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Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Libraries - hope amongst the mixed messages

What's going on?

I've been struggling to make sense of the Mayor's position on the 11 "at risk" libraries.  The story (opposite) going out from Labour in the Greenbank ward adds to the confusion.  I have checked the facts and I've written to Cllr Roberstson-Collins (pictured) asking for a retraction: she has not "saved" Sefton Park Library.

The Library is in the Green-voting St Michaels ward and its three Green councillors have been closely involved in two aspects of the campaign to save it.

Firstly we have supported campaigns, petitions and demonstrations against the Mayor's plans to make cuts to the libraries.  But secondly we have supported, and indeed led, the formation of The Friends of Sefton Park Library which has put forward a "Plan B" in response to the Mayor's challenge to the community to show how volunteers and other organisations could find other ways to retain library services when revenue from the City Council was withdrawn.

The Mayor's BBC announcement on Monday10th November came as a surprise.  We were expecting a report to be published for Cabinet on 21st November, so no announcement was needed.  It's been suggested to me that the reason the Mayor made his surprise announcement was to head off the demonstration planned two days later at the City Council meeting.
The positive and important thing is the new commitment to save all of the "at risk" libraries.  But we did not know if that depended on continuing our "Plan B" for Sefton Park Library.

Having checked with the Head of Libraries, it is confirmed that the partnership proposal involving the Friends and a not-for-profit training organisation continues to be the only proposal on the table for retaining some kind of public library service from the Library building.  There is more work to do on that proposal, as part of the overall libraries continuation plan to go the the City Council's Cabinet next month for decision.

Failure to build bridges

The campaign to save the libraries has been vigorous and diverse, involving notable local writers as well as large numbers of library users.  It has achieved a change of mind on, at least, restoring part of the funding for the "at risk" community libraries.  It's very odd that the Mayor continued to attack the campaigners rather than acknowledge the sincerity of their cause and celebrate a reconciliation.

It's also odd that he praises the good people who have worked on volunteer-led solutions and condemns people campaigning to keep all libraries open.  In practice we know that in many cases it is the same people who have been active in both roles.

Who knows, maybe we will see another change of the Mayoral mind on that, but in the meantime his choice to make enemies of Liverpool citizens helps weaken his political base - which may be no bad thing for democracy hereabouts.

Here is the time line, with special reference to Sefton Park Library

  • Wednesday 10th September a special meeting of the Council's culture committee approved of the decision to put 11 libraries at risk.  At that meeting a Green Party motion asked the committee to support the idea of reallocating approximately £1.6m from the mayoral and councillors' discretionary funds to save the libraries (first put forward at the Council's Budget meeting on 5th March).
  • After that meeting, the Council was stated to be consulting on ways to save some of the 11 "at risk" libraries for which budget support had been deleted.
  • On 6th October all four Green Party councillors attended the public meeting organised by the Council to discuss Wavertree and Sefton Park libraries.  (I did not see the two Labour Party councillors for Greenbank ward attend that meeting - perhaps they were working "behind the scenes"?.)  I spoke about our intention to look for partners to work with volunteers to keep Sefton Park Library open.  This was acknowledged by the Council officers present.
  • On Thursday 23rd October, the first meeting of the Friends of Sefton Park Library took place; a simple constitution was adopted.
  •  On Wednesday 29th October, Green councillor Tom Crone challenged the Mayor to help the libraries by using some of the money saved from ending the Liverpool Direct contract  The Mayor said "no".  (But 10 days later the Liverpool Direct savings were part of his libraries funding plan!) 
  • On Monday 3rd November we held a public meeting to report and agree an outline for a provisional joint "Plan B", working with Riverside Learning and Education Centre.
  • On Thursday 6th November a working party from the Friends and Riverside LEC agreed a letter of intent to be sent to the Head of Libraries which was promptly acknowledged as fit for purpose.
  • On Monday 10th November the Mayor made his surprise announcement.
The Friends of Sefton Park Library will hold its Inaugural General Meeting on Wednesday 3rd December at 7.30pm in the cricket club, Southwood Road.  Although Green Party members have been instrumental in setting up the Friends group, it is open to any supporter of the Library to join, regardless of political affiliation.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Liverpool CEX and Rotherham

Up to now I have avoided any public comment on the controversy around Liverpool's Chief Executive (CEX) and his time at Rotherham.

I am going to restrict my comment to my participation in a meeting with him and the Mayor on 5th November.  A press report on that meeting is here.  Not entirely accurate, in my opinion, but more or less correct.

Yesterday the Mayor in a live BBC interview said this
...It was good enough for (Cllr Coyne) it was good enough for me. Howard Newby chaired it, the city solicitor was there and we didn’t take part in a charade. We took part in an investigation, if you like, a conversation with the chief executive, talking to him about his role in Rotherham and he explained that in a fair and open and transparent way and I think that satisfied everybody there.”

Again, more or less correct, but I need to clarify. I didn't see it as an investigation.  It was a briefing and a conversation.  An implication that we "investigated" and were "satisfied" could be misleading.  I was satisfied about the CEX's openness to us in responding to questions and explaining.  But we were not, and never could be, in a position to reach any conclusion about his time at Rotherham.  That would require a full knowledge of all the facts and the resources to mount a proper investigation.

The City Council's role in this is as the employer of a CEX and it has a duty of care to all employees.  It doesn't have the responsibility to take any action about the conduct of that employee in a previous job.

If the Council did start to open any kind of conduct inquiry it would have had to be held in private anyway - just like any disciplinary hearing of any employee at whatever level.  But my understanding of the advice is that Council has no locus to open any kind of formal process and if it did so and if subsequently the CEX felt he had to resign over Rotherham, then he could seek to sue the Council for having made his position impossible.

So I took part in a confidential briefing which was not an investigation and could not reach any conclusion.   Why should I do that?

There are two reasons.  In May this year the Green Party became the main opposition and I became Leader of the Opposition on the City Council.  The new role involves more contact with the Chief Executive.  This is not a close relationship - we don't meet socially - but it is a working relationship.  Given that he was willing to speak to political leaders to explain his account of his time at Rotherham and deal with media speculation, I believed it would help me to know more about his version of the facts.

The second reason is that, as opposition leader, I have a responsibility to scrutinise what the Mayor does.   Being at the meeting allowed me to do that.  If I thought there was any wrongdoing by the Mayor then I would not hesitate to say so.  As it happens, I think the constraints on him and the Council as the employer do not allow any other course of action.

Having agreed to attend a confidential meeting, I will continue to respect that confidentiality.  There was no record taken and I will not disclose any recollections of what was asked or answered.

That may disappoint some people, but it should be recognised that the meeting of 5th November has not changed anything.  If there is a reputable employment lawyer willing to offer contrary advice and say that the Council indeed does have a duty to investigate an employee's conduct in another job ten years ago and can do that fairly, then the Council could look at that advice.


An English Parliament?

Last week I was privileged to represent the Green Party on a panel at a meeting called by the Hannah Mitchell Foundation

They campaign for democratic government for the North of England and the meeting discussed new opportunities in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum.

Constitutional reform is very interesting - even exciting now - after the Scotland debate.  Many people saw "Yes" as the progressive option and we saw formerly committed Labour (and Libdem) voters detach themselves from their party's lead, perhaps for the first time.  It may be that the referendum campaign has been a significant "disruptive" event, opening up new political possibilities.

Following the vote, the Scottish Green Party (as well as the SNP) saw a major surge in new membership.  Across the border we are seeing a Green surge too and it may in part be due to English voters' empathy with Scottish voters.  We were engaged in the debate too and in England it is the Greens who were identified with the progressive side of the debate.

Back to the meeting.

Although I am very interested in constitutional issues, I am no expert and it was clear to me that other people on the panel and in the body of the meeting had done a great deal of thinking.

A nice insight from the floor was Liverpool's answer to the  "West Lothian Question" - the "Kensington Question.  An MP representing Kensington in London can vote on transport matters relating to Kensington in Liverpool, but a Liverpool MP can't vote on transport matters for Kensington in London.  Why? Because transport is devolved to the Greater London Authority.

There can be a difficulty if we have a patchwork of devolutions across England with some regions opting to have a devolved assembly and others not.  On the other hand it would be oppressive to impose a pattern of regional assemblies where people don't want them.  In my opinion a referendum would be needed in each case.

Meanwhile the original West Lothian Question remains and, while I distrust David Cameron's motives, the crude slogan "English Votes for English Laws" has some appeal.

The Green Party's policies do include an answer to the Question and forsee situations where a patchwork of devolutions could require different voting rights for different groups of representatives in the various assemblies.

So what about an English Parliament?

Here, I went "off script" and expressed a personal view.  I think there is a need for an assembly to represent England as a political unit.  I dislike the remedy of having two classes of MPs inside the Westminster parliament and I think there is a good case for separating the idea of "England" from the idea of "The UK".  Again, from the floor we had the insight that a new English parliament or assembly could be better modelled on the Scottish Parliament - with proportional representation.  In that way it would be quite distinct from the continuing UK parliament.  Where would it sit?  How about Liverpool?

Over time, the UK parliament might have less and less business to do.  I can think of UK roles that I would like to jettison - particularly the nuclear weaponry and the military interventionism.  But that is a story for another day.