Sunday, 1 March 2009

Attending Meetings

A certain amount of hot air has been generated, both inside and outside the Council Chamber, about my friend, Lib Dem Group Leader Martin Swainston, and his failure to attend Resources Scrutiny Committee meetings called to consider the annual budget.

Now, most of the councillors on Resources Scrutiny are retired. Indeed, across the whole Council, the great majority of councillors are retired, unemployed/mothers at home, or public employees with guaranteed rights to take time off for Council duties. Councillors like myself and Martin, who work full-time in the private sector, are few and far between. Furthermore, at the present time, Martin's company is under threat of severe down-sizing due to the effect of the recession.

The Council's Scrutiny Committee meetings are timetabled for the benefit of officers and the majority of councillors who do not work or who, because of the nature of their work, are entitled to take time off work during the day for public duties. The Scrutiny Committee I sit on meets in the morning. This is massively inconvenient for me and anyone else who works full time in the private sector. Luckily, I only have a two minute walk to get to the Town Hall, but I then have to take two or three hours off work at a busy time of day. Resources Scrutiny meets in the afternoon.

I reckon no more than one-fifth of councillors work in the private sector. This does mean that the Council is unrepresentative of its electorate. Younger professional people in particular are under-represented. This is most unfortunate. Much as I respect many of our retired councillors, I believe the elected Council misses the energy, ideas, creativity and alternate viewpoint that would come from having more young private-sector professionals in its number. It's little wonder they show no enthusiasm to stand for Council when they stand to be criticised if they can't attend all the meetings open to them.

Now, last week I had a request from another organisation for a meeting between myself and Martin, with two of their representatives. I contacted Martin and asked him to give me some evening dates when we could meet these people. For the benefit of those people who criticise Martin for not attending Scrutiny meetings, here is part of his email reply:

"(In the next three weeks) I'm free the following nights 4th, 11th, 14th, 16th, 18th and 19th March on an evening after 17:30, I can't do any other nights due to Council commitments, parish council, school groups and rural partnerships etc"

So, of 19 dates (excluding Sundays) available in the first three weeks of March, Martin has Council commitments (mainly in his Hurworth ward) on 13 of them (14 now).

As opposition councillors, we can achieve far more by actively representing our ward constituents than by attending Scrutiny Committees with their built-in Labour majorities. Very few of the recommendations to come out of the Resources Scrutiny Committee meetings on the budget were included in the final Cabinet recommendations to Council (and those that were, such as rescuing the South Park aviary, the Mayor's Charity Shop and cycle and pedestrian training for kids were going to happen anyway).

Other recommendations from Scrutiny were included in the Conservative Group's amendment to the budget, but these were voted against by the Labour Group. Indeed, the Chair of Resources Scrutiny, the mayor, spoke in Council against the Conservatives' amendment.

I question the value and contribution of much of the work done by Scrutiny Committees when they all have a built-in whipped Labour majority. I am dubious of the value of opposition councillors attending Cabinet meetings when everything has been agreed before the meeting.

Given this, and that there is much to be done in our wards, I think most people will agree that councillors whose time is limited should not be criticised for putting the interests of their ward constituents before attending pretty meaningless Scrutiny meetings.

1 comment:

Darlington Councillor said...

Several Aunt Sallys here, Mike. I would comment as follows;

(1) Firstly, I fully understand that things are tough (and getting tougher) in the private sector for those who want to do community-related work that requires time off. I completely agree that the Council, and the town as a whole, would benefit from having representation from every section of society - including private sector workers. Certainly, meeting times aren't always conducive to this, although over the years, things have improved somewhat.

(2) As I said in a reply on my blog to one commenter, criticising another councillor for non-attendance at meetings can be a bit of a nil sum game - I freely concede that there are meetings which I miss too. No doubt Darlington's LibDem hierarchy are scheming even now to embarrass me over some absence or the other in the future... ;)

(3) Martin's decision not to take part in any of the Resources Scrutiny process, however is remarkable. There were after all, apparently, at least 6 meetings where his chair was empty, and he also failed to pitch up for Cabinet (where you of course subbed).

(4) I'm afraid this is noteworthy because Martin isn't "just" any councillor, and next year's council budget wasn't any old issue. It was by common consent the most difficult budget round for many years, and fully consumed the energies of the Labour and Tory councillors who sit on the committee. Front line services, people's jobs and the level of Council Tax were at stake. Martin is your Group leader, and the only LibDem on it. For him to metaphorically thumb his nose at the entire process says something fundamental about the LibDems attitude to the hard slog of Council work.

LibDems may talk a good game in Focus leaflets of "hard work all year round", but when it comes to holding the administration to account, the reality doesn't match the rhetoric.

(5) After all that, for him then to stand up in Council and criticise the budget was therefore just pure chutzpah. It was akin to him digging his own grave and then helpfully jumping in the hole. You can't be surprised if Geoff Walker and myself have been happy to act as undertakers.

(6) Briefly to deal with the Aunt Sallys - yes Labour has a majority on the Scrutiny Committees because we have a majoirty of the seats in the Council Chamber. What there isn't is any whipping in the Scrutiny process, by Labour at least. This is a fundamental tenet of the scrutiny process, and is strictly observed by my side. I hope the same is true of the opposition groups.

(7) I'll pass without comment the fairly remarkable statistic you've shared with us that Martin has 14 evening commitments in his ward out of a possible 19 this month, and which I of course accept at face value. Hurworth is certainly keeping him very busy! And of course we all have to attend to ward matters. It's simply a matter of striking the right balance in our priorities.

(8) In the end, perhaps out of loyalty to Martin, you deride the whole scrutiny process as meaningless, and even go so far as writing off opposition attendance at Cabinet meetings. Of course if LibDems want to take their bats home with them and boycott the Town Hall, that's entirely a matter for you. It is a very dangerous game to play, I would have thought, to leave the field clear for the Tories alone to make the running in challenging the Labour administration at Town Hall meetings.

(9) The intro at the top of the your blog asks just what an opposition councillor can achieve and how do you represent your ward? The answer if you're a LibDem seems to be "not a lot" and "never in the Town Hall". Not a very inspiring message for residents, I would imagine, Mike.

Best wishes,