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Friday, 24 October 2014

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Scrutiny boss: why I quit Labour group

I RESIGNED from the Labour group because, as you may have read in The Whitehaven News last week, I was not prepared to allow the integrity of my committee to be compromised by party politics.

Bearing in mind the committee’s agreed independent nature and the fact that the recommendation was supported by its members, both Labour and Tory, it should have been accepted by the full council at its meeting last week. No question.

I said then and I say again that I was not prepared to stand either political interference or the intimidation which I maintain I was subjected to by the Labour group prior to the council meeting.

Everything I have done is in accordance with the constitution. I firmly believe that if Copeland Council truly wishes to change then it must move towards a decision-making process more openly involving all 51 members, whatever their political persuasion. This, in effect, is cross-party working. It appears from the sorry events of the last two weeks that the Labour group has no real desire for change. Failure to recognise the independence of an important committee and thereby refusing the power to question tells its own story, a shabby chapter in Copeland’s recent history.

The government in 2000, when changing the way councils could make their decisions, realised that giving all the power to a small number of people (at Copeland the eight members of the Executive) needed to have a check and balance through Overview and Scrutiny. It believed that strong government needs to be matched by strong transparency and accountability through the scrutiny process.

Good scrutiny means good government – for those who exercise executive power, and spend public money, should expect to be held to account for what they do.

And of course they are, in a whole variety of ways and by all sorts of people, from auditors to electors. But they also need the sort of continuing scrutiny that comes from ‘critical friends’, especially if those ‘friends’ are representing the users of the services that are being provided.

Scrutiny can review any issue that affects local people and can call Executive members, council officers and representatives from other agencies to attend meetings and provide information.

Scrutiny can come to life when an Executive member is questioned about a planned decision. Local councillors are constantly being asked to decide between equally legitimate points of view; holding the balance between different opinions and trying to act in the wider interests of the whole borough. The scrutiny process helps to find that balance by giving councillors the framework for asking the difficult questions.

And wouldn’t it be great if the questions came not from members of the committee but from a room full of members of the public from across the borough?

When it works well, scrutiny can and should play an important role in raising the quality of debate, improving decisions, teasing out complex issues, engaging the local community and key stakeholders and strengthening accountability.

The work of the scrutiny committees must be allowed to make a difference to the lives of local residents. Drawing on experience and expertise from outside the council and involving local communities and stakeholders is crucial. This should mean allowing members of the local community to sit on committees to ensure that scrutiny reflects the wishes of that community as far as possible.

Scrutiny committees should be allowed an ‘independent’ view and to work effectively must be non-party political. They must be seen to have ‘clean hands’ on a controversial issue and be in a better position to take a step back from the heat of debate in considering it.

Increasingly this is seen across the country as allowing the chairs of the scrutiny committees to come from the opposition group. This strengthens the idea of independence and that the work of the committee is truly cross-party. The current arrangement of the ruling group at Copeland to have more seats on the committee as well as chairing it seems to me to be overkill and breaks the legitimacy of the process.

The administration should not be seen to be in control of scrutiny, which should be completely independent.

I am sad that at Copeland Council the scrutiny committees are seen but not heard, not allowed to be a full check and balance or to offer any real challenge.

All I want to do, as the Labour government wants, is to have a proper Overview and Scrutiny process at the council. Why doesn’t the Labour group want this?

President Clinton often said that “the future can be better than the past, and each individual has a personal, moral obligation to make it so”.

Everyone in Copeland should be allowed the opportunity to make the council better – because at the moment it needs all the help it can get.

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