Friday 15 July 2011

Killing Democracy the Constitutional Way

I had planned to write about something other than Carmarthenshire County Council today, but it seems that hardly a day goes by just lately without something happening which shows just how authoritarian and undemocratic our council has become.

While the farce over filming continues, the Carmarthen Journal reported how Councillor Siân Caiach had suffered another setback in her attempts to get a debate on the closure of day clubs for the elderly. A motion to debate the matter and reconsider the policy being pursued by the council was rejected by the chief executive, Mark James, on the grounds that this area of policy comes under the remit of the Executive Board, as set out in the county's constitution.

Time to take a deep breath and examine the constitution therefore.

You can find the constitution on the website under the heading Councils Constitution (yes, they don't know how to use apostrophes). We are told that the council has adopted a new constitution, although as none of the documents is dated, it is not possible to determine when this came into force, to find out how it differs from the old one or why the council decided it need to change the rule book. It is also clear, as I shall explain below, that tinkering with the rules is still going on.

The constitution itself is set out in a very long list of bulky documents, and the language used is a schizophrenic mix of the folksy (e.g. What's in the Constitution?) and pure, hereinafter legalese. It is also liberally sprayed with lots of nice warm words, such as accountable, transparent, democratic.

Fortunately, the council has made the critic's job slightly easier by using a pdf format, so that words can be searched. Searches for filming, recording, photography return nothing. On the other hand, search for chief executive and you get an avalanche.

As you work your way through, a pattern emerges. Rights of councillors and the public are described in clear terms, only to be qualified, restricted or made irrelevant by provisions elsewhere.

Let's take a couple of examples.

Members of the public who live in the county or own a business there may submit questions to the chief executive in writing no later than 7 days before a meeting of the full council. But you have to name the member of the council to whom the question is to be put. 99.9% of people in the county will not know who is responsible for what on the council, and unless they understand the labyrinthine structure of the council, their question will be invalid.

If your question has surmounted those hurdles, the chief executive then decides whether the question is to be allowed. He may determine that he thinks the question is frivolous or offensive, is subject to his interpretation of "exempt" information or whether it is substantially the same as a question which has been put to "a council meeting within the last six months". A council meeting is a very broad term. During the course of six months, there will have been many meetings, and the questioner has to be familiar with all questions asked at all meetings to get round this one.

Then, you may ask only one question. If you wanted to ask, for example, Is the council providing funding to third sector bodies which have taken over the running of day clubs? If so, how much? And will the funding continue next year, you would be asking three questions. Go back to Square One.

But even if your question does make it all the way, what are the chances that it will get a straight answer?

Now let's look at Siân Caiaich's little difficulty.

Councillors may submit motions, in writing, within certain time limits, etc., etc. to the (you've guessed it) chief executive, who then checks to ensure that all the rules have been followed. He must then confer with the chair of the council to decide whether the motion needs to be considered by the full council, or whether it should be sent instead to one of the committees or the Executive Board.

In plain language, this means that the chief executive can have a chat with the chair and simply remove the ball from the football pitch before play has started.

In the case of the day club motion, it is not clear whether this procedure was followed because the chair, Ivor Jackson, told the Carmarthen Journal, that the decision had been made by the chief executive and head of law and administration. "Nothing to do with me, guv", he wept as he peeled an onion.

Now, if Cllr Jackson as chair was not consulted, the chief executive has exceeded his powers and is in breach of the constitution.

But before he loses any sleep, there are plenty more get out of jail clauses to help him refuse a debate. Let's turn to Section 3. Here, under Functions of the Executive Board you will find among the (many, many) powers delegated to the chief executive:

Strategic issues in relation to the provision of adult services
Commissioning for Social Services

All client care services in residential settings (including
accommodation services)

Meals on wheels

So it's game, set and match. These are just a few of the swathes of policy which have been delegated by the Executive Board to the (unelected) chief executive and may therefore not be debated by councillors, unless he is in a good mood.

Although that still leaves the question as to why, at the most recent meeting of the full council, councillors were invited to consider the council's annual report on Social Care and to debate it. Surely, under the constitution, it has nothing to do with them?

Finally, if this was not depressing enough, the tireless work of improving the constitution and making the council more "transparent" continues. The most recent change has been a decision to end the right of councillors to call for recorded votes in committees. A recorded vote means that the names of the councillors and how they voted are put on record, so that we, the people who elect them, can see how they voted on a particular issue.

In reality, there are not many recorded votes at any level of the council, but let's imagine that there was a highly contentious planning application and that the planning committee was split. It has been known to happen. No longer will you know which way the various members voted unless you attended the meeting in person. But, of course, the layout of the chamber means that councillors who sit at the back of the chamber cannot be seen by the public.....

If you have got this far and know about the constitutions of other councils, it would be interesting to hear how we compare.


Photon said...

Brilliant writing and analysis. All I can say is that, even on Commissioner take-over Anglesey Council, things are not this bad.

Maybe Carmarthenshire should try Commissioners, too? Just ask Carl Sargeant - he might help you out.

Anonymous said...

Have to agree with Photon, reading this blog has really opened my eyes regarding the bewildered undemocratic nation of Meryl Gravel's platoon. But let's be honest, Carl Sargeant repremanding a Labour/Independent council? not going to happen,party political loyalties.