“Hear no evil, see no evil, say no evil”, is a way of working that has been endemic in Liverpool Council for too long. Liverpool Liberal Democrats want to make the Council much more open and transparent
No-one can doubt that Liverpool has been a very poor council when it comes to allowing a full scrutiny of its work for the past 10 years or so. It was hardly surprising in the past when there was a lot of funny if not illegal activity going. However, there is no excuse or reason for that now. Journalists Like the Echo’s Lam Thorp and independent Matt O’Donoghue have had to wait for 12 months for FOIs to be answered and then only by their frequent nagging at the Council.
Incredibly former staff of the Council insisted on numerous occasions that Councillors should not use their stronger, ‘Right to Know’ information access but instead use the weaker FOI system against the authority of which ourselves are Members.
Things are slowly getting better. The current Mayor of Liverpool has made a strong statement about transparency and the City Solicitor has made clear that in his view publication of documents and reports should be the default position whilst recognising the need for some reports to be kept confidential for a range of reasons that we all understand.
However, the Mayor will be gone in three months and officers come and go. So we Liberal Democrats tabled a motion for the next Council meeting which we thought was fairly none-contentious and would, therefore, receive all-Party support. The purpose of the motion is to set in place actions which would enable councillors and our staff to conduct themselves in such a way that FOIs etc are minimised. However there will still be FOIs so the second part of the motion is to say how we deal with them. This is the motion:
Review of the way that Freedom of Information requests are handled by Councillor Richard Kemp CBE and Pat Moloney
Council welcomes the fact that an information officer has been appointed to increase existing capacity within the Council for dealing with FOI requests within the legal time constraints required and in full.
It requests the Chief Executive to report to Cabinet on ways in which the Council can move to a more transparent system in which both FOIs and ‘Councillors Right to Know’ requests will be minimised because the Council conducts itself in such a way that disclosure of facts is expected at all stages in dealing with issues.
However, it recognises that in certain cases will need to carry out these duties subject to the consideration of any necessary exemptions and restrictions having applied relevant public interest tests and in accordance with legislative requirements and the guidance issued by the ICO.
It further asks for a quarterly report to be presented to the Audit Committee giving details of information requests received, pending and dealt with and the length of time being taken between receipt of a request and its conclusion.
Because Council time is limited there is a meeting of Party whips and Leader to decide before the agenda goes out:
- Which motions will be debated.
- Which motions will be passed without debate because there is all-Party support; and
- Which motions will be sent straight for a report. This process can take months.
Much to our surprise the motion above was agreed for all-Party support by the three other opposition Parties in addition to ourselves. However, Labour refused to join this all-Party call with the result that it will go for a report.
Our request was very simple and straight forward. It was designed to ensure that good practice is embedded in the standing orders of the Council which apply to both officers and members. In fact there is something more important than this and that is for officers and members to acquire a much better culture of transparency and the realisation that everything we do is for the people of the City and every penny we spend comes from them, one way or another, as taxpayers or charge payers.
Why did Labour take this stand? I do not know. Should we assume that they still have concerns about what is going on within the Council? Perhaps. Can we assume that there is in the Labour Party a reluctance to let the people in on key discussions and key facts particularly about financial matters? Well, they have been like that for all the 40 years that I’ve been a councillor so it’s unlikely that a leopard will change its spots or the tiger its stripes!
It is clear to me that the Council is slowly beginning to recover from the devastation of the Joe Anderson years which has been so painfully exposed by Max Caller and the Commissioners. This block on regularising information flows regretfully shows just how far Labour still have to go to be a modern and open Party.