Monday 5 December 2011

Declarations of Interest

Once again Caebrwyn has gone where probably no member of the public has gone before; this time to inspect the register of members' interests deep in the bowels of County Hall in Carmarthen (see The Sacred Parchments). What the registers contain is a very dull litany of school governorships, free cups of tea and quite a lot of freebie tickets to see the Scarlets.

But declarations of interest and allegations of conflict of interest are the stuff of most councillors' nightmares. The rules are arcane, and we have seen them being used on several recent occasions in Ceredigion as weapons to silence individual councillors and destroy their reputations. On at least one of those occasions, a councillor who was elected on a platform opposed to a supermarket planning application found himself before a tribunal for what in reality was a purely technical breach of the rules. The case sent shockwaves through Ceredigion and neighbouring authorities and increased paranoia among councillors.

Contrary to popular belief, most councillors are not on the make and busy lining their own pockets or those of their friends. In what passes for local democracy, the sad truth is that the vast majority of councillors in councils like Carmarthenshire have very little say in what goes on.

It is therefore very much in the interest of councillors that their registers of interests should be open and easily available for inspection by the public. By law, of course, the registers have to be made available to anyone wishing to inspect them, and increasingly local authorities are publishing them online. In Carmarthenshire, which says in the preamble to its constitution that its aims include increasing transparency, the documents are kept under lock and key, and as Caebrwyn discovered, anyone wishing to look at them has first to make an appointment and then submit themselves to close surveillance while they examine the documents.

Attempts to persuade the county council to move with the times, or even just provide extracts from the registers for people who do not want to undertake long journeys and spend half a day looking at a couple of A4 pages of data, have so far all failed, with council officers trotting out their usual mantra that the council is under no obligation to publish the data. So much for transparency.

The problem is that in its intransigence the council is simply fuelling popular mistrust of elected councillors. But then, if you are an officer in an officer-led council, that may not be such a bad thing.

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