Friday, February 15, 2008

The Seldom Seen Kid II


Have you seen this man?


As you may have seen in Hear All Sides, the LibDems are making an ongoing fuss about the "death of democracy" in the Town Hall. Darlington LibDem supremo Martin Swainston wrote an ascerbic letter to this effect recently after he got into a bit of a pickle at Council.


Martin's claim would have a bit more weight if he himself chose to take up the opportunity to hold the Executive to account when he has the chance.


Since the last local elections, as part of our drive to open up Council business, there has been a standing invitation to the leaders of the opposition groups to come along to Cabinet and grill Cabinet members on the presented reports. The Tories, in the guise of Cllr. Heather Scott, and independent member Cllr. Steve Jones are almost always there, and when Heather can't make it, she sends along a colleague. At our last Cabinet meeting, she asked searching questions on a range of key issues which were before us.


And Cllr. Swainston? Of the 9 Cabinet meetings which he could have attended since May 2007, he has been to just 2! On three occasions another LibDem has stepped in, so there have been 4 meetings where the LibDem chair has been yawningly empty.


Rather like their vacuous boasts in Focus leaflets that they campaign "all year round", LibDems in Darlington are an opposition group in name only as far as the practical work of the Council is concerned. They seem happy to leave this to the Tories, which is not I suspect what their voters intended when they put a cross against their names last May.

18 comments:

miketually said...

On his blog in December, Cllr Barker wrote:

"I sat in on Cabinet as the Lib Dem representative last night. Our Group Leader will hopefully be back in action in the new year, so my stint at the high table will be over."

From that, I assumed Cllr. Swainston was ill, injured, or otherwise unavailable.

Anonymous said...

It will no doubt be a great reassurance to the electorate of Darlington that you are there to watch over the comings and goings of the Opposition Councillors.
We are particularly lucky that you have found time to blog about this on a Friday morning, at a time when over half the Councillors, and most of your Cabinet colleagues, were involved in three hour workshops in the Town Hall on the Core Strategy: an important series of meetings which you were too busy blogging to attend (just like the last Council Meeting, where you were again absent).

Darlington Councillor said...

Anonymous.

Thanks for that - I posted between leaving work and arriving at the Town Hall for a set of meetings at lunchtime and this afternoon (which have just finished). I had intended to go to the Core Strategy meeting, which was originally scheduled for last Friday - like some other members, changes of date/time are problematic when you have to plan ahead to take into account all your commitments.

The point I am making is that if the LibDems are going to bleat on that democracy is somehow dying at the Town Hall, they had better damn well make sure that they are taking up every opportunity to hold portfolio holders to account when the opportunity arises.

Not to do so leaves them open to charges of humbug - and richly deserved in my opinion.

Mike Barker said...

Nice try, Nick. Unfortunately the DBC website does not contain a record of the Cabinet Minutes for its meetings on January 15th, February 12th or February 19th, so I cannot confirm your attendance at all of these meetings.
However, you yourself were absent on July 10th, September 18th and December 11th, in addition to the absences noted in the comment above.
On one of the occasions when you say there was no Lib Dem present, I was there, but there was no name place set for me and I sat in the public seats.
So, altogether since June 5th there have been 9 meetings, at 3 of which there was no Lib Dem: exactly the same number of absences as you, Nick.
Martin's absence until February 2008 was due to work commitments which required him to do a weekly training course on the very day that Council met. This has now finished. His absence last week was due to illness (he thought about attending and breathing over you, but sadly decided against it).
As you are also aware, I have asked several questions in Full Council, and also by letter directly to Cabinet members. Apart from Bill Dixon, Cabinet members have not answered the questions.

Darlington Councillor said...

Right.

To repeat, I may have given my apologies for Cabinet meetings, but then I'm not making a fuss claiming that the democracy in the Town Hall is breaking down, Mike.

Furthermore, when a Cabinet Member can't make a meeting, then the Leader moves his or her report in their absence. Similarly, when the opposition were offered the chance to sit in at Cabinet meetings and ask questions, it was specifically agreed that substitutes could take the place of Group Leaders. On 3 occasions, the LibDems had someone to to this, on 4 occasions you didn't (including the last meeting).

So whilst at every Cabinet meeting there has been someone there to articulate the Labour and Conservative approach to Council business around the table, on 4 occasions there has been an empty seat as far as your party is concerned. Those are the facts.

I'm sorry that Martin was ill - these things happen, but as I've said, a substitute could have attended in his place. Finally, it is a matter of opinion whether or not your questions at Council have been answered or not.

Best wishes,

Nick.

Anonymous said...

I suggest you check your facts before blogging Councillor Wallas.

Ian White, townliar.com said...

DEMOCRACY?

Nick,

Whilst not taking sides here all I can say in Martin's defence as our ward councillor, I certainly see him more than I do answers to FoI questions from the Labour group, who at present seem to be making everyone vexatious.

We are now at the point where we are to attend a hearing that will hold in its hands the entire future of our childs education and now I cannot go to that meeting armed with any facts whatsoever to help defend him, as the Borough Solicitor has seen fit to blanket ban every FoI from me in which I try to find out what exactly is going on at his present school.

Someone should be looking into why the Borough Solicitor is running point on embarasing questions, as I am not the only one who has been branded vexatious for asking simple questions about the day to day running of our local school.

Tell me Nick is this what the Labour Group calls democracy?

Anonymous said...

Alan Macnab writes..

Please tell me Nick what is so wrong with opposition or for that matter any Councillor asking as many questions as they like in Council? OK it may prolong Council meetings and the questions must be relevant, but that's what democracy is all about.

Similarly why should the Labour Group hold majorities in all the Scrutiny Committees? Why can't opposition councillors chair the Scrutiny Committees and why cannot the parties have equal representation on these committees?

Part 1 Paragraph 21(1) of the Local Government Act 2000 gives the following powers to Scrutiny Committees:

(a) to review or scrutinise decisions made, or other action taken, in connection with the discharge of any functions which are the responsibility of the executive (the Cabinet),

(b) to make reports or recommendations to the authority or the executive with respect to the discharge of any functions which are the responsibility of the executive,

(c) to review or scrutinise decisions made, or other action taken, in connection with the discharge of any functions which are not the responsibility of the executive,

(d) to make reports or recommendations to the authority or the executive with respect to the discharge of any functions which are not the responsibility of the executive,

(e) to make reports or recommendations to the authority or the executive on matters which affect the authority’s area or the inhabitants of that area.

How can these functions be effectively discharged in Darlington when the same party which holds the majority in the Council, forms the cabinet and also holds the chairs and majorities in the Scrutiny Committees?

I would submit that these functions cannot be effectively discharged because, by the lettter of the law, the same party members are holding their party leaders to account. Judging by what I am hearing they are not doing so and they are just going through the motions which isn't healthy for democracy.

Why cannot you embrace these changes? What is the reason for your party holding the chairs and the majorities in the Scrutiny Committees and not allowing councillors more than one question in Council? What are you afraid of?

Anonymous said...

Alan Macnab writes...

Just to clarify my last posting slightly as far as Scrutiny Committees are concerned. The intention of the Local Government Act 2000 was that there should be full separation between the executive (the cabinet) which is drawn from the majority party and the work of the scrutiny committees which are drawn from councillors not in the cabinet and opposition councillors and others.

I don't think the intention was that the majority party would hold sway in the executive and scrutiny.

Ian White, townliar.com said...

Why dont we get a Mayor?

I bet there are a few now who wish they had voted YES

Darlington Councillor said...

Firstly, anonymous poster no. 6 - I stand by everything in the original post and my subsequent comments here.

Next, Ian and Alan make some related points about how they feel democracy in Darlington isn't working. I'll come to those in a second, but just to stress again, the post was about the LibDems and how reality rarely matches the self-important boasts they make at election time. It's important not to lose sight of that.

Ian, as you're probably aware, councillors do not get involved in Freedom of Information requests - these are expressly left to the officers to deal with. As a Cabinet Member now since 2000, I have never once been asked for a view, informally or otherwise, about a draft response to a resident under the FoI Act. So it would be profoundly inappropriate for me to tackle officers about their replies to you. What I can say is that there is a franework which can be used (as I'm sure you know) where replies can be challenged both internally and externally. That is the best place to test the Council's approach. Certainly no complaints via the Ombudsman have been upheld.

As for Martin being a good ward councillor - I don't doubt that for a second. This is about the LibDems as a party, of which he is the local Leader, and their weak opposition, at least at Cabinet meetings.

Alan - I think I have stated my personal view about Council and questions before - I'm pretty relaxed that whatever system was employed, Labour Cabinet members would shine. As for the Scrutiny Committee issue - I think I've dealt with that before too. Basically, the Scrutiny Committee make up reflects the democratic will of the people of Darlington as expressed in the number of seats won by each party. Trying to fiddle that by having a different form of representation on Scrutiny would be profoundly undemocratic, in my opinion.

In the House of Commons, Committees are similarly drawn proportionately from across the parties, I understand. And certainly LibDem councils such as those in Newcastle and Durham City have been happy to preserve this approach once they got control.

ian holme said...

"Trying to fiddle that by having a different form of representation on Scrutiny would be profoundly undemocratic, in my opinion."

Would it really be so profoundly undemocratic to have scrutiny committees made up according to how people actually voted across the borough as a whole? (ie rather than in the ward first past the post system)

Darlington Councillor said...

Thanks, Ian.

On reflection, I stand by my statement. We all went into the last local elections on the basis that they were to be fought on the basis of 'first-part-the-post'. That's how we campaigned, and that's how people voted. I'm 100% positive that Labour's approach for one, and the voting pattern as a result, would have been very different if we were using STV or any other exotic PR system.

To then chuck the ground rules out of the window afterwards, and determine political balance via STV on the key Scrutiny Committees would constitute a fraud on the electorate, I think.

We can argue backwards and forwards the merits or otherwise of PR, but changing the rules at half-time simply won't wash.

Ian White, townliar.com said...

So why not change them for the future elections?

miketually said...

"[i]So why not change them for the future elections?[/i]"

That would be illegal. It would require a change from central government to introduce PR.

Anonymous said...

Alan Macnab writes...

I still maintain that democracy is not best served by having the same party having majorities in scrutiny as well as the executive. They are two different bodies.

Must go, off to football with no 2 son.

Anonymous said...

Alan Macnab writes...

I still maintain that democracy is not best served by having the same party having majorities in scrutiny as well as the executive. They are two different bodies.

Must go, off to football with no 2 son.

Paul Leake said...

Alan - the Local Government and Housing Act lays down rules about the political makeup of all council wide committees (except cabinet) and councils can only depart from these if every single councillor agrees. Namely:
a) a party with an overall majority of councillors should have the majority of seats on all committees.
b) subject to (a), the number of committee places across the council shall be as close to proportional to the party makeup of the council.
c) subject to a and b each committee should be as proportional as possible to the overall party makeup of the council.
d) special rules exist for those councillors not in any political group.

Councils are free to appoint committee chairs and vice-chairs as they see fit.