Never mind the quality, feel the width

The following anonymous comment was received today:

“Democracy is a wonderful thing and Pratt won fair and square. But seeing as you pride yourself on ‘keeping a close eye on our district’, how did you possibly miss that the last councillor failed to show up to any meetings?”

(Councillors must attend one official meeting such as a Cabinet meeting per six months (this does not include think tanks, informal meetings, etc )

Owl responds:

Quality not quantity, dear boy (or girl). One of EDDC’s most assiduous councillors – turning up at anything and everything and with fingers in many, many pies such as the Local Development Framework and the notorious East Devon Business Forum was long-time Conservative councillor Graham Brown and look how that panned out:

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/9920971/If-I-cant-get-planning-nobody-will-says-Devon-councillor-and-planning-consultant.html

Cranbrook (and elsewhere) – do you want independent councillors at East Devon District Council?

For the first time next year in May 2019 , Cranbrook will be electing three district councillors to serve on East Devon District council. This happens only once every four years.

Elected councillors serve on committees such as planning, housing and scrutiny.

Councillors are paid for their time (from at least £4360 per year plus expenses):
http://eastdevon.gov.uk/media/2513061/members-allowances-2017-18.pdf

You may feel that you have a natural affinity for the ruling block on the council – Conservatives or the other party represented at EDDC, Lib Dems. Conservatives currently hold 36 of the 58 seats, Lib Dems hold 6 seats.

But what if you feel that party politics (following the orders of your national party at such a local level) is not for you?

The next biggest group after Conservatives is independent councillors. They currently hold 16 seats. There is also an Independent East Devon Alliance councillor (Martin Shaw – Seaton and Colyton) at Devon County Council but their elections do not take place until 2022.

Some Independent councillors at East Devon (10 of them) belong to the East Devon Alliance.

How come independent councillors can be in an alliance?

Well, on all matters EDA are always totally independent and free to vote however they wish – there is no Whip as there is for a political party (though, by an anomaly of the electoral system, EDA has no alternative but to register as a political party for elections because the electoral system has not moved with the times!).

EDA councillors do though share common values – a committment to accountability, scrutiny and transparency in all council business and fight hard for these values for which they find it useful to be a group supportive of each other, while maintaining their independence. They also help each other in practical ways – canvassing, leaflet distribution, advice, etc.

If you think you would like to be a councillor, check out:
https://www.gov.uk/government/get-involved/take-part/become-a-councillor

If, after reading it, you like the idea of being an Independent East Devon Alliance councillor, contact the group at:

http://www.eastdevonalliance.org.uk/admin/contact-us/

or visit their Facebook page.

(East Devon Watch is supportive of East Devon Alliance but independent in its own views)

A personal view of scrutiny

From Peter Cleasby, a member of the Green Party, who lives in Exeter.

The Centre for Public Scrutiny has been tasked by the government with contributing to the new statutory guidance on overview and scrutiny in local government [1]. Below are my own suggestions, drawing on experience with monitoring Exeter City Council, which I have sent to the CfPS and the government.

1. There should be a requirement that scrutiny committees are constituted so as to be able to challenge ruling group proposals effectively. Exeter City Council changed its rules a few years ago to require that the chairs of scrutiny committees would be drawn from the majority party only (previously the chairs could be taken by members of opposition parties). This reduces the independence of the committees and, for obvious party political reasons, reduces criticism of leadership group proposals.

2. There should be more opportunities for members of the public to ask questions and challenge councillors at meetings. Other Devon councils allow questions to be asked at meetings of their executives/cabinets, but Exeter limits this practice to its scrutiny committees. Although the questioner is allowed to speak at the end of any discussion following the question and answer, no opportunity is provided to ask a supplementary question. This reduces the effectiveness of the challenge and the quality of discussion, and a requirement for one supplementary question would be valuable.

3. Scrutiny committees should be required to engage independent specialists to help them understand and challenge leadership proposals which have a high technical content, for example: on air quality, waste collection and disposal, estimation of housing need. This would enable officer-led proposals, often informed by consultancy studies predicated on terms of reference and assumptions issued by those officers, to be debated on a level playing field of knowledge.

4. Officers should be required to inform scrutiny committees of any representations received from organisations and individuals, whether solicited or not, relevant to an item being discussed by a scrutiny committee.

5. It should be mandatory for all proposals which would incur unbudgeted expenditure in excess of (say) £50k should be discussed at a scrutiny committee; and the proposal should state explicitly where the funding for the proposal will come from, including the impact on existing specific budgets.

6. In the interests of measuring the extent to which members of the public are having to resort to FOI Act/EIR channels to obtain information, the number, nature and outcome of all such requests such be reported publicly to each scrutiny committee cycle.

Some of these requirements will have – modest – costs at a time when local authorities are under severe financial constraints. In the interests of restoring the health of our democratic arrangements, the government should be prepared to make available additional funding to support them.

NOTES:

[1] See https://www.cfps.org.uk/3323-2/

Another investigation of local authority scrutiny and accountability

Owl says: The time is coming for fewer reports and more action. As an example, council CEOs should be forced to attend such committees in public to answer for their more controversial and questionable behaviour.

“The National Audit Office is to conduct a study of local government governance and accountability that will “examine key elements of local arrangements in the light of current pressures”.

The watchdog will also examine how the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, which is responsible for maintaining the overall accountability system for local government, is exercising its responsibilities as the steward of the system.

The NAO said: “Council governance and accountability arrangements are key in securing value for money locally. However, these arrangements are being tested by the current financial circumstances in the sector. Increasingly difficult decisions need to be made to protect key services and ensure financial sustainability. This includes the design and delivery of large service transformation programmes and the pursuit of new sources of revenue income through commercial investments.

“Local governance and accountability arrangements provide assurance about decision making processes and support the mitigation of risk in this increasingly challenging and complex environment.”

The NAO report is expected to be published in early 2019.

A report from the Committee for Standards in Public Life on local government ethical standards is due to come out later this year.”

http://localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=36710%3Anational-audit-office-to-investigate-local-government-governance-and-accountability&catid=59&Itemid=27

“The government’s voter ID plans are ‘rearranging the deckchairs’ in the face of new threats to our democracy”

“On May 3rd 2018, 350 people were denied a vote in their local council elections. Their crime? Not possessing the right ID. The minister hailed these trials of mandatory voter ID as a ‘success’. The government must have a strange definition of success.

The scheme disenfranchised far more ordinary voters than potential wrongdoers: in a single day across the five councils, twice as many people didn’t vote due to having incorrect ID as have been accused of personation in eight years across the whole of the UK.

Out of 45 million votes last year, there were just 28 allegations of ‘personation’ (only one was solid enough to result in conviction). And yet the government seems determined to pursue voter ID, a policy we now know could cost up to £20 million per general election. This change to how we vote is a marked departure from the trust-based British way of running elections, and with little evidence to justify it.

It’s claimed that mandatory voter ID could boost faith in the democratic process. Yet according to academic research, 99 percent of election staff do not think fraud has occurred in their polling stations. Eighty-eight percent (88%) of the public say they think our polling stations are safe. And studies show that more accessible elections have greater electoral integrity – not the other way round.

The policy of mandatory strict ID presents a significant risk to democratic access and equality. Millions of people lack the strictest forms of required documentation. Documentation that is costly to acquire. It’s one of the reasons why organisations from the Runnymede Trust to the Salvation Army and Stonewall are concerned about these plans. The Windrush scandal earlier this year highlighted exactly the difficulties some legitimate voters could have in accessing identity documents – through no fault of their own.

If mandatory ID were to be rolled out nationally, it could potentially result in tens of thousands of voters being denied a say. And it would hit the already marginalised hardest: poorer C2DE social grade voters were half as likely to say they were aware of the ID requirements before the trials this May. And despite the costly publicity campaign this time, after election day, an average of around a quarter of residents were not aware of the pilots in four of the council areas – around four in 10 were not aware in Watford.

Imposing ID could have a significant impact on election outcomes, too. Thirteen seats were won at the 2017 Parliamentary election with a majority less than the number of people denied a vote in Bromley alone this May.

Yet still the government insists on running more trials of mandatory ID despite a broader commitment to improve democratic engagement and access. It is clear that much work needs to be done to remove barriers to voting, not to construct new ones. The most widespread problem poll staff have highlighted is voters turning up and not being on the register. Access for voters with disabilities is also a frequently cited problem.

We’ve learnt a lot this year, with our election and information regulators and parliamentarians highlighting the shocking state of the unregulated ‘wild west’ that is online campaigning. From the spread of disinformation, to secret political donations and ‘dark ads’, the real threats to our democracy are becoming clear.

In the face of these challenges, imposing voter ID is like rearranging the deckchairs of our democracy while we head towards an iceberg. The crucial task for government now is to focus on the real problems – we need to get to work solving them.”

Full report here:
https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/latest-news-and-research/publications/a-sledgehammer-to-crack-a-nut-the-2018-voter-id-trials/

https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/the-governments-voter-id-plans-are-rearranging-the-deckchairs-in-the-face-of-new-threats-to-our-democracy/