Friday 27 June 2014

The 'seven seconder' rule

One item on the 'wishlist' for the WLGA review panel to consider is the reversal of the excessive number of signatures required for a Notice of Motion, from seven back to two.

The increase from two to seven, in 2011 was designed specifically to prevent minority voices in the Chamber from bringing forward possibly controversial issues for open debate. The decision to cut scrutiny committees from seven to five was another measure which effectively decreased the ability of councillors to hold the executive to account.

If anyone was in any doubt that the 'seven seconder' rule was to silence criticism and prevent open debate, here's an extract from an email from the chief executive, Mark James, dated July 2011 following the presentation of;

"another Notice of Motion from the same source about another matter. It would appear that this will become a means of getting things on the agenda" .

Given that it is the chief executive who has the final say on the agenda anyway, it appears that the intention was to cover all bases.

It just so happens that this particular motion was concerned with allowing members of the public to film in the Council Chamber and was, to quote Lyn Thomas, former Head of Law,  "..criticising the council generally.." 

A further extract from the email thread (1st July 2011) concerning the increase from two to seven signatures, from Mark James to the Business Management Group ie the party leaders (unaffiliated Members are excluded) states;

"The intention is to roll this matter in with a number of other minor amendments to the Constitution and get them to council in September.

Emboldened by their success a couple of months ago, I suspect we will continue to receive multi Notices of Motion for each council meeting until the Constitution is amended. I can only deal with them in accordance with the current Standing Orders and will have to allow them onto the agenda, unless I consider they should not be included for legitimate reasons.

I have refused two for the July meeting so far. I suspect there may be others on their way."

A couple of points, firstly; "minor" amendments? This was hardly minor, neither was the removal of the right to present petitions to the Chair and for them to be sent directly to the chief executive instead.

Second point; "Emboldened"? This says it all, how dare councillors become so 'emboldened' to want public debate, don't they know their place? The previous 'success' had been in April 2011one Motion of No Confidence in the Exec Board Member for Social Care over the closure of the Llanelli care homes for the elderly.

Third point; "Legitimate"? In County Hall, 'legitimate', rather like the word 'unlawful', has a highly subjective meaning.

Despite this deeply undemocratic new 'rule', in 2013 the chief executive's office had to become quite creative when blocking a Plaid Motion, (which had the seven signatures as required) to discuss 'Press Freedom' after the scandal over the South Wales Guardian.
It resulted in this particular farce.

There is no doubt whatsoever that there is a pressing need for change.


Anonymous said...

Hear hear!! !Unfortunately until this controlling Chief Executive goes the weak remain weak.

Mrs Angry said...

Erm ... have I missed something here? Should it not be the place of the Chair, and not an officer - even the Chief Executive, ultimately to decide what is on the agenda, and what should be 'refused' as an item, or motion?

Even here in Barnet, it is the Mayor or Chair of a Committee who has that authority, not his officers. They may be asked for advice for constitutional purposes, but the agenda is the choice of the elected administration, and that, I believe, is how the democratic process is supposed to work. Or have I misunderstood?

Red Sonia said...

Er, no - the CEO has an absolute right to decide agendas and always had. When I was a town councillor it was a source of endless frustration that our clerk decided agendas on the basis of how much adding or deleting items would piss off the chairman. He also decided on a political basis, giving "his" party preferencem for political publicity.

When you get a good working relationship with a CEO or Clerk dramatic and good change is possible. When you get a poor or absent working relationship effectively the Chair is just a figurehead or, worse, has to spend so much time avoiding the traps set by the CEO that nothing gets done and officers rule.

In the case of a small town, this gives the clerk absolute power as he or she often works alone or with a very small staff under their thumb who need their jobs so knuckle under.

In the case of Barnet, even the CEO now has little effective power as he is completely in the power of Crapita so just about all he can control now is agendas!

A CEO is supposed to offer advice to councillors and make sure that everything that is done is legal. If that advice is ignored, the councillord should get the blame. In practice, most CEOs are power mad and see their role as running the council wity as little interference from councillors as possible - except where they have shard political aims, in which case he or she sees it has their job to promote that party, again with as little interference as possible.

Trust me, I've been there - it's dirty and no party will tackle it.

Sian Caiach said...

Actually, the CEO or any council officer only has the right to submit an agenda with the consent of the appropriate elected member chairing that committee. There are some statutory and customary inclusions such as appologies for abscence etc but even these can be varied by elected members, in extreme by suspending standing orders, usually only done in Carmarthenshire in order to have lunch.
As has been said, weak Councillors produce officers who have, if they wish to grasp it, full control over council business, management and finances. They even forget to keep a semblance of democracy as the email streams Jacqui has obtained clearly show. It will be interesting to see what the WLGA panel make of it.