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
http://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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Standards Committee – 27th January 2011 – Part 1

The agenda and reports for last night’s Standards Committee can be viewed by following the link.

Apologies in advance if I’ve misquoted anyone, but with no microphones it was hard to tell what some of the speakers were saying as there were side conversations going on.

The Chair started off by welcoming everyone and introducing Jane Corrin, the Council’s Freedom of Information Act Manager. Cllr Jones declared an interest in item 5 as he had received a FOIA response. The minutes of the last meeting were agreed.

A council officer introduced item 3 and said the committee would be given an update on any substantial changes but as the bill was going through Parliament it may change. Cllr Williams asked if the Standards Committee would be given updates. Cllr Bridson asked if the requirement on Wirral Council to have a Standards Committee would be abolished.

The officer answered that updates could be circulated by email rather than in a report which Cllr Jones agreed was easier.

Standards Committee – 25th January – Part 5

Cllr Blakeley said he had read it two to three times. It was so open he was disappointed. He wanted it put on record his concern at the amount of time complaints too. Non-complex complaints should have a 6 month deadline. Complaints could be dealt with by an external Monitoring Officer. It was an open merry-go-round of non-solutions and he thought it was going backwards. It was not tight enough and far too open. Anything that took longer than 26 weeks if not complex was unacceptable.

He had lodged a complaint in 2009, three times he had received a statement from a solicitor with no page numbers. He had asked Bill Norman. He said that all these people making monkeys out of us was unacceptable.

A Labour councillor said that they absolutely agree. Twelve to fourteen months was wrong. Indeed waiting so long worried the public and doesn’t reflect us. Six months to a year was not a proper reply. Wirral should ask another authority to tighten up their procedures.

Cllr Williams said she was puzzled why it was on the agenda and intrigued as to why. She shared the concerns and asked for the main reason or an explanation. A council officer responded to her concerns. Brian Ellis said that there is a current protocol, however it’s only two pages. This is more comprehensive and detailed.

Cllr Williams asked if it doesn’t help or speed up the process then there was not much point. A council officer said it was a deferred item and he was happy to revise the time limits. The Localism Bill had implications for it. Cllr Williams said it should be parked for now and changes made at a future meeting.

Cllr Blakeley asked about one point he was confused at section 7.3. If the Monitoring Officer and Chair of the Standards Committee decide on whether a complaint goes to the Initial Assessment Panel, is the Chair debarred as this would be classed as pre-determination?

Cllr Jones said he didn’t always agree with Cllr Blakeley, however a parallel was disciplinary procedures. These had safeguards whereas currently a councillor was left dangling for 12-18 months.

Cllr Blakeley said it was not good for complainants and the subject of complaints but accepted some were complex. 90% were standard complaints that should last no longer than 6 months. If we can’t how can we refer to the Standards Framework. Why did it have to be our Monitoring Officer? Nowhere did it mention working with another local authority.

Cllr Jones said it was sometimes done with police authorities and was healthier because there was no link of friendship or political link. The it was dealt with on its merits. As complaints lasted at least 6 months, councillors could be gone before they were heard.

Cllr Blakleley said it had happened regarding a complaint about someone who is no longer a councillor. Wirral Council was struggling for money. Could the benefit be explained of 5 different standards committees and three joint boards? Couldn’t Wirral team up with two or three others?

Cllr McLaughlin said that it worked against natural justice. For six months it was hanging over and used for political advantage. It was almost impossible to get a non-prejudicial decision.

Cllr Blakeley said differences were thrown to one side and it was the same for people of all parties.

Cllr Bridson asked for a costs breakdown and of consultants used. She said the council should send a bill to people who complained about councillors if the complaint was not upheld. A council officer said he would report back.

Cllr Blakeley suggested a Regional Standards Committee for the Liverpool City Region. Labour asked if they run out of people for a standards hearing what do we do?

Stella Elliott pointed out there were independent members with no bias that brought something to the process. Labour pointed out that in some authorities independent members sit on cases. Cllr Williams said that when she sat on panels, she sought to be objective and that there were as many differences between members of her own political party htan members of different political parties. She hoped she achieved objectivity.

Cllr McLaughlin said that was ideal. Cllr Williams continued that that was what she strove to do. In order not to be biased she put her views to one side.

The Chair said the new protocol was not adopted/accepted. Cllr Blakeley asked for a flowchart. Cllr Williams wouldn’t want to offend officers but believed it could be improved upon.

There were no items of any other business. The Chair thanked people for their attendance.

Standards Committee – 25th January – Part 4

The committee then moved onto agenda item 6 and the discussion paper.

Labour commented first. They said they would like the independent Chair to come to the next full Council meeting and meeting the groups. It would be useful to get a feeling of things. It had been raised in the past. He said he would do it if (unfortunately my handwritten notes are unreadable here).

Cllr Blakeley said that on Merseytravel, Standards Committee members were invited to all meetings of Merseytravel. There was an open invitation and independent members were more than welcome to attend Cabinet and Overview and Scrutiny Committee meetings which were open to the public.

The Chair responded by saying “(unfortunately my handwritten notes are unreadable here)”

Brian Ellis said that apologies were received from Ken Harrison and Andrew Nuttall. The Chair said he would “take a ” (unfortunately my handwritten notes are unreadable here) “and got in” (unfortunately my handwritten notes are unreadable here). The typos and missing apostrophe was mentioned.

The committee went on to decide the the new procedure for standards complaints. The officer said it had been deferred from the last meeting and addressed the concerns about dealing with complaints more promptly. It included timescales, but was pending the outcome of the Localism Bill.

Standards Committee – 27th January 2011 – Part 2

The meeting moved onto consideration of item 4 Use of recording media at meetings (which had previously been discussed at the last Standards Committee meeting).

Cllr Blakeley said that this had arisen because a councillor had taken a photo of another councillor and then reproduced it in a leaflet. He said the report “wasn’t what was asked for” was a “waste of officer time” that should “go into the bin”. He said that they would “not close down this Council to members of the public” and that the “issue he had raised had not been dealt with”. Cllr Williams stated that no further action was needed or required. Cllr Jones said he had no strong views and agreed that Wirral Council should be open to the public. He was also concerned at the amount of officer time used.

Cllr Williams said it was a “sledgehammer to crack a nut” and that there were “unfortunate aspects” that were “totally unnecessary”. Officer time had been spent unnecessarily on this. Cllr Blakeley called on elected members to behave appropriately.

It was agreed that no further action be taken.

John Brace said “As someone who writes on this blog, on other websites and in print about decisions made by politicians at public meetings at Wallasey Town Hall, this report if agreed would’ve meant any journalist or citizen reporting on meetings would’ve had to agree not to be critical of councillors, hand over all their material (video, tape or other recordings) and ask for permission to report many days in advance. If they hadn’t complied with these draconian restrictions they would’ve been expelled from the meeting. I am glad these illiberal restrictions on freedom of speech and the press have not been agreed.”

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