Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Pus is squeezed from Brent's democratic deficit boil

Democracy, or the lack of it, featured strongly at Monday's council meeting. At the beginning of the meeting Keirra Box,  who hit the local and national headlines by pursuing missing Lib Dem councillor Rev David Clues down to his home of six months in Brighton with a pile of e-mails and letters from constituents that he had not answered, turned up to take his seat in the council chamber. The argument was simple - someone had to represent the residents.  When she questioned Paul Lorber, Lib Dem leader, after the meeting about when Clues would resign  he accused her of 'writing disgusting articles in the press' rather that recognising she was an angry disenfranchised resident.

Earlier Cllr  Lorber had attacked the Labour group for their failure to ensure proportionate representation on committees (membership being allocated according to each party's proportion of council seats) and also for the Council Leader's power to decide which opposition councillor to put on some committees.

On Monday the Labour voted for statutory members of the Brent Health and Wellbeing Board to consist of:
Five elected councillors, with voting rights, to be nominated by the Leader of the Council. Four councillors will be Executive members from the majority party. The fifth member will be from a opposition party. 
I am sympathetic with Lorber's criticism. This not only gives Labour a huge majority but excludes non Executive Labour councillors AND enables the Council Leader to nominate the opposition councillor. Similar issues occur with the Brent Housing Partnership, Brent Council's rather less than arm's length social housing provider.

All councillors need to be involved in policy making and there are some positive precedents for joint work on drugs, gangs, prostitution, domestic violence and female genital mutilation. Surely democratic principles should recognise that the ruling party or the Executive is not the source of all wisdom and that other members have much to contribute?

Substantial inbuilt majorities on committees where the real decisions have been made behind closed doors in the ruling group's pre-meetings means that real debate takes place outside the public arena and that the committees function as rubber stamping machines. Opposition members are powerless and backbench Labour  members do their lobbying in private.

There have been some changes at the Brent Connects local forum level (but only in some areas of Brent) which through Any Questions? style panels have brought about some more debate and today at the Brent Governors' Conference Cllr Pavey had a refreshingly open Q&A session with delegates, asking at one point, 'Tell me what Brent Council does badly, what are we doing wrong?'

However we need action at the Council decision making level to increase accountability and transparency and provide real participation.

Cllr Jim Moher on Monday, in putting forward a constitutional change, said that in the past Chief Executives and Senior Officers had too much power and had swept aside objections from members. However at the same time he supported the Council's decision to employ Christine Gilbert for an additional year when she had not been appointed by councillors and Muhammed Butt refused to give any information on the pay-offs to the previous Chief Executive and Finance Director. 

In addition of course Monday saw the barring of discussion on the Lib Dem's motion the issue of human rights in Palestine and Veolia's complicity in supporting illegal settlements in the occupied territories.  Veolia is in line for a 16 year £250m public realm contract in Brent - of course the motion should have been debated.

There is much that is wrong and if it is not put right many able people will decide that they can make a real contribution and create real change elsewhere and public cynicism about politics will deepen.

Monday's meeting was not a good advertisement for democracy or for local government.


No comments:

Post a Comment