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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Why has Wirral Council sunk deeper into the quagmire of poor corporate governance surrounding a complaint about Cllr Steve Foulkes?

Why has Wirral Council sunk deeper into the quagmire of poor corporate governance surrounding a complaint about Cllr Steve Foulkes?

Why has Wirral Council sunk deeper into the quagmire of poor corporate governance surrounding a complaint about Cllr Steve Foulkes?

    
          
          
          
      

Councillor Steve Foulkes talks about the Mersey Ferries at a meeting of the Merseytravel Committee 7th January 2016
Councillor Steve Foulkes (left) talks about the Mersey Ferries at a meeting of the Merseytravel Committee 7th January 2016

Last night yours truly was witness to another spectacular example of democracy at Wirral Council gone wrong. Indeed from democracy being on merely life support, last night seems to have been an attempt to kill it stone dead.

In fact things have got so bad I am officially on strike for part of my job (Leonora can deal with things during this period), but I thought you should realise the reasons why (outlined below).

First, there needs to be some background to this. Panels which decide on complaints about councillors have in the past been decided in public despite officers’ recommendation otherwise such as this meeting in 2012 about an allegedly homophobic comment made by former Cllr Denis Knowles on Facebook.

On Monday evening, at a public meeting of all of Wirral Council’s councillors opposition councillors in the Lib Dem and Conservative parties referred to Labour’s plans to hold more meetings behind closed doors as wrong. The Conservative councillor David Elderton used the quote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.

However within less than 24 hours, Cllr Moira McLaughlin (Labour), Cllr Chris Blakeley (Conservative) and Cllr Phil Gilchrist (Lib Dems) were indeed having a private meeting behind closed doors about a complaint made about Cllr Steve Foulkes (Labour). There was indeed also one of the independent people (Brian Cummings) to oversee the process, although he too wasn’t invited to all of the meeting which was being held in private.

The rationale for having this meeting behind closed doors relies on Wirral Council exercising a legal power that was repealed by the government years ago. However the public must realise by now that that there’s an attitude at Wirral Council of completely ignoring the legal position by people who don’t care about the constitutional checks and balances on their power. Having in the past years cross examined both Wirral Council’s Monitoring Officer Mr Tour at a recent First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) hearing and a Wirral Council councillor (Cllr Alan Brighouse) as a defendant in the Birkenhead County Court, I know how strange the culture at Wirral Council is seen by the judiciary and how exasperating the judiciary seem to find the culture at Wirral Council.

Wirral Council exercising a legal power they do not have has become so routine!

The complaint was about Cllr Steve Foulkes, who had brought his legal representative along with him. Cllr Foulkes and his legal representative were allowed to address the Panel in closed session as to why it should not be held in public.

The public however (although technically Cllr Foulkes’ legal representative is also a member of the public) were not invited in so that their side could be heard. Some voices of course at Wirral Council are heard more loudly than others.

Previously Cllr Foulkes, referred to "natural justice" at Wirral Council shortly before the opposition councillors removed him as Leader of Wirral Council. Indeed this is an example of how politicians say one thing on Monday evening, yet behave differently on Tuesday evening.

Indeed getting Wirral Council to stick to its own constitution with its goals of consultation and openness when a "legal representative" is allowed to influence the Panel otherwise is impossible.

All the Panel members are drawn from Wirral Council’s Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee. Indeed it was at the last public meeting of that Committee that the Panel Members were decided.

Despite s.100/s.100E of the Local Government Act 1972 requiring sub-committees to meet in public (even if they then decide to exclude the public) and there being multiple legal representatives at this meeting to offer the Panel advice, Wirral Council seems to instead insist that we provide "evidence" that a sub-committee is a sub-committee and indeed of their legal obligations to hold sub-committees in public.

Indeed as evidence I quote from their own minutes of the Standards Committee meeting held on the 4th July 2011, which can be read on their website here:

"The Director of Law, HR and Asset Management informed the Committee that the report at Item No. 7 on the agenda – Review of a Recent Standards Complaint – had marked on it, in error, a paragraph (7c) of Part 1 to Schedule 12A of the local Government Act 1972 that did not exist."

Indeed if it is a sub-committee the legal requirement for 5 days published notice of the meeting and its agenda weren’t given either.

However for the last 5 years, Wirral Council’s councillors have relied on a legal provision that Bill Norman (previous Monitoring Officer) told them in 2011 "does not exist" as the reason for holding complaints about councillors behind closed doors.

Despite numerous revisions of their constitution they haven’t bothered to update it to take this out.

The Monitoring Officer commented on my views on this at the last public meeting of the Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee in response to a letter I wrote. He and I unfortunately disagree on a few points.

Sadly the main questions in that letter were left unanswered which led to the impasse last night. However despite the Monitoring Officer having legal obligations (see s.5A Local Government and Housing Act 1989), advising the panel was the Monitoring Officer’s line manager, the Deputy Monitoring Officer Joe Blott (Strategic Director for Transformation and Resources). For anyone reading this who’s not aware, the Strategic Director level at Wirral Council is basically someone who is line managed by the Chief Executive.

So it’s completely understandable that Mr. Tour can’t intervene when it involves his own line manager! After all even I wouldn’t be stupid enough to cheese off my line manager!

However, back to the meeting of the Panel itself. The meeting was adjourned, then Cllr Foulkes was invited back in. We went back to Committee Room 2 with him at about 6.50 pm, only for Cllr Foulkes to be asked to leave and for us to get shouted at.

Because of course the culture at Wirral Council is one of shouting at people. Since Emma Degg left (she was in charge of the public relations side of Wirral Council) there’s been a power vacuum (which perhaps partly explains this recent plan agreed on Monday morning for a Wirral Council newssheet being sent to residents monthly). Kevin McCallum does his best but after years of the press being bullied by politicians and frankly too much bad news to report on at Wirral Council relations between Wirral Council and the press have been problematic.

Indeed views were expressed to me that evening that employees would rather be getting on with their jobs rather than having to deal with meetings at Wallasey Town Hall.

The person who made this complaint (Cllr Jeff Green) along with the person it was about (Cllr Steve Foulkes) along with us (myself and Leonora Brace) were not allowed to go into the “meeting” in the two hours we were kept waiting apart from what I referred to earlier.

Possibly one or both were invited in after we left.

Oh and I forgot to say, Mr. Tour has advised councillors could (or possibly would) be subject to disciplinary procedures if they talk to the press about these matters.

So what is Cllr Foulkes accused of? He can’t tell us. He’s been gagged.

What is in Cllr Green’s complaint? He can’t tell us. He’s been gagged.

What are the Panel’s views (Cllr Moira McLauglin, Cllr Chris Blakeley and Cllr Phil Gilchrist) on the matter and indeed what was decided? You’re not allowed to know.

Indeed if the Panel decides Cllr Foulkes did nothing wrong and he decides he doesn’t want the decision made public indeed we may never know!

And the above sums up why it is getting nearly impossible to my job reporting on Wirral Council. I think it’s about time I started publishing election expenses returns instead, starting with two councillors who were on the Panel…

Updated 11th July 2016: I have made a FOI request for some of the documents for this meeting here.

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Surjit Tour asks Wirral councillors to agree to changes to how complaints about councillors are dealt with

Surjit Tour asks Wirral councillors to agree to changes to how complaints about councillors are dealt with

                                       

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Surjit Tour (Monitoring Officer, left) speaking at the Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee meeting of Wirral Council on the 2nd June 2016 Right Cllr Denise Roberts (Chair)
Surjit Tour (Monitoring Officer, left) speaking at the Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee meeting of Wirral Council on the 2nd June 2016 Right Cllr Denise Roberts (Chair)

As I am referred to at this meeting because of an email I wrote to the Committee and others I will declare an interest at the outset. I will also declare an interest as a paid member of the press who are referred to in a report that was agenda item 4.

The public meeting of Wirral Council’s Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee was a special meeting held in Committee Room 3 at Wallasey Town Hall without microphones.

The following councillors were present: Cllr Eddie Boult (Conservative) deputy for Cllr Gerry Ellis (Conservative), Cllr David Elderton (Conservative), Cllr Chris Blakeley (Conservative spokesperson), Cllr Denise Roberts (Labour Chair), Cllr Moira McLaughlin (Labour), Cllr Ron Abbey (Labour), Cllr Jean Stapleton (Labour) deputy for Cllr Brian Kenny (Labour), Cllr Paul Stuart (Labour) and Cllr Phil Gilchrist (Liberal Democrat spokesperson).

There were also two independent people on the Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee present who were Brian Cummings and Professor Ronald Jones.

Wirral Council officers present were Surjit Tour and Shirley Hudspeth.

Present from the press & public were myself and Leonora Brace.

The new Chair (Cllr Denise Roberts) welcomed people to the first meeting of the Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee of the municipal year.

Apologies were given for Cllr Gerry Ellis (Cllr Eddie Boult was deputy for him) and Cllr Brian Kenny (Cllr Jean Stapleton was deputy for him).

No interests were declared. The minutes of the previous meeting of the Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee held on the 23rd November 2015 were approved and also approved were the minutes of the Standards and Constitutional Oversight Working Group held on 24 February 2016.

The Committee then considered its main item (item 4 Appointment of Panels), which had a report of Mr Surjit Tour (Monitoring Officer) on establishing the Standards Panel and Standards Appeal Panel, appendix 1 (the Code of Conduct for councillors at Wirral Council), appendix 2 – the protocol for investigating and making decisions on complaints made alleging breach/breaches of the Code of Conduct, appendix 3 – an extract from Wirral Council’s constitution about the Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee and appendix 4 – a proposed procedure for meetings of the Standards Panel and Standards Appeal Panel.

Mr Tour started by addressing some of the points raised in my email which you can read in an earlier blog post here.

He said the following, “Yes, I’ll introduce that report for you Chair.

If it helps Chair, shall I address the email from Mr. Brace at the back who has provided an email to us all with regards to a couple of procedural points that he’s raised if you’re content with me to do that before I respond and deal with the report?

Essentially there are three points that Mr. Brace has raised.

One is in relation to the supplementary agenda, the report that you have before you not being circulated with the original initial agenda, but that was the reason for that, we were still in the process of trying to co-ordinate dates for the Standards Panel which we need to establish and there was a slight delay in terms of getting the finalised date.

I can confirm that there is a date that has now been confirmed and I’ll come onto that as part of the substantive item. So that was the reason for why the report was not published because I wanted to actually provide you with a date as part of ??? rather than leave you with a outstanding issue.

Unfortunately that caused a difficulty with regards to the date when I published the supplementary agenda despite our efforts to try and provide the full report to you in terms of the date that a particular Panel would meet.

With regards to concerns around errm the article 6 arguments or the section 6 arguments and Article 10 provisions that have been referred to, errm the Protocol and the paragraph within the Protocol paragraph 12.5, simply requires anyone who’s involved in the investigation is being advised not to share information with the press or media rather than go through our Press Office purely because any investigation it’s important that the integrity of the investigation is maintained and if information appears provided in the public domain, it could have the effect of prejudicing the investigation.

It is only an advisory point, individuals are entitled to ignore that advice if they so wish, but they do so in the knowledge that they could potentially jeopardise an investigation.

So if you’re a complainant you could find that the subject councillor is prejudiced because you could bring about a potential conclusion of the investigation prematurely and clearly if it’s a subject councillor again could find themselves bringing the Council into disrepute by not adhering to appropriate advice and undermining the ethical framework.

So paragraph 12.5 in the first instance specifically makes reference to anyone involved in the investigation, who will be advised, it doesn’t require and doesn’t say that they are prohibited from sharing information in the public domain and clearly they would be advised against that.

So I don’t believe that provision in any shape or form either contravenes either section 6 or indeed article 10.

With regards to the constitutional changes, with regards to paragraph 7 of the Access to Information Rules, we’re aware of that change. It was an oversight and you know in previous reviews the Standards Working Group of this Committee when it meets in July, if you’re minded to re-establish the Standards and Constitutional Oversight Working Group again. One of its tasks will be to again review the full ethical framework and see if there any constitutional changes that are required and so I’m grateful to Mr. Brace to raise that, we’ll be aware that that change needs to take place and the constitutional amendment and that will take place as part of the Standards Working Group Working Program if you’re minded to re-establish it, if not then I’ll bring a separate report requiring that change to be made in relation to Council be made for that amendment to be made to the Constitution accordingly.

Thank you Chair, with regards to the substantive matter before you, the purpose of this meeting is to establish or for the Committee to establish formally the Standards Panel and the Standards Appeal Panel which all form part of the arrangements for dealing with standards complaints under paragraph 9.5 of article 9 of the Council’s constitution.

You’ll find in the report I’ve attached a number of appendices, there is information on article 9 of the constitution, which effectively sets out the constitutional framework for both panels and that’s in the first agenda document that we’ve got. Can I refer you to page 11 of the original agenda and in particular if you turn to page 13 and 14 and ?? onwards you will have the terms of reference of both the Standards Panel and the Standards Appeals Panel setting out not only its composition, but also its scope, remit and indeed its authority in terms of any sanctions that may be imposed.

So the purpose of this Committee is really to establish formally those two panels, not least because there is a particular matter that needs to be considered by the Standards Panel and therefore this Committee by formally establishing those enables the particular Standards Panel to be progressed to the first meeting of the Standards Panel.

With regards to that particular Panel meeting, we have canvassed dates. It has been a matter that has been long-standing in terms of both its progression, but we have now managed to secure a convenient date for a number of parties who need to be attending including at least one of our independent members and the date that is now available for that Standards Panel to meet is Tuesday 28th June at 6.00pm. There is also the possibility of a further date of the following day the 29th of June which I would suggest that we keep that date as a hold over provisional date that if we’re not able to conclude matters on Tuesday evening, we are in a position to adjourn to the following day where all the parties who are required are also available for Wednesday the 29th.

I’m not anticipating the matter having to extend to a second day, but it would be prudent now that we have a date to hold both days indeed if that we need them.

So Chair, the report itself sets out the position, I would like to just remind all people to bring to the attention of everyone the procedure, suggested procedure in appendix 4 of the supplement which sets out the suggested procedure for how matters will be dealt with by either the Standards Panel or indeed the Standards Appeals Panel.

As essentially an indicative process or procedure that would be followed. There is the discretion here for the Chairperson of the Panel to vary the ??? procedure if it’s necessary in the interests of fairness to all parties I understand, but it’s anticipated that following the process there will be making it ??? who needs to have whose views need to be sought, have the opportunity to share those thoughts with the Panel before the Panel considers its position with regards to the standards matter and also goes so far as to deal with if they do uphold and find that there is a breach, also then to address the issue of any sanctions if any that it thinks are appropriate.

So your approval is also sought in respect of that decision.”

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