Sunday 13 July 2014

Diminishing democracy in Brent - an update

At the time of the local elections the Brent Green Party called for an independent investigation into the following issues in Brent Council:

1. Corporate Management Team officers being paid through their private companies rather than normal pay roll
2. The contractual arrangements for CMT officers and interim appointments
3. Previous employment and business connections between senior offices appointed by Brent Council on an interim basis
4. The working culture of the Human Resources department 
5. Brent Council's Whistle Blowing Policy to ensure that it adequately protects whistle-blowers from harassment and retribution

To which a reader added:
6. Instances of council policies, procedures, standing orders, scheme of delegation etc being circumvented.

Secondly, there is the important issue of the appointment of Chief Executive.  Christine Gilbert's acting role was extended by the Brent Executive  until after the local elections on the recommendation of Fiona Ledden, Head of Legal and Procurement. The report stated:
The recruitment process for a new permanent  Chief Executive should be delayed because the current recruitment process for  three other CEs in London boroughs would limit the quality of candidates, to allow the restructuring of council senior management to go ahead smoothly, and  to ensure continuity and reputation management over the move to the Civic Centre and the 2014 local elections.
No independent investigation has been launched by the new Labour administration and no open recruitment process has started for a permanent Chief Executive.

Points 3 and 4 were linked by allegations that Brent staff were being subject to spurious disciplinary procedures  in order to move them out to make room for previous colleagues of senior officers who had worked with them at Ofsted and Tower Hamlets.

Cara Davani, head of Human Resources and originally employed as a consultant at £700 per day LINK. Davani has recently returned from maternity leave after giving birth to twins. Despite the many comments on this blog from Brent Council workers about the working culture of Brent HR, it appears that regional union officials have vetoed any action.

Meanwhile I understand that a move against a senior member of the Internal Audit & Investigations team (which investigated Davani's misuse of the Oyster card) met with resistance and was only partially successful.

Readers will remember that Fiona Ledden unsuccessfully attempted to stop Wembley Matters publishing details of this investigation LINK

Commentators have been puzzled by the failure of Muhammed Butt, leader of Brent Council to make a move on this issue. Insiders suggest that he is a prisoner of the Corporate Management Team because, in the words of a quote from an internal email CMT exchange,  'Mo owes us one'.

The 'owe' goes back to Muhammed Butt's move against former Chief Executive Gareth Daniel when initially three members of the Corporate Management Team wrote in Daniel's support. Details remain murky but a possible successor, Clive Heaphy, was suspended for alleged gross misconduct  just before Christine Gilbert was appointed as acting Chief Executive with her salary paid into her private company. The allegation against Clive Heaphy was then withdrawn and he left the Council of his own volition.

The complaint lodged by Nan Tewari with Eric Pickles by about the fraud investigation has still not received a response. LINK

So no action on our demands, but more was to follow after the election landslide victory for Labour.

Constitutional changes were rushed through which replaced the Executive with a smaller Cabinet, the Overview and Scrutiny Committees reduced to one 'super-scrutiny committee' LINK , and restrictions on questions to lead members by the oppostion. The public were to be given a tightly controlled right (controlled by Fiona Ledden)  to speak at meetings of Full Council.

Barry Gardiner MP warned about the dangers posed by a large majority saying LINK:
It is a huge responsibility because a majority this big for any party means that we have to look within ourselves for the sort of scrutiny that we need of the policies that we ourselves are proposing.
All of these people got elected because they managed to persuade voters they wanted to represent them in the civic centre on the council. They must remember their job is to represent the people to the bureaucratic (sic) of the council and not to represent the council bureaucrats to the people.
Forrmer Labour Councilllor, James Powney wrote LINK:
Indeed it (single Scrutiny Committee) might have been specifically designed to do away with meaningful scrutiny altogether. At a time when barriers to corruption in local government are being systematically dismantled, and lower resources put a premium on good quality decision making, this is exactly the opposite of what should be done.
Cllr Butt argued that a single committee meeting more frequently,  with specific task groups, would enhance accountability.

No  meeting of the new Scrutiny Committee was scheduled for June and the meeting due on July 7th was cancelled. As far as I know there has been no Scrutiny since the  May election despite the Committee being due to meet 10 times a year.

The Council has published the brief for the new Committee on its website: LINK

Cllr Butt promised at the first  Full Council to meet with  Suresh Kasangra, Conservative Official opposition Leader, about the restrictions on questions, but no such meeting has taken place. The restrictive changes, adopted by a Labour majority, will be in place for the next Full Council.

There were rumours last month that a Labour councillor may resign the whip because of the constitutional changes but these appear to have been unfounded.

Aside from the constitutional changes within the Council there were also proposals for changing the constitution of Brent Labour Party so that leadership elections would take place every four years, rather than annually at the Annual General Meeting. Reliable sources said that Muhammed Butt had said that he could not operate effectively if he was always looking over his shoulder for a challenger.

This was a step too far for many party members and the proposal was dropped. However, according to James Powney LINK the Labour Group are coming back with a modified proposal:
The Group is again returning with a slightly modified version of the plan in a few days.  The renewed proposal is once again to abolish annual elections for the Leader.  There is a safeguard, which I understand was incorporated after the Regional Director objected to the earlier version, that a third of Labour Councillors can trigger an election by writing to the Secretary.  That still seems a fairly high threshold.  The proposed change also stipulates that their identity remain anonymous, which I take it is intended as a safeguard against them being threatened or intimidated by anyone who does not want an election.  I must say I don't have much confidence in that safeguard as my experience of how Groups work is that the names of people quickly leak out.
So overall things are not looking good and with one lone, inexperienced Lib Dem councillor, and the six Tories split into two groups, there is a real danger of local democracy and accountability diminishing further.

In another change, which drew little attention, the Cabinet will now meet during the day on alternate months. The next meeting is at 2pm on Monday July 21st. This will mean working residents will be unable to attend to address issues of concern or to see democracy in action.


Anonymous said...

Lets see if Councillor Marquis can pull Brent Labour into line this week with some tough questions over Kensal Rise Library.

She pulled some punches on the last planning committee meeting, but needs to gain the full respect of the electorate, by continuing with her questioning.

A good start would be digging deeper into the listing of Kensal Rise Library as an Asset of Community Value.

This would also be highly relevant to the Queensbury.

The question for Councillor Marquis to consider is "Does she value upholding legislation and or clarification of legislation such as ACV and the loss of D1 without an equivalent replacement or does she value the expedient rubber stamping of a hot potato, that might come back to bite her in a professional capacity ?"

She might gain the respect of the electorate and a growing faction of her party that is dissolution with the power of both top Brent Labour and Brent Civil Servants.

She has the power this week to break the power stranglehold, by asking the very tough questions over KRL. It might make or break an aspiration for leadership.

Anonymous said...

I agree entirely with the sentiments here. ('Dissolution' should be 'disillusioned' in in para 6 and rubber stamping a biting hot potato doesn't help the argument. I'm not nit-picking, just trying to eliminate distractions).

Anonymous said...

This doesn't look good for either Brent Council or Brent Labour. Thanks to Martin for an excellent blog.

Anonymous said...

It is a very sad day for social justice when FKRL decided to jump in with the developer.

Developers should not wield such power over the community when public services can only be agreed and provided by the so called generosity of a developer.

It is complete madness society has gone this way.