Tuesday 11 October 2016

Does Councillor Butt have too much power?

Guest blog by Philip Grant
The article below was submitted as a comment on the blog about the possible delay in filling the Stronger Communities Lead Member role on Brent’s Cabinet LINK t
I am repeating it here, for comment and discussion, as part of Local Democracy Week.

In my earlier comment, I explained why I believe that Cllr. Butt is within his rights, under Brent’s Constitution, not to appoint a new Lead Member for Stronger Communities straight away, but to take on the responsibilities of that role in addition to his role as Leader. This does not mean that I believe it is the right (i.e. correct) thing for him to do. Overall, I believe that Cllr. Butt has too much power, and some of it is a result of an abuse of Brent Council’s Constitution.

That Constitution (in its own words) ‘…sets out how the Council operates, how decisions are made and the procedures which are followed to ensure that decision making is efficient, transparent and accountable to local people. Some of the procedures are required by law, while others are a matter for the Council. The Constitution is divided into 8 Parts. …. In particular, Parts 3 and 4 set out the rules governing the conduct of the Council’s business and which part of the Council is responsible for various functions.’

“Responsibility for Functions” is an important area, which should mean that there are “checks and balances” to ensure that power is shared across the Council, so that no single person or group within it has too much (to guard against that power being abused). The Constitution gives the Leader, or the Leader together with the Cabinet, considerable powers, but there are also ‘functions which cannot be exercised by the Cabinet’, ‘functions not to be the sole responsibility of the Cabinet’ and ‘functions that may only be exercised by Full Council’.

One area of particular concern is the General Purposes Committee, which ‘carries out a number of functions on which the Cabinet cannot take decisions, including public rights of way, setting the Council Tax base and approving staffing matters’.  The committee has eight members, and the Constitution used to say that at least one of these must be a member of the Executive (the previous title for the Cabinet). That proviso, which gave a very strong hint that most of the committee should be made up of back-bench councillors, has been removed, and for the past few years seven of the eight members have been Cabinet members, with the official Opposition Leader as the eighth.

Cllr. Butt is Chair of the General Purposes Committee, and of its Senior Staff Appointments Sub-Committee. This has given him considerable influence over the Council’s senior staffing structure, who is appointed to the Senior Officer posts, and the terms on which they are appointed. There are suspicions that, during the time that Christine Gilbert was interim Chief Executive and Cara Davani was HR Director, the Leader of the Council may have been complicit in some of their alleged misconduct over staffing matters.

The appointment of the Council’s Head of Paid Service (Chief Executive) is one of the functions which can only be exercised by Full Council, and not by the Cabinet or the Leader. Despite this, Cllr. Butt was able to appoint Christine Gilbert in September 2012 as ‘interim Chief Executive’, supposedly for a few months while the Council advertised for and appointed a permanent Chief Executive. In June 2013, Full Council was asked to extend Christine Gilbert’s role as interim Chief Executive – it agreed to do so, but only for a FIXED TERM which should have ended in June 2014.

The permanent post was still not advertised, and at the meeting in September 2014, Cllr. Butt extended Christine Gilbert’s tenure (eventually until September 2015) without seeking the consent of Full Council. The minutes recorded:

The Leader referred to the decision taken in June 2013 regarding the appointment of a new Chief Executive.  He stated that the external auditors were reporting back on how the Council was operating and whilst there was progress being made, stability within the Council would enable further progress to be made.  The current arrangements would therefore remain in place until a recruitment process began in the new year which would tie in with the launch of the new Borough Plan.’

Does Cllr. Butt have too much power? I would suggest that he does, and that the Council’s Constitutional Working Group, chaired by its properly appointed Chief Executive, Carolyn Downs, should consider ways to ensure that the functions of the General Purposes Committee and its sub-committees are carried out independently of the Council Leader and the Cabinet.

Philip Grant.


Anonymous said...

That this man has any power at all is shocking

Anonymous said...

I do so agree!!!

Anonymous said...

Power corrupts

Anonymous said...

But power is sooooo attractive in a man. Every time I see him I'm reminded of a banter-crazed alpha male locker-room silver back urban gorilla.
Or something.

Mike Hine

Philip Grant said...

Dear Mike,

You do know that we are talking here about Muhammed Butt, not Donald Trump, don't you?


Anonymous said...

But they're both such sad bullies that are desperate for power and an excess of ego - aren't they.

Anonymous said...

Don't think Trump is as bad as Butt

Philip Grant said...


As, at the end of my guest blog, I suggested action by Brent's Chief Executive, I have written to Carolyn Downs about it. Here is the text of my email:-

'I am writing to you as the Chair of Brent's Constitutional Working Group, and copying this to the other members of the Group who I am aware of.

I am attaching the text of a detailed comment I made on an online "blog" article, which was republished by "Wembley Matters" as an article in its own right, as a contribution to Local Democracy Week.

Although the title refers to Councillor Butt, and the article contains some historic references to his use of power, the main point which it raises concerns the functions and membership of the Council's General Purposes Committee. The role of that committee is to carry out 'a number of functions on which the Cabinet cannot take decisions'. Logic would suggest that these are functions which the law, or the Council itself, have decided should be separated from functions which the Cabinet can deal with. This would be in order to give a "separation of powers" which ensures proper "checks and balances", 'to ensure' (as Brent's Constitution states) 'that decision making is efficient, transparent and accountable to local people'.

Brent's Constitution used to say that at least one of the Committee's eight members must be a member of the Executive (now Cabinet), and this would make sense to ensure that there was some liaison between the two powerful bodies of councillors. However, in recent years the membership of the General Purposes Committee has been seven Cabinet members plus the Leader of the Opposition, and the Chair has been the Leader of the Council, who also chairs the Cabinet. The "separation of powers" has therefore been lost.

I am writing to propose, as I suggest at the end of the attached article, 'that the Council’s Constitutional Working Group, chaired by its properly appointed Chief Executive, Carolyn Downs, should consider ways to ensure that the functions of the General Purposes Committee and its sub-committees are carried out independently of the Council Leader and the Cabinet.' This is not just something which affects the present personnel, or situation on Brent Council, but a question of good governance.

The Leader and Cabinet already have considerable powers in those roles, and yet there are more than fifty other elected councillors whose knowledge and experience could contribute to the functions carried out by General Purposes Committee, if the majority of seats on that committee, and its Chair, were to be reserved under the Constitution for members who are not in the Cabinet. I believe that this would also ensure a better balance of power within the Council as a whole.

If you agree that this is a matter which the Constitutional Working Group should consider, I hope that you will invite all of Brent's councillors to contribute their views on the membership of General Purposes Committee, should they wish to do so. By restricting consideration only to members of the Group, it might be felt that most have a vested interest in keeping the status quo!'

Hopefully, some improvements to "governance" at Brent Council will come out of this.


Philip Grant said...


In the interests of openness and transparency, I am setting out the full text of the email I have received this afternoon, sent on behalf of Brent's Chief Executive in reply to my email above:-

'Dear Mr Grant

Thank you for your email. The Chief Executive notes your concerns about the constitution of the General Purposes Committee. The Chief Executive and I consider that the composition of the Committee is satisfactory from both a legal and operational perspective.

Best wishes,

Fiona Alderman
Chief Legal Officer'

Anonymous said...

Does Fiona Alderman have too much power???

Alison Hopkins said...

My apologies to Philip, I've been meaning to comment on this for a while.

Where to start. Butt most certainly does have too much power and has effectively consolidated it by means of councillors who won't challenge him and a previous chief executive who was quiescent, too. Sadly, it looks as though the new one is as reluctant to challenge as her predecessor - and the Legal department are, in my view, not carrying out either their statutory duty, or that of public service.

Some of the issues are structural. Brent moved to a Leader and Cabinet constitution, as did most other councils when it was foisted on them by Blair's Labour. That's profoundly flawed. It disenfranchises allbut the inner circle closest to the Glorious Leader. In some councils, this isn't abused, but in Brent, it most certainly is.

Decisions are made by oneor two people. Full council meetings and committee meetings are meaningledd, even for planning issues. Planning was always the one committee that was relatively independent, but recent events seem to be giving the lie to even that.

As to General Purposes, it seems pointless and serves no useful purpose, whether general or specific. At least back in the day when I was a member, dissenting voices had some hope of bein recorded and could be a useful thorn in the side. I saw Paul Lorber repeatedly challenge Butt about both the constitution, on which he was something of an expert, and on more general issues. The Labour majority meant Butt could still force things through but at least they were aired.

I'll add that one thing that horrified me was when we were discussing HR policies and the then HR Director knew less about employment law than I did.

So yes, far too much power. What's needed is a return to properly constituted committee systems which would at least allow someone to get a word in. What's also needed is an end to changes to the copnstitution being nodded through without any semblance of a vote, and then bent to suit the will of a very few. That needs both officers and councillors who are ready to make waves.

Any chance of that?

Anonymous said...

Essentially as I see it, Butt's ideal is more in line with sychophantic, self-inking rubber stamps than stronger communities.

Alan Wheatley