Gagging Councillors is So Easy Nowadays!
From Local Government to Remote Decree
by Pat Dodd Racher
I often say the words ‘local government’ with an exasperated sigh, because I think a more realistic turn of phrase would be ‘remote management’. Not always ‘management’ either, but somewhat frequently ‘remote decree’.
In the world of local government, where so much authority has been transferred to staff, can elected councillors be truly effective?
Yesterday (November 13th 2013) a substantial chunk of Carmarthenshire County Council’s precious meeting time was taken up by councillors revealing their pecuniary and personal interests. Mainly the disclosures related to membership of other public bodies, but one member felt obliged to reveal that he was a member of the West Wales Caravan Club, another to declare that he supported the Scarlets rugby team, and others to refer to relatives working within the public sector. The idea is to stop councillors voting on issues in which they might have a personal financial interest, such as voting against closure of a hospital where several members of one’s extended family were employed, but it struck me that a written register of personal interests, available online as well as in council offices, would suffice.
Carmarthenshire does not publish a register online. I found this note on the county council’s website:
The register of Councillors’ Financial & Other Interests and Gifts and Hospitality are held within the Democratic Services Unit at County Hall, Carmarthen and can be inspected on request to:
Head of Democratic Services Carmarthenshire County Council
SA31 1 JP
Tel: (01267) 224029
Holding the register in an office in the zealously guarded County Hall means that few people are likely to venture to see it. There is also the matter of officers’ interests – not a minor point, given the potential investment capabilities of highly paid senior staff. Yet I would suggest that while councillors must abide by a long and detailed code of conduct, which makes them subject to scrutiny by officers, notably the chief executive, chief finance officer, monitoring officer and chief legal officer, there is no quid pro quo in that councillors cannot easily monitor the rectitude or otherwise of council employees. Yes, council employees have their own code of conduct to abide by, but their duty is to refer possible conflicts of interest upwards to their line manager/ department head, not across to councillors.
The code of conduct for employees appears looser to me than the more specific code for councillors, and the arbiters for both are the council’s most senior officers, who are therefore in positions of great power.
Councillors, it seems to me, are there to keep as quiet as possible. The rules function as gags. There is precious little debate time allowed for the full council, and at this month’s meeting, after the very many declarations of personal interests, half an hour of the expected three-hour meeting was given to BT for a presentation on broadband coverage. The council’s acting head of administration and law, Linda Rees Jones, actually rebuked a councillor for appearing to regard the council as “a sort of super scrutiny committee”. That was not the case, she opined firmly, after earlier reminding councillors that they did not have a right to information held by the council, unless it was necessary for taking decisions relating to the particular committee or committees on which they sat.
Council staff are the gatekeepers to information, a role which reinforces the power imbalance between the privileged officers and the less-and-less privileged rank and file councillors. Another incident in this month’s Carmarthenshire meeting highlighted the power differential between officers and councillors. Councillor Sian Caiach (People First, Hengoed) tried to ask a question about an item that she said had been discussed in committee but was absent from the minutes. Chairman Terry Davies (Labour, Gorslas) replied with the rule that questions can be asked only about items that have been written in the minutes, therefore Councillor Caiach’s question was inadmissible.
Councillors do not write the minutes of meetings. Officers do.
Fewer than half of Carmarthenshire’s electors, just 44.5%, bothered to vote for councillors at the last county-wide elections in 2012. This low turnout suggests that people don’t think their vote matters. Even if their preferred candidate is elected, that person is unlikely to be able to exert much influence over important services such as education, social welfare, planning and highways. Their chosen councillor may not even be allowed to ask crucial questions.
Over the decades, institutions that were founded to benefit the public tend to devote more and more effort to serving and protecting themselves. This tendency, which seems pretty universal – with the National Health Service as a major example – means that we have to devise ways of re-democratising institutions that, once upon a time, were brought into being to express the public will.
For a start, councillors should have the right to ask and receive full answers to questions about matters affecting their electors, their ward, and the county overall. The present restrictions on councillors’ access to information serve to amplify Democratic Deficit, that alarming, resurgent danger of our times.