Sunday, 6 September 2015

The Constitution and siege mentality

Next Wednesday's council meeting (9th Sept) is set to approve the limited changes to the Constitution decided at the Extraordinary meeting in June.

Readers will recall the background to this. The changes follow the recommendations of the Council's cross-party group which was set up (and met behind closed doors) to deliberate the WLGA Governance recommendations....

The WLGA Governance Review was required following the Wales Audit Office reports exposing the pension and libel indemnity scandals relating to chief executive Mark James.

The process has been unnecessarily tortuous and long-winded.

The WLGA recommendations, hardly revolutionary in themselves, were supposed to be all implemented within a three to six month time limit. The report was issued last November, so you can see there's been no great rush...

The constitutional changes to be approved on Wednesday, (agenda here, to save you attempting to locate it on the council's new website), are likely to be seen as the final stage in the process, whereas they are actually just the start.
In part, these changes reverse some of the more bizarre rules brought in over the past few years to silence debate, and were not going to survive even the most cursory inspection.

The 'seven seconder' rule for councillors to submit Motions on Notice to council will finally be reversed back to the normal proposer and seconder. In other words two instead of an astonishing eight. Just in case there's a sudden onslaught of Motions (unlikely) councillors will be limited to one each per meeting.

Councillors will now be able to ask questions at open Executive Board meetings. As for remaining for, or receiving, exempt reports (such as top secret public toilet dossiers..), after a lot of moral grandstanding at the Extraordinary meeting, this will be now limited to Chairs and Vice Chairs,..

The chief executive will no longer be able to avoid airing public petitions by sending them off to distant committees, they will now have to go to full council, or at least full council will be made aware of them should the petitioner wish to present it to another committee.
However, we're still waiting for the promised council's petitions page to materialise on their website...

Neither will the chief executive be able to refer Members' Motions on Notice elsewhere, they must go on the council agenda and not be passed quietly to Pam, Meryl or similarly obedient disciples. Although I'm sure, with Mr James' extensive experience, he will be able to find a way round that one, if necessary...

Any three councillors will now be able to call-in an Executive decision rather than a majority of scrutiny committee members, and they will now have five days from when the Executive decision in question has been published on the council website to make their request.

As we know, Public Questions' is now an official slot for full council meetings. From now on the Executive Board and Scrutiny Committees will also have PQs on their agenda. The rules for submitting and asking a question remain the same despite the WLGA recommending that the procedure should be simplified.

Councillors will now be allowed to ask a Supplementary question. You may recall that the Mark James and Legal Linda double-act decided that because the constitution did not mention follow-up questions for councillors, then they weren't allowed.
It could have been interpreted the other way of course (after all I don't think there's a democratic institution in the western world which doesn't allow this) but why make things easier? The effect was that councillors have had go through the palaver of voting to suspend standing orders every time they asked a question, just so they could ask a follow-up.

The WLGA recommended that the public should be able to film or record all open meetings, quoting the decision from Pembrokeshire. This, as we know, was a step too far for some, resulting in the ridiculous decision to only allow filming of meetings which are already being webcast. Hardly in the spirit of transparency.

Attempts by the Plaid leadership to embrace the spirit of the recommendation were defeated. Currently, only full council and planning meetings (and, in the near future, apparently, Executive board meetings) are webcast which leaves around fifteen other committees which cannot be filmed and which are not recorded.

The public questions on Wednesday's agenda - see Caebrwyn asks a question - are nothing revolutionary, the ability to ask has always been in the constitution. The great unwashed have been discouraged, in a passive aggressive, and sometimes, as I discovered, a very aggressive way, from entering the Hallowed Halls, let alone asking a question.

The problem at the moment is that eyes are on Carmarthenshire, including those of the Wales Audit Office who are carrying out a full corporate assessment, not least of all on matters of governance. I'm sure it would have been noticed and challenged if those properly worded public questions had disappeared into the Presidential Shredder.

The dire relationship between County Hall and the press was also recognised in the WLGA review. A revised Press and Media Protocol finally emerged; a missive from the Ministry of Spin which I covered here.

The unlawful libel indemnity clause looks likely to remain in the Constitution in suspended animation. As I said in February, it will linger for evermore as an impotent but lasting memorial to local government idiocy.

I thought perhaps, with the 'legal position' long since 'clarified' as quite simply, 'illegal', the suspended libel clause would be quietly removed, its final deletion hidden, without mention, amongst the raft of changes; rather like the method used when it was first brought in; unnoticed and unmentioned within hundreds of pages of amendments. It seems not.

Both this blog, and Cneifiwr's of course, have tracked the snail like progress since the WAO reports, and both made lengthy submissions to the WLGA Review panel. The piecemeal and reluctant developments are detailed throughout both blogs. Another significant submission to the panel came from the lay member of the Audit Committee.

The 39 recommendations should have been implemented in full after the WLGA report instead of which they were diluted and twisted, and overseen by the very people responsible for the mess in the first place. It was a rather different 39 which finally emerged.

The recommendation for a change in culture, including an end to the officer-led regime, was swiflty and smugly brushed aside many months ago.
The chief executive made no secret of his contempt for the review, and for the Wales Audit Office. The logical conclusion is that he considers scrutiny of governance and democratic participation with the same patronising contempt.

We must be thankful for small mercies I suppose, and some of the changes are indeed very welcome, but what we actually have is transparency, Carmarthenshire style. If there is a theme which emerges from all this, it is defensiveness, mistrust and the council's siege mentality. The public are not to be trusted, and neither are backbench councillors.

It falls a very long way from bringing in the promised change of culture and the self-professed aim of becoming the most open council in Wales.

1 comment:

Cneifiwr said...

As you say, the public's right to ask questions has always been there, albeit hidden away and wrapped up in complicated rules and procedures, with meetings held at times which are inconvenient to most working people.

And yet public questions have the potential to bring about a real change in culture. Most of the 74 councillors remain silent in the monthly meetings which the constitution describes as a "forum for the debate of matters of concern to the local community". Only a minority asks questions, and there are even councillors who have never uttered a word since being elected.

With cuts looming to a whole range of services, and a council still obsessed with PR and spin to the point where cuts are often presented as improvements, I hope that more and more ordinary people, clubs, societies, unions and other community bodies make use of public questions to query, challenge and hold this council to account.

Nothing is more likely to send shivers down the spines of all those who think they sit in County Hall by right than the sight of well-informed and angry voters demanding truthful answers.