What do disasters, Wirral Council, Wirral Waters, an MOT, Snowden and America have in common?
What do disasters, Wirral Council, Wirral Waters, an MOT test, Snowden and America have in common?
I thought it was time I wrote a piece to explain to readers why there haven’t been as many blog posts this month (bear in mind there were only six last month).
After all a lot has been going on. So where do I start?
Firstly, a bit of internal news. As people know I record a lot of video of public meetings and thanks to the slow internet speeds here on the Wirral (there’s not enough competition on high-speed internet yet unfortunately) a lot of strain had been put on the main hard drive of my laptop. Just as a quick bit of commentary, Wirral Council did at one stage have money set aside for high-speed internet access on the Wirral, but decided to spend it on something else apart from a small amount still earmarked for high-speed internet access to the Wirral Waters area.
Although I’m close enough to Wirral Waters to probably benefit, sadly there is a lack of competition on the high-speed internet front meaning prices are still high.
Those who know me, know I used to fix computers and have a disaster recovery plan in place for this scenario and backups. Thankfully IT disaster recovery (yes I realise it is rare for management for have an IT background) runs smoother here than it has in the past at Wirral Council which has had its fair share of IT fiascos.
However to cut a long story short, the internal hard drive can no longer be used (it’s too unreliable and error prone) and has being replaced by an external 1 terabyte hard drive connected via USB.
Yes, it would be nice to have replaced the faulty internal hard drive, but due to the age of the laptop I’m concerned that opening it up to do so could finish the laptop off completely. This means effectively the laptop is no longer portable and stays in my office (which is basically a spare bedroom).
However my routine had been to write blog posts elsewhere in the morning. That’s tricky now as the external hard drive and USB cable need to be somewhere flat. I will eventually replace the laptop. Public meetings held in the morning (such as the Wirral Council Cabinet meetings held on Monday morning’s) also break up this routine.
Last week, my wife’s car went it for its MOT (bear in mind a lot of the public meetings are held at times when public transport is just not possible). As we both use the car for work purposes, I cover the cost of this as a business overhead. Ultimately though when the car is unavailable, considering the criticism I’ve levelled at politicians for getting taxis (at the taxpayer’s expense) to public meetings, I didn’t want to rely on taxis and decided not to go the Licensing, Health and Safety and General Purposes Committee meeting last week (also in part because of my birthday later on in that week). In a slight twist of fate that meeting I missed was about taxis.
The cost of the MOT plus repairs, VAT etc came to about £740. As that’s a one-off expense, I have had to concentrate on commercial work (basically an advertising deal to cover the overhead).
Another factor to consider is that my original plan for this blog had been long-term to run Google Adsense ads on it. At one stage with another website I was running I was earning about £60 a day over the Christmas period from such advertising. These days however the other side of the dot com bubble, advertising rates are much, much lower.
You may have noticed this blog has minimal advertising on it. Those who keep abreast of information law, will know that the Max Schrems legal case (following Snowden’s whistleblowing revelations) led to the EU US Safe Harbour agreement being ruled as legally invalid. Although it was later replaced by the EU US Privacy Shield, it’s only recently that Google have gone through the process necessary that data can be shared with them (such as running their ads on this blog).
There is also a long running story I’ve been writing about for years that for legal reasons, I can’t write about due to legal restrictions until an outstanding matter in it is decided.
Having had a birthday (indeed this blog is now around 6 years old) and a fortnight to think about the future of this blog, feedback (including emails I get) have told me that people find the videos of public meetings useful and the publication of documents revealed during citizen audits.
There are literally boxes of information I have from the 2015-16 audits of various local public bodies (including a lot of unpublished files on councillors’ expenses), but Wirral Council still owes me a number of contracts and other documentation (an employee went on leave which seems to be the usual standard reason why in an organisation of thousands of employees work grinds to a halt when somebody goes on leave).
So, the upshot is that I’ve not vanished off the face of the earth, or got another job and just because there may be a lack of published blog posts doesn’t mean there aren’t blog posts written and yet to be published (for example I wrote one on my birthday last week about Monday evening’s set of three Wirral Council meetings that is awaiting the final touches (photo, headline etc)).
My aim is to concentrate on topical, but in-depth investigative journalism, but bearing in mind there is just myself and Leonora here, to do a good job on such matters can take years of patient reporting.
This would be made easier if certain people in the public sector locally didn’t act in the title of a book a reader kindly sent me a while back titled “Not in the Public Interest”. My job is made considerably more difficult to do and time-consuming by certain people on salaries that look more like phone numbers in politically restricted posts, who seem to get it into their head that I’m on some personal crusade to actually get them to do their job properly.
Therefore they see me as a threat and their raison d’être becomes making life difficult for me.
I’ve seen many public sector managers come and go, it’s not personal, I’m not out to get you or cause chaos.
Yet have a bit of sense and don’t deliberately go out of your way to abuse your power in ways that are unethical.
I never like having to go down the route of getting the judiciary involved, not just because it polarises matters but as it always leads to a can of worms coming out (that there are no restrictions on reporting on in the interests of open justice). As a court reporter I know how the public sector always treats judicial processes like a game, lies through its teeth, lies under oath and has for a long time abused the court and tribunal processes to get what it wants knowing there aren’t going to be consequences for doing so.
My immediate family (before retiring) worked in the criminal justice system and as a child I was told about the systems of justice in this country. I realise it may be old-fashioned to expect the public sector to adhere to the rule of law and even odder to expect councillors and local government officers to explain why they did what they did to the judiciary.
I also realise that coming from a foreign background and being married to a foreign national that my views on openness and transparency are somewhat different to what seems to be accepted as a cultural norm here (yes I was born in this country but sometimes it seems to be completely different to the one I grew up in)!
However, I would be keen to hear your views (in the form of comments) on what level of advertising you’d find acceptable (or whether you think a different way of funding running costs is better) and whether you think long form more in depth journalism is what you want to read (along with data journalism such as the publication of documents) along with any other thoughts you may have.
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Wirral Council’s Public Question Time 14th December 2015
Before I write about the question I asked of Councillor Adrian Jones at public question time, I am going to explain some of the legal background, what’s happened so far and why there are echoes of the extreme lengths that the former Speaker of the House of Commons Michael Martin went to over MPs’ expenses.
There are a number of different laws (and a bit of history) here that apply to this, so I am going to start by explaining my understanding of them and explain why Cllr Adrian Jones has unfortunately fallen into the trap of believing things officers tell him and also getting bamboozled by some of the legal jargon. Here is a link to a transcript of a previous answer he gave.
I’m a local government elector here on the Wirral (basically that means I get to vote in elections to Wirral Council).
Each year, during the audit there is a period of about three weeks when local government electors have a legal right to inspect and receive free copies of accounts to be audited and copies of all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts relating to them.
Wirral Council can remove any details of employees, but has to seek the external auditor’s permission (in this case Grant Thornton) to remove anything else.
Once the inspection period ends, there is then a period when questions can be asked of the auditor followed by a period when formal objections can be raised or requests for a public interest report.
In case Wirral Council thinks I’m picking on it, this year I made requests to Merseytravel (part of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority), Merseyside Waste Disposal Authority (also called Merseyside Recycling and Waste Authority), Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority and Liverpool City Council.
Each of those other bodies managed to respond and provide the information for inspection more or less within the inspection period.
Two of these authorities (Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority and Merseyside Waste Disposal Authority) provided some of what I requested in electronic format.
Wirral Council however decided that providing me with what I’d estimate at 10% of what I asked for was reasonable. It’s not!
These other public bodies I refer to are much smaller (in terms of staff and budget) than Wirral Council, yet by being flexible saved to give the example as outlined above the internal costs of copying a contract of over 11,000 pages in length. Had I requested such a contract from Wirral Council I would still be waiting as they would insist on supplying it in paper format!
By reversing this decision Wirral Council saved ’thousands in the costs of perhaps adding an extra hour to the next Highways and Traffic Representation Panel public meeting, the cost of it then going on the agenda of the next Regeneration and Environment Policy and Performance Committee public meeting and the cost of a Cabinet Member finally making a decision (along with the associated costs of officers trying to persuade objectors to drop their objections).
I might point out that as I put this information in the public domain had Cabinet reversed their decision at an earlier stage the costs of consultation on the proposed traffic regulation order (an expensive public notice in the local newspaper etc) would have been saved too.
I would suspect that councillors’ use of taxis would be broadly comparable from year to year. So let’s test Cllr Adrian Jones’ assertion.
In response to this FOI request the taxi bill in 13/14 was ~£3k and Cllr Adrian Jones confirmed in answer to my question that for the 14/15 financial year the total cost was roughly the same.
Here are three councillors that got taxis in 13/14 and the costs:
Cllr Moira McLaughlin £755.30 Cllr Pat Hackett £700 Cllr Steve Niblock £493.90
Had anyone of those stopped getting taxis at Wirral Council’s expense the total amount for 14/15 would’ve dropped dramatically.
Yet here are the relevant amounts from the 2014/15 published list:
Cllr Moira McLaughlin £NIL Cllr Pat Hackett £NIL Cllr Steve Niblock £NIL
If these three councillors had all decided to give up getting taxis and the £NIL amounts were correct (the latter point Cllr Adrian Jones states in answer to my question) then the total amount would drop by ~£2k (the combined total of all three). However it hasn’t!
You can see the full exchange between myself and Cllr Adrian Jones below.
Cllr Ron Abbey (who is a member of Wirral Council’s Audit and Risk Management Committee) makes the point before Cllr Adrian Jones that it is implied that this is unlawful and isn’t that terrible to imply such a thing?
Clearly as clearly outlined above, had Wirral Council not flouted a number of its other legal responsibilities I would be able to answer that question and Wirral Council’s cultural attitudes towards its legal responsibilities continue to have the effect of interfering with the freedom of the press and triggering the Streisand effect.
Councillor Adrian Jones makes the point that councillors are trusted not to misuse the public purse paying for their taxis.
Below is a claim form (as I’m being seasonal) from one of Cllr Adrian Jones’ party colleagues, a Councillor Peter Brennan (a councillor at Liverpool City Council) who claimed from Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority (and was paid for) £5.64 for car mileage expenses to and from a carol concert at St Nicholas’ Church. In the grand scheme of things you may point out that £5.64 doesn’t matter and at least he didn’t get a taxi! However it’s the cumulative cost to the public purse of these matters and the excessive secrecy at Wirral Council that is leading to suspicion as to why despite Cllr Adrian Jones’ claims about openness and transparency that at Wirral Council they are being anything but on this politically sensitive topic!
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EXCLUSIVE: Wirral Council continues its multi year battle to keep the 320,000+ Wirral people and press completely in the dark on councillors’ expense claims but in an exclusive you can now read 44 pages of the taxi contract for councillors
EXCLUSIVE: Wirral Council continues its multi year battle to keep the 320,000+ Wirral people and press completely in the dark on councillors’ expense claims but in an exclusive you can now read 44 pages of the taxi contract for councillors
Updated: 16:56 7th October 2015: 3 minutes after this blog post was published Wirral Council got in touch about my request under the The Re-use of Public Sector Information Regulations 2015. Wirral Council asked for more time to reach a decision (which seems to be on line one page one of their big book of responses. 😉
However I have written back (and carbon copied in Surjit Tour) explaining that Regulation 5(5) excludes such documents because in order to access them I had to prove a legal interest (in this case being a local government elector for the Wirral area) during the 2014/15 audit.
This does mean that as this matter has been resolved, I will be publishing more information unearthed during the audit in the future, such as the Bam Nuttall contract.
Those who pay close attention to this blog will realise I haven’t published anything on this blog for a week. Apologies for that and here is an explanation. For some of that time I wasn’t well and the combination of nights of disrupted sleep due to dogs barking outside/helicopters/extremely noisy weather*(*take your pick as that’s just one night) resulted in severe lack of sleep that made me feel so ill that the last thing I wanted to do is write (and believe me I have to feel very ill not to want to write).
The closest I can describe it to is like suffering from something like jet lag from sleep deprivation (which didn’t help me get better as quickly as I should and had the opposite effect). So apologies if I have either been slow (or not responding at all) to emails and comments. I just haven’t been particularly up to the art of stringing together words into real sentences as typing and actually using my joints to type just made the pain worse. So if I’ve written any emails to you over the past week or so where I seem unusually cranky or cheesed off hopefully this explains why.
However I was better yesterday but was busy doing writing of a different sort, which forms part of what I’m going to write about today.
This blog post is a new chapter in a long running saga about taxis, Wirral Council and secret expenses system. However the story has got far wider than that.
First, before I get into fourth gear of what is a story that seems to now have more interesting angles than the Watergate affair and as this blog is read in many countries around the world I need to explain.
For reasons far too complex to go into here, Wirral Council tends to go in for similar types of high political drama that surrounded the Watergate affair, except people very, very rarely resign (resigning being a once in a blue moon event at Wirral Council that tends to really take people by surprise). This was summed up by the attitude of the former Improvement Board at a public meeting who I will paraphrase here, no one is ever held personally accountable and you mustn’t name names (as if you name names that’s blaming people)! My own personal political philosophy is there are always matters people are personally accountable for, but organisational failings of checks and balances and abuses of power have more serious outcomes for society as a whole than people (or even groups of people) behaving badly. However I digress and I need to briefly summarise the story so far as this is starting to have echoes of the MP expenses scandal. In fact not just echoes but marked similarities.
Wirral Council (official long name the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral) has sixty-six councillors (for foreign readers unfamiliar with the word councillor it’s a form of politician). Nearly every year the people who get to vote on the Wirral (Wirral’s population was estimated at 320,295 in mid-2013 according to the Office for National Statistics) get to choose a candidate. The candidate with the most votes (and I’ll leave out a long argument as to why the First Past the Post system that is used for this is unfair and the merits of STV [single transferable vote] for another day) becomes a politician called a councillor. The person who is elected (unless it’s in a by-election) is then elected and called a councillor generally for a four-year term of office.
During their term of office they receive allowances, but there is also an expenses system too. Under our "democracy" (although technically the United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy) politicians such as councillors are answerable to the people.
Many politicians stand for re-election (there are no term limits for being a councillor so for some people it can become a "job for life" (however as councillors on Wirral Council are not employees and not MPs (Members of Parliament) they don’t get a gold-plated pension)) so if you’ve been a bad sort of politician and stand for re election (or if you’re a good politician but are very bad at actually communicating this to the public and/or your political party does bad things) you’ll lose your seat. This is the greatest form of accountability to the public.
Wirral Council are legally required to keep a record of all payments made under the scheme (whether to councillors themselves or to third parties). These records are required to be "be available, at all reasonable times, for inspection and at no charge" to any local government elector for the Wirral area.
However the right to copies of such information is wider than that as under the regulations "any person" can request copies.
This is a bit of a laugh really, as it takes Wirral Council months merely to assemble such information on councillors (therefore strictly speaking the information isn’t available at all reasonable times for inspection breaching one of the regulations).
I am however taking about a thousand words so far and slightly digressing from the points I wanted to make (which wasn’t just about local government record keeping).
Another part of the regulations requires an annual list to be published by Wirral Council for each councillor for the total of allowances & expenses claimed by each councillor for the previous financial year. This way the public can see what councillors are personally receiving (or is being paid on their behalf to third parties) in relation to their duties. Some councillors chose to claim no expenses at all.
However it probably requires a certain amount of forensic accountancy to prove that the expenses lists as published by Wirral Council have been incorrect and they have been for many years.
I am now going to refer to why this happened and what Wirral Council needs to do to correct this and why despite it being pointed out to them they probably won’t bother as to Wirral Council getting things right seems to be too much effort and too expensive as the politicians decide on an annual revenue budget of hundreds of millions of pounds a year and large amounts of capital expenditure too.
At the moment the published expenses lists are only part of the story. Based on looking at a similar situation at Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority, what the public are actually told about is probably only approximately 50% (or half for those who don’t understand percentages) of what is actually claimed in expenses.
It has become a party political issue which is illustrated by this quote from the Leader of Wirral Council Cllr Phil Davies in this Wirral Globe article earlier this year. Again members is referring to councillors (our members refers to the councillors who are part of the ruling Labour Group on Wirral Council).
Asked why only Labour councillors appeared on the list, Cllr Davies said: “The reality is that quite a lot of our members don’t have cars, so they need to use taxis to get to council meetings. If they had cars then they would be making a claim on council expenses for their car allowance, but they don’t. There are more Labour councillors who don’t have a car than those from other parties. These are legitimate claims within the budget of the council for elected members to allow them to do their jobs. Quite often taxis are the only form of transport they can use to get to their meetings.”
Apart from this having echoes of militant Labour delivering redundancy notices to all Liverpool City Council staff by taxi, basically this is a councillor (Leader of the Labour Group) somewhat begrudingly explaining about a secret expenses system for claiming taxis that the public and the press are presumably deliberately kept in the dark about. Wirral Council has known about this corporate governance matter about councillors expenses but despite claiming it would fix it has refused to do so. These figures for taxis (which come to £thousands) don’t appear in the annually published lists) and as detailed in the Wirral Globe article (based in part on my earlier story on the matter) that are used exclusively by one political party (Labour) are according to Cllr Phil Davies justified.
Cllr Phil Davies wears many hats, one as Leader of the Labour Group of councillors, one as Leader of Wirral Council (with the Cabinet portfolio for finance and corporate governance) and a third as a local councillor. The quote referred to above makes Cllr Phil Davies sound like a union rep for the other Labour councillors trying to keep hold of an expensive perk for his fellow politicians.
This has parallels with the approach by Michael Martin MP when he was Speaker of the House of Commons over the MP’s expenses scandal. Michael Martin MP saw himself as a representative of his fellow politicians and eventually had to resign because of the fallout over MP expenses when a national newspaper (in an example of chequebook journalism) bought and published the information. This ultimately led to a lot of embarrassment and prison sentences for some politicians (but ultimately reform of the system) whereas councillors at Wirral Council don’t even get the bare legal minimum of scrutiny of their expenses due to poor corporate governance (which is a matter that the person with democratic acccountability to the public is Cllr Phil Davies).
He compares Labour councillors’ use of taxis to a car mileage allowance used by other councillors. However the latter appears in the annual lists, but Labour’s use of taxis doesn’t. In order for the people to know what’s going on and compare one to the other they have to both appear.
I hope this doesn’t come across to people as an attack on Labour politicians or Labour Party, it’s not. If this was being done by Conservative, Lib Dem, Green Party or other sorts of politicians I would be writing this same sort of blog post.
However it reminds me of an email exchange I had before the General Election with a Labour Party member. They told me that they couldn’t campaign against their own party on an issue (I think it may have been about Lyndale School or possibly some other controversial issue) as instead their efforts were better put into getting Labour elected nationally into government in 2015.
Their view was once elected a Labour government in 2015 would have power and therefore be able to solve the policy problem. It was a stark example of how political parties may have individuals that care about policies, but ultimately as a group the Labour Party wasn’t interested in campaigning for something popular with the public (therefore winning votes and support) which may have ultimately led to them winning the 2015 General Election. This point was pointed out to them many times in the lead up to the election by the press and others.
Instead the Labour Party decided to pursue a strategy of ignoring public opinion, brazenly going for power at all costs, then got confused when the Conservatives got a majority and Labour lost seats.
I will point out that when I was a former member of the Lib Dems, there was a controversial joint Labour/Lib Dem policy decision to close half of Wirral’s libraries. I expressed my views against this in Lib Dem party meetings, stubborn councillors decided play brinkmanship, there was a public inquiry and the whole thing descended into farce and fiasco with a lot of people losing face over the whole matter. I even got ticked off by Sue Charteris as I unfortunately turned up about fifteen minutes late to the public inquiry (which was being filmed) and was told off for having the temerity to discreetly take a photo of what was going on (an omen of the later long running battles over filming public meetings).
At no point do I remember telling anyone within or outside the Lib Dem party (I decided to leave the Lib Dems in January 2012 and indeed sued the entire Liberal Democrat party for breaking the law, had my day in court and won), sorry I personally believe half of Wirral’s libraries shouldn’t close, but I refuse to campaign against the combined Labour & Lib Dem Parties as it’s important that I instead put my efforts into making sure the Lib Dems became the sole party of national government in 2015.
I think if I had made such claims fellow party members would’ve asked me if I was being sarcastic or not thinking straight. My position on the disastrous policy was well known, my views were dismissed partly because of my youth (one party member referred to me as a "baby" during a party meeting) although I doubt the full story about what happened internally within the Lib Dem Party over its politicians setting an unlawful budget will ever be told. The problem with that coalition is the buck could always be passed to Labour just as two halves of the recent 2010-2015 Coalition government could do with each other. The Lib Dem Party has always made it clear to me that they don’t care about the reputational consequences of its politicians or employees breaking the law. As obeying the "rule of law" is a part of democracy it makes me wonder how they have the gall to truthfully call themselves the Liberal Democrats.
However I am going off track in an explanation of the terrible policy failings of party politics and the errors of judgement of politicians (who seem to have a blind spot when it comes to abuses of power) that make unpopular decisions that are not only unlawful but not supported by their own political party either.
This article is going to be about the nuts and bolts of the Passenger Transport Contract issue though.
Last year, Wirral Council agreed to a one-year Passenger Transport Contract worth about £4.1 million. It’s possibly worth more than this as there’s an option in the contract for a one year extension. However I’m not sure if the £4.1 million figure relates to the one or two years of the contract.
This contract is with a company called Eyecab Limited based in Upton (Upton makes a lot of geographical sense for a taxi company to base itself as it’s in the middle of the Wirral).
The contract is divided up into four parts called lots. I’d better describe what each lot is about.
This lot is for transporting children with special educational needs and/or disability from home to school and school to home. It also covers transport for children in care. Children in care is a term that those involved in social work might be more familiar as looked after children. If you’re still not familiar with the term looked after children it refers to for example (but not exclusively) to those in foster care for whom Wirral Council is their "parent". It also covers transport for vulnerable adults to day centres.
Lot two is for ad hoc travel for children with special educational needs and/or disability, vulnerable adults and children in care by taxi, people carrier or hackney carriage (black cab).
The third lot is for journeys by taxi to work and training for Wirral residents (where journeys start or end in East Wirral) known as the "Maxi Taxi". This is to "support individuals travelling to locations not served by traditional public transport and too far or too unsafe to cycle to."
On that latter point, in my younger days I classed a 16 mile cycle ride as not too far and for many years regularly used to cycle a 7 mile round trip to work and back. I’m presuming the "too unsafe" comments are in relation to the rise in people killed and seriously injured on Wirral’s roads since that time. However as you can take the bike on a Merseyrail train (and most areas of Merseyside are within one mile of a train station). It is possible to use bike, train, bike as I did for many years as a university student and for work travelling all over Merseyside as the trains run from very early in the morning to very late in the evening.
I’ll just quote the official description for this lot. "This contract is for ad hoc journeys by taxi to allow Wirral Councillors to travel to various venues across Wirral.
This contract will allow Wirral Councillors to travel around Wirral on official Council business. The times will vary and may include evenings and weekends."
Much as I would happily write about the millions spent by Wirral Council on lots 1-3, effectively lot 4 is the focus of this piece.
During the audit I requested the contract with Eyecab Limited. I did this as I’m a local government elector for the Wirral area using Audit Commission Act 1998, s.15. I will add here that this is the last year I can do this as that right has now been repealed by the previous Tory/Lib Dem government.
(a) the safeguard of the independent auditor deciding what is personal information (not relating to officers) rather than the body itself and whether this can or can’t be redacted from information supplied has been removed,
(b) showing perhaps a Tory philosophy that will no doubt fill my Labour-leaning readers with glee as another example of government pandering to the sorts of commercial interests that make large donations to the Conservative Party, an extra category of withholding information on grounds of "commercial confidentiality" has been added.
I will point out that Wirral Council has withheld some information from the contract supplied to me. The phone number for Eyecab Limited is such a secret that presumably Wirral Council got permission from its auditors to withhold it.
When the phone number for Eyecab Limited is in the Yellow Pages as 0151 201 0000 (therefore hardly confidential after all please leave a comment if you ever heard of a taxi company that deliberately keeps its phone number a secret?), I do wonder why Wirral Council just make work for themselves (and me) in blacking such information out.
Other information that has been withheld has been pricing information and routes.
On the subject of Wirral Council and its well paid auditor Grant Thornton, when I complained to Grant Thornton about one of contacts to blow the whistle to (Ian Coleman on page 36) having received early retirement from Wirral Council two years before this contract even started, I got an email back stating that contracts weren’t to do with the accounts, therefore weren’t the auditors’ responsibility.
Auditors it seems such as Grant Thornton don’t know what they’re doing (maybe Wirral Council could ask for a refund of their fee when they get things wrong) so they just seem to spout nonsense like this in an attempt to fob people off.
As nobody is ever personally accountable in local government I will spare the particular auditor’s blushes by merely quoting from the email and my reply without naming names. It shows however that some auditors in my opinion are about as much use as a chocolate fireguard (a general point aimed at the entire accounting profession rather than this particular auditor).
I think the term is fobbing off as from other bloggers I know that auditors up and down the country are trying to evade their responsibilities in law by giving this sort of reply to local government electors. The likes of Cllr Ron Abbey (who I recently heard being critical of local government electors exercising their rights with auditors at a Merseytravel meeting because of the cost) would probably not approve of me teaching an auditor they’re wrong as the cost of this (in the form of increased external audit costs) is falling on the taxpayer (whereas sadly my advice and grumpiness is not something I can charge them for).
"Dear Mr Brace
I have now had an opportunity consider the contents of your email to me of 6 September 2015.
I understand from your email that you have exercised your rights under the Audit Commission Act to inspect certain documents associated with Wirral Council’s accounts for 2014/15, including a Passenger Transport Contract with a specific contractor named in your email. You highlight that page 36 of the contract identifies the individuals who should be written to in the event of a whistleblowing complaint. The second of these names is the former Director of Finance who left the council 2012. You have asked us to explain why someone who ‘was not an employee of Wirral Council at the time the Passenger Transport Contract was put out to tender (or when the contract was agreed) … was he included as a whistleblowing contact in the contract?’
I have carefully considered this matter and I am not sure this is a valid question that it is appropriate for us to answer. As you highlight the power to question the auditor is set in section 15(2) of the Audit Commission Act 1998. Although interested persons can ask questions of the auditor, the questions must be about items in the Council’s account. It seems to me that your question is not about an item of account and therefore we are not in a position to respond to your question. It seems to me that your question is more appropriately addressed to the Council.
In summary, I would suggest that you contact the Council with your specific request for information.
It is currently our intention to close the audit of the Council’s 2014/15 accounts by 30 September 2015.
I hope that is helpful in clarifying the position.
I however have learnt the art of being concise in emails and played this game of re educating the external auditor in the trump suit of 3 High Court Judges. Here is one of my replies (which meant the auditor had to change their mind).
I would also like to point out that a Court of Appeal case established beyond a doubt that contracts are part of the accounts. See  EWCA Civ 1214 .
So as three High Court Judges seem to agree with my interpretation, I would ask you to reconsider..
As you would probably say in tennis, game, set and match to me (not that I’m competing with an auditor, it’s just well whether deliberately or by accident they don’t really seem to know what they’re actually doing or the legal framework within which they operate properly but what’s new eh?).
However if I wanted to blow the whistle on the contract about taxis for councillors (and there are many reasons why one should), the contract suggests I blow the whistle to a person who was granted early retirement by Wirral Council in 2012.
Bear in mind this contract isn’t just about councillors and their taxi journeys. It’s also about children with disabilities & vulnerable adults. It is possible a family member might have cause for concern that they wish to raise. If so they could be directed to a person who doesn’t even work for Wirral Council.
Back however to lot 4 and taxis for councillors. As a reward for having to read through nearly 3,000 words of my ranting about poor corporate governance, I have a reward for you dear reader but I want to first explain the price at which publication of this contract comes.
First I had to request it during the audit. Wirral Council exceeded the time limits set down in law for giving it to me so I had to wait a bit longer. I then had to travel for a meeting at a Wirral Council building just off Hamilton Square to inspect it and pick up a copy.
It comes to 43 pages (even after the information has been removed I referred to earlier). I then had to scan these pages in one at a time (because that’s the way my A3 scanner works). I made a request to Wirral Council under The Re-use of Public Sector Information Regulations 2015 to publish it.
Despite this request being made some time ago, I have not received a response back from Wirral Council. As my communications to Wirral Council often seem to disappear into if I was being charitable what must be a black hole operating in one of its departments that sucks up my emails, I’m having to use my editorial discretion to use the part of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1998, s.30 that deals with criticism, review and news reporting. I’m also covered bythe Data Protection Act 1998, s.34 in that its been made available to the public (myself) therefore isn’t subject to the non-disclosure provisions of the data protection legislation.
The way I have digitised this contract was by taking the 73 image files, putting them in OpenOffice Writer one at a time and creating a PDF file. However this file (as each page is an image) comes to 124 megabytes. As Wirral Council raided a reserve for high speed internet access some time ago, not only would this use up a lot of space but peoples’ internet speeds would mean it would take a long time to download.
I therefore spent one work day (yesterday) initially typing up the contract only using images for those that needed it (a MaxiTaxi logo and some signatures). This is very boring and time consuming work, but part way through I found a way to speed things up dramatically by putting the multi-page pdf file through FreeOCR.
The versions of the contract I finally ended up with are far easier to read than the version provided to me by Wirral Council. For those with disabilities, the text can now be magnified without just blowing up the blemishes too. The file sizes of the new files (and I’m providing it in multiple versions because I’m trying to be helpful) are massively smaller.
I have not included the Wirral Council logos and replaced these with (Wirral Council logo). As you can see from the image above it’s the five Ws logo with WIRRAL in bold letters. The typographical errors in the contract (such as the many instances of Disclosure and Baring (rather than Barring) Service), missing full stops etc I’ve left in and not corrected. I hope people appreciate the work put into producing it and I realise it has probably been hard work reading through over 3,000 words to reach this point.
A bit like Schrödinger’s cat, although I requested this contract and the what must be about ~6 monthly invoices that relate to it during the audit, I can only at this point in time observe one (the contract).
Wirral Council are still stalling me on inspecting and receiving copies of the monthly invoices for councillors journeys by taxis. Anyone would think that Wirral Council hasn’t quite got the staff to deal with the sort of investigative journalism I tend to be good at. However as the taxi contract is used solely by the ruling Labour Group councillors I can see how it would be in no officers’ interests to actually comply with the legal deadline for this as no doubt I would publish them which would cause politicians to be embarrassed. Wirral Council are &improving& their website, the legal notice they’re required to publish on their website with the deadline on has also vanished at the time of writing.
Certainly I await to see what other corporate governance horrors Wirral Council get up to and will (hopefully) keep readers of this blog advised of what’s happening. In the meantime at the end are the pages of contract information.
This does raise a lot of questions but I will just concentrate on one which seems to demolish one of the reasons given for this contract. When Councillor Adrian Jones read out an answer to me prepared for him by officers at a public meeting as reported previously he stated, "The Council has negotiated competitive prices and entered into contracts with a local taxi company to provide transport for Members in accordance with the Members Allowances Scheme. The taxi company submits its invoices and the details of the Members that used the taxis each month directly to the Council for payment. The advantage of this arrangement is that the cost of transport by taxis is always at the negotiated rate and is a more efficient way to manage the service."
It does raise an interesting point though as the pricing information for councillors’ journeys by taxi are included. In the method statement that Eyecab Limited completed when bidding for lot 4 (councillors’ taxi journeys) Eyecab Limited stated on page 34 of 40 "Eye Cab is an all Hackney taxi firm vehicles range from five passenger seats to seven passenger seats at present we operate approximately twenty seven vehicles this number is increasing on a regular basis."
When I heard Cllr Jones’ answer about "competitive prices" anyone hearing it would think that it was stating that taxis through this contract are better value for money (in terms of the actual cost of the taxi ride) than a councillor paying for it themselves, then claiming the money back.
However having read the contract and that I know now that Eyecab Limited is an all hackney carriage company, I’m puzzled. That’s because the prices at which all hackney carriages on Wirral charge is set by Wirral Council. Therefore for the same journey surely all hackney carriages would charge the same amount and it wouldn’t be cheaper doing it through a contract. When you factor in the costs of putting this contract out to tender (yes I realise lot 4 is part of a wider contract however potential contractors had to bid on each lot separately), the costs of procurement will outweigh any efficiency saving from just having to pay a monthly invoice rather than when councillors claim on an ad hoc basis.
A small saving does occur because Wirral Council isn’t actually doing it legally and including these amounts in the annual lists but by small saving I’m talking about an employee cost time of maybe £50-£60.
However by not doing it that way it increases costs elsewhere at Wirral Council, for example the cost of processing FOI requests, providing me with a redacted copy of the contract during the audit, providing me (hopefully eventually) with the underlying invoices etc and of course the expensive cost in senior officer time (probably an employee on ~£80 an hour) in having to answer questions posed by me to Councillor Adrian Jones at a public meeting.
The point I will finish on is that Wirral Council doing things the right way and legal way saves money in the long run in the communications you get from people trying to persuade Wirral Council just to do things the right way.
However officers across local government (in fact some have even said this to my face) see this sort of press scrutiny as a drain on "scarce resources".
In other words, the kind of major embarrassing politically sensitive fiascos (politicians’ expenses just being the tip of an absolutely massive corporate governance iceberg) I write about on my blog probably cause no end of awkward questions behind the scenes from politicians to those on high 5 figure and 6 figure salaries as to why things aren’t right.
I’m sure some people paid by the taxpayer well above my pay grade don’t always see the sort of journalism as a good thing for their future career prospects. I’m pointing out things to the world that if the checks and balances that these employees are supposed to be were working properly would be spotted internally and corrected.
Some bureaucrats (while stating they welcome accountability) I’m sure don’t really feel it’s right that they should be under a legal requirement to hand over embarrassing information to me, that’ll then form stories that politicians will read (or in the case of video watch) and use to hold the bureaucrats to account.
It’s the way I’ve been trained though and the independence of the press is something that this country should value.
Please note, although I proofread the contract before publishing due to the poor quality of the original pages at times the OCR program has misidentified one character incorrectly such as the postcode CH44 8ED, the OCR program has outputted as CH44 BED (page 23 of 40). The other errors (typographical such as baring for barring & punctuation such as missing full stops) were made in the original document.
What would meetings be like at johnbrace.com if it was part of the public sector?
What would meetings be like at johnbrace.com if it was part of the public sector?
The below is meant as satire, but it’s based in part on true life events.
Editor John Brace: Oh boy, as if I don’t spend enough of my life in meetings already!!!
Shadowy powers-that-be: You called the meeting, so don’t be flippant with us. Wait a bit, there’s not enough people here to be quorate, technical is running late.
Technical: Sorry for being late, not only was the bus I had to get here running late (as we don’t get expenses for a car any more), but I had the sign the visitors book as I don’t work in this building. Then I had to be issued with a visitor’s pass (the reception desk had run out and told me I’m not allowed to be in the building without wearing one).
Then I had to have my bags searched (apparently this is a "secure building"), explain the meaning of every electronic device on me (which took at least fifteen minutes), then I had to wait an age for someone to escort me down twenty feet of corridor (even though I know where I’m going and I’ve been here a hundred times already). To add insult to injury the magnetic locks on the door to this room have failed and don’t work properly (because the software has crashed)
so you need to have the strength of Samson to prise open the door! Sadly as we’re the overworked public sector we don’t have the staff resource available to fix it or even the time to send a message to whoever is responsible to do it.
Editor John Brace: As yes but let’s get down to the agenda, the blog is nearly full. By the way why is the ceiling dripping water?
Shadowy powers-that-be: Oh the rebuild and management of the building got outsourced to the private sector. The contractors after they got the contract said the subcontractors couldn’t do it for the money quoted so the contract was changed at their request.
So in the end we just caved in to substandard work and now the air conditioning unit gives us a new feature the workers have nicknamed "indoor rain". All rather like that TV show Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell except it doesn’t require a magic spell? It’s either that or turn the air conditioning off (which makes it hard to breathe).
Editor John Brace: Well as long as it doesn’t drip on me, it’s make my writing smudge in my notebook but someone will have to get a bucket!
Shadowy powers-that-be (changing seats in an attempt to avoid getting wet from the drips): OK, (by a subtle hand gesture sends an underling to find a bucket) full, what do you mean full???
Editor John Brace: Full as in there’s a 3 gigabyte limit on it and as it started in October 2010, 74% of the space is already used. There are things that haven’t been published because of lack of available space.
Editor John Brace: Not considered to be good practice, anyway that’s pretty full too.
Shadowy powers-that-be: We’ll refer to technical section then for options.
Technical: Well your options are you can either upgrade to ( this information has been redacted because of s.43 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (commercial sensitivity)) or switch to self-hosting. The former costs ( this information has been redacted because of s.43 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (commercial sensitivity)) and gives another 10 gigabytes of space. If you wanted it self-hosted it would depend on the provider how much space you got but might be more than that.
Editor John Brace: I’d prefer the flexibility of self-hosted.
Advertising: So would we! We could sell advertising then and make more money!!!
Editor John Brace: It’s not supposed to be about the money!
Advertising: Pah, you artists, what do you know about making money, we have families to feed you know!
Human Resources: But is John trained for this, what if it all went wrong?
Editor John Brace: I have fourteen years of experience running websites and see HR treats me like I’m a 16 year old GCSE student here on work experience!
If you insist, add it as a risk to the risk register if you’re going to be like that! 😛 I really would like to have some time today to actually write something on the blog. Is there anything else?
Shadowy powers-that-be: Oh yes and by the way John we’ve had to freeze your pay, but the Chief Executive gets an automatic £5,000 pay rise each year.
Editor John Brace: What? Did I miss something?
Shadowy powers-that-be: Oh you don’t get consulted on meetings that agree such things as it’s an HR (Human Resources) matter.
Editor John Brace: An HR matter? mutters to the trade union rep sitting next to him
Trade Union Rep: We fully agree with management that people should be paid appropriately!
Editor John Brace: Appropriately!!!? The Chief Executive’s on more than the Prime Minister (and rising)!
Shadowy powers-that-be: Well when he leaves, feel free to apply for his job if you think you’re up to it.
Editor John Brace: Let’s just go to the last agenda item, complaints about comments on the blog.
Trade Union Rep: How dare anyone criticise the hard-working public sector workers!!!?
Editor John Brace: We’re supposed to be here to serve the public, not to come across as a parody of militant 1970s trade unions.
Trade Union Rep: OK, but our workers are under pressure. We could even go on strike if things don’t improve!
Editor John Brace: There are contingency plans in place these days to ensure service continuity even if a strike happens.
Trade Union Rep: Well you certainly read the management memos don’t you!? What about supporting your hard working public sector trade unions? Morale isn’t good and as strikes don’t seem to work any more, we might just try work to rule.
Editor John Brace: I thought (as demonstrated from many, many stories I’ve written over the years) that the public sector had consistently shown over many years it didn’t know what the rules, regulations and laws it operated under were, so instead you just "make it up as you go along".
So how if you don’t know the rules can you "work to rule"?
Trade Union Rep: It’s negative talk like that, attacking the professionalism of our workers which is why you have such a poor reputation John! It’s our job to criticise and stand up for the workers, not yours! I mean seriously, our workers can’t know everything! That’s obviously a training issue and the fault therefore lies with an under resourced human resources department and the employer.
Human Resources: Don’t blame us, we just do what we’re told!
Shadowy powers-that-be: John does have a point though and you’ve got to admit although annoying at times he does try to be thorough and fair. This country is supposed to be a democracy so he’s perfectly entitled to do things as he sees fit. However back to complaints.
Editor John Brace: The number of complaints about comments on the blog has fallen.
Trade Union Rep: See there you go again John, showing off that you studied Latin at school and using phrases like sub judice. Why can’t you just use ordinary phrases that everybody knows round here like "I’m off down to the pub for a drink, does anyone want to come?"
Editor John Brace: Because as you know, I don’t drink alcohol like some people do round here.
At the word alcohol, a politician enters and the room falls deathly silent.
Councillor (name redacted because of s.40 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (personal information)): Hi everybody, just popping in to say what a great job you all do. So what are you all discussing?
Shadowy powers-that-be: We were just discussing the blog and the Youtube channel, which is two of the ways we tell the public about the decisions that councillors like yourself make.
Councillor (name redacted because of s.40 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (personal information)): Ahh yes, John Brace and his TV-thingummy. Marvellous, I really don’t understand how it works myself but the blog and the TV-thingummy is really marvellous at informing the party members what we’re doing. Keeps us on our toes!
Editor John Brace: Now you know why I have massive job security!!!!
Shadowy powers-that-be: You’re seem to be implying that if some politicians weren’t highly Machiavellian, manipulative people so interested in taking the credit for other people’s work, blaming a scapegoat (instead of taking responsibility) when things go wrong, overly interested in criticising the other political parties and their politicians, busy claiming expenses, pretending they have powers that they don’t legally have and instead did things in the public interest that you’d be out of a job?
Editor John Brace: In a nutshell yes, but some politicians are far better than others.
Shadowy powers-that-be: Oh boy, that really sounds like pot calling the kettle black as according to your file, you do realise you were a politician (or holder of public office) once don’t you?
Editor John Brace: That’s exactly why I know what they’re like! I was only for two one year terms of office representing ~17,000 students at a university. I can’t say I was particularly good at it! While I was there someone had the call to refer to me as a "bureaucrat". I mean seriously a "bureaucrat", just because I insisted on a completed health and safety risk assessment!
It was student politics at university when I was in my mid-20s, but there are times I miss teaching the post graduate students and spending long hours in the university library. Those were simpler, happier times in academia. Politics is very different.
Perhaps that’s partly shaped me into the person I am today though as I was trained to follow the Nolan principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.
Shadowy powers-that-be: We run training courses for the politicians here on the same principles, but as it’s not mandatory (it’s very hard to force a politician to do anything anyway) so not many turn up.
Editor John Brace: Hence my comment about job security. I have massive job security. I’ll never run out of public sector problems to write about!
Shadowy powers-that-be: Of course from the public sector’s perspective at times you are the problem John! You do realise what a "drain on resources" you are?
Editor John Brace: Imagine if I didn’t do what I did then! Imagine how expensive it would be then! Mere trifles of mistakes would be missed, not corrected and before you know it you’re ending up paying a six-figure sum to a consultant to write a report to tell everyone what they know already! Transparency always has a price yes, but good decision-making is priceless.
Getting the decision right the first time saves thousands (or even tens or hundreds of thousands) of pounds later having to correct it or the financial costs of dealing with the consequences of bad decisions (such as planning appeals, judicial review etc).
Shadowy powers-that-be: But the politicians really hate it when you point out that there are multiple secret expense systems running (that a C-level decision has been made to deliberately not tell the public about) that to be honest even you shouldn’t even know about! I mean that sort of information is supposed to be restricted to far above your pay grade!
Some of the politicians on the grapevine got told that you’re not a proper journalist so their let their guard down and nearly choked on their cornflakes when you started publishing their expenses!
Editor John Brace: I’m unusual yes. Unlike the newspapers, I’ve specialised in local political reporting with a bit of court reporting too. The term is "new media journalist", although you can also use blogger (even though I’m not too keen on the term). As I also run the Youtube channel that would make me "broadcast journalist" too.
No I think what the politicians have got used to are newspaper journalists and rarely local radio or TV who don’t get be wrong do a good job but in the main are under too much time pressure to spend months of investigative journalism on a story.
Newspaper journalists turn up to public meetings when they’re invited and write about one particular item that they’re asked to. Then it appears in the newspaper and also on the newspaper’s website. That to me sounds more like proactive public relations than holding the powers that be to account.
Investigative journalism seems to be (sadly) a dying art in this country and one investigative journalist is probably enough to give many politicians nightmares.
Anyway MP’s expenses are published so why not councillors too? Why shouldn’t the public be able to see what they’re claiming in allowances and expenses (after all it’s the public money that they’re spending) and why do public bodies break the law and deliberately understate on their website the annual amounts for councillors (in breach of the regulations)?
Shadowy powers-that-be: Yes, I have no doubt that it was a story in the public interest. But you brought up the discrepancies between the figures for councillor’s allowances and expenses in the draft statement of accounts compared to what was being stated!
You exposed multiple secret expenses system! Councillor Niblock has been seen getting a lift to a meeting rather than a taxi! Your journalism is leading to changes in politicians’ behaviour and that is dangerous!
Editor John Brace: Well isn’t that good as it saves the public sector money?
Shadowy powers-that-be: Good for your reputation as a journalist maybe, but we think you’re being too militant about it, you’re driving up public sector audit costs and not being diplomatic towards the politicians. I mean making an objection about the accounts to the auditor because they don’t add up! I mean seriously!? When have public sector accounts ever added up?
Editor John Brace: Well they should add up!
Shadowy powers-that-be: In an ideal world yes, but management made a decision that to a proper job with the accounts would be an "unreasonable use of scarce resources". Politicians made it clear to us to cut the back office jobs like payroll (but not councillor expenses we’ve protected that spending), accounting and legal, so that’s the reason why!
Editor John Brace: So you’re saying, people above my pay grade deliberately turned a blind eye to multiple secret expenses system for paying expenses to politicians that was deliberately understating the true amounts that the public wasn’t to know about? This was all done to "protect frontline staff"?
Shadowy powers-that-be: Yes. On the instructions of the politicians.
Editor John Brace:: So why wasn’t I told?
Shadowy powers-that-be: Because it was supposed to be a secret.
Shadowy powers-that-be: Well there you go again, doesn’t your legal department ever just take the a day off!? You must have more legal people on your payroll than we do!
Yes that’s why it was meant to be kept a secret. It was fine as it was because nobody outside knew about it. Until you opened your great big mouth and told the public! Are you a manager or a journalist?
Editor John Brace: Both.
Shadowy powers-that-be: So who’s your line manager?
Editor John Brace: I don’t have one.
Shadowy powers-that-be: Well if you had a line manager, you’d realise that the politicians answer to the people and senior management answer to the politicians. Senior management do not like being made redundant (at the instructions of a politician)! Apparently you don’t answer to anybody!
Editor John Brace: I prefer it that way, concepts like editorial independence and freedom of the press may sound old-fashioned but it’s better that way. I’m answerable to my wife!
Shadowy powers-that-be: We’re all answerable to our wives but that’s not the point!
Editor John Brace: Anyway, this meeting has gone on far too long. It’s time I got back to writing!
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Below are ten A4 pages of expense claims submitted by councillors on Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority for the 2014/15 financial year. It’s pages ten to twenty of eighty-nine pages and each thumbnail below should link to a more high-definition (and therefore readable) image for each page.
The councillors these pages are for are Cllr Leslie T Byrom, Cllr Steve Niblock, Cllr Ted Grannell, Cllr Peter Brennan, Cllr Ray Halpin, Cllr Roy Gladden and Cllr Sharon Sullivan.
HQ stand for headquarters, Perf & Scrut means Performance and Scrutiny Committee, Comm Safety and Prot means Community Safety and Protection Committee and TDA refers to Training and Development Academy.
Interestingly the claim by Cllr Sharon Sullivan isn’t signed by her, but someone else on her behalf.
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