Since I became Leader of the Liverpool Lib Dems in 2012, I have received hundreds of tip offs by email about bad behaviour in the Council. Some days I get 6 or 7 and I have a number of regular correspondents. Only today I got an anonymous but detailed letter through the door. Regrettably, much of what I have got is unusable.
- Sometimes the information wasn’t specific enough to apply to different people and different parts of the Council.
- Sometimes they were specific but were just allegations.
- Only sometimes they were specific and had enough hard information in them for me to take forward.
However, although as a Councillor I can take advantage of a ‘Councillor’s Right to Know’ but that didn’t get me far in Liverpool for two reasons caused by the culture of secrecy and misinformation which pertained throughout the Council.
Politically, Labour have closed down the public scrutiny process. There is clear direction to all Councils that the Opposition should play a big role in scrutinising the work of the Mayor and Cabinet. In Liverpool that was totally ignored. All Scrutiny Chairs, the people who set the agenda, are Labour. When our team have submitted questions, the responses have largely been dismissive and cursory. When we have called in Cabinet items for scrutiny, they have on every single occasion seen it as their duty to defend that decision. Labour has called unto Labour!
On a wider level the Council nowhere compares its results and actions with those of other cities and local councils so that we can see how well we are doing relative to others.
The officers were no better. Our Right to Know has too often been converted into the weaker Freedom of Information route. Those replying have had to rely on responses from the officers running the departments. That has been OK in most departments but clearly if the officers of a department wanted to hide things or had such a bad system that they could not answer them the whole system failed.
We now need skilled officers to help councillors with scrutiny. That costs money but just think how much money would have been saved if one or two staff had had scrutiny and transparency responsibilities.
So, within the Council I did what I could but, like many things in the City, things immediately got better when Tony Reeves arrived as Chief Exec. I used to have a 1:1 meeting regularly with the former Chief Exec but gave them up because they were useless. My 1:1 with Mr Reeves is very, very different. They are confidential and are based around firstly my concerns and then his.
It became very clear that Mr Reeves was a good listener and a better doer! He incorporated things I was saying and asking and if he didn’t have answers would get staff to respond. It also became clear quickly that he was taking action both within the Council and through other routes as he found things out and stopped bad things happening.
Many people challenged me to go public about the issues they raised with. For good reasons and bad there are laws of libel and slander which mean that people like me can be easily taken to court if we say things that people don’t like and which we cannot produce evidence for. Anyone can say anything they like in social media and usually get away with it. If someone in public life says the same things, they are much more accountable.
The other reason that I have to be more careful is that I am ‘inside the system’. If I say things, they carry more weight than would apply to others. If I say the wrong things then they might well prejudice the investigations that I knew were being carried out by both the Police and our own audit and disciplinary procedures.
So, on many occasions I have just had to bite my tongue and keep passing information to the relevant authorities knowing that in private they were being acted upon. It was more important to get justice than to get a headline. To be absolutely fair to the Echo staff they have the same problem. I know that on many occasions staff have despaired as stories they wanted to use were spiked by the company lawyer.
For the last two years there has been a police investigation taking place. From some of the information and documents I have no doubt that investigations are continuing and that there will be more arrests and that the arrests will convert to charges which will convert to sentences against people who have, at best, been careless with your hard-paid cash.
Things are getting better. Proper processes are being put in place within the Council and transparency is being introduced. I believe that significant changes will start to be made in the Council as early as May 24th. Until then though I implore people to be patient. Send me information if you can but the more it is evidenced the better. I will raise matters if I think they seem to stack up. This morning I raised with the C-Ex and Acting Mayor some very reasonable and informed questions about the Stonebridge Cross development that I received only yesterday.
I suspect that by the early summer we will all know what the Police’s actions will lead to. We will see the actions that the Council is taking. Let’s just stay calm until then. Consider the implications of what the Caller report says and all act on them. I have my role to play but so do you. We need to make major changes in Liverpool on May 6th. when the local elections are taking place. That will be your opportunity to pass judgement on the Councillors and your opportunity to demand a new team takes control in a way that so many people clearly want.