Devon County Council: the place democracy goes to die

Facebook post by DCC Lib Dem Councillor Brian Greenslade

Late last year we started to learn about plans by the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and NHS England to introduce by the 1st April Accountable Care Organisations to replace CCG’s in the Health Service. These organisations would provide health and social care services. Bringing these services together makes sense but democratic oversight appeared to be an after thought. ACO’s seemed to be based on similar type Organisations in the US.

What was clear was that little or no public scrutiny of these proposals had happened. Congratulations to Sarah Wollaston MP Chairman of the Health Select Committee who then intervened to stall this initiative to allow the Parliamentary Health Select Committee chance to scrutinise the proposals. The same was true at Devon County Hall where nothing about this was brought to the attention of members of the Health Scrutiny Committee.

Opposition to ACO’s started to brew up so then suddenly the Government and NHS England started to talk about integrated care systems instead which apparently are different. How different is not clear and I am concerned that this could be a back door attempt to introduce ACO’s.

Yesterday at the DCC Cabinet a report by the Chief Executive about Integrated Care Systems was considered. It failed to answer key questions but it was clear that changes from April were on the way.

My Lib Dem colleagues and I hotly contested the recommendations and called for time to have this report sent to Scrutiny first. This was voted down by the Tory majority.

We reacted to this by calling in the Executive decision for scrutiny. This as the effect of delaying any decision on this being made until 11th April at the earliest to consider representations by Scrutiny.

Amazingly the Tories are rushing scrutiny through by making it an urgent item for the Health Scrutiny meeting on the 22nd of March giving little time for consideration of this critical issue for the health of the people of Devon.

Democratic standards that the Lib Dem’s stand for mean little to Devon’s ruling Tories!”

What if parishes controlled most local services?

Owl has been thinking – always dangerous and always upsetting some people! This time it is about unitary councils and how they might work for the “little people” (or even little owls).

It seems that almost everyone now agrees they will save money, by removing a tier of government. But, when and if they do, how do we safeguard ourselves from being hijacked by the likes of Local Development Partnerships, big business and greedy speculators (some of whom, unfortunately, are likely to be unitary councillors and some who could be all three!).

It seems the absolute key is the devolving of as much decision-making power as is practical to parish level.

Local power brokers (we know who they are!) will inevitably resist this as much as possible. Cornwall’s unitary system is generally accepted to have been something of a success, but the big criticism is the centralisation of decision-making, and lack of democracy.

If we devolve power to parish level, surely this should in lude planning – as the more local it is, the more likely it is to work. It is, of course, a myth that this will lead to nimbyism. Most communities are happy to accept new building – they just don’t want nasty little boxes in the wrong place at inflated prices.

It is obvious that we need to reduce the tiers of government. Look what we have locally: parish council, EDDC, Greater Exeter, the GESP area (which is not the same as it includes Mid Devon), County Council, the LEP (together with its new proto-authority/the Joint Committee), England, the UK, the EU. That makes nine levels of bureaucrats all reinventing the same wheels (and charging for it!).

We are leaving the EU (probably), and it seems to Owl we could quite happily exit EDDC, Greater Exeter, GESP, and the LEP without any loss – which would leave us with four. Parish, County, England, UK. Plenty enough. And imagine the savings!

We could devolve as much as possible to parish level, provided those parishes were of a certain minimum size, say 10,000 population. Parishes could cooperate with neighbouring parishes in the provision of some services such as environmental health. Most such as street cleaning, highway maintenance of everything except A roads, and non-strategic planning could be left to the parish.

But it would mean powerful (and often rapaciously greedy) people being forced to lose that power for the greater good.

Aaahh, well it was good to dream!

Conservatives and Russians … and Saudis … and Quataris

Owen Jones, Guardian:

“The Conservative party is in the pocket of foreign powers that represent a threat to the national security of Britain. It is a grotesquely under-reported national scandal, lost amid a hysterical Tory campaign to delegitimise the Labour party with false allegations of treason. If Labour had received £820,000 from Russian-linked oligarchs and companies in the past 20 months – and indeed £3m since 2010 – the media outrage would be deafening. But this is the Tory party, so there are no cries of treachery, of being in league with a hostile foreign power, of threatening the nation’s security.

When questioned about the Russian donations to the Tory party, the chancellor, Philip Hammond, pointedly refused to return the money. “There are people in this country who are British citizens, who are of Russian origin,” he protested. “I don’t think we should taint them, or should tar them, with Putin’s brush.” How noble: a Tory challenging the demonisation of migrants.

Before we get out the bunting, though, let’s look at one donation as an example. It was 2014, and Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of Russia’s former deputy finance minister, paid the princely sum of £160,000 to play tennis with David Cameron and Boris Johnson. In total, since 2012 – when the Electoral Commission initially declared her an “impermissible donor”, before subsequently allowing her to donate – she has handed the Tories £514,000.

I put it to you gently that if Labour took half a million pounds from the wife of a former Cuban minister, there would be no debate about whether this represented a scandalous financial relationship with the Cuban regime. Other examples include £400,000 from Gérard Lopez, a businessmen on the board of a company that partnered with Russian banks that had sanctions imposed on them during the Ukraine crisis.

It goes further than that. By last October, Tory MPs had received four times more money from Russia’s state-run Russia Today TV channel than Labour MPs: it is welcome that the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has said that his colleagues should no longer appear on the channel. The Conservative party is notoriously dependent on donations from the financial sector. The tens of millions of pounds poured into the Tories’ war chest are not offered as acts of charity and munificence.

In 2011, for example, the Financial Times reported that “even donors admit that Tory MPs’ desire to cut the 50p top rate of income tax is because these rich City donors are so close to the party”. This same City of London is awash with dodgy money from Russia. No wonder, then, that in 2014 a secret government document revealed plans to stop any sanctions against Russia that might damage the City. Labour has attempted to introduce legislation that could prevent certain Russian individuals entering Britain or block their assets: how mysterious, then, that the Tories blocked it for “technical reasons”.

Then there are the links to other regimes that combine contempt for human rights with a threat to our national security. Take Saudi Arabia, ruled by a totalitarian, fanatical regime that likes to slice the heads off gay men and dissidents, which treats women with what can only be described as barbarism, and which exports international extremism. In the two years or so after it began bombing Yemen – including with British weapons – Tory MPs received £99,396 from the Saudi regime in the form of gifts, travel expenses and consultancy fees. Hammond was one of them: he received a watch worth nearly two grand from the Saudi ambassador.

In the past five years, moreover, Saudi Arabia and other autocracies spent £700,000 on luxury trips for MPs, more than 80% of whom were Tories. Just under £200,000 of that was money from Saudi Arabia to pay for the excursions of 41 MPs, 40 of whom were Conservatives. Now why would they possibly be doing that? Could it be – given that MPs receive nothing from our democratic allies for such trips – that this is part of a clear PR offensive, an attempt to secure influence over the Conservative government?

Indeed, Rehman Chishti – the newly appointed vice-chair of the Conservative party for communities – received £2,000 a month from the Riyadh-based King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies between March 2016 and January 2018. Although the parliamentary commissioner for standards saw no reason to take action, it is worth noting his rampant pro-Saudi dictatorship sympathies. His Twitter feed includes boasting of being congratulated by the Saudi dictator for being re-elected as an MP in 2015, hosting lectures by Saudi officials, and leading Tory parliamentary delegations to Saudi Arabia. His colleague, Daniel Kawczynski, goes on TV to justify the barbaric Saudi assault on Yemen, crows about writing the “most pro-Saudi book ever written by a British politician”, but then threatened to sue when this was linked with went on a trip worth £6,722.14 paid for by the Saudi regime.

Litvinenko widow warns Tories over Russian donations
And then there is the Tories’ financial heart. The Qatari dictatorship owns three times more property in London than the Queen, and more than the mayoralty. Indeed, the Qatar Investment Authority owns Canary Wharf, the Shard and Harrods. Let’s be clear: the Qatari regime has backed extremist and terrorist organisations, as have wealthy individuals under its jurisdiction. As Paddy Ashdown put it in 2015, David Cameron failed to put sufficient pressure on Qatar and Saudi Arabia to stop funding extremism, leading Ashdown to “worry about the closeness between the Conservative party and rich Arab Gulf individuals”. Consider Theresa May’s refusal to publish a report on foreign funding of extremism. Well, it would hardly go down well with the Gulf states, which are so deeply embedded in Tory milieus, would it?

What a farce. There was rolling coverage smearing Jeremy Corbyn as a traitor based on the testimonies of a single crank from the former Czechoslovakia. And yet the Tories are at the centre of a web spun by the Russian and Gulf regimes. Hundreds of people in Salisbury are now washing their belongings after traces of a nerve agent were found at the restaurant suspected to be the location where a Russian spy, and his daughter and a British policeman were poisoned.How is it morally acceptable for the Tories to take the Russian or Saudi shilling? What are the practical implications of this? And where is the never-ending media outrage over it? The answers to these three questions paint a damning picture indeed.”

“Tories seek to block move to reveal donations to DUP in EU referendum”

Imagine if this was Corbyn paying off the Lib Dems with £1 billion and then agreeing to keep all Lib Dem referendum donations secret – what would the Conservative Party be saying and doing?

“Ministers will whip Conservative MPs to block a move to reveal donations to the DUP during the EU referendum, which Labour has said is “doing the party’s dirty work”.

The government is set to help the Northern Irish party conceal details of past political donations, including a highly controversial sum given during the referendum, despite a 2014 law that extended party transparency rules to Northern Ireland.

The rules on transparency were to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK, which first introduced in legislation in 2014 with the wide understanding it would be applied from that year.

However, the government has since said the transparency rules will apply from 1 July 2017, which would mean donations during the EU referendum in 2016 will not be made public.

The shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Owen Smith, said it was outrageous that the government would not backdate the donations rules.

“All parties in Northern Ireland apart from the DUP support the government’s previous promise to publish. There is simply no excuse to not publish the donations,” he said.

“The Tories must explain why they are doing the DUP’s dirty work by helping them avoid publishing the source of the funds received in the EU referendum. Those funds played a significant part in the referendum campaign across the UK and the public have a right to know precisely where that money came from.”

Serious questions remain over the DUP’s spending on the EU referendum in June 2016 – including a £435,000 donation from a group called the Constitutional Research Council (CRC), chaired by Richard Cook, a former vice-chairman of the Scottish Conservatives and Unionist party.

The DUP spent more than £280,000 of that money on a wraparound advertisement in the London-based Metro newspaper, which is not distributed in Northern Ireland.

On Monday night, the government attempted to enact the transparency rules in the legislation via statutory instrument, a process which allows the provisions of an act of parliament to come into force or be altered without parliament having to debate them.

However, after objections by Labour at the last-minute nature of the SI, the measure will now be put to a vote on Wednesday, where the party will attempt to get the law backdated to its introduction in 2014. Conservative MPs are under a three-line whip to oppose.

A Labour source said: “The government tried to pull a fast one and got their minister to sit down early so they could vote on the SIs last night rather than deferred on Wednesday. We stopped it but it’s very unusual and shows the nervousness on this, especially the NI political donations.”

“The plan to cut MPs looks suspiciously like a power grab”

“Are we witnessing a power grab?

Six months ago, reports suggested that the Prime Minister had dropped plans to force through a cut in MPs, a cut linked with the ongoing review of constituency boundaries.

It turns out there has been a u-turn on the u-turn, with news emerging that the PM is set to reduce the number of MPs.

That’s despite the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee warning that moves to cut numbers to 600 are unlikely to secure the backing of MPs.

But why the fuss?

The issue comes down to a very ill-thought plan for new constituencies – alongside some clear democratic dangers when it comes to reducing voters’ representation.

The cut in MPs actually represents a cut in backbenchers if there are no plans to cap/cut the size of the executive or ‘payroll vote’ correspondingly.

Parliament will gain more powers after Brexit yet will have less capacity to scrutinise legislation. At the same time voters lose their representatives in Europe. That places a greater burden on the Commons and a lack of capacity poses significant risks.

The democratic dangers are clear. ERS research in 2016 showed that in a smaller, 600-seat Commons, nearly one in four (23%) MPs would be on the government payroll if the parties’ proportion of MPs – and the total number of ministers and whips – stayed the same – an all-time high, and up from the 21% at present (figures as of November 2016).

The more you look at it, the more cutting backbenchers at the same as bolstering the executive looks to many like a worrying power-grab.

But there’s another factor – the unelected Lords. It’s just common sense that the cut in democratically elected representatives cannot go ahead while the House of Lords remains the second largest chamber in the world, with around 800 members.

If the government are concerned about reducing the cost of politics, they would do well to deal with the over-sized second chamber.

Voters need real representation in the Commons to provide the essential scrutiny and capacity we need: both for now and when we gain new powers after Brexit.

But there are problems with the boundary changes regardless of the cut in MPs. For a start, the new boundaries will be based on highly incomplete as well as out of date data. For example, people who registered to vote for the EU referendum won’t be counted for the new boundaries – skewing representation.

At the same time, the government has set an arbitrary 5% maximum difference in the size of the new constituencies. That risks awkwardly splitting up communities or grafting very different towns/counties onto each other – just look at the controversial Devonwall proposals.

Finally, unregistered but eligible voters are not being considered when drawing up these constituency boundaries – even though they will still need support and representation from their MP. This disadvantages poorer constituencies – they end up with lower representation, often despite greater need.

Far from reducing political representation and weakening voters’ voices, the Prime Minister should cancel the proposed cut in MPs – and move forward with fair boundaries based on a properly resourced Commons.

Read the ERS’ full views on the boundary changes here: and here

No vote allowed on May’s “cash for votes” for DUP

“Theresa May will hand out the £1bn in her “cash for votes” deal with the Democratic Unionist Party without MPs’ prior approval, The Independent can reveal, putting the Government at risk of legal action.

The Commons will only vote after slices of the funds have been allocated to Northern Ireland, and will be denied a single vote on the overall £1bn – despite the Government conceding last year that Parliament’s “authorisation” is needed.

The decision has been condemned for leaving MPs “cut out of approving the deal”, which gives Northern Ireland a huge spending boost in return for Ms May being propped up in power.” …

“Wine and dine democracy is now on trial – and about time”

There wasn’t a paragraph in this article that could be edited out – truly we are in The Swamp:

“Each time a US gunman goes berserk, the British media erupts in fury at the money the gun lobby can devote to its lethal interest. To be sure, big time lobbying is the occupational disease of American politics. In the US, it can have murderous consequences. Still, on matters of principle, Britons would do well to watch their hypocrisy.

The sums spent by property companies on lobbying Westminster city council’s planning committee – revealed in Tuesday’s Guardian – may be dwarfed by those spent across the Atlantic. But the hospitality showered on the committee’s chairman for 16 years, the amiable Robert Davis, was breathtaking. Five-hundred freebies, including 10 foreign trips, in just three years. At least 150 of these were from a who’s who list of property industry figures. Even Harvey Weinstein is on the list. Entertaining Davis was clearly a Westminster cottage industry. He can hardly have had time to down one glass of champagne before raising another.

Everywhere money is at stake, those regulating it will be open to temptation
Meanwhile in the planning committee, the London Evening Standard’s Jim Armitage – there as a local resident objecting to a planning application – watched planning approvals get ticked off mechanically. He noted that not a single objection was upheld. Members “looked at the ceiling, buffed their nails and scratched their noses” as each was nodded through.

Westminster council asserted this week that all hospitality was received during “meetings”, and the idea that any of its councillors “could be bought by the property lobby was demonstrably untrue”. The meetings apparently took place at Wimbledon, at a performance of the musical Hamilton, and in the south of France. There is nothing wrong in this, provided gifts and hospitality are declared. But this assumes that what is declared cannot be considered, under the 2010 Bribery Act, a “financial or other advantage” offered or accepted to secure “improper performance”. Transparency is not enough.

Davis’s most extraordinary case was that of the late Irvine Sellar’s 72-storey “Paddington Pole”. This required the demolition of an Edwardian baroque sorting office and the erection of a gigantic tower, within the boundary of a conservation area and towering over Brunel’s Paddington station. Proposed in 2016, it breached every conceivable principle of good planning, but Sellar entertained Davis and apparently secured his approval for the pole Davis later described as a potential masterpiece. Sellar added seven more storeys to his plans. A public outcry led eventually to plans for the pole being withdrawn, but only to be replaced by a proposal for a bigger in volume but lower glass box. This was waved through the planning committee against all local opposition after Davis had publicly hailed it as a “game-changer”.

What is highly questionable is what happened next. Protesters pleaded for a meeting with the council but were ignored. Despite the obvious unsuitability of a vast box in a conservation area, Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, declined to intervene. That decision was followed by a similar refusal by the planning minister, Sajid Javid, who declined to give his reasons for doing so. This is most unusual for such a controversial project. The Shard, also developed by Sellar, was, in contrast, subject to a lengthy public inquiry. Protesters are trying to take Javid’s refusal to explain why he declined to intervene to the court of appeal.

British planning is a mess. It is awash with political donations and lavish lobbying as the construction industry wrestles to capitalise on the Conservatives’ “let-rip approach” to urban and rural development. Before the 2010 election, the Conservative Property Forum is recorded as donating £500,000 to the party.

The Cameron government duly dropped proposals for local appeals against development from its planning framework document. Lobbyists from the British Property Federation and others were effectively invited to rewrite the framework for themselves. The industry then donated a further million pounds to stave off higher council tax banding in response to Labour’s mansion tax.

This is hardly unique to planning. The NHS is awash in inducements to doctors to prescribe branded medicines. Arms company boards are stuffed with generals. The banks that fund private finance initiatives keep the Whitehall doors revolving. Declarations of interest by members of the House of Lords read like a lobbyists’ congregation. It clearly pays companies to lobby. The irony is that it was David Cameron who made great play of curbing this in his Lobbying Act. It was, he said, “the next big scandal waiting to happen”. Yet the only scandal was how the act was watered down, and how Cameron’s transparency register for lobbyists was lobbied to oblivion.

British lobbying is not as blatant as Washington’s infamous “Gucci Gulch”, where interest groups stuff the pockets of congressional lawmakers. Corruption in Britain is rarely through payments to individuals, and public officials seldom indulge in the log-rolling – legislators trading support for each other’s pet projects – seen in American politics. But the risk of bias and partiality exist in parts of the public sector. Of these, property planning, where huge sums of money can be involved, is the most obvious.

Everywhere money is at stake, those regulating it will be open to temptation. That is why oversight is crucial. But oversight of British local government is currently on a par with a banana republic. The Standards Board for England was abolished in the course of Cameron’s “quango cull” in 2012. It supposedly monitored the ethical performance of officers and councillors in local government. It was criticised as cumbersome, meddlesome and bureaucratically intrusive. Few mourned the board’s passing. Each local council was then expected to make its own arrangements.

The minister at the time said there was a need “for a light touch”. Westminster council took him at his word. It might have been a good idea to see the Standards Board go, but it should have been replaced with something. Even the most ardent localist cannot expect councils to float free of any oversight. Millions of pounds can turn on a planning decision. Anyone who knows these local controversies will attest that many stink to high heaven.

Davis has denied any wrongdoing and nobly referred himself to Westminster’s own “monitoring officer”. It is hard to see how this meets any plausible test of independence. Much now rests on the shoulders of this officer, as it does on the judges reviewing the Sellar glass box decision. The Paddington horizon will be their memorial. Everyone is now on trial, not least local democracy.”