An small item, showing up only in a chart covering terms of reference and buried in the 256 page report, submitted to councillors at the East Riding of Yorkshire Council Overview Management Committee on 27th February effectively removes the ability of back bench Councillors to scrutinise the internal proceedings of the Council.
The hasty 2010 restructuring of scrutiny apparently left no room to examine much more than the work of external bodies. This was despite a two-year working group involving all backbench Conservative councillors, reviewing and strengthening the scrutiny process, but the resultant report was not even presented to the Group. Instead the new structure was devised and presented fait accompli by the Group Leader.
The internal machinations of political groups are not normally a matter for public accountability, but where a council leader decides how he can be held to account, what can be scrutinised and how, this becomes so unacceptable that crosses the line.
It was bad enough that ERYC chose to ‘interpret’ legislation such as to prevent scrutiny committee members from discussing any ‘operational matters’. This effectively means the actions of officers can not be challenged, and any decision made by them can not be ‘called in ‘ for review. How would you feel if our MP was banned from questioning the actions of civil servants?
It gets worse. The Scrutiny chairman and committee members who hold the Leader to account are chosen by the Leader himself.
This is dressed up as a Group recommendation to Council but in the ERYC Conservative Group, committee places are all decided by the Leader and presented to the Group - there is no questioning or debate allowed. Publicly-funded ‘special responsibility allowances’ amounting to £262,125. per year (£68,000 for scrutiny alone) are handed out by the Leader to reward loyalty to his regime rather than ability. An astonishing 67.3% of the Conservatives being handed a payment by the leader. ( 69.2% if you include the Fire Authority payments also in the gift of the Leader) Complaints from anyone not rewarded are dismissed as ‘sour grapes’. This payroll vote has to be very loyal indeed: those who dare to do their job of scrutinising the Council or holding the Cabinet to account are sacked. A shameful silence, and complicity results at our expense.
Not that it matters. Scrutiny at ERYC has no teeth; the officers have effectively extracted those with another handy ‘interpretation’ of the rules. Each time the Council meets they approve and adopt the minutes of Cabinet. If a recommendation is not challenged, it is accepted and becomes the decision of the Council. Similarly the Cabinet receives the minutes of Scrutiny committees and have a chance to challenge the recommendations. In this way, any decisions made by, or passed through Cabinet, even those buried deep in the minutes, are approved and given full legal force. However, officers insist that Scrutiny recommendations are merely ‘noted’ and have no standing whatsoever. A very convenient neutering of the democratic process.
These subtle perversions make ERYC scrutiny worse than pointless, and as we saw with recent Bridlington Hilderthorpe Road petition,
the public can not have confidence in the process.
The Council’s argument is that the legal requirements are met, not through the committees, but by the Review Panels. They can afford to allow the members this scrap as the reports (with the exception of the flood review) are written by the officers and approved by the directors before being released. Exactly which Conservative councillors can serve on Review Panels is tightly controlled by the Group leadership, favouring those who are unable to tell the difference between activity and achievement.
Then we have the farce of the annual work programme. The matters to be scrutinised are discussed, and sensitive issues subtlety dropped or amended. The work programme is then ‘full’ and so members can not get urgent topical matters on the agenda.
There are a few simple things which can be done and must be done by any council to achieve genuine scrutiny.
- They must adopt the changes made in Parliament to set up select committees. The Leader, Cabinet and political groups must be removed from influence. Back-bench councillors must choose the committee members in a secret ballot and the committees must chose its own chairmen, again by secret ballot
- Scrutiny committees must be free to scrutinise any aspect of the function of the council and call in decisions made by directors.
- Scrutiny recommendations should be approved and adopted by Council as decisions and policy of the Council in the same way as Cabinet decisions.
These measures were all included in the blocked report. Scrutiny is there to ensure decisions are well made and that the Council’s processes are fair, open and accountable. It is only extremely weak or corrupt leadership that allows the process to be debased.
Mr. Pickles has allowed us all to film council meetings, yet ERYC is still resistant and obviously don’t want us seeing what is going on. Every public meeting still starts with the Chairman reading a statement of policy banning any recording.
Scrutiny members will be monitored. They can no longer get away with poor performance, falling asleep, drifting into anecdotes of events long ago or simply going through the process by reading questions written for them by officers.
If Scrutiny Chairmen paid by us are not doing the job, but serving their paymaster, then they can expect to be held to account by groups like Justice for Brid, and their performance published online for all to see.
Perhaps that is why ERYC are about to remove scrutiny of the Council itself from the agenda.
See our post on the cabinate’s decision http://wp.me/p3FF93-3E
If abusive personal attacks by the Council Leader and his Deputy did not cross the line, the latest stunts from the Conservative Group at County Hall certainly do.
We can now reveal that they have attempted to silence Justice for Brid and are trying to deselect councillors suspected supporting us.
Political parties have hierarchical structures and disciplinary procedures and as such the Regional Chairman for Yorkshire, who is also a Party Board member received an official complaint from the ERYC Conservative Group against Geoff Pickering (who then held a senior position in the Party) regarding his involvement with Justice For Brid.
The charge, which was liberally interspersed with abusive and libellous comment, was that J4B was speaking out against Conservative (Group) policy, causing problems for Conservative councillors, reducing their chances of elected at the next election. This was a carefully crafted complaint with at least two charges that can lead to expulsion from the Party.
Geoff was asked to attend a meeting to explain his actions, and although exonerated, was given some ‘advice’. This was effectively saying it is incompatible for anyone holding an elected voluntary position in the Conservative Party to engage in any activity that highlights incompetence or failures of any Conservative-led council or Conservative councillor. Also that all elected officials of the Party should avoid bringing attention to wrong-doing within the Party, to ensure the electoral success of those councillors who may be embarrassed or electorally disadvantaged by public scrutiny of their actions.
Geoff will continue to contribute to Justice for Brid, and has ensured he is free to speak out without party political interference.
It has also been revealed by members of the Councillor Selection Panel in David Davis’ Association that similar charges have been raised by the ERYC Conservative Group against councillors thought to support our campaign, and that they were ( in the presence of Group Leader Cllr Parnaby ) questioned on their involvement with Justice for Brid as grounds for de-selection. We are told that sitting councillors have been suspended from the list of candidates.
Cllr Nick Evans recently resigned from the Group, citing bullying and intimidation – something we at Justice for Brid have experienced first hand.
Conservative Party Board members, although well aware of what is going on, have so far failed to act and this looks like escalating into a fiasco to parallel the Labour Party selection woes in Falkirk.
It has since come to light that these formal ‘Group’ complaints were nothing of the sort. They were not known of, or sanctioned by, all the Conservative councillors, but was simply the Group Secretary passing off the grievances of a few senior members as if from them all. You can imagine why, a complaint from 53 councillors is a serious matter indeed.
The Group Secretary, Cllr Felicity Temple, receives a taxpayer-funded Special Responsibility Allowance of £11,697.00 on top of her other allowances in order to do this job. The East Riding is one of only two councils across the whole of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire to make public-funded payments for political Group Secretaries.
ERYC Cabinet which includes four Bridlington councillors ( Cllrs Chadwick, Harrap, Burton and Matthews) has voted to strip Bridlington Town Council of £35,000 given by government to pass on to town and councils to compensate for changes to Council tax benefits.
When the ERYC Cabinet made their decision about which town council got a slice of the government support money, they only considered three options. All of them were based on a new criteria of whether or not that town or parish had increased or decrease their taxes in the previous year
The bean-counters produced tables to show the winners and losers for the 3 options. Option 1 best reflected the stated aim of rewarding those who’d used the money to reduce their tax, and would have supported Bridlington who did just that. However that penalised Withernsea, which was named as the worst affected by the new method of calculating the Tax Base.
That begs the question, how was each town affected by the change? The answer was buried in the Cabinet documents, and needed some calculations to show it.
So what has changed?
Previously, the town council set their part of the council tax called Precept and this is all collected via ERYC, either directly from residents or from central government payment where the householder was claiming Council Tax Benefit. In the new system, government pays a smaller amount to ERYC to cover benefits, and also reduced the benefits to some people. As you can imagine, places like Brid being designated an area of deprivation has plenty of poorer pensioners, seasonal workers and other people who got Council Tax Benefit.
Council Tax is charged at different rates, so a Band H mansion costs more than twice the tax on a Band A flat. Whether an unemployed person or pensioner lives in a cheap flat or a mansion makes the sums difficult to compare between towns, so the bean-counters standardise it by calculating the ‘Tax Base’. The Tax Base is the number of houses all paying at the average Band D rate that you would need to raise the same amount of money as all the different ones you really have.
The only change to Brid Town Council is the ways the bills are calculated. Pensioners were protected by government so that if they’re on a low income they don’t pay any council tax at all. Where the government used to pay it for them, now it is taken out of the calculation altogether . Now everyone else in town now pays the shortfall
Tax Base before the change can be calculated from he Precept and Tax figures for past years and compare it with the new figures listed in the Cabinet documents. Comparing those towns with a tax base over 2500, and how much each would get under the Cabinet’s options, looks like this:
What this shows is that yes, Withernsea is the worst affected. But it also shows that Bridlington is not far behind
There are lies, damn lies, and statistics. If you don’t ask for the right statistics, how can you make the right decision? How many of the four Bridlington Cabinet Members knew that their town was this badly affected by the change in tax base calculation when they voted against supporting the Town Council?
Cllr Chadwick should have done it is her portfolio.
At a recent meeting of WSSAAG, A community action group for the West Street area, Portfolio Holder for Council Support Services, Cllr Margaret Chadwick along with her husband and fellow Bridlington South Ward Member, Cllr Ernest ‘Chad’ Chadwick confirmed that the East Riding of Yorkshire Council will not allow filming or blogging of any meeting until forced to do so by law.
This being a public pronouncement of Council policy by the relevant Portfolio Holder, it gives us the Council’s official position. Whilst disappointing, it demonstrates that the self-styled ‘East Riding Conservatives’ want to keep operating behind closed doors for as long as they can get away with it and have little interest in serving either their residents or the party they purport to stand for.
Their stance against democracy is as sad as it is futile, the legislation has cross-party support and is all but assured to become law in a matter of months. As the legislation does not require councils to film and broadcast their own meetings, it seems likely that Mr Parnaby’s Group will not endorse any official recording.
Although Justice For Brid is campaigning for a full official record to be broadcast, the important thing is that any individual, campaign or news-group will be able to film and broadcast public Council meetings without restriction or interference from the Council. It is unlikely that members of the public will wish to broadcast the full proceedings. So we can expect to see short, highly-edited extracts highlighting the individuals’ concerns from their own perceptive.
Councils may well consider such extracts to be out of context or even misleading.
Those councils who refuse to have a full official record have no way to refute any perceived ‘misrepresentation’. In not filming and broadcasting themselves, they effectively hand over their public image to anyone, for any purpose.
If Cllr Parnaby wishes to relinquish control of his Council’s public relations and his councillors reputations to campaign groups such as Justice for Brid, who are we to object?
Councillors are supporting Justice for Bridlington’s campaign for transparency at East Riding of Yorkshire Council by placing two motions before the Full Council meeting on 9th October.
The motions by the Labour Group presented by Cllr Josh Newlove and to be seconded by Bridlington South Member, Shelagh Finlay are;
“That, in the interests of transparency and democracy, this Authority agrees to allow personal electronic devices i.e. mobile phones, recording equipment, pagers, cameras or similar devices to be switched on and used at all Council and Committee meetings”
“That, in the interests of transparency and democracy, this Authority agrees to install and maintain equipment to officially record video, with sound, at all parts of council and Committee meetings that are open to public attendance, Further, that all such oficial recordings are easily accessible on the Authority’s website”
The Councillors are to be commended for listening to their residents and taking such prompt and positive action.
If passed then the officer imposed ban on recording will be over-turned
It is possible for other members to put forward amendments to block these motions. The usual ‘ruse’ is to send the matter to scrutiny for consideration. This usually takes so long to come onto the agenda that the change never happens.
Such tactics are cowardly, at best, they allow Councillors who do not have the courage to openly vote against what they know to be the right thing, to block democratic change, yet give the impression that they are being sportive and reasonable.
We would like to see the vote recorded so that we can publish how each Councillor voted – East Riding voters deserve to know which of their Councillors believe in democracy and which ones want to keep what they do secret.
Well done and thank you Cllrs Newlove and Finlay
Justice for Bridlington has launched a petition aimed at getting the East Riding Council to allow recordings of its public meetings, and is calling on the council to broadcast the meetings in a similar way to neighbouring Hull City Council.
We can not get justice for Bridlington when public meetings are held during the day at the convenience of officers and councillors, and when ordinary people are at work. The council’s minutes do not record the debate, so unless you take time off and travel to Beverley, it is impossible for members of the public see and hear what is going on and to get involved as they should.
A recent Freedom of Information request revealed that the East Riding’s policy on recording of meetings had been created by officers and has never been specifically debated or approved by councillors.
This petition will allow councillors to make the policy themselves. If they want to hide what they are doing from the electorate, so be it, but we want to know it is their decision and not that of some unaccountable official to cover up what is going on in County Hall.
It is not good enough for officers to simply slip a policy into constitutional changes, then say councillors approve it because they adopt the constitution, without debate at the AGM. Policy should be made by the elected members. We are asking them to decide for themselves if they want a secretive or open and inclusive council.
To sign our petition, go to: http://www.petitions24.com/recording_of_meetings_at_east_riding_of_yorkshire_council