Guest blog: Reporter Liam Murphy on the latest in the Wirral library saga
FINALLY a list of 13 people (plus presumably the borough solicitor himself) in Wirral Council who have seen the draft report by Government-appointed libraries inspector Sue Charteris.
The list was released to councillors by the borough solicitor Bill Norman on Tuesday evening, just after 6pm - and was in most newsrooms by about ten past...
For the uninitiated on the Wirral libraries saga you can see some background on this story: HERE, HERE, and HERE.
Mr Norman faced considerable pressure to dislose this list on Monday night at the extraordinary meeting of the council called by the Conservative group to demand an opportunity to debate the decision of the borough's ruling cabinet to revoke its library closure plans. He resisted immediately complying, saying he would "reflect" on the matter. He then sent out his response to Wirral's councillors yesterday (Tuesday October 13) evening.
You can read Mr Norman's email to councillors, below, but a couple of interesting things stand out.
He explains the difference between an exempt council report and a confidential report - Ms Charteris report being of the latter catergory.
It is easy to understand his - and the Labour/Lib-Dem adminstration's - logic about not releasing details of the draft report.
He also goes some small way towards explaining why some people got to see the report.
He said the letter "does not list the names of who may see the draft report. As the recipient of the letter, that judgement fell to me and I accept personal responsibility for my decision in that regard (this was not a matter on which I took any external legal advice). However, I wish to emphasise that my decision was absolutely not intended to be a reflection as to any individual Member's ability to respect confidences."
While this doesn't explain why some saw it and others did, it does make it clear who has had to take responsibility for that decision:
From: Norman, Bill D.
Sent: 13 October 2009 18:03
Cc: Chief Officers; Lester, Jim L.; Degg, Emma J.; Lyon, Rosemary A.; MacLaverty, Paula K.; Pennington, Abigail; Watts, Margaret
Subject: Extraordinary Council - 12 October 2009
Following last night's Extraordinary Council meeting, please find attached a copy of the letter dated 27 July 2009 from Sue Charteris to me. The letter enclosed two copies of the draft Report prepared by Ms Charteris following the two day Wirral Libraries Public Inquiry.
The 27 July letter makes it clear that the draft Report was provided to me on the basis of a specific obligation of confidentiality. Because Sue Charteris was appointed by the Secretary of State to conduct the Libraries Inquiry, her requirements as to confidentiality are the requirements of the Secretary of State and are legally enforceable. This has the effect of making the draft Report 'confidential information' for the purposes of Part 5A of the Local Government Act 1972.
Confidential information is different to 'exempt information'. With exempt information, Members may resolve to exclude the press and public from meetings; but it is a matter for their discretion. (In addition, Part 5A of the 1972 Act provides for all Members generally to have an entitlement to receive exempt reports.) Confidential information is different: the Council must comply with the terms upon which the information is provided. Section 100A(2) of the 1972 Act expressly makes clear that nothing in Part 5A authorises or requires the disclosure of confidential information in breach of the obligation of confidentiality.
In line with the terms of the obligation of confidentiality in the 27 July letter, I have only circulated the draft Report to those Members within the Cabinet and those officers from whom I needed comments prior to responding to Sue Charteris. That response by me to Sue Charteris is also covered by the same obligation of confidentiality. The obligation of confidentiality remains in place and no Member or officer should publicly discuss the contents of the draft Report prior to the Secretary of State's decision being published.
As was pointed out last night, the 27 July letter does not list the names of who may see the draft report. As the recipient of the letter, that judgement fell to me and I accept personal responsibility for my decision in that regard (this was not a matter on which I took any external legal advice). However, I wish to emphasise that my decision was absolutely not intended to be a reflection as to any individual Member's ability to respect confidences.
I was asked last night to list those persons to whom I have shown a copy of the draft Report. Although I do not believe that there is any legal obligation on me to disclose this information, equally I understand the exceptional level of interest in this matter. I have therefore decided to provide that information.
In order to enable me to respond to Sue Charteris on the contents of her draft report (which was a combination of factual corrections, clarifications and legal arguments) copies of the draft report were provided to the following persons:
Steve Maddox, Chief Executive
Jim Wilkie, Deputy Chief Executive
Alan Stennard, Director of Regeneration
Ian Coleman, Director of Finance
Howard Cooper, Director of Children and Young People
Jim Lester, Head of Cultural Services
Emma Degg, Head of Tourism and Marketing
Rosemary Lyon, Interim Head of Legal and Member Services
Councillor Steve Foulkes, Leader of the Council
Councillor Simon Holbrook, Deputy Leader of the Council
Councillor Phil Davies
Councillor Gill Gardiner
Councillor Bob Moon
Under the Public Libraries (Inquiry Procedure) Rules 1992, the Final report by Sue Charteris will either be published with the Secretary of State's Decision letter, or will be available on request by any person who appeared at the Inquiry and asked to be notified of the Decision (which I believe will include a number of Councillors who spoke at the Inquiry). Given that the Final report will become public knowledge, in my view there cannot be any 'public interest' justification for disclosing the contents of the Report prior to the Secretary of State's Decision. In the light of this, any Councillor who breaches the obligation of confidentiality would also be likely to be in breach of the Members' Code of Conduct.
If any Member wishes to have more information of the legal framework for my decision, or on the Public Libraries (Inquiry Procedure) Rules, please let me know.
I have no objection to this email being shared with the press or public. However, the attached letter was written by Sue Charteris and I ask that you seek her permission before disclosing it to anyone else.
Director of Law, HR and Asset Management
Sue Charteris had said in her letter to Mr Norman she had enclosed two numbered copies of the report which "are not for circulation beyond the people who you will be obtaining comments from".
She said the DCMS also had a copy of the draft report but it would not be formally presented to the Culture Secretary until she had received comments back, and added: "I would therefore be grateful if you could assure absolute confidentiality of the report's findings and conclusions at this stage."
You can see the full text of the letter here: Sue Charteris letter.pdf
The Conservatives are outraged that they have not been privy to the contents of the report, although Labour and Lib-Dems say irrespective of the fact they are the largest individual party on the council they are not in power, and - effectively - tough.
The Tories are also suspicious that very shortly before the final report by Sue Charteris was about to be published, along with the Culture Secretary's decision, the library closure programme was revoked by the council itself. Labour and the Lib-Dems were forced from the "doing nothing is not an option" policy to finding the cash to keep the libraries operating as before. Leader of the council Steve Foulkes insisted they had not pre-empted the Secretary of State, but the decision was forced on them because the process had taken so long that they would miss out on the opportunity to obtain the funds for the planned neighbourhood centres which would ultimately replace the closed facilities.
In his email Mr Norman says "the Final report will become public knowledge". I would be more interested to see the draft report.