The following report is from Nick Dowling of the Bexley Council Monitoring Group who
fell for my sob story of not being able to attend the Sub-Group meeting myself.
He asked me to add comment as I saw fit but it remains his personal account almost
entirely unchanged from his original draft.
He tells me that there were only five people in the public gallery and three of those were councillors. Alex Sawyer very busy taking notes, and Melvin Seymour and Chris Ball the Labour leader. Note 1
I’ve not been to one of these before, Overview & Scrutiny Committee meetings themselves can be a trifle tedious, let alone sitting through the sub-group paraphilia as well. However Malcolm had suggested it might be of interest and the Agenda fascinated me – particularly the Member Questionnaire due to be discussed.
Intriguingly at the start, councillor June Slaughter was heard apologising to the other councillors for the fact that she had not attended the pre-meeting. She had not been invited as being only a substitute member she was not on the general circulation list. Note 2
It has often been said that every public meeting has already been rehearsed beforehand and it is always nice to have these things unequivocally confirmed. One can only speculate that there must be a jolly good reason why Bexley Council - an organisation that claims to value and promote openness and transparency - should deem it necessary to discuss matters behind closed doors and in secret; and only then trot them out for the public.
Given this state of affairs it is no surprise that so many councillors appear bored and disinterested at public meetings.
The first substantial item up for discussion was from Ed Hammond, an ex-council officer, who was singing the praises of overview and scrutiny generally. I guess he would do as he is employed by The Centre for Public Scrutiny, so he will have a vested interest in this sort of thing.
His opening suggestion for everybody to introduce themselves elicited nothing more from the councillors than their names which he could have read from their name plates. He demonstrated how it should be done when he waxed lyrical on his roles in the overview and scrutiny arena but he did not try to involve the councillors after their initially poor effort.
The chairwoman, Maxine Fothergill soon had her tablet computer out and was much more interested in this and after ten minutes or so everybody else looked suitably bored. I liked Mr. Hammond’s emphasis on ‘form following function’ which in essence means you have to decide what you want before you try and implement anything in order to achieve it. Now I have been called somewhat cynical in my time and all I could think of, at this point, was how Bexley council has got Overview and Scrutiny rigged exactly as it wants. Nothing ever gets properly challenged and any recommendations are duly noted and pretty much universally ignored.
Brilliant if you are into controlling the political message and agenda with a massive one party majority. No point wasting council time and effort amending anything as those in the cabinet and the senior council officers clearly know what they want and come what may, it will be served up. I doubt the cabinet feels very accountable at all as they bank on widespread public apathy to permit them to get away with anything.
Whilst mulling this over I was surprised that Howard Marriner, one of the Conservative stalwarts, admitted that the Scrutiny and Overview provisions at Bexley council are just a rubber stamping exercise. “When members vote they do so knowing the decision has already been made” and little or no time is provided for discussion and meaningful amendments. Note 3
I always thought that this was the whole point of the exercise but clearly it does not sit well with all of our elected representatives. Perhaps they just don’t like to be left out of the fixes and deals that are inevitably concocted by the Conservative inner circle?
Councillor Alan Deadman bemoaned the fact that with so few opposition members they are stretched almost to breaking point with all of the committees that they have to attend. I had some sympathy with him on this. He went on to point out that as there was only a small minority opposition it was incumbent upon the Conservative members to hold their own cabinet to account – fat chance given that I have never seen any of them ever vote against their own side. Their pack mentality is solid!
Deadman thought that members of the public who were confident enough to approach a Chair of a Scrutiny Committee should be permitted to ask questions - although, I am not sure that this met with universal agreement around the table. In a remarkable display of perspicacity the councillor opined that “the majority party cannot be trusted”. The man is nothing if not on the ball.
Ed Hammond thought that Overview and Scrutiny is not always the best way to get the public involved and from this point on I confess I lost a great deal of respect for him. I wonder how quickly some of these meetings are wrapped up if the public are not present at all? If they know that nobody is watching them I suspect they can be much more amenable to each other. Note 4
Another (non) highlight of the evening was listening to councillor John Davey prattle on about how Bromley council allows Conservatives freedom to vote against their colleagues. He seemed completely surprised that such a novel democratic notion was permitted. Clearly he has lived too long in our own stultifying little borough. He felt that Bromley had some great Overview and Scrutiny practices but they could produce perverse results. Note 5
His only example seemed a petty dig that Bromley had refused to partner up with Bexley over some parking matters. Perhaps Bromley examined the case a little bit better than our lot ever did and realised that hiking up the parking prices and enforcement only encourages shoppers away from the borough and off to the free facilities further out. Note 6
Davey then managed to get rather confused about justifying the costs of trips to the likes of Bromley which bore no relevance at all to the fact that the Committee was considering the costs incurred by their own meetings only. Duh! Better luck next time councillor!
The main event so far as I was concerned were the councillor questionnaire responses and it transpired that 25 Conservatives and two Labour members had deigned to take the time to share their views on, and experiences of, Overview and Scrutiny in Bexley. We were informed that the Labour councillors had decided as a group that they would submit only two responses, which given the startling results it still produced, showed that they most definitely missed a trick here. They could have made it so much more emphatically damning for the Conservative cabinet; but then perhaps they did not want to overly tarnish the system as they may see themselves running it in a similar fashion if the tide turns at the next elections.
A 43% response rate was deemed disappointing, so heavens only knows what they must think of the myriad of Bexley council public consultations that produce nowhere near this sort of participation level. In actuality the whole affair was largely glossed over with general murmurings that the consensus is that some changes most definitely need to be made and that the survey clearly demonstrated the vast majority of councillors share the views of this sub-group.
Damning stuff indeed! I wonder if that is the sort of sub-group report that the cabinet will duly note – and of course ignore? I fear that they will do so at their peril.
I noted the following highlights: 54·2% of the councillor responses indicated that overview and scrutiny in Bexley with regards to performance review and monitoring was only one level above ‘not effective at all’. 66·7% thought that the current Overview and Scrutiny committee structure did not allow for consistent and effective challenge.
74·1% felt that the current arrangements for monitoring recommendations and following up previously completed scrutiny work is not effective. 84% thought that the Overview and Scrutiny committee agendas and structure of the meetings could be improved.
Towards the end of the meeting, councillors were talking about dates for future meetings. The chairman let slip that the leader wants the Conservative Group to discuss the proposals of Scrutiny Groups before they are finally discussed by the Scrutiny Group - presumably to ensure that they meet with the leader’s approval. Councillor Alan Deadman's face was a picture. Why am I not surprised by that piece of manipulation?
I detect nothing short of mutiny in the Conservative ranks. They really do not like what the cabinet and senior council officers are at with the current regime. Do those with the real power appreciate how significant this discontent is? I sincerely hope not as it will undoubtedly only cause more and more rancour if they doggedly insist on trying to maintain the status quo. Perhaps all is not perfect in our Bexley utopia after all?
Note 1: The other member of the public present was John Watson of the Bexley Council Monitoring Group.
Note 2: Councillor Slaughter is too honest for her own good, it’ll probably be why she was ejected from the cabinet.
Note 3: Councillor Marriner always seems to be one of the good guys. He’ll never make cabinet either.
Note 4: Councillor Deadman is one of the few voices standing up for the democratic process. He has previously expressed his disquiet at the policy of putting residents addresses on line for no reason.
Note 5: Nick says that councillor Davey prattles. Good job he is responsible for this report and can resist bad puns.
Note 6: Perhaps Bromley is scared off by what it reads here. There aren’t many days they don’t drop by.