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Bonkers Blog March 2013

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6 March (Part 2) - Scrutiny of the group that scrutinises the committee that scrutinises the council

Complicated isn’t it? The council has a Scrutiny Function Sub-Group to scrutinise the Scrutiny Committees that keep an eye on Cabinet decisions. Is it through lack of trust or is incompetence a problem?

Teresa O’NeillTuesdays are not a good day for me to be at a keyboard or a council meeting so I asked Nick Dowling if he would kindly scrutinise the Scrutiny Sub-Group’s attempt to put the Scrutiny Committees under scrutiny while all of them are scrutinised by the council leader. He did the same for me last January.

On that occasion he was able to reveal the proof that Scrutiny Committees operate only if they agree to dance at the end of Teresa O’Neill’s string. “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.” Well she would wouldn’t she? Any dishonest council leader would do the same thing.

Nick sent over his report with the request that I shorten it and liven it up a bit. OK then; I’ll cut it down to size…

The meeting was scheduled for 45 minutes earlier than most meetings. The council website said so but the screen in the foyer announced otherwise. Upon arrival at the appointed time the Civic Centre was locked up.

The meeting was once again chaired by Maxine Fothergill and she ran a good show.

As before, the star performer was councillor Alan Deadman; hurray! And the booby prize went to councillor John Davey - again. Boo and hiss!

There was a mess up with the microphones which was rectified in a professional manner quite unlike the performance for which mayor Alan Downing, aided and abetted by the purple faced Craske, is famed.

Then they tried to guess how much the meeting had cost the taxpayer. Far more than if they hadn’t bothered presumably. Everyone went home at 20:14.

Those interested in whether the whole exercise was worth while will have to trawl through Nick’s unexpurgated account.

Having dashed to make the blasted meeting of the council’s Overview and Scrutiny Function Sub-Group yesterday evening I was rather surprised that the door to the council was locked shut when I arrived at 18:45. I could see that the screen in the foyer was advertising the meeting – at 18:30 it said, contrary to the council’s website that had stated 18:45 – but the security guard was nowhere in sight. Just as I was about to give up and go home councillor Philip Read wandered down the stairs and seeing my predicament kindly let me in. Still it does not reflect well on the council’s organisation that immediately prior to a public meeting it was nigh on impossible to get in to view it. I do not think it was a deliberate ploy but perhaps I should not give them any more ideas to try and stifle democracy in the borough.

It transpired that the screen was wrong as the meeting was only just officially starting as I sat down - sadly one begins to expect this type of shoddiness from Bexley council and this lack of attention to detail is symptomatic of a general malaise and inability to get things right.

Generally the meeting was a fairly jovial and light hearted affair. There was an air of relative informality and I guess that we had chairman councillor Maxine Fothergill to thank for that. There was a real exchange of views and it all seemed to flow fairly naturally across agenda points and items. Yes, there was some of the inevitable political point scoring but generally speaking a consensus seemed to arise. It was probably the best Bexley council meeting I have attended in the past three years, although given the very low expectation level I have at these affairs perhaps it was inevitable that at some juncture one of them should be alright.

Alan DeadmanCouncillor Deadman (Labour, North End) was in fine form highlighting that many councillors do not participate much in committee debates or ask questions at all. He went on to point out that it will always be up to the majority party to pluck up the courage to challenge their own cabinet and the current failure to do so has made the entire overview and scrutiny function here at Bexley a barely tokenistic affair. He saw information as the key given that without knowledge it is somewhat difficult to have an overview of, or scrutinise, anything meaningfully. As the council outsources almost all of their functions he felt it was vital for the right experts to provide pertinent information and advice as well as it also being sensible to get stakeholders involved as early on as possible in order to ensure services are relevant and delivered appropriately. How true; and it just about encapsulated everything that is wrong with the current state of affairs.

We had, in my experience, the unique occurrence of the council’s contact officer for this group, Louise Peek, actually providing direct clarification and input to the meeting itself. She highlighted that there was a facility for pre-scrutiny already available but that it had not been taken up by any councillors in the last few years. The Conservative deputy whip Sybil Camsey knowledgeably agreed that councillors were not using the facility but she knew it was there. She felt that it was up to the chair of committees to follow up and challenge cabinet members. Easy to say but not something I have ever seen demonstrated by any of our motley crew. Her final issue was that cabinet members should explain fully why the will or will not accept a recommendation and update councillors of progress or not on the recommendations. Sounded like common sense to me and I am somewhat amazed that this is not normal practice here in Bexley where the council is listening to and working for us.

John DaveyIt was left to councillor John Davey (Conservative, Lesnes Abbey) in his own indomitable, and supremely dull, style to explain that at Wandsworth the council officers did not need to come back with answers to committee members questions as they were well briefed and knew their stuff. Clearly the point being here that in Bexley this is far from the case with the likes of Maureen Holkham et al. This was supported by councillor Caroline Newton who also felt that cabinet members and council officers should be much better prepared. I could not agree more with them and given the amounts that some of them are paid we who pay those salaries really deserve so much more.

Councillor Newton rather lost my admiration when she went on to indicate that she felt the existing overview and scrutiny provisions did not really need to be radically overhauled. She is a Conservative after all and works for the Institute of Chartered Accountants so is bound to be somewhat risk averse. Perhaps she also has one eye on her political masters as well and given that the chump councillor Davey agreed with her it does not bode well for anything meaningful to come out of this sub-group in the fullness of time.

Davey’s insightful contribution could be summed up by: more could be achieved with the existing provisions if they were better implemented and used by his fellow councillors. Profound; or perhaps not! Indeed councillor Chris Ball, from the public gallery, made the point that it would be a greatly missed opportunity if the current overview and scrutiny system was not overhauled and he emphasised that it would be much more beneficial to focus on the form that could be achieved within known costs and budgets. Alas it appeared that this was not anything the chairman was going to be very interested in. Likewise councillor Stefano Borello’s idea that a chair position could be given to the opposition party was met with a polite but total brush-off.

June SlaughterCouncillor June Slaughter came in late – perhaps she had been caught out by the early start to this meeting, or perhaps the building was still locked. She was having some difficulty following some of the mumblings from the committee and asked for the microphones to be switched on. In a glowing example of how this sort of thing should be handled the offending councillor at the time – Howard Marriner - could not switch his on fast enough and apologised profusely as did councillor Deadman when he later fell foul of this faux pas as well.

Still in full drone mode councillor John Davey had more to say on saving the council money via overview and scrutiny as councillors at Bromley had told him that if it was done effectively the sky was the limit. He pointed out that Paul Moore the Director of Customer & Corporate Services (cost to council tax payers, £171,184) wanted to cut spending on overview and scrutiny – perhaps because he realises what a pointless exercise it all is. Still, Davey thought that savings could be achieved by taking council officers reports as read. And it is cost cutting like this that he feels will save us all. I am afraid that I just cannot take him very seriously.

The chairman, councillor Maxine Fothergill, then went on to read out her summary report findings – costing heavens only knows what? This was actually a rather boring and tedious exercise. At one point councillor Sybil Camsey felt she had been misquoted and wanted to clarify her point. A hair splitting exercise of the highest order but it did liven things up for a moment or two as some grovelling and back-tracking was required by the chair. It was felt that good things were emerging and feedback was requested from committee members on the ten page appendix. We will wait with baited breath to see if anything actually comes of it all.

The final item on the agenda related to the costs of the meeting which in true Bexley style managed to convey very little and seemed to have more holes in its logic than a sieve. The council estimated that the last meeting cost at least £400 but could not indicate any facilities costs for heating, lighting, opening the civic offices, etc.; well, here is an idea for them as they have a room charge if you or I wanted to hire one for a meeting why do they not just indicate that?

The council decided to use an approximation of pension costs but admitted that not all employees are members of the pension scheme which could therefore have an impact on their estimate. Given that they must know who works on the meeting in order to arrive at the total number of hours it seems strange that they cannot establish definitively whether the individuals concerned are in the pension scheme or not and modify the cost accordingly. Of course the costs of councillor participation were not approximated at all which seems somewhat strange given that there were six times as many of them present as council officers.

Writing up the minutes took 1·5 hours which conveniently works out to 30 minutes per page. Which if we assume a generous 500 words per A4 page gives us a typing speed of about 17 words per minute. Not in the least impressive is it?

Still it is nice to know that fanciful guesses and any sort of a dodgy rationale will suffice at Bexley council. Some things will never change!


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