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How Taxpayer’s Money Helps Keep ERYC Leadership In Power and Unaccountable

March 4, 2014

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.


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