Labour has accepted “in full” the findings of a report into the administration of Liverpool City Council – and welcomed the appointment by the government of commissioners to oversee parts of the Labour-held local authority.
Addressing parliament this afternoon, Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick told MPs that the report found “multiple apparent failures by Liverpool City Council in complying with its best-value duty”.
The minister said the document reported a failure in due process across planning and regeneration, scrutiny across highways, proper process on property management, poor governance and an “overall environment of intimidation”.
“If unchecked, it will allow improper conduct to persist, further undermining public confidence, putting public services at risk and damaging the city’s ability to attract investment from reputable developers,” Jenrick told parliament.
The minister said he has asked the council to make representations on a “proposed intervention package”, which involves commissioners appointed by Jenrick to exercise “certain and limited functions of the council for a minimum of three years”.
The announcement follows an investigation carried out by Merseyside police relating to the local authority, which last year led to arrests on suspicion of fraud, bribery, corruption, misconduct in public office and witness intimidation.
“This report raises serious concerns about decision-making in key functions of Liverpool City Council,” Labour’s Steve Reed said. “All councils are under a duty to meet their best-value obligations and to ensure value for money at all times.”
Responding in parliament to the statement this afternoon, the Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary told the Commons: “Labour both here and our leadership at the city council accept this report in full.
“We support his intention to appoint commissioners, not at this stage to run the council as he says, but to advise and support elected representatives in strengthening the council’s systems. This is a measured and appropriate response.”
He stressed to those watching that the proposals were not “as some would put it, a Tory takeover”, and that government commissioners would “intervene directly only if the council’s elected leaders fail to implement their own improvement plan”.
“The Labour Party intends to appoint a senior figure to lead a review and reassure the people of Liverpool that the Labour Party takes these concerns seriously and will take action against anyone in our ranks who is involved in wrongdoing,” he added.
Labour MP for Liverpool West Derby Ian Byrne asked the minister to reassure local residents that council-led work on the Covid pandemic response and vital services on which they rely will continue and “be both resourced and protected”.
Paula Barker MP, the Labour representative in the Liverpool Wavertree seat, said that she “does not doubt the seriousness of the issues” raised and described the findings that public resources had been put at risk as “deeply worrying”.
“Resources are needed for investment on vital services on which my constituents depend, and that is even more so at a time when funding has been cut year on year,” she said. The MP asked Jenrick to confirm that commissioners will be independent.
“Commissioners will be appointed by me and will work to me,” Jenrick said. “But their task is to support the city and its elected leadership to ensure that a good and credible improvement plan is brought forward as quickly as possible.”
Dan Carden declared: “We all appreciate the seriousness of the situation.” The Liverpool Walton Labour MP asked how local people’s voices and democratic rights would be respected under the plan to improve the council’s functions.
“The people of Liverpool must be part of that process and this week I’ve been contacted by local people concerned that sending commissioners into Liverpool amounts to a takeover by Whitehall,” he said.
Jenrick told the local MP that the elections in May would go ahead. He said that the commissioners would “stand behind” the elected mayor and councillors – “not to tell them what to do but to guide them and support them”.
“We have given them the authority to act should they need to, given the seriousness of some of the allegations, but it is not our hope or expectation that those powers will be exercised,” the Conservative minister added.
Joe Anderson announced on December 10th that he was stepping aside as Liverpool mayor, following his arrest earlier that month along with four other men on suspicion of conspiracy to commit bribery and witness intimidation.
The Labour Party recently unveiled two new candidates in the contest to find his replacement ahead of the election taking place May this year, after the internal race was reopened with those previously shortlisted not invited to join.
Liverpool councillors Anthony Lavelle, who represents Croxteth ward, and Joanne Anderson, who represents Princes Park ward and is not related to previous mayor Joe Anderson, were chosen by a panel for the new shortlist after interviews.
Ballot papers have been distributed to Labour members who will choose between the two selection candidates. Voting began on March 8th and ballots must be returned by 12pm on March 29th, five weeks before the election.
Update: Commenting on the Caller Report, a Labour Party spokesperson said: “Officers of Labour’s national executive committee met this afternoon to discuss the Caller Report and the steps the party will take in response to it.
“The NEC has agreed to take urgent steps to reassure people in Liverpool and demonstrate that we are committed to tackling the problems the report has identified. We will ensure that all candidates standing for Labour in May have the highest standards of probity.
“The Officers have also agreed a review into the long term issues set out in the report, which will be carried out over the next few months.
“Our priority is the people of Liverpool. We want to reassure the public that the Labour Party will do whatever it takes to tackle the problems set out in the report and that we will take action against anyone in the Labour Party who is involved in wrongdoing.
“We also pay tribute to the vast majority of hard-working, decent and honest people working at the council and as elected officials whose dedication will help to pull us though this difficult time.”