Thursday, 28 November 2013

Concerns about due process continue in East Devon...

Following on from concerns expressed about Probity in Planning
Futures Forum: Concerns about transparency continue in East Devon...
and concerns about due process in general at local government level
Futures Forum: "Mounting risks for corruption in UK local government"
Futures Forum: "Mounting risks for corruption in UK local government" ...further developments
there are further worries about restrictions on public speaking being proposed:

Councillor concerned at changes to East Devon District Council question requirements

By Exeter Express and Echo  |  Posted: November 27, 2013
A LEADING district councillor has questioned why East Devon District Council officers amended a recommendation agreed upon by councillors regarding public speaking at committees.
Currently, there is no requirement for any question at the committees to be in writing, nor is the subject of the question restricted.
However in October after a discussion on public speaking, councillors on the Standards Committee made the recommendation that “where possible” questions not related to a topic listed on the agenda, should be submitted in writing two days before.
A supplementary question is then permitted.
However on the agenda for this month’s cabinet meeting the words “where possible” had been omitted. A note on the agenda stated that council officers had made this “more detailed” recommendation to allow members preparation time. They added that this should in turn be of greater benefit to the public as responses given will be “well considered and researched”.
The recommendation means that all questions not related specifically to agendas will have to be submitted in writing two clear working days in advance.
Councillor Claire Wright, Independent ward member for Ottery St Mary, claims the new rule means the committee chairman would be able to “avoid” answering questions.
“This new rule of course would conveniently avoid any embarrassing questions that committee chairmen would rather not answer,” she said.
“I was baffled and angry when I read the cabinet papers and discovered that the recommendations agreed by the Standards Committee in October relating to public speaking rights, were been subtly altered and mean considerable restrictions in public speaking at committees.
“How is it, that clear recommendations agreed by a committee can be overturned and subtly changed, but with significant detrimental implications for democracy?”
The recommendations do not include the Development Management Committee, which is due to debate new speaking arrangements for its committee next month.
Cabinet members were due to agree the recommendations on public speaking at their meeting on Wednesday, November 27.


  • Profile image for JennieB108
    JennieB108  |  November 27 2013, 9:41PM
    At a time when the integrity of those in public office is so frequently being called into question, it beggars belief that this sort of proposal is put forward, as it can only contribute to further mistrust. In my view, there can be no other motivation than to restrict the public's right to ask those uncomfortable and difficult questions to ensure that honesty is maintained and dishonesty is exposed. Well done Claire, for exposing the underhand tactics being employed at EDDC.

Councillor concerned at changes to East Devon District Council question requirements | Exeter Express and Echo

Tory cabinet rubber-stamps public speaking restriction

The all conservative EDDC Cabinet rubber-stamped recommendations this evening, that are set to restrict public speaking at committee meetings. The recommendations, originally agreed after several long discussions at the Standards Committee, were presented to tonight’s cabinet, with one recommendation subtly changed.
If approved by full Council, the change will mean that any member of the public wishing to ask a question or make a point about an issue not on the agenda of any committee meeting, will have to give their question in writing two days in advance.
The Standards Committee agreed proposals referenced giving questions in writing in advance but qualified the proposal with “where possible”, which allowed flexibility.
Unfortunately, at tonight’s Cabinet, many of the senior conservatives attempted to promote this obvious restriction instead, as a move that would benefit the public.
Several suggested that residents would get a better service and answers to their questions and it would avoid committee chairman not knowing the answers. But others were more honest and revealed that it was actually more about avoiding chairmen being taken by surprise and faced with a question that caught them out.
Here’s what happened:
A senior officer presented the paper, briefly and alluded to the changed recommendation, saying it was as a result of conversations after the last standards committee meeting.
Then Cllr Ray Bloxham gave his view. He said the altered recommendation related to questions being asked “off the cuff” at meetings and that it was much better to have a valid or detailed answer at the meeting. He insisted that it wasn’t about trying to restrict public speaking, in fact the opposite was true.
I then set out my concerns re how the standards committee had discussed the issue three times and all were agreed on the recommendations… and now at the last minute they were proposed to be overturned. I said that this had implications for democracy at EDDC and asked how could it be justified. I said the change was a restriction and could not be described otherwise. I asked who had put the proposals forward. A senior officer replied that it was her. I asked whether the proposals were an officer only decision.  The reply was that officers had discussed the issue at their senior management team meeting and it was also discussed at the cabinet briefing….(a behind closed doors meeting of senior councillors and officers).
Another senior officer said that he supported the approach and it would mean that residents would have proper answers to their questions.
Cllr David Cox said that the process of “trying to trip people up” needed to end.
Cllr Bloxham tried another tack. He said that the recommendation had already been debated at cabinet and the principle of submitting questions in advance was already supported by the standards committee. This was a misleading remark because the standards committee recommendation contained the flexibility so that residents had the choice of whether to submit questions in advance.
Cllr Roger Giles said he would be “pretty peed off” if he were the standards committee chairman. He asked what was the point of the standards committee debating the proposals,  if the cabinet overturned them. He said that he thought councillors and officers should be able to handle unexpected questions and said it was “quite wrong” that this had happened.
Cllr Ian Thomas said he thought a “mountain was being made of a mole hill” and that there was “nothing particularly devious” about the change, as it was very similar to what the standards committee had agreed.
Cllr Douglas Hull pointed out that the standards committee had debated the issue for a long time and had come to a conclusion. He said it wasn’t up to officers to “meddle” with the report.
Cllr Tom Wright agreed with the revised recommendation. He said he would want to “guard against people who put in questions without any interest in the answer.”
Cllr Diviani said that as one of the recipients of a left field question, he would prefer to give a proper answer.
Cllr Godbeer (chair of standards committee), said that there had been a “full, honest and fine debate” on the subject. He confirmed that there had been an “absolute consensus” on the way forward and that there was agreement that there should not be any restriction on the ability for members of the public to have their say, the issue was how to manage it. How to “field a googly” was part of that he added, and how to avoid providing a “facile or glib answer.”  Cllr Godbeer confirmed that he had taken part of the discussions that followed the last standards committee meeting. He added that in the interests of probity he thought that the report should not be presented in this way, but in the form of an amendment by a councillor.
Cllr Moulding said that they were only recommendations and would have to be agreed by full council.
Cllr Ray Bloxham continued his attempt to convince people that proposals were all virtually agreed by standards committee anyway. “I don’t understand the hoohah,” he added.
Finally, a senior officer said that the cabinet recommendation would have to go back to the standards committee before it went to full council.
The cabinet then voted in favour of the proposals.


1. At 01:04 am on 28th Nov Conrad Black wrote:
So, the senior officer admitted that the cabinet had attempted to change the conclusions of the standards committee without due and lawful authority, by compelling them to go back to the standards committee for authority.
In other words, the cabinet does not have the lawful authority to change the conclusions of other committees - it must ‘bend the knee’ to the committee and subserviently ask it to reconsider.  And the committee is not bound by any law to accept the request. 
Officers will need to be very careful indeed to make sure that their ‘suggestions’ comply with regulation (the subject of footpaths might become rather painful).  It might make councillors and officers lives much simpler if they can plan how to fob off unpleasant questions ahead of time?  What if in return for giving a written question they undertook to give a full and complete response in writing at the commencement of the meeting so that a follow-up question could be appropriate and measured.  This, of course, would be in addition to allowing for any question on the day.  Sounds a bit like Parliament.
Still, the standards committee might like to inquire as to exactly what steps the EDDC are forcibly implementing to increase the ‘promised’ free flow of information to the public in the light of the fact that they are being ‘told’ to change the minutes of their own meeting.  Maybe the committee chair-person and members require similar training to those on planning committees to help them understand their roles and responsibilities?  Although, to be scrupulous, despite the assurance of the auditors, it appears that training is not entirely successful at the EDDC.
Be assured, the Telegraph is not going to let go either.
Claire Wright - Your Independent East Devon District Councillor for Ottery Rural
Another nail in the coffin of democracy in East Devon: officers and Cabinet rule | Sidmouth Independent News

No comments: