People have asked me recently on a number of occasions how I will put decency, honesty and transparency back in to our Council after the Caller report showed how much they are missing from our day to day work. I have included some of the things that I believe need to be done in some previous blogs but I am happy to put things together here.
It all depends on three things
Firstly, we need to elect and then employ people who have integrity and honesty at their heart. In my view, which is not necessarily popular, that does include the vast majority of councillors and our staff. Remember the problems that we have seen in the past weeks has shown Liverpool Council to be almost unique in the extent of its problems.
Politicians need to be chosen by their Parties after full scrutiny. Different Parties do it in a different way in our case to be eligible for standing you have to fill in a lengthy form and then face the Panel. This is by no means easy. Our panel has my wife, Erica, as the chair and I think I only just scraped through last time!
Then they need to be scrutinised by the electorate. Frankly, too many politicians prefer to spend their time in the Town Hall than in the communities that they are supposed to serve. All my Lib Dem colleagues and I hold regular advice centres, often at Farmers Market for 4 hours at a time. You can see us in the street regularly and you can monitor our work through our regular Focus newsletters and street letters. That by no means applies in a lot of wards in Liverpool where the first Labour Rose appears like the first cuckoo of spring in early April.
Councillors should just not accept gifts of any real value. In August I helped a group of businesses in the City Centre. They gave me a little speech of thanks and gave me a bottle in a really scratty Aldi bag. I thought it was a bottle of Prosecco or cheap fizz so I accepted it. When I got home, I found that it was a bottle of expensive champagne. I could hardly take it back so I immediately rang the Council to declare it.
Those politicians must then ensure that there is a decent process in place for choosing good staff. It is quite clear that from 2010 this partly broke down. First class officers were asked to leave because they were tainted by association with the Lib Dems. “Old friends” were brought in. I one point I suggested that Labour were raiding a pensioner’s club in Knowsley to get new recruits! There was a high level of sexism on show with some of the appointments in those early years of the Anderson administration.
Secondly, we need to establish proper processes so that decisions are properly made and properly recorded.
On the political side, that means proper scrutiny of decisions and a questioning approach to reports. It means being willing to challenge politicians of your own Party if you are in control. It means not assuming that everything is wrong if you are in opposition. Politicians should be prepared to work together to ensure that good ideas come forward, bad ideas are squashed and that best value for taxpayer’s money is ensured.
This does need the right attitude from the Councillors but also proper support from the council system. There needs to be part of the Council which operates to support councillors in making legitimate enquiries about proposals and in helping them to look for alternatives so that there is a proper discussion about all available options.
The Council itself must all establish a system which provides councillors with important information about how well the Council is doing compared with other similar councils either locally or nationally. Any effective system of performance evaluation for councillors was abolished in 2014. We need a set of key performance indicators which can show simply and quickly what our departments are really delivering for our City and its residents and businesses.
The Council leadership must make themselves available for questioning. We can ask written questions at full Council but it has been 5 years since we could supplementary oral questions. The written answers are properly provided by officers but it has often been apparent that the Leader or Cabinet Member hasn’t understand the answer which has been written for them.
Lastly, we need due processes. Decisions need to be properly recorded and followed through. If changes are needing to be made by circumstances. It is obvious that due process disappeared out of the window in our regeneration functions in 2010. In one recent case an agreement was made to sell a property for £425,000. It eventually sold for £325,000. The delegated authority for this change was written and publicised two years later. Whether this was incompetence or done for another reason may be dealt with elsewhere.
All three of these changes really on something else. Transparency! If everything takes place in the right way and is open to inspection by councillors, journalists and the media then the likelihood of wrong doing even if an officer or councillor is bent is minimal. That includes proper keeping of our register of interests which both officers and councillors. I was amazed that so many councillors changed their register of interest in December when they knew that the inspectors would look at them.
So, it’s quite easy really; proper people; proper process; proper reporting and proper transparency. It will be more complicated than that because in some cases we will need to change culture and people’s thought processes. Starting will be easy. In fact, it has already been started. I will ask all leading councillors of all Parties to set an example so that the problems will never be repeated. We’ll do that from day one of a new Lib Dem led administration.