Friday 7 October 2011

Tweaking the Rules - Subversive Questions

This blog has looked at the schizophrenic document which is Carmarthenshire County Council's constitution before, and Caebrwyn's blog, which is going from strength to strength at the moment, has prompted me to wonder how many changes there have been to the constitution in recent years. This involves ploughing through a small mountain of documents and trying to guess from some of the jargon-ridden headings whether a rule change is lurking beneath.

This will take some time, but as I have already discovered, there is a constant drip, drip of rule changes, and some are so extraordinarily petty and mean-spirited that it is worth looking at them in isolation.

In January 2006 the Executive Board considered (in other words, approved) a great raft of changes to its constitution, then not quite two years old. One of the changes came about because a Mr H Hayfield had exercised his right as a citizen to ask the council a question. The question he asked was,

"What cross Council initiatives are being planned to ensure that Carmarthenshire residents (and those visitors to Carmarthenshire) are able to access healthy, local and sustainable food sources?"

This obviously subversive and impertinent question sent shockwaves through County Hall, and the chief executive decided that the constitution would have to be changed to prevent this sort of thing from happening again. Mr Hayfield, it turned out, did not live in Carmarthenshire; neither did he own a business here, nor was he an employee of the council.

So the rules were changed to ensure that people who are neither residents, business owners nor employees may ask questions ever again.  If you live in a neighbouring county and work in Carmarthenshire, you do not have a right to ask a question. If you are a visitor who pays to use council facilities, such as the leisure centres and car parks, you have no right to ask a question.

Typically, the Council papers which discuss this rule change do not talk about rights, but convey the impression that asking a question of your local authority is a privilege.

"Will the woman in the red jumper please sit down!"
How many people who did not fall into these categories had asked questions before? We do not know, but considering that it is incredibly rare for any member of the public ever to exercise their right to ask the council a question, the true answer is most likely never.

As we all know, there is widespread apathy and indifference to what local government is doing among the electorate as a whole, and many people will, probably rightly, take the cynical view that even if they ask a question, they are unlikely to receive a straight answer from Carmarthenshire's Executive Board.

But the Council does not make it easy for the public to ask questions. First, you have to have read the Constitution to be aware of your right. That probably reduces the number of potential questioners down to less than 0.01% of the population.

Then, assuming that you are eligible to ask a question, you have to submit your question in writing no less than 7 working days before an ordinary meeting of the Full Council. Next, you have to name the member of the Executive Board you wish to answer the question. Again, the number of people in Carmarthenshire who could tell you correctly who would be responsible for answering, e.g. Mr Hayfield's question, is vanishingly small.

Assuming you have done all that, the chief executive will then have to decide whether your question is allowable. If it is not frivolous or defamatory; if it requires the disclosure of exempt (i.e. secret) information, such as proposals for the closure of public lavatories; or if it is, in the chief executive's view, substantially the same as any question which has been asked at any meeting of the full Council at any time in the preceding six months.

Any statisticians will probably have calculated by now that the cost of your postage stamp would be better spent on a lottery ticket.

But just supposing that your question ticks all the boxes, the chief executive has one more trump card up his sleeve, as councillors have seen on a number of occasions recently. If you wished to ask a question about, say, care of the elderly, you could well find that your question is inadmissible because it relates to a policy area which has been delegated to the council's officers.

We are now into the realms of scooping the Euromillions jackpot without actually buying a ticket.


Mrs Angry said...

This all sounds horribly familiar. It is very interesting that while Eric Pickles makes so much noise about localism, and extending the powers communities to demand greater accountability and transparency from their local authorities, many of the authorities, especially the Tory ones over here, are doing everything they can to move in the opposite direction. The truth is that the involvement of the private sector in local government is now too strong and too lucrative to allow closer scrutiny or better engagement with local residents.

Anonymous said...

Surely this is a process by which dictatorships emerge. Already, Carmarthenshire's councillors do not seem to have an active role in local government, and what is more, many appear to accept this as the natural state of affairs.