councillors was repealed some time ago. Because of s.6 of the Human Rights Act 1998 a public authority (such as Wirral Council) can’t make a decision which causes it to act in a way incompatible with a Convention right. This suggestion in the protocol would seem to conflict with both the Article 10 (freedom of expression) Convention right and the whistleblowing provisions in the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998. I would therefore either like a detailed explanation as why this is proposed (or why I am wrong) or for it to be removed from the proposed policy before it is agreed.

3) Part 21.1 of the proposed policy refers to “7C of the Council Access to Information Procedure Rules”.

This refers to the following reason for excluding the press/public at a meeting:

“7C. Information presented to a standards committee, or to a sub-committee of a standards committee, set up to consider any matter under regulations 13 or 16 to 20 of the Standards Committee (England) Regulations 2008, or referred under section 58(1)(c) of the Local Government Act 2000.”

A local council can only use powers it legally has to do something. Standards complaints about councillors are no longer considered under s.58(1)(c) of the Local Government Act 2000 (which was repealed) or the Standards Committee (England) Regulations 2008.

Therefore the references to a repealed legal power need to be brought up to date to the current position and Wirral Council’s constitution updated to prevent confusion.

I plan to attend the meeting itself and look forward to hearing an answer to this email then.

Yours sincerely,


John Brace
Editor
https://johnbrace.com/
A blog about Wirral Council’s public meetings, Wirral Council’s councillors, Bidston & St. James ward and other public bodies on Merseyside

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Does Wirral Council believe that the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government?

Does Wirral Council believe that the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government?

Wirral Council Cabinet meeting at Birkenhead Town Hall Thursday 12th March 2015 Left to right Surjit Tour, Cllr Phil Davies and Joe Blott
Wirral Council Cabinet meeting at Birkenhead Town Hall Thursday 12th March 2015 Left to right Surjit Tour (Monitoring Officer), Cllr Phil Davies (Leader of the Council) and Joe Blott (Strategic Director (Transformation and Resources))

I was planning on writing today about the implications of the Comprehensive Spending Review (however that’s something that would really benefit from a very in-depth piece), but Wirral Council have published an interesting document about Cabinet meeting report protocol.

That probably sounds rather boring, but it shows the informal arrangements that everyone knew existed behind the scenes before reports were published are being put on a more formal footing.

Although much of it is probably the rather dry nuts and bolts and let’s face it there will still be people submitting reports late and chairs not following procedures with regards to late reports, it does seem an attempt at least to make what the press and public end up reading at least not full of obvious errors (and I’m not talking about spelling mistakes).

The report does state what I knew already, that the SLT (Senior Leadership Team or senior managers at Wirral Council) see reports before they’re published and have a chance to suggest edits.

Even before each public Cabinet meeting happens, Cllr Phil Davies has a meeting of his Cabinet (called a briefing) which the officers are expected to attend (usually in what’s called the Cabinet Briefing Room behind locked doors at Wallasey Town Hall) where he goes through the entire agenda and matters are discussed in private.

Interestingly, this report shows that the Cabinet briefing is used as a filter and the Cabinet briefing can be used to change the reports that are later published. I presume this practice of writing reports by committee leads to some bits being watered down.

There are also four compulsory steps a report has to go through before the press or public see it. It seems reports have to be run by legal (which makes me laugh considering some of the legal howlers I’ve pointed out on this blog over the years), human resources (which is understandable as many of the decisions are going to have HR implications), finance (again understandable) and the Head of Service (which has been standard practice for years anyway). As there are vacant heads of service posts, in that situation the relevant strategic director signs it off.

However there is one very important group of people this all leaves out, the public. Anyone involved with politics will of course comment and say that the last group of people involved in political decisions are the public.

This is what Wirral Council’s constitution states about decision-making:

13.2 Principles of decision-making
All decisions of the Council will be made in accordance with the following principles:

(i) proportionality (i.e. the action must be proportionate to the desired outcome);
(ii) due consultation and the consideration of professional advice from officers;
(iii) respect for human rights;
(iv) a presumption in favour of openness;
(v) clarity of aims and desired outcomes; and
(vi) Wednesbury* reasonableness (i.e. the decision must not be so unreasonable that no reasonable Council could have reached it, having taken into account all relevant considerations, and having ignored irrelevant considerations).

*This piece is too short to provide an in-depth description of the legal definition but it refers to the case law definition of "unreasonable" which is a reference to a Court of Appeal case from 1947, [1947] 2 All ER 680, [1947] EWCA Civ 1, [1948] 1 KB 223, [1948] KB 223.

Every policy disaster (whether the library closure fiasco which resulted in a public inquiry or half a dozen others I could mention here) has resulted because the public weren’t involved (or were involved/consulted but politely ignored by politicians and officers who had the arrogance to think they knew better) and/or the above principles weren’t followed.

Let’s take the Fort Perch Rock car park charging U-turn as an example. Principle (ii) above states the "consideration of professional advice from officers" yet officers didn’t tell them that if they started charging at Fort Perch Rock car park then the lease the Council had for the Marine Point development would lead to charges at hundreds of spaces at the other currently free car parks.

No, it fell to a local blogger to publish the pages of the lease, a large petition against it of thousands of people and a campaign against the charges from a former Conservative councillor in the marginal seat of New Brighton. This was despite Labour’s backbench councillors warning the Cabinet at at least one public meeting not to go ahead with plans for charging.

Next week, the Transformation and Resources Committee will discuss the high-profile issue of a fire station in Saughall Massie. At the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority meeting earlier this year where the decision was made, the petition organiser was given five minutes to speak and a delegation from the Saughall Massie Conservation Society was also given the opportunity to speak for up to five minutes.

Yes, you are probably going to say, this ties in with (iii) above, respect for human rights as article 21, which Wirral Council signed up to when Cllr Adrian Jones was Mayor quite clearly states

(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.
 

Notice the importance of that word directly or through freely chosen representatives (that is politicians).

The other public bodies I report on either have mechanisms written into their constitution (for example Liverpool City Council has a regular public question time slot at many of its meetings and I’ve mentioned the mechanisms that Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority has), so people can exercise their rights at public meetings and have their say before the decision is made.

At Wirral Council the public at public meetings get frustrated and heckle instead (then get told to shut up by the Chair or clear off which does show some politicians’ attitude towards the public outside of elections).

The Chair at last night’s meeting (despite his wish to get home in time to watch Coronation Street) tried to let many taxi drivers have their say (some more than once) before the decision to consult on increasing hackney carriage fares was made (if a decision is made following the consultation it’ll mean fares go up in time for Christmas).

Yet if there’s one point I am trying to make from this maybe boring piece about Wirral’s politics, it’s that the public should be more involved and you don’t encourage the public to turn up by expecting them to sit through meetings in silence and not have any influence over decisions that are going to affect their lives.

At the moment taxi drivers have more influence over decisions as there is a Joint Consultative Committee that meets regularly behind closed doors than I do over say Wirral Council’s filming of public meetings policy.

Yes, this probably sounds like as to why it’s a good idea to have politicians, or for the kind of public interest journalism I spend a lot of time doing but the point I’m trying to get at is one that Wirral’s political system doesn’t seem to have quite grasped which is "the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government".

At Wirral Council this seems to have morphed in the past to "the will of the officers shall be the basis of the authority of government" (and we expect politicians to rubber stamp decisions we refer to them).

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What is a Pensions Board and can it exclude the press and public from its meetings?

What is a Pensions Board and can it exclude the press and public from its meetings?

What is a Pensions Board and can it exclude the press and public from its meetings?

                                                                   

Pensions Board meeting 13th October 2015 Foreground L to R Unknown, Patrick Moloney, Mike Hornby, Paul Wiggins, John Raisin (Chair), Anne Beauchamp Background L to R Unknown, Peter Wallach (Head of Pension Fund), Joe Blott (Strategic Director for Transformation and Resources)
Pensions Board meeting 13th October 2015 Foreground L to R Unknown, Patrick Moloney, Mike Hornby, Paul Wiggins, John Raisin (Chair), Anne Beauchamp Background L to R Unknown, Peter Wallach (Head of Pension Fund), Joe Blott (Strategic Director for Transformation and Resources)

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Video of the Local Pensions Board (Merseyside Pension Fund) meeting on the 12th October 2015

I attended my first meeting of Wirral Council’s Pensions Board today (although this is the second meeting of the Pensions Board). Wirral Council are the Administering Authority for the Merseyside Pension Fund.

Although the venue was listed as: Merseyside Pension Fund, 7th Floor, Castle Chambers, Liverpool L2 9SH, it was in fact held in a board room on the 4th floor at the same address.

This page on the Merseyside Pension Fund’s website states who make up the Pensions Board.

Mike Hornby (a former Wirral Council councillor for Greasby, Frankby & Irby ward) was there as a member of the the Pensions Board. He is one of the employer representatives representing Wirral Council.

Paul Wiggins (one of the Member (meaning Member of the Merseyside Pension Fund) representatives) was there to represent the pensioner members in the Merseyside Pension Fund. Also there was the Independent Chair John Raisin.

The full list of nine people that make up the Pension Board can be found on the Merseyside Pension Fund website, although not all nine were present for the meeting and I haven’t listed everyone who was at the meeting above.

However what does a Pensions Board actually do? Well it’s a relatively recent legal requirement to have one that only started in April 2015. As Wirral Council administer the Merseyside Pension Fund they’re therefore required to have one. The role of the Pensions Board is to help ensure the Merseyside Pension Fund complies with governance and administration requirements.

The terms of reference state its function as follows.

2.1 The purpose of the Board is to assist the Administering Authority in its role as a scheme manager of the Scheme. Such assistance is to:

a. secure compliance with the Regulations, any other legislation relating to the governance and administration of the Scheme and requirements imposed by the Pension Regulator in relation to the Scheme and;

b. ensure the effective and efficient governance and administration of Merseyside Pension Fund.

c. provide the Scheme Manager with such information as it requires ensuring that any member of the Pension Board or person to be appointed to the Board does not have a conflict of interest.

 

It’s now where we get to a rather strange problem. Agenda item 8 of the meeting, as you can read for yourself on Wirral Council’s website attempts to exclude any members of the press and public present for items 9, 9a and 10 which refers to the Local Government Act 1972, s.100A.

Before the meeting started I would’ve liked a chance to point out verbally to someone what I’m going to write about now, but a Wirral Council officer insisted we wait in the kitchen next door instead, oh well.

There is power to exclude the press and public from a public meeting. It comes from the Local Government Act 1972, s.100A(4) and applies to meeting of a principal council and because of Local Government Act 1972, s.100E also committees and subcommittees (as well as joint committees).

The Pensions Board was never set up as a committee (or subcommittee) of Wirral Council though. In fact its terms of reference for the Pensions Board make that extremely clear.

“1.3 The Board is not a committee constituted under Section 101 of the Local Government Act 1972 and therefore no general duties, responsibilities or powers assigned to such committees or to any sub-committees or officers under the constitution, standing orders or scheme of delegation of the Administering Authority apply to the Board unless expressly included in this document.”
 

So let me get this straight, a Pensions Board whose purpose is to “secure compliance with legislation”, assigns itself a power in law to exclude press and public from its meetings that it doesn’t have?

At the meeting itself on the 13th October 2015 the Independent Chair John Raisin proposed this resolution to exclude the press and public, it was seconded and agreed by the Pensions Board.

So who do you complain to about the Pensions Board not complying with the legislation? Why the Pension Board of course as its their role to ensure the Merseyside Pension Fund complies with the legislation!

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Wirral Council spent £2,451.60 with Weightmans LLP on legal advice after reading something about themselves in the press

Wirral Council spent £2,451.60 with Weightmans LLP on legal advice after reading something about themselves in the press

Wirral Council spent £2,451.60 with Weightmans LLP on legal advice after reading something about themselves in the press

                                                        

I will first start by declaring an interest in that I am a member of the press, however I am unsure if it is anything I’ve written about Wirral Council (or something in the local newspapers) that led to the matter I’m writing about below.

Last year Wirral Council received an invoice dated 26th June 2013 from a Liverpool based firm of solicitors called Weightmans LLP. Nothing unusual in that you might say! The invoice was for £2,451.60. So what was this invoice for? It was for “To our professional charges in advising in relation to press comment”.

Oh dear did Wirral Council read something in the press they didn’t like again? Did they not have anybody available to provide internal legal advice on the “press comment” and had to rack up nearly 16 hours of time charged at either £160/hour or £120/hour over this?

I hope it wasn’t about something I wrote on this blog! So what was written in the press at around this time about Wirral Council? Anyone care to enlighten me?

The committee is down as “FIN” which I presume means it was something related to financial matters. Sadly Wirral Council black out the names of the five people (or job descriptions) at Weightmans LLP that provided them with this expensive advice. Anyway reading press articles at £120/hour or £160/hour is nice work if you can get it isn’t it?

The invoice is included below.

Weightmans invoice Wirral Council press comment £2451 60 26 June 2013
Weightmans invoice Wirral Council press comment £2451 60 26 June 2013

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The Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012

Interest declaration: The author of this piece earns a living from blogging and filming.
Interest declaration: This is being published on a blog which’ll be affected by the new legislation.
Interest declaration: The author of this piece and editor is an NUJ member.

Yes this is a blog post on the important new The Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012.

This comes into effect on the 10th September 2012 (in just under three weeks time at writing this).

Some of the changes it brings on Wirral Council (and its relationship with the press are welcomed) and I summarise below. I’m surprised this is the first I’ve heard of it though.

Change 1

The definition of media (which currently basically covers print (newspapers and magazines) and broadcast (radio, TV etc)) is being broadened. It’ll be expanded so that new media reporters (Internet blogs, tweeting etc) will be covered by the current definition of who a journalist is.

Change 2

There are a variety of changes which make it easier for individual councillors at Wirral Council (presumably the Lib Dem/Tory opposition) to challenge decisions made by the Labour Executive.

Change 3

More transparency on various decisions taken by the Executive that affect more than one council ward, incur new significant spending or new savings.

Change 4

Councils can no longer cite “political advice” as a reason to exclude the public.

Change 5

If a meeting is due to be closed to the public, the council has to justify why it has to be closed and give 28 days notice of such a decision.

Change 6

Some of the legislation on Forward Plans (brought it by the last Labour Government) is being changed.

Quote from Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP (the Conservative Government Minister):

“Every decision a council takes has a major impact on the lives of local people so it is crucial that whenever it takes a significant decision about local budgets that affect local communities whether it is in a full council meeting or in a unheard of sub-committee it has got to be taken in the full glare of all the press and any of the public.

Margaret Thatcher was first to pry open the doors of Town Hall transparency. Fifty years on we are modernising those pioneering principles so that every kind of modern journalists can go through those doors – be it from the daily reporter, the hyper-local news website or the armchair activist and concerned citizen blogger – councils can no longer continue to persist with a digital divide.”

Chris Taggart, of OpenlyLocal.com, which has long championed the need to open council business up to public scrutiny, added:

In a world where hi-definition video cameras are under £100 and hyperlocal bloggers are doing some of the best council reporting in the country, it is crazy that councils are prohibiting members of the public from videoing, tweeting and live-blogging their meetings.

John Brace, Editor said,

“Nearly forty years after the Internet first came into existence, the rights of “citizen journalists” are being enshrined in legislation. Local authorities should not be frightened by the extra scrutiny and transparency this will bring.

As a professional working in this area I welcome some of the changes this will bring on my reporting of Wirral Council, Liverpool City Council (and other local authorities) and I wonder if it will also include other local political bodies such as Merseytravel, Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority and the soon to be abolished Merseyside Police Authority.

However the existing laws on relationships with the press (print, broadcast, new media and others) need to be adhered to by Wirral Council. The press and the unions such as the NUJ also need to make sure that Wirral Council will “move with the times” and adhere to the new laws and comply with both the spirit and the letter of the new legislation.”

I will be providing a further update to this post once I have had the opportunity to read the legislation and digest its implications in full.