No-one with any knowledge of Liverpool politics ought to express shock at the Caller Report on Liverpool Council, and the statement in the House of Commons yesterday by the Secretary of State. It has been obvious for years that there has been something radically wrong in the way in which the council (LCC) has been run. Indeed, those who express shock have either ignored the evidence of their own eyes and ears, turning a Nelsonian blind eye to the malpractice all around them; or they are completely politically inept.
Yesterday was a good day for the many good people and businesses of Liverpool. The report was the first step in fumigating the infection of LCC. Council tax payers have been the principal victims to date of the terrible abuses of power cited in the Caller Report. However, there are others of whom questions ought to be asked. Quite apart from the silent majority of councillors who have said and done nothing, we might well ask why the local media sought to shower praise on the council rather than the criticism it warranted. Its Trappist silence on council malfeasance has kept much of the local population in the dark about the reality of how the city has been run. What of the district auditors – Grant Thornton – who did not sign off the council’s accounts for the last five years, but did so in the previous five years when there were scams galore? Why did it take so long for Merseyside Police to involve themselves in what were very obviously criminal activities with the council at the centre? Why did the regional and national Labour parties fail to ensure that their Liverpool councillors observe the standards and Nolan Principles current everywhere else?
What we have now is a thorough and clinical report which sets out just how out of kilter Liverpool City Council has been in terms of best value and best practice. It deals (well) with the council’s processes and where it has failed to serve the interests of the city and its people. This is not a minor aberration but a systemic breakdown caused by a whole string of factors. There are many reasons for why this has happened within LCC; but, reading between the lines of the report, we can speculate that suspected malfeasance was a major issue. Nevertheless, the report is extremely circumspect in its conclusions. Mr Caller did not wish the ongoing police operation (Operation Aloft) to be either inhibited or subverted. The next stage for the people of Liverpool to see is the prosecution in the courts of those responsible for the loss to the city and its people of the many millions of pounds known to have been siphoned out of municipal funds. Hopefully, Merseyside Police and the Crown Prosecution Service will hasten the day of reckoning, and expedite the appearance of the malefactors in the dock.
The report did include some surprises. There is to be a long-overdue revision of local government representation in Liverpool. If I read things correctly, the number of councillors will be reduced by about two thirds, and there will be all-out elections once every four years. Each ward will have one councillor, removing the surplus councillors who seem to exist simply to collect their councillor’s allowance in a variation on Parkinson’s Law. Interestingly, the Shadow Secretary of State told the Commons that the Labour Party is to appoint a “senior” party member to look at Liverpool and see what is needed from a Labour Party political viewpoint.
For yours truly, looking at the longer term needs of LCC, the biggest issue highlighted was the need for cultural change. This will not be easy, but I have banged on for years about how vital are the twin civic virtues of transparency and accountability. That culture will not be changed if bodies like the Heseltine Institute continue to publish shallow puff pieces about the city and its politics, rather than engaging with the real issues. Nor does it help when the acting mayor – an Anderson appointee! – gives a job to ex-MEP Teresa Griffin without any recognisable recruitment process and at an unpublished salary. Nor is faith in locally elected officials improved when absentee landlord Police Commissioner – Jane Kennedy – hits council tax payers with a whopping 7% increase in the police precept.
There is a very long way to go indeed. Perhaps we should start next on looking at ways to remedy the democratic deficit at the Combined Authority… It might take another ten years!