Does Wirral Council believe that the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government?
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).
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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Never believe anything until it’s officially denied
Never believe anything until it’s officially denied
There is a phrase “Never believe anything until it’s officially denied” which seems to apply to the Wirral Council/LGA Improvement Board too although they seem to have rewritten it to “Never believe anything until you’re told you can’t even speak about it”.
I’m a member of the NUJ and subject to a Code of Conduct which includes in rule one an obligation on me (rule 1) that “At all times upholds and defends the principle of media freedom, the right of freedom of expression and the right of the public to be informed.”
So when I got a response like this (the email is copied below) in response to a question I submitted to the Improvement Board’s public question and answer session I wonder why someone doesn’t want the public to be informed on this matter and why? If there was nothing going on, surely the Wirral Council/LGA Improvement Board would welcome an opportunity to set the record straight? Have Wirral Council not heard of the Streisand effect?
An opposition councillor at last night’s Audit and Risk Management Committee was complaining that officers won’t answer his questions. If councillors can’t get answers and a question from the public is effectively censored from even being asked is it any wonder that some of the public don’t think things at Wirral Council have changed much along their much trumpeted journey to openness and transparency (accompanied by the phrase “move on” as “sweep it under the carpet” seems to have gone out of fashion)?
Below is the email and below that the question. It feels pointless to ask it at the meeting as I doubt I’ll get an answer, but it shows that the “bureaucratic machinations” referred to by Klonowski seem to still be alive and kicking.
date: 14 November 2013 17:16
subject: RE: questions for Wirral/LGA Improvement Board question and answer session on the 15th November 2013
Dear Mr. Brace
Thank you for your questions which I have shared with the Chair of the Improvement Board. I have been asked to advise you that Q8 refers to a member of staff and it would therefore be inappropriate for this to be discussed in a public forum.
The Chair kindly requests you do not refer to this question at the meeting.
Q8 is The Strategic Director for Regeneration and the Environment Kevin Adderley has been mysteriously absent of late from recent public meetings at Wirral Council. Can a reason be given for this to quash (or confirm) the rumours circulating as to the reasons why?
P.S. I am reminded of an answer given by the Improvement Board to a question in July “The LGA Wirral Improvement Board meetings are not meetings of the Council at which public functions are being exercised.” Quite how you manage to have a public forum and a public meeting (or is to use a phrase trotted out by Wirral councillors when they are heckled not a public meeting but a meeting held in public?) without exercising a public function is probably one of those difficult questions there isn’t a good answer to.
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Cllr Tom Harney (Lib Dem)
Cllr Simon Mountney (Conservative)
Cllr Lesley Rennie (Conservative)
Cllr Phil Davies, Chair (Labour)
Cllr Adrian Jones (Labour)
Cllr George Davies (Labour)
Cllr Ann McLachlan (Labour)
Graham Burgess (Chief Executive)
Chris Hyams (Head of HR and OD)
Andrew Mossop (Committee Services Officer)
Unknown female officer
Johnathan Swain of Penna PLC
John and Leonora Brace
Well the Employment and Appointments Subcommittee, part of the final process to select a strategic director (Families and Wellbeing) following the officer interviews today, was predictably short (well the public bit anyway). Jonathan Swain of recruitment consultants Penna PLC once again stayed for the exempt part of the meeting, even though as far as I know being a private sector employee working in the private sector would be classed as part of the “public” (unless they’ve temporarily made him an officer).
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Present (6/7,3:2:1) Employment and Appointments Sub-Committee
Committee Room 2, Wallasey Town Hall
26th October 2012 3pm
Cllr Lesley Rennie, Conservative
Cllr Jeff Green, Conservative
Cllr Patricia Williams, Liberal Democrat
Cllr Phil Davies, Labour
Cllr Ann McLachlan, Labour
Cllr Adrian Jones, Labour Cllr George Davies (from 15:30 (agenda item 3)), Labour
Andrew Mossop (Committee Clerk)
Not Present (Legal adviser) Wirral Council officers
Chris Hyams, Head of Human Resources and Organisational Development
Graham Burgess, Acting Chief Executive
David Armstrong, Deputy Chief Executive
Press/public (agenda items 1-3)
J and L Brace
The meeting originally scheduled for 3pm started at 3.06pm. There were no microphones used.
1. Appointment of Chair Andrew Mossop asked for nominations for Chair.
Cllr Ann McLachlan proposed a nomination for Cllr Phil Davies.
Cllr Adrian Jones seconded a nomination for Cllr Phil Davies.
There was a vote on the nomination for Cllr Phil Davies for Chair by show of hands.
Andrew Mossop asked if there were any other nominations for Chair?
No other nominations for Chair were made.
Cllr Phil Davies was therefore appointed Chair of the Employment and Appointments Sub-committee (unopposed). Cllr Phil Davies got up from his seat and walked to the Chair’s chair in the room and sat down.
The Chair (Cllr Phil Davies) asked for any declarations of interest?
2. Declarations of Interest
No declarations of interest were made.
3.Exclusion of the press and public
Cllr Phil Davies proposed the following recommendation on the advice of a Council officer:-
“That in accordance with section 100A (4) of the Local Government Act 1972, the public be excluded from the meeting during consideration of the following item of business, on the grounds that it involves the likely disclosure of exempt information as defined by the relevant paragraphs of Part 1 of Schedule 12A to that Act. The public interest test has been applied and favours exclusion.”
This was agreed.
A member of the public (the author of this blog) asked why the resolution didn’t include the paragraph/s number and asked if they were required to include theparagraph or paragraph number in the resolution?
The Chair Cllr Phil Davies said he would seek advice on the subject. He sought advice on the subject and was also given advice by Cllr Jeff Green that it was paragraph 1. His resolution was amended to:-
“That in accordance with section 100A (4) of the Local Government Act 1972, the public be excluded from the meeting during consideration of the following item of business, on the grounds that it involves the likely disclosure of exempt information as defined by the paragraph 1 of Part 1 of Schedule 12A to that Act. The public interest test has been applied and favours exclusion.”
The amended resolution was put to the vote and agreed. The press and public were excluded for agenda item 4 (Appointment of Strategic Director: Families and Wellbeing).
The public made their way to the door to leave the room.
Cllr George Davies arrives.
The public left the room.
Agenda Item 4 Appointment of Strategic Director: Families and Wellbeing
The councillors now including the late Cllr George Davies considered the applications for the new post of Strategic Director (Families and Wellbeing).
The following resolution was agreed:
That the following 5 candidates be long listed for the next stage of the selection process which shall be for officer interviews on Tuesday, 13 November – candidate numbers, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.
Andrew Mossop: any nominations for the Chair?
Cllr Ann McLachlan: I nominate Phil Davies.
Andrew Mossop: Chair, err, Cllr Phil Davies, is that seconded?
Cllr Adrian Jones: Yes.
Andrew Mossop: Are there any other nominations?
Cllr Phil Davies: Right, OK, err folks, … see you’re busy…errm Item 2 this is a standing item, Members Code of Conduct Declarations of Interest. Has anyone wish to declare any interests?
No, OK, no interests, errm, item 3, is item for you to agree the exemption to exclude the members of the public from the meeting. Is that agreed?
Various councillors: Agreed.
John Brace: Sorry, there are no reasons in it, but the case law says there has to be reference to a paragraph, so errm is it possible to give the reasons,
Cllr Phil Davies:
John Brace: that’s supposed to be in the resolution you passed you see but unfortunately it’s missing from the agenda.
Cllr Phil Davies:
Cllr Jeff Green: on the basis of paragraph 1, I can suggest we actually go carry forward the exemption.
Cllr Phil Davies: So we should agree on the basis of paragraph 1?
John Brace: Is that agreed on paragraph 1?
Cllr Phil Davies: Is that agreed on the basis of paragraph 1?