4th October 2013
Some unsettling news arrived today, tucked away in an email from the Information Commissioner’s Office. This revelation concerns a Freedom of Information request placed 16 months ago, way back in May 2012. Wirral Council and the ICO have corresponded on it recently…
4 October 2013
Case Reference Number: FS50496446
Dear Mr Cardin
Your information request to Wirral Borough Council (council) dated 12 May 2012.
I write further to my letter dated 23 August 2013 regarding your complaint about how the council dealt with your request for information of 12 May 2012. You advised that you were not satisfied with the response to question 5 of your information request, which is part of your full request made on the whatdotheyknow.com website at the following link:
I advised I would write to the council in relation to question 5, in which I asked them to revisit the question and reconsider their response.
The council have now reconsidered its response and advised me that there is no council policy for external or independent investigations and has carried out searches on its system and checked this with the Chief Internal Auditor.
The council conclude that the response it gave you to question 5 should have been that it does not hold the requested information.
With this in mind I ask whether this concludes the request in respect to question 5. If you are content with the steps now taken by the authority, you do not need to take any further action and I will assume that you have withdrawn your complaint. However, if you would like the Commissioner to conclude the case through issuing a decision notice regarding the breach in time for compliance, or if you remain dissatisfied with the steps taken, please advise me within 10 working days, namely by 18 October 2013.
If I do not hear from you in this timeframe, the case will be closed.
The original Freedom of Information request is here. See the response to point 5:
This, along with the emails reproduced at the end of this post, gives some insight into how for many months, I was given the runaround, sent up a blind alley, and packed off on a wild goose chase; all, I believe, in a futile attempt to frustrate and confound.
This involved Jane Corrin, Information Manager, sending me links which were supposed to furnish a copy of a non-existent Independent Investigations Policy and Procedure, which predictably came up with nothing at all. How astonishingly cynical. As you can read in the ICO email above, after laying down a false trail for so long, they were eventually forced to search their own systems, and surprise, surprise, came up with nothing.
It took almost a year and a half for the above ICO email to arrive – and still, the regulator appears to have breezed past and glossed over how I was given the runaround for 16 months. The important part is reproduced in underlined bold black, and shows how the council eventually did a kind of double-take, deciding to “realise” they didn’t hold the information.
The external Investigations Policy / Procedure just didn’t exist, and I’m assuming it never has.
So the result is… another vacuum that lets in abuse. How will the LGA ‘Improvement’ board react to this? Those highly paid consultants who’ve spent many months congratulating the council and each other. What will they now do about a scandal-bound, abusive council spending untold hundreds of thousands of pounds of council tax payers’ money on external investigations which were never truly independent and are now rendered invalid?
In the normal world, occupied by well-run, competent and businesslike local authorities, the investigating party would need to be carefully vetted to ensure that they have absolutely no prior / current connections or affiliations with the investigated party – and no opportunity to feather their own nest during their deliberations or reach a biased outcome. This would be achieved through specific declarations given before the outset. It’s a valuable and necessary form of safeguarding, done in the wider public interest.
So let’s analyse 3 recent examples of Wirral Council’s externally commissioned investigations, all declared by the council as ‘independent’:
1. Anna Klonowski Associates.
Brought in by Wirral’s Tories on 12th July 2010, who at that time, along with the Lib Dems, held the balance of power at the Town Hall. Actually mentioned in plain sight at the above link is a prior connection between Wirral Council and AKA.
Due to this association with the council, which started a few years before, and involved the provision of governance training to senior officers and councillors, the investigator stood to either gain or lose from any given outcome. This loose remit placed AKA as the party calling the shots, and in a position which gave them the potential to manipulate an outcome suitable to the organisation, Anna Klonowski Associates. I’m not saying this happened, but it could have done so easily – because of sloppy oversight and the fact that there were no visible safeguards put in place.
And as history tells us, Klonowski’s investigation stopped short of looking into not just Balls Road (and other locations’ unlawful charging), which would have sent the levels of financial abuse rocketing (she said she ‘didn’t have the time’)
…but crucially, the conduct of the relevant elected members.
Councillors, who hold the organisation’s purse strings, should have the final say on who’ll be called in to provide training to themselves, senior and junior officers in the future. So it might not do to turn your attentions upon them?
Such enquiries could end up in an unwanted reaction, and an impact on one’s income streams.
Did former Law Director Bill Norman have a hand in the fact that councillors like former mayor Moira McLaughlin were never even investigated?
Klonowski repeatedly refused to tape record or take minutes during the most crucial stage of her investigation: the witness interviews. Note-taking was controlled, and done in isolation by her company. “No dual-tape recording” was also the approach AKA subsequently used at Rochdale Council, in the matter of…. grooming and child abuse…
This calculated approach on Wirral amounted to a failure to preserve a verbatim record. And history tells us that just before and after AKA had left their full report in the hands of the council, complete with ‘escape hatches’, many grateful people clambered out of them, before forming an orderly queue to collect their public money pay offs.
And what of openness, transparency, accountability? Despite Bill Norman invoking ‘due process’ and the ‘right to reply’, transparency only travelled ‘so far’, and the AKA report remains largely redacted, years later, with code numbers substituted for persons’ names.
Total public money paid to Anna Klonowski Associates – £377,000+
2. Rob Vickers.
Brought in to do two separate investigations into Wirral Counci’s dangerous 4 week delay in care – a money-saving move that was the brainchild of Rick O’Brien – who, when the heat rose, was quickly packed off to the NHS to take up the role of National End of Life Care Lead.
Vickers’ sole trading company delivered two whitewashes, the second one courted and feted the senior managers behind the delay, but failed to interview whistleblower Andy Campbell, and when the dust had settled, came forward to collect what looked very much like a reward – a senior interim post within DASS… which pays handsomely. In return for its troubles, his sole trader company now banks the equivalent of a hefty £100,000 plus ‘salary’ per annum.
Part of Mr Vickers’ history was a senior role within Social Services at St Helens Council, but the important question with regard to this blog post is… did he have a prior connection to Wirral Council?
So the public don’t know, and probably never will; because, although both his pieces of work had the term ‘INDEPENDENT REPORT’ emblazoned across them, he didn’t have to declare any prior connections to Wirral Council in order to prove his independence, secure the gig and the eventual “nice little earner”.
Because Wirral Council had no external investigations policy or procedure to set down any guidelines.
The end result? Two invalid, non-independent whitewashes into a money-saving, life-threatening 4 week delay in essential care, courtesy of the coming together of Rob Vickers and Wirral Council.
3. Richard Penn.
Mr Penn unsuccessfully represented Sharon Shoesmith, senior council officer in trouble, and former head of Haringey Social Services during the Baby P case. Here on Wirral, he was brought in to investigate 4 senior council officers in trouble: suspendees David Green, Bill Norman, David Taylor-Smith and Ian Coleman.
Mr Penn works for ALACE, the Association of Local Authority Chief Executives. He’s the man you call upon to defend you if you’re a senior council officer in trouble, like for example, David Green, Bill Norman, David Taylor-Smith and Ian Coleman.
Read here, how he was never asked to declare “no prior connection” to the council. After some encouragement from me though, he deigned to admit, in between huffing and puffing, that he did make a declaration, done as a kind of nod and a wink, with absolutely no public oversight, and as we now know to our cost, no requirement under any External Investigations Policy – because it didn’t exist.
So, all this gave our troubled quadrumvirate a fair wind, as they soon found to their delight that they’d come up trumps with an investigator whose track record was peppered with battling for senior council officers in trouble…
Meanwhile, the image of Richard Penn presented to the public was one of….
- banging the table;
- demanding answers;
- battling in the public interest;
- without fear or favour, ploughing a direct course towards the exposure of crookedness
And what was the eventual result? Step forward Mr Whitewash, followed by Mr Payoff, timeserved and trusted servants to our council through thick and thin, and through so many long, arduous and expensive (to the taxpayer) battles. Followed by a cheque made out to Richard Penn in the sum of £47,000. Very nice.
I wonder what these people think when they arrive at Wallasey Town Hall to find they’re ‘in the clear’ even before they’ve interviewed their first senior management ‘witness’? Maybe that they’ve been transported back in time to a forgotten epoch? Where there are no pesky obstacles like checks, balances or safeguards…
The image I can’t dismiss from my mind is that of Richard Penn, Anna Klonowski and Rob Vickers dancing about in a victory jig, rubbing their hands together in glee, knowing they’ll soon be in the money.
Here’s how I was sent all around the houses…
From: Paul C Sent: 30 April 2013 12:22 To: InfoMgr, FinDMT Cc: Hodkinson, Graham R. Subject: External investigations
Dear Jane Corrin,
I was browsing the following page on the council website:
…and came across a written assurance that policies / procedures would be provided if they could not be found under the various headings on the website.
Please supply as soon as possible all the relevant policies and procedure(s) in the following areas:
“External and internal investigations commissioned by the council”
e.g. the ones which relate to the Rob Vickers “4 week delay in care” investigations and the Anna Klonowski external review relating to failures in governance.
I look forward to receiving the information or a link to it very quickly, as this method is being promoted as a more effective alternative to placing an FoI request. Here is an example of an FoI request placed 11 months ago, but which remains unanswered:
The Director of Social Sevices, Graham Hodkinson, highlighted this alternative to me some time ago, but failed to update or expand on it,Best regards, Paul Cardin
…almost two weeks later…
From: Corrin, Jane Sent: 13 May 2013 11:27 To: Paul C Subject: External investigations
Thank you for your email below. The publication scheme exists to help enquiries find a wealth of information which is published on our web pages; I have copied and pasted the extract below. If a member of the public is unable to find the information they require on our publication scheme/via our website then they can of course email Informationmanager@wirral.gov.uk
Policies and procedures for conducting Council business This information can be found in Part 4 of the Constitution.
Policies and procedures for delivering our services Where published these will be available on this website under the various service headings. If you are unable to find the information you require please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.orgKind Regards – Jane Corrin Information Manager – Wirral Council
From: Paul C Sent: 14 May 2013 20:55 To: ‘Corrin, Jane’ Cc: ‘email@example.com’ Subject: RE: External investigations
Dear Ms Corrin,
Thank you for your response. I followed the link you provided (Part 4 of the Constitution. ), however I was blocked.
Please view the attachment (which was the screen I was greeted with) and endeavour to open up access to your publication scheme. Please advise me once this is done, or explain why I am not permitted to view the documents,Kind regards, Paul Cardin
From: Paul C Sent: 14 May 2013 23:47 To: Corrin, Jane Cc: Hodkinson, Graham R.; Burgess, Graham Subject: FW: External investigations
Dear Jane Corrin,
Eventually, I did manage to find the Council Constitution and the Part 4 ‘Procedure Rules’.
But I’m afraid you’re mistaken. There is no reference to external investigations policy / procedures anywhere within this document.
Please advise whether they DO actually appear within the council’s publication scheme, or whether they DON’T – and furnish them to me as soon as possible.
Social Services Director Graham Hodkinson was good enough to reassure me a long time ago that this method would be a good alternative to making FoI requests. However, this is an inauspicious start and if this drags out for months (e.g. 11 months so far for this failed FoI request): https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/consultant_anna_klonowski_declar
….I’ll be referring this to the ICO,Many thanks, Paul Cardin
The Jane Corrin response…
From: Corrin, Jane Sent: 15 May 2013 09:23 To: Paul C Cc: Hodkinson, Graham R.; Burgess, Graham; InfoMgr, FinDMT Subject: RE: External investigations
Thank you for your email below, please see my previous reply which stated “The publication scheme exists to help enquiries find a wealth of information which is published on our web pages; I have copied and pasted the extract below. If a member of the public is unable to find the information they require on our publication scheme/via our website then they can of course email Informationmanager@wirral.gov.uk”
If an enquirer is unable to find the information they require on our publication scheme/web pages, as it seems is the case from reading your email, then a request can be made via information manager. I will take your email below as a request for information under The Freedom of Information Act 2000. I have copied in Information Manager’s email address on your behalf.
Your request will be processed and you will receive a reply within 20 working days from today’s date.Kind Regards Jane Corrin Information Manager Wirral council
So, the conclusion appears to be: you can always email the information manager, but as we know to our cost, after 16 months of banging our head against a wall, the information didn’t even exist.