set out to go to the Audit Committee meeting last Thursday expecting the usual
warm welcome from chairman Steven Hall.
But it wasn’t to be. When I arrived at the Civic Centre I bumped into the Bexley
Monitoring Group (BCMG) members who persuaded me that the place to be was the Standards
Committee meeting. Not if you wanted a warm welcome it wasn’t.
When we went into the partitioned public gallery it was obvious the assembled councillors weren’t expecting company. They were huddled around a small table and no provision had been made for the public apart from the usual agenda notice that no one was allowed to record proceedings. Printed agendas were in short supply, there were no chairs and although the public gallery is equipped with a hearing loop there was not a microphone to be seen. I think it may be a condition of membership of BCMG to be half deaf and I suspect they will be penning complaints to Mr. Hollier again.
We found some chairs with the help of a council employee and lined
them up about four feet behind the nearest members of the Committee. We were told to move
them further away. All the councillors had their backs to me but some observers may have
been able to see a little more. Councillor Alan Deadman seemed to be making some sort of
effort to angle himself into a position where he might be seen and heard but at the other extreme
councillor Val Clark spoke in a whisper. Given what I heard her come out with later it
may have been a wise decision.
The reason this particular Standards Committee was important is that all the arrangements for keeping councillors in check are affected by the Localism Bill. It is all change on 18th July and everyone must learn new tricks.
The Committee Chairman is the ‘independent’ specially selected by councillors and paid handsomely, Mr. Peter Richardson. Fortunately he spoke clearly when he presented his proposals for life in Eric Pickles’ new world. They were based on the seven Nolan Principles. Selflessness. Integrity. Objectivity. Accountability. Openness. Honesty. Leadership. One might wonder what the standards were before if that is all new stuff. However before Mr. Richardson was able to commence discussion of his 15 recommendations, councillor Deadman piped up with a radical new idea. Fairness.
He said that the public - I suspect he meant those of the public who read this blog, because I do not detect it is a popular topic for discussion in wine bars or letter pages of local newspapers - felt that decisions by the Standards Sub-Committee were biased towards the ruling party and overall “the perception is that we look after our own”. He suggested that the Standards Committee should abandon “proportionality” and adopt “equality” instead. He meant that membership of the Standards Committee and Sub-Committees should be split equally between the parties and not in proportion to the seats held. The latter means that when complaints are judged only one in seven hearings have any Labour representation at all and then only a minor one.
Councillor Cheryl Bacon immediately jumped in to deplore the idea but the longer her mouth was open the more time she had to engage her brain and her opinion appeared to mellow. Councillor Alex Sawyer has difficulty with the word dismissive but his brain is mostly firmly engaged and he strongly supported the idea that the disciplinary Sub-Committees should always have Labour Party representation. Not a lot, just one out of three, but at least it is a move towards removing perceptions that Bexley council’s enforcement of standards is a Conservative biased stitch-up. Perceptions? What am I on about? There could hardly have been any doubt and minority representation won’t change anything.
Councillor Bacon went along with the revised recommendation and so did councillor Deadman, it’s probably as much as he could hope for, and it’s not in the bag yet. The Committee’s recommendation will have to go before the full council for a vote. Luddites are in the ascendancy there and there is at least one on the Standards Committee. Step forward Val Clark, twice she said she was “confused” by what was going on, the Nolan Principles in particular. When it comes to Leadership and Integrity she is not on familiar ground as her spell as mayor amply confirmed.
Under the new procedures it is a council employee, the Monitoring Officer, who gets the last word if there is any dispute within a disciplinary Sub-Committee. Councillor Deadman thought that put him in “an invidious position”, potentially having to arbitrate between feuding councillors who had the power to blight his career. His view was not widely shared and councillor Clark was particularly vocal on the subject, at least I think she was, even councillor Deadman said he couldn’t hear what she was saying.
What was very noticeable about the discussion is that complaints against councillors were variously described as vexatious, frivolous and trivial but never once as serious. It may provide an interesting insight into Bexley council’s base position when it comes to judging complaints against councillors’ behaviour. After 75 minutes the meeting drew to a close and Mick Barnbrook of the BCMG asked the outgoing committee chairman and Mr. Akin Alabi, the Monitoring Officer and Deputy Director of Legal Services, if the sanctions available under the Localism Bill allowed a councillor to be removed from office. Unsurprisingly they did not, that is a job for the electorate. Warming to his theme Mr. Barnbrook asked what Bexley council would do if it found itself with a councillor convicted of a criminal offence. Alabi said he had sought government guidance on that and would get back to Mr. Barnbrook as soon as he could.
I noted that before the meeting began Mr. Barnbrook bid councillor Val Clark a “Good evening councillor” as she passed by. She ignored him with her nose pointing to the ceiling. On the way out Nicholas Dowling, another BCMG member, repeated the greeting with the same result. Mr. Dowling was on the receiving end of Clark’s wrath when he did not clap loudly enough for her liking at a council meeting. “Parsimonious appreciation” was her complaint when she spent good council money on looking up his address in council records and posting him a reprimand for failing to applaud enthusiastically at her command. Perhaps Nick should repeat the compliment and test out the new complaints procedure?
I shouldn’t leave you with the impression that all councillors are as ill-mannered as Val Clark. To my knowledge and in alphabetical sequence, councillors Chris Ball, Peter Catterall, Alan Deadman, Steven Hall, James Hunt, Howard Marriner, Alex Sawyer and Colin Tandy will all engage in civil conversation when the occasion arises. Hmm. Come to think of it it’s not many is it?