Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Wrexham Council stands accused of ignoring protest groups

From Today's Leader:
A ROW has erupted over the way Wrexham Council treats campaigning members of the public.
Cllr Arfon Jones, who represents Plaid Cymru, has accused the local authority of ignoring protesters who are trying to save Plas Madoc Leisure Centre from closure.
However council leader Neil Rogers has rejected Cllr Jones’ comments and challenged him to submit an alternative budget making the necessary financial savings.
Cllr Jones said: “The Save Plas Madoc campaign group has tried and tried to have their voices heard, only to be blocked at every step of the way by this administration and its officers.
“They were prevented in asking questions at January’s executive board, despite complying with the constitution.
“They emailed questions to senior officers more than a fortnight ago and are still awaiting a reply.
“Next week members of the public will be barred from a workshop for members that will discuss the leisure review and more specifically the revelations of the haphazard way that the consultants have undertook the review.”
Cllr Jones added: “We appreciate savings have to be made and the administration has chosen to cut frontline services rather than the bureaucracy that is Wrexham Council. That was their decision and they should have the courage to face the public to justify that decision.
“The taxpaying public is not the enemy and the authority should not be circling the wagons to prevent them getting access to the democratic process.”
However in response Labour Cllr Rogers said: “I refute the allegation that Wrexham Council is defensive in the face of intense public criticism.
“Cllr Jones is fully aware of a discussion which took place with members, which he was present at, with the Sports Consultancy and I would ask him to revisit the discussion at this meeting.
“Cllr Jones also accuses the council of trying to block the Save Plas Madoc campaign at every stage when we have already extended the consultation end date to January 31 to allow as many people as possible to make their views known to us.
“We have not prevented questions being asked. This item will be discussed at the next meeting of executive board on February 11 and any member or member of the public can submit questions to be asked at that meeting.
“Cllr Jones also knows only too well that workshops are confidential and members will be discussing the consultants’ report only.
“He further goes on to say he appreciates savings have to be made and in light of these comments I offer him the opportunity to submit an alternative budget to make the savings necessary.”

Monday, 27 January 2014

Wrecsam Council accused of running away from public over leisure centre cuts

Labour-led Wrecsam Council has been accused of running away from scrutiny in the face of intense public criticism by campaign groups fighting cuts to front-line services. 

The criticism was levelled by Councillor Arfon Jones, of Plaid Cymru. He said: "The Save Plas Madoc campaign group have tried and tried to have their voices heard only to be blocked at every step of the way by this administration and its officers. 

 "They were prevented from asking questions at January's Executive Board despite complying with the constitution; they have emailed questions to senior officers more than a fortnight ago and are still awaiting a reply; next week members of the public will be barred from a workshop for members that will discuss the Leisure Review and more specifically the revelations of the haphazard way that the consultants have undertook the review."

Cllr Jones went on to say: "There are choices to made over making savings - this administration has chosen to cut front-line services rather than bureaucracy at Wrecsam Council. That was their decision and they should have the courage to face the public to justify that decision. 

 "The tax-paying public are not the enemy and the authority should not be 'circling the wagons' to prevent them getting access to the democratic process."

• Campaigners against the closure plans will be outside the Guildhall on Tuesday, February 4th at 1pm and also collecting names on the petition in Queen Square on Saturday, February 1st from 11am-1pm. Come and join us!

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Plas Madoc: Lies, damned lies and consultants' reports

The opposition group on Wrecsam Council has made a damning exposé of the Labour-run coalition's plan to close Plas Madoc Leisure Centre.

 The Wrexham Independent Group, which includes Plaid Cymru's councillors, today visited Plas Madoc to see for themselves the condition and overview of facilities.

Councillor David A Bithell, Leader of Wrexham Independent Group, said:

"Our Group are really concerned on these proposals to close Plas Madoc which will leave 225,000 users each year without proper leisure and play facilities in the south of the county. Not only is there a need for Plas Madoc, there is a social need.

"Our group was astounded to learn that the consultant’s report does not reflect actual usage or the overall condition of the building, which needs 85k to bring up to standard. All this work has been put on hold by Wrexham council pending a decision.

"The report states there are no disabled lifts and need 100k spending on them. To our amazement there are disabled lifts which were installed some years back.

"Our group believe that the consultant’s report is flawed as no structural survey of the building has EVER been carried out, usage figures are inaccurate and estimates of future costs need to be questioned. The consultants visited Plas Madoc and spent 1 and a half hours! Draw your own conclusions if £50k has been well spent.

"There has been significant investment over the last few years both to Waterworld and Plas Madoc and apart from internal on-going maintenance the facility is well used and well maintained and I challenge every councillor to visit Plas Madoc for themselves prior to the workshop on 4th February and any decision being made."
  It's beyond belief that a £51,000 report advocating the closure of Plas Madoc could be based on a 90-minute visit that failed to even notice the presence of disabled lifts and estimated (by a visual survey) a repairs and maintenance bill of £1.5m. By contrast, the estimate for the same in Waterworld was a mere £15,000.

 The hidden agenda of the council's senior officers and ruling councillors is to lay waste to key frontline services and protect their own salaries and positions. 

 They must be held to account for their incompetent handling of the budget cuts. Please attend the mass lobby of the council at 1pm, Tuesday, 4th February

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Recovery? Tell that to 1,000 workers in Wrecsam put on the dole

• Kelloggs - 140 jobs lost making breakfast cereals
• First Milk - 230 jobs lost packing cheese
• Sharp - 650 jobs lost making solar panels

News that yet another multinational company is cutting jobs in the Wrecsam area reveals the truth behind the so-called economic recovery. Wrecsam has lost more than 1,000 manufacturing jobs in the past six months from these three companies alone with many hundreds losing work in the public sector as council cuts kick in due to the UK Government's austerity plan.

The UK's economic recovery, such as it is, is being reported from London by journalists and commentators who are seeing house prices soar once again. London and the surrounding "Home Counties" is increasingly operating as a semi-independent city state dependent on Finance Capital and state-subsidised public services (think transport). Its needs and priorities are totally at odds with the needs of Wales, Scotland and the North of England.

Until people realise that the main London-based parties are operating for the benefit of the City, the bankers and the billionaires, we're destined to repeat and intensify the experiences of the past 30 years.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Part Two Reports.

Following a complaint to the Information Commissioner, Wrexham CBC have agreed to publish a report that they had previously refused to publish as it was a Part 2 confidential report.

The report related to the setting up of a Local Authority Trading Company (LATC) by Wrexham Council to run Cleaning Services and was classed as a Part 2 report because of commercially sensitive information and on the basis that it may have harm labour relations. I objected to this report being a Part 2 report at the Scrutiny Committee on the 24th April 2013, my objection was based on:

  1. The commercially sensitive information need not have been in the report for the committee to come to a judgement on the pros and cons of an LATC.
  2. There were no labour relations issues as Trade Unions were already aware of the proposals.
The Committee however rejected my arguments and voted to keep the report in Part 2.

I then submitted a request under the Freedom of Information request to the Council:

I request a copy of WCBC Report no HAED/23/13S Review of Corporate Cleaning.
I am requesting this report under Freedom of Information for the purposes of placing the report in the public domain.

The Council in refusing my request stated:
The Council considers the information to be exempt from disclosure under Section 44 of the Freedom of Information Act. Under Section 44 information is exempt if the Council is prohibited by any legislation from releasing the information. The Council has concluded that the report was afforded confidentiality pursuent to the Local Government Act 1972 Para 14 & 15 of Part 4 of Schedule 12 (a). That judgement was reached by officers having considered the public interest and this was endorsed by the relevant Scrutiny Committee which dealt with the item in Part 2 of the meeting.  There is no indication that the public interest has changed since the report was written and submitted.  
Section 44 is an absolute exemption and the public interest test does not have to be considered.
I then requested the Council to review their decision (appeal)

I do not accept the decision to refuse the information on the basis that Section 44 is an absolute exemption where the public interest test does not apply and I request a review. My rationale for requesting a review is as follows:

Section 44(1) of the FOIA only applies if the underlying legislation on which you rely on, Local Government Act 1972 Para 14 & 15 of Part 4 of Schedule 12 (a) has been applied correctly and I would contend that it has not. First of all, there is no Labour relations issues to justify the above exemption, the Unions have been consulted and agree to this proposal and the workforce are aware of ‘something’ (which is a sad reflection on staff relations in the authority). Secondly you rely on the all encompassing ‘commercially sensitivity’ clause even though the intention is to have a 100% owned Local Authority Trading Company. Any information contained within the report that talks of pricing is not necessary and if had a suspicious mind I would of course think, “was this information put in to justify exemption?”

I have discussed this matter separately with ********* and I have informed him I would be happy to receive a sanitised copy of the report with pricing figures redacted. You have already set a precedent of releasing a Part 2 Exempt report under FOIA with confidential information redacted and that was the Centre 67 Report. You may therefore find it difficult to convince the IC that you applied the LGA 1972 properly and lawfully, and if you did not, then your claim of exemption under Section 44 also falls.

The Council rejected my appeal stating: 

With regard to your request for review, the response has been considered by a member of the Exemptions Panel not involved in the original decision to withhold the information. They have taken into account the argument you put forward but were not persuaded that the decision of the Exemptions Panel was wrong for the following reasons.

Clearly the Members of the relevant Scrutiny Committee were satisfied that the report should be considered in Part II for the reasons given in the recommendations to the Committee.   This matter is by no means decided and the confidential information is likely to remain so at least until the Executive Board has decided how it will proceed.  They do not agree that commercial sensitivity does not apply.  No decision has been taken as yet as to whether the LATC option will be pursued and therefore until it has the information would be commercially advantageous for potential bidders for the service to receive.  The alleged similarity between this application and that of the release of a redacted copy of a report relating to Centre 67 is not borne out.  There was very limited information in the Centre 67 report which could relatively easily be redacted unlike the business information in respect of corporate cleaning.  They are satisfied therefore that the Panel's decision was correct on the case presented and do not support its release at this time in any form.

I then appealed the Council's refusal to the Information Commissioner and presented the following evidence:

I contend that Wrexham Council unlawfully withholds information from the public due to the contentious nature of that information. They abuse the powers granted to them under Schedule 12, Part 4, of the Local Government Act 1972, as justification to keep matters of public interest out of the public domain by including commercial information so as to justify its exclusion from public scrutiny. Additionally there is no Labour relations issues as Unions are fully informed.

Further abuse of the law is compounded by then hiding behind the all-encompassing exemption of Section 44.

It is my contention that if the original decision and advice is unlawful then the organisation cannot hide behind Section 44.

Wrexham Council should release this information in one or two forms:
1.      Full
2.      With some commercial information redacted.

It is clear that this report did not fall under the Paragraph 12, LGA 1972 exemptions as Wrexham Council subsequently published a full minute of the discussion on this report.
The decision made by Wrexham Council in this case flies in the face of openness and transparency and the Commissioner should find against them.

On the 8th January 2014, I received a letter from FOI at Wrexham Council part of which reads as follows:

We write with regard to your complaint to the ICO in respect of your FOI request concerning the “Review of Corporate Cleaning”  report. We have now reconsidered your request and the previous decision to apply the exemption under section 44 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (hereafter “FOIA”). In view of the ICO’s guidance on the “part 2” procedure under the Local Government Act 1972, in relation to section 44 of FOIA, it has been decided that the section 44 exemption does not apply to your request. Following reconsideration, the Council has decided that it is content to release a redacted copy of the report to you. The redactions are considered necessary, because the information which has been redacted is deemed to be commercially sensitive and could damage the Council’s commercial interests if disclosed to the public at this stage. The Council has sought to make the minimum amount of redactions possible.

Accompanying this letter was the redacted report, the exact same redacted report as I requested on the 1st May 2013, prior to making my review request. 

The Information Commissioner has obviously taken the view that Wrexham Council were wrong to apply the Section 44 exemption to this report and had they not agreed to publish this redacted Part 2 report then it is likely that the Commissioner would have issued a Decision Notice against the Council. I very much hope the Commissioner will issue guidance on the application of Part 2 exemptions.

I apologise for the length of this blog but I thought it important to provide sufficient information on this case so that it may assist others who wish to challenge confidentiality decisions of other public authorities.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

The High's and Low's of 2013.

The following article appeared in the Daily Post on Saturday 28th December 2013, as part of the high's and lows review of 2013:

Thanks to the Editorial team at the Daily Post for the opportunity to contribute.

Quarter of council workers earn below Living Wage

A quarter of Wrecsam Council staff earn below the recommended Living Wage of £7.65 an hour.

A Freedom of Information request found that 1688 workers out of 6,131 were paid below that level. The vast majority - 95% - were part-time workers and also women.

 These workers, many of them cleaners, catering and officer staff, were also among those denied their equal pay settlement until Christmas Eve this year.

This is not a new campaign by TCC, a Wrecsam-based campaign group. Back in 2008, Plaid Cymru worked with TCC and Unison to make sure low-paid workers got what is considered to be a living wage.

The good work done back then has been eroded by the new Labour-run council, which has given low-paid workers pay freezes while increasing pay for senior management and accepting pay rises for the top tier of councillors. Perhaps the local Labour MP - a late convert to the idea of a Living Wage - can bring some persuasion to bear on his colleagues in the Guildhall?

Low pay means workers having to claim tax credits to top up their income - in effect, it's a state subsidy for employers such as Wrecsam Council and many more in the private sector who won't pay the Living Wage.

Make a splash: Save Plas Madoc and Waterworld

The campaign against the council's plans to close Plas Madoc and Waterworld is gaining momentum. 
Today the community campaign will meet to organise banners and placards as well as discuss the next stages before the council finally votes on the issue on January 14th.

Not everything the council provides can be expected to make money. Libraries, community centres, sports facilities, swimming pools and the like all cost money, but it's a tiny proportion of the £200m+ annual budget the council has to run services in the borough.

In the consultant's report there is talk of replacing the two centres with just one smaller 25-metre pool with reduced leisure facilities. This would cost an extra £12m and the overall annual savings for the council would be just £98,000 a year. The consultant's report recommending this move cost £51,760.

 Closing these facilities at a time of growing concern about children's health is short sighted. Plaid Cymru in Wrecsam has stated before that there is council spending that can be cut without impacting on people's health and well-being - the mayor, consultants, additional pay rises for senior councillors and a swathe of senior management. All untouched by these cuts. 

 The executive board on January 14th has a clear option to reject the consultant's recommendation to close. The people of Wrexham, who will be paying extra Council Tax next year, want to keep these services. Will the exec board back the people or the consultants?

 You can play your part - see the list of actions to take here.

 Most importantly join the protests against the closures:

Saturday, 11 January - mid-day - at Plas Madoc
Sunday, 12 January - mid-day - at Waterworld
Tuesday, 14 January - 1.15pm - outside the Guildhall