17 February 2007

I'm No Geek

Thursday's business - an informal meeting of the Constitutional Working Group to discuss 'The Constitution' followed by a meeting of Planning 'C'.

Constitutional Working Group
Lewisham's constitution sets out how we 'do business' in the Council. Following the elections in May there's been a need to refresh some of the Council's procedures to reflect the new political balance and priorities. Amongst other issues, the parties are discussing:

Members' Questions - these are questions put to the Executive for written response prior to the full Council meeting. At the meeting members have the opportunity to follow the written response with one supplementary. As such for Councillors this is a good opportunity to obtain a formal record of policy, fact or other relevant information. Further the opportunity for a supplementary question ensures that the Mayor or Cabinet Members cannot get away with a vague answer. However with 50+ Councillors and typically 60+ questions (this number has increased dramatically on account of their being so many more opposition Councillors so this is no bad thing!) appearing at the end of a packed Council agenda on more than one occasion Members' Questions have literally dropped off the agenda. Options are being considered but the one that looks most likely to have support across the Council means setting aside a specific period during the meeting for Members' Questions and highlighting a set number of questions in advance of the meeting that will be followed up with supplementaries...watch this space.

Amendments to Motions - Once upon a time Lewisham Council has a Labour majority. Any motions would be carried or fall on the say so of the Labour Whip. A similar fate applied to any amendments. In May 2006 Labour lost its majority in the Chamber. Motions were passed despite the Labour Whip. However there was also another change...the importance of the 'amendment' to a motion. Given that no one group in the Chamber has a majority in some instances the Party Groups need to build alliances/consensus around issues & motions. A way of doing this is by finding common ground around a motion and amending it. We had got into a silly way of working whereby carefully considered motions were frequently amended on the hoof. However I wanted to see a more considered approach and proposed via the Constitutional Working Group a deadline for amendments to motions. The principle has been accepted and we're working on the details. The End (soon).

Planning C
I arrived late at Planning C on account of the above meeting running 10 minutes late!

Arriving late means, quite reasonably, that I rule myself out of voting on the item being discussed...however soon after entering the room I realised that there was a good possibilty of my having a 'prejudicial interest' in the item being declared. I declared this straight away and left the room...returning for a report on the 'Appeals' and the agreement of the minutes....how can it be that I didn't leave the meeting therefore until 21:30ish?

Quite simply there was an long....discussion about the minutes of the 09/11/06 & 04/01/07 meeting...why?

The planning issue was 'The Green Man'...the application for a housing development considered on 09/11/06 was rejected by that Committee (see minutes of 09/11/06 meeting for the reasons). However the particular application is only relevant iin certain ways. Cllr Hall, a member of that committee, was absent from that part of the meeting. The discussion tonight was essentially about two things (a) had Cllr Hall told anyone that he wasn't going to be involved in that discussion and (b) if he was going to absent himself, why? (In technical terms had Cllr Hall declared the existence and nature of his interest in item 5 of the agenda.) Given that Cllr Hall left the room during this item it was assumed that whatever interest he had he considered it to be 'prejudicial'). However, please do rememder that Cllr Hall did leave the room and in no way sought to influence the decision one way or another.

Is this important? Well yes it is. For starters the Members' Code (this is the Code of Conduct that we all sign up when elected) says it is! In addition there is a body of case law built up by the Standards Board for England on these very issues. The introduction of 'Standards'/'Code of Conduct' raises the stakes somewhat. Matters are getting even more serious.

At the January meeting there was a discussion about the minutes of the November meeting. Cllr Hall was there but despite being given the opportunity did not give a full explanation of his interest in 'Item 5' - however please do not forget that at the November meeting Cllr Hall had quite properly absented himself from the meeting. Hmmm....what do we do. The Committee decided that it needed more time to consider the minutes and refused to sign them off...

...15 February 2007. The minutes come back...

...A set of clumsy minutes is proposed. They are brief but further fail to express the sentiment of what was discussed. Cllr Flood proposed a partial (by which I mean there was some detail mising rather than biased) record of events. However members ultimately agreed that my brief version of events was appropriate:

"Cllr Hall was requested to restate the nature and existence of his interest in Item 5 of the 9 November 2006 meeting. He did not."

So there you have it...a planning meeting dominated by considering the nature of personal & prejudicial interests.

I'm no geek!



Andrew said...

I'm pleased to hear that Members Questions are being thought about. I was always happy to be held accountable for the issues that were in my brief, but more often than not didn't feel the questions that were being asked were designed to solicit that sort of political accountability. So changes to the structure that develop that would I'd imagine be helpful to the whole council.

On the point you make about the authority of the Labour Whip, can I make it clear to your readers that every motion to council is debated in Labour Group and it is the Labour councillors as a whole who decide their line on any given motion, not just the leadership. A small distinction but an important one.

Cllr Dean Walton said...


Thanks for your comments. I've re-read my original post and realise that technically I've been a bit sloppy. By 'Labour Whip' I intended to refer to the Labour Group operating en masse with dissent being vigorously discouraged. However I think it is useful to point out that we are far more willing to accept dissent within our Group. The important principle for us is that when we as individuals choose to deviate from the 'Party Line' we must make it clear what the 'Party Line' is.

Andrew Brown said...

Dean, I didn't think you were being malicious, just that it would have been easy for a reader to misunderstand.

Whether the operating method your party uses would be adaptable to mine is an interesting thought. Equally, I wonder where your party has a share of power whether the loose arrangements you describe survive as easily as they clearly do in Lewisham.

Cllr Dean Walton said...

The Green Party holds the balance of power, is part of a ruling coalition or otherwise holds a 'cabinet' position on a number of Councils, including Castle Morpeth B.C., Islington L.B.C., Lancaster City Council, Leeds City Council, Malvern Hills D.C., Norwich City Council and Oxford City Council. These loose arrangements appear to have served those people well.

However it would be foolish of me not to recognise that when holding a balance of power there would be more earnest debate within our group if a member was thinking of voting against the Group position. As I am sure you are aware, the arithmetic on Lewisham Council now means that any party that chooses to vote with Labour wins the vote; Labour can only generally be defeated if the opposition votes together or sufficient Labours abstain.

Finally it is my feeling that as a Party we are less tribal than other parties...indeed the issue of group discipline seems to be more of a concern for others than it does for us!