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Wirral Borough Council

Volume 540: debated on Tuesday 7 February 2012

It is a pleasure to open this debate under your chairmanship, Miss Clark. I want to give an apology for my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), who has just given birth to a lovely baby girl and obviously cannot be here today. However, she was very much part of a meeting two Saturdays ago, when Members saw the chief executive of Wirral borough council, and is committed to the conversation that we want to have with the Minister today and the strategy we want to lay out. I thank the Minister for finding time for yet another debate, but we want to draw on his considerable experience on how to move forward.

There has recently been a great deal of local coverage about the politics of our authority, but today’s debate examines the more fundamental matter of the administration of the authority. I believe that, although it does not have the razzmatazz that attaches to going on about politicians, it is much more important for the long-term well-being of residents. I shall in essence concentrate on governance in the local authority, which covers the Wirral peninsula, and cite examples of senior officers wilfully excluding councillors from the decisions that they have taken and the lack of good basic governance, which has surprised me. Indeed, if I were the leader of Wirral borough council—heaven forbid that that task should ever be allotted to me—I would assume that certain basic rules and governance would be in place. I have been shocked at their absence.

I shall give two examples of that failure. I have recently been involved in a whistleblowing case over Wirral’s biggest contract—in money terms—for the maintenance of the road system. At the meeting with the whistleblowers and the senior officers in Wirral, I was amazed that the council did not know the date when the whistle was first blown on what was happening. We were in the bizarre situation of the chief officers having to ask whistleblowers when they made their first complaint. It was reminiscent of Pasternak’s wonderful book “Dr Zhivago”, when the Bolsheviks were furious not at the suggestion that they killed Lara, which they willingly admitted, but at the accusation that they were inefficient and did not know where they had killed her. There is an element of that in Wirral’s not knowing the most basic information that it could be expected to know, particularly in the matter of whistleblowing.

We discovered, also at the very first meeting with the whistleblowers and senior officers, that there were no rules in place—although I thought that they were automatic for all local authorities—setting out when officers, particularly senior officers, must declare an interest in any contract that they were recommending to the council. In the case of the Colas contract, the interest was declared retrospectively, but at no point in the later stages of the council proceedings did the chief officer draw the councillors’ attention to the fact that he had made a late submission of interest and that they might want to bear that in mind when reading the papers before them.

I also want to speak about three major initiatives that the council could have taken, for which the Government were putting up taxpayers’ money. By the crass inefficiency of the chief officers, nothing happened. The first initiative related to a contract to do with Rock Ferry, the area where I live in Birkenhead. Of course, there are some parts of Birkenhead that will be grand enough to be on a par with the Minister’s constituency. Indeed, parts of the constituency, as the hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) will know, would make Hampstead look positively downmarket. However, other areas of the Wirral are really hard pressed. Therefore, Governments’ attempts to redirect resources to us are immensely important, because of the possibility of opening up opportunities to people who are poor and would otherwise be denied them.

First, there was a contract of £5 million for Rock Ferry; English Estates was offering that to us to kick-start development. One of the senior officers just could not be bothered, or was not efficient enough, to get the contract in on time. In that year, English Estates had overspent, so it could not believe its luck that Wirral council was so inefficient and the £5 million grant that would have come to us, which would have kick-started redevelopment in Rock Ferry, would not now be made. That is the first of the appalling errors of administration that I am concerned about.

The second error is to do with the contract to upgrade and undertake a long-term rental agreement for the Cheshire Lines building in Birkenhead. That contract has cost the council £11 million. It did not have the full authority of the council, and it received a pretty horrendous report from the district auditor. The contract related to a building that the council did not own, although it owned—and still does, thank goodness— Birkenhead town hall, and the money could have been spent on the town hall, to bring the accommodation up to standard. The call centre work that the council wanted to do in the Cheshire Lines building could have been transferred to one of its own buildings. What happened was discovered only because a member of staff reported to councillors that major work for which no authority had been given was being undertaken in the Cheshire Lines building. Again, councillors were informed by sources outside the authority, not by the officers.

The third of my examples concerns the attempt to win a new academy building for the lower half of my constituency. Over two successive years, attempts were made by the previous Government to get the children and young people’s officer to make a proper application for a rebuilt academy. Thanks to an inquiry by the previous Government, we were reorganising secondary education in Wirral, and it was recommended that two schools should be combined. The first offer made by the authorities was years before the general election and it was for a new build. We were invited to bid up to £40 million. In the first year, the application was not in on time. In the second year—the year running up to the general election—again, the council failed to deliver the plans to the Department for Education, which would have allowed us to get a totally rebuilt academy. Instead of that, one school is closed and children travel miles to the second school, which has now had to take on the role of the main academy site.

A little adding up brings a figure of almost £60 million of squandered opportunities. I have been the Member of Parliament for a little over 30 years now. If we think about the effect on the rates, we realise that an extra 2p off the rates has been lost by the incompetence of a small group of chief officers.

I shall not go into the details of two other current controversies that are before the council: a major inquiry into how the whistleblower Martin Morton has been treated and the report by the auditor that is due by, I hope, Friday on how the Colas contract has been dealt with.

On the Martin Morton report, the name of a councillor trips on to one page and then falls off almost immediately, but the report is about the quality of and the judgment displayed by the senior officers of Wirral borough council in that case. That is not of course to excuse the politicians, because they are in charge of the political machinery of this country, but it was a damning report on the actions and the quality of a group of chief officers.

We await the publication of the Colas report on Friday. It will again emphasise how chief officers have behaved. I went through the piles of paper that the whistleblowers gave me on the decision about the Colas contract. I like reading and it is obviously part of my job, but I could not have found out what might have been going on without the help of the whistleblowers. The papers were presented to the council in a way in which the most diligent of the councillors would have found it very hard to understand what was behind them.

I turn to the Minister and ask him for help, and I do so with an example fresh in my mind. After the debacle over the non-new build of the academy, I asked if I could chair the governors. That was after the academy had been established, and I was presented with some very real problems, about which I sought legal advice. I phoned the two senior people in the Young People’s Learning Agency and in the Department for Education to tell them what I was doing and to seek their advice. Their advice was that, as I had one of the best lawyers in the business, I should follow the lawyer’s advice. In doing so and starting that procedure, however, I could not talk to anyone, least of all those in the Department.

At the end of the process, when an agreement was struck and signed at 5 pm on a Friday, I phoned the two senior people in the Department and, within an hour and a half, I was given four candidates to interview. They had just retired and had been very successful—outstanding—leaders of their schools or colleges. On the Monday, we were therefore able to have someone in place, if only temporarily, for the following two terms. I was surprised by the quickness of that and the quality of the advice.

The plea that I know all Wirral Members wish to make to the Minister is to ask him to see them to discuss what action he has the power to take to help us make real progress in getting quality leadership in the Wirral, of which we are proud.

I have listened carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman said, which is the tip of the iceberg of what has happened in Wirral for the past 10 years. He mentioned the Anna Klonowski report. We have also had two reports made under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998. We have had the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government step in about the libraries. A lot has gone wrong there, but does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that for politicians to sidestep their responsibilities and hand over the blame to officers is political cowardice at its worst and that the people who were responsible and were leading the council should take the blame that is attributable to them?

The Minister will know that I am probably the last person to think that politicians should not stand up, take the blame and defend their quarter. In no way do I wish to counter what the hon. Lady has said but, even if we deal with that issue, we have a real problem about the quality of our chief officers. She knows who I am speaking about in this debate. I have not wished to claim privilege and name them, because I do not want that sort of press campaign; I want us to be able to think carefully about what help we might seek from outside so that, whatever political changes occur, we can be proud of the administration in the Wirral. I have clearly fingered two officers in my speech, because their fingerprints are over the issues that I have raised.

If at all possible, I want to advance this matter by seeking support to bring about decisive change, as we received at the academy from the relevant Department. I hope that this will therefore be the last debate that we will have to hold in Parliament about the running of Wirral authority and the last time that we have to raise the sort of examples about the role of politicians that were cited by the hon. Lady. I shall make way for the Minister, but I end on this note: we need his and the Department’s help, because we will clearly not make the changes to our senior officers without outside help.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair again, Miss Clark.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) on securing this important debate, which involves troubling and complex issues for residents of the Wirral. On behalf of all Government Members, I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on her happy news, and I am sure we are all delighted to wish her and her new baby well. At an appropriate moment, I will be more than happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman, my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) and other Wirral Members to discuss the issues. I am always happy to meet representatives of any local authority area, if I can be of help.

That does not, of course, mean that the Government can or should offer quick fixes for such problems. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead has set out the issues with characteristic care. I am sure he and everyone in the House will understand that I have to be careful and a little guarded in commenting on individual cases, the more so as some of them will be looked at by the appropriate agencies. I do not mean any disrespect if I have to be careful in that regard. I can, however, talk in broad terms about the work that the coalition is putting in place to devolve power and accountability to the lowest level, because those two things go together, and to help local people to hold their councillors to account and, in turn, to help the councillors to hold their officials to account. Equally, we are taking steps to encourage the local government sector as a whole to improve, and there are ways in which sometimes the Department, but very often that sector itself, can promote the improvements that we all want for the sake of the people of the Wirral.

I have had the pleasure of visiting the Wirral on a couple of occasions. I cannot remember if I have done so since I became a Minister, but I certainly did so when I was a shadow Minister and I enjoyed my visit. I should say that one of my oldest friends at the Bar is the grandson of a former lord mayor of Birkenhead, so I have a connection with the area. All I can say is that the right hon. Gentleman is quite right—I say this with personal feeling—that one should always take the advice of one’s lawyer. I am glad that he has found a good one and, I hope an economical one; I am sure that that is the case. It is true that my constituency has its grand elements, but it also includes wards that contain much the same deprivation as he and my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West have to deal with. Councils are critical in delivering services for people in all circumstances in their communities, and that is particularly important for those who are vulnerable or under pressure.

Against that background, we have sought, first, to achieve a much greater degree of transparency about how local authorities operate and, secondly, to ensure that there is proper accountability to the community, rather than the previous approach of accountability being largely centralised by means of making reports to Departments. For that reason, we moved away from the centralised regime of league tables through the comprehensive area assessment and the national indicator set. Evidence showed that it was possible for local authorities to tick the necessary boxes there, but that would not necessarily mean that there was the quality of service one would wish to see on the ground.

We have, therefore, swept that away and made it easier for local people to hold their elected representatives to account. We are doing that in planning matters, in which I know the right hon. Member for Birkenhead has taken a particular interest, and I look forward to continuing to work with him. We have done it through replacing capping council tax increases with referendums. In particular, we published in September 2011 a recommended code of practice on data transparency for local authorities. It is important—as the right hon. Gentleman has said—that councils should have an understanding of the data that they hold and that people can access the data so that they can properly hold their representatives to account. There should be awareness of the data, which should be published. There should be proper information in relation to contracts and tenders, as the right hon. Gentleman has rightly said.

Generally, local authorities have willingly put that in practice, with the exception of one authority, the city of Nottingham. That is not an issue in Wirral. Making that kind of information available in the public domain is critical. Devolution, decentralisation and transparency do not stop at the town or city hall. They have to go further, to an informed, I hope, community and electorate.

There clearly have been matters of great concern in Wirral. I am aware of the allegations made by the whistleblower referred to by the right hon. Gentleman. That whistleblower was able to make his concerns public through a local paper, The Wirral Globe, as well as by getting in touch with the right hon. Gentleman. Having openness and transparency with the local press and media is also important, which is why we have sought to protect the rights of local papers to access this sort of information.

It is fair to say that the previous administration of Wirral borough council—I know that there have been changes—commissioned the report by Anna Klonowski, which will be a matter of debate before the council in due course. I am not going to pre-empt decisions members of Wirral borough council take in that regard. That the then administration commissioned that report is obviously a step in the right direction. It is important to be transparent. I understand that an improvement plan has been put in place with the agreement of the various political parties on the council, which is a desirable step forward.

As a general rule, the Government are keen to encourage sector-led improvement. I know that is being done in Wirral’s case. As I understand it, the Local Government Association, which operates on a cross-party basis, has arranged for substantial peer support in Wirral, both at member and officer level. I am glad that Wirral has engaged in that process. The LGA has also helped Wirral to establish an independently chaired improvement board involving the various political parties and a number of representatives from the sector. That is an approach we seek to encourage. There is a great deal of learning in local government around these improvement issues, and the Department is keen to support that, but not pre-empt what is often best done by one set of practitioners to another, with the particular skills sets that they bring. It is worth paying tribute to the work of the LGA, because Wirral is not the first council to benefit from its peer support and interventions.

Rather than having a one-size-fits-all approach from Whitehall, it is important to take such steps as are appropriate from Government to set a framework in which local initiatives can take place. The “Open Public Services” White Paper is part of that, ensuring that procurement of local authority services is open to the sort of challenge that ought to highlight and redress practices that can become established, particularly if there has been a long tradition of political or officer stasis. That is important and the LGA has been much involved. Generally, local government has the highest record of commissioning of services in the public sector. I would not want anyone to think that all local authorities are not doing that. It is right that pressure is kept up for everyone to seek to be as good as the best.

The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) rightly painted a picture of a failing council on Wirral. There is also the leadership of that council. There has been failure there, too, and there will be on Monday night a vote of no confidence in those who are leading the council. Does the Minister agree that that is the place—on Monday in the council—for this matter to be addressed, and for those who are failing Wirral to be dealt with?

The thrust of our localism agenda is that accountability should no longer be regarded as being from the council to Whitehall but the council to its local community. The elected members of the local authority are there as representatives. Under our current system of leader in cabinet, an administration is formed. The ultimate political responsibility for the operation of any local authority must rest with the political leaders, of whatever complexion they may be. In the same way, Ministers must ultimately be responsible for the actions of Government, regardless of political directions. My hon. Friend is perfectly right in that regard.

It might help the Minister in making these judgments to know about the political composition of Wirral borough council. It is shared among three parties. Going back to the Cheshire Lines building contract, which cost the council £11 million and was authorised without the political say-so of the councillors, the then leader of the council—the Labour leader who currently leads the council—brought in the Audit Commission, which gave the most damning report. The other two political parties—the Tories and the Liberals—voted to take no action. It is very difficult to reprehend or take more serious action against senior officers when the political parties themselves will not put the interests of Wirral first but seek party advantage.

I was going to say that one course that is an appropriate safeguard where necessary is to make a reference to the district auditor. I note that the leader of the Labour administration called in the Audit Commission, which I am sure was the correct thing to do. It is not for me to judge. Equally, I note that it was a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that commissioned the Klonowski report, which is the subject of debate. I am glad for any member of any political complexion leading a council to stand up and take responsibility for actions. That is the key test. It is not for me to judge what decision Wirral borough council comes to about its future administration.

If I can finish this sentence, then I will. The key point—with which I think we all agree—is that if one stands for office one has to recognise that the buck stops and one has to take responsibility. We must ensure that members have the information and procedures to enable them to carry out those responsibilities properly and effectively.

I wanted to say that it is not for us here today to pre-empt what will happen on Monday night. That is a vital night, with a vote of no confidence in those people who have misled the Wirral, and I think we leave it to them to do it.

I am going to be careful not to be drawn too much into the debate that takes place on Monday night. I hope that I have indicated that the Government have set a clear agenda to improve transparency and encourage sector-led improvement. I am glad to hear that steps are being taken in the case of Wirral to take that on board and I hope it continues.