In between entertaining his grandson on holidays, Michael Barnbrook has found time to
pursue Bexley council on a number of matters. One is the Working Party that is
with the Boundaries Commission over the number of councillors to
represent Bexley residents from 2018. Bexley council thinks that 45 would be
adequate, the Boundaries Commission put the cat among the pigeons by suggesting 21.
The General Purposes Committee set up a sub-committee but in order to keep the public out called it an ad-hoc Working Group. It was an obvious ruse that Bexley council has used before and Mr. Barnbrook considered it to be illegal. My view was that it couldn’t be illegal in the criminal sense, as when councillor Cheryl Bacon decided to hold a scrutiny meeting in ‘Closed Session’ for example, because it was, so far as the Constitution is concerned, no different to discussing policy over a pint in the nearest pub. The Constitution has nothing to say about pubs or Working Parties so there are no rules to break. A Working Party is simply a device to exclude the public and subvert democracy.
As Mr. Barnbrook’s correspondence has developed, this assessment of the situation has proved to be broadly correct.
However he has discovered a few things. The Working Party consists of councillors Chris Beazley (UKIP), Alan Deadman and Seán Newman (Labour), Rob Leitch and Joe Pollard (Conservative) and three members of the cabinet. Peter Craske, Don Massey and Teresa O’Neill.
Michael formally questioned the use of an informal Working Party instead of a legally constituted Sub-Committee and as you might expect been rebuffed at every stage.
The official answer is that there is “no provision in legislation that precludes such a group being established” and a Working Group “allows a free and frank exchange of views … that would be inhibited in a more formal setting”. What could be more inhibiting than three of the most powerful people on the council being present?
“The council has been open and transparent in its approach.” The delusionist is Mr. Nick Hollier, Director of Human Resources.
Mr. Barnbrook takes the not unreasonable view that if the Constitution doesn’t allow for a procedure then such a procedure cannot be used. That would be the approach if an opposition councillor spoke out of turn at a council meeting.
I have been trying to find out how often the Working Party trick has been used but talkative councillors with long memories are in short supply. One was able to refer back to 1999 when a Working Party was established but nothing more recent. It was accompanied by the intriguing comment that as Bexley’s Constitution has nothing to say about Working Parties they rely on the custom and practice at other councils. Nothing can be illegal when the council is lawless.
Incidentally, while digging into the boundaries situation in Bexley, I stumbled across this. The colour of Bexley in 1995, one, two and three councillor wards before the borough became a one woman dictatorship.