Thursday 11 April 2024

Abuse of Power? Complaint over party political content of a Council report – Brent’s reply and Philip Grant's response to it.



Guest post by Philip Grant in a personal capacity


Last Friday, Martin published an Open Email which I’d sent to Brent Council’s Corporate Director of Governance, complaining about a Cabinet Member Foreword included in the report illustrated above. I received a reply from that Senior Council Officer on Monday morning, and sent my response to it just before lunchtime on Wednesday. 


It may seem as though I am making a fuss over a relatively minor matter, but when those in power at our local Council seem to be abusing the power that they hold, I think it is important to point it out, and to do so publicly. If they allowed to get away with one abuse, the next one may be bigger, and so on.


If the way that “Democracy in Brent” is conducted is of interest to you, the full text of the Council’s reply to my email of 5 April, and of my response to it, are set out below.


Email from Brent Council’s Corporate Director of Governance at 9.03am on 8 April:


Dear Mr Grant


Thank you for your email.


I have looked at the section of the report to which you refer and also had a discussion with the Chief Executive.


Although, as you rightly say, it forms part of a report addressed to Cabinet signed off by an officer, the Cabinet Member Foreword in the report is separated from the main body of the report and clearly provided by the councillor and not by the officer who has signed off the report.


Leaving aside the question of whether there would otherwise be an issue in relation to the publicity related provisions to which you refer, I would point out that they arise under Part II of the Local Government Act 1986.  Section 6 (7) of that Part of that Act states:


(7) Nothing in this Part shall be construed as applying to anything done by a person in the discharge of any duties under regulations made under section 22 of the Local Government Act 2000 (access to information etc.)


These are regulations relating to publication of papers for, and admission to, meetings of the council’s Executive (Cabinet) and its committees and related matters.


The purpose of the introduction of the Cabinet Member Foreword was to provide an opportunity for the council policy context of decisions to be made explicit in reports to Cabinet by the Cabinet Member who is accountable for initiating and implementing council policies within the relevant portfolio. 


I am happy to remind officers signing off reports of this intention.


Best wishes



My response to that email at 11.50am on 10 April:


This is an Open Email


Dear Ms Norman,


Thank you for your email on Monday morning, 8 April.


I have considered it carefully, and have studied the legislation and Statutory Instruments arising from the main point you made on Section 6(7) LGA1986.


1. Your claim that ‘the Cabinet Member Foreword in the report is separated from the main body of the report’ does not stand up to scrutiny. Yes, it is headed Cabinet Officer Foreword, but it is subsection 3.1 of section 3 “Detail” in the middle of a document which, as I pointed out, is the ‘Report from the Interim Corporate Director of Communities & Regeneration’.


2.0 I admit that I had not considered the possible effect of Section 6(7) LGA1986 on the points I raised in my complaint email to you on 5 April. For that, I apologise. You appear to have used this to justify avoiding any answer over the content of the Cabinet Member Foreword being political material. But is Section 6(7) the “loophole” which allows that otherwise prohibited material to be published?


2.1 For ease of reference, I will copy that paragraph again here, but I have emphasised some of the key wording:


‘(7) Nothing in this Part shall be construed as applying to anything done by a person in the discharge of any duties under regulations made under section 22 of the Local Government Act 2000 (access to information etc.)’


Those regulations are set out in The Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2000 (S.I. 2000/3272) [“the Regulations”]. Under the Regulations, the executive (in this case, Brent’s Cabinet) is the “decision making body”, an individual member of the executive can be a “decision maker”, and the duties of decision makers, either collective or individual, are to make “executive decisions”.


Paragraph 11 of the Regulations, “Access to agenda and connected reports” begins by stating:


‘(1) Subject to paragraph (2), a copy of the agenda and every report for a public meeting shall be available for inspection by the public at the offices of the local authority when they are made available to the members of the executive or decision making body responsible for making the decision to which they relate.’


Subsequent sub-paragraphs make it clear that providing those reports, and managing public access to them, is part of the duties of officers of the Local Authority.


2.2 This is also reflected in Brent’s own Constitution. Paragraph 3 in Part 1 illustrates the clear distinction between the roles and duties of Cabinet members and Council officers, and states:


‘The Cabinet is responsible for putting policies, which Full Council has approved, into effect. The Cabinet is the part of the Council which is responsible for most of the Council’s day-to-day decision making not delegated to officers.’


Standing Order 13 in Part 2, “Meetings and Decisions of the Cabinet and Cabinet Committees”, includes these provisions:


‘(e) Any decision taken by the Cabinet or by Cabinet Committees shall be taken following the consideration of a written report and after having taken into account all legal, financial and other relevant implications, the responses to any consultation and the comments received from the relevant Scrutiny Committee and any previous meeting of Full Council where the matter the subject of the decision was considered.


(f) Any decision of the Cabinet or Cabinet Committees shall be taken in accordance with all current legislation, these Standing Orders and the other applicable rules contained in the Constitution.’


The report which the Cabinet must consider is written by Council Officers, and signed off by the Corporate Director responsible for the Department which deals with the report’s subject matter. That is done ‘in the discharge of’ that officer’s duties. 


2.3 It is not part of a Cabinet member’s duties, even a Lead Member’s duties, to write part of such a report. Their duty is to consider the written report, which provides all of the information they need in order to make their decision. For that reason, I do not believe that Section 6(7) LGA1986, applies in this case, so that the Cabinet Member Foreword in the report is still subject to, and breaches, Section 2 LGA1986.


3.0 I wrote that I could see no valid reason for Cabinet Member Forewords in Officer Reports to Cabinet. You have provided the following explanation:


‘The purpose of the introduction of the Cabinet Member Foreword was to provide an opportunity for the council policy context of decisions to be made explicit in reports to Cabinet by the Cabinet Member who is accountable for initiating and implementing council policies within the relevant portfolio.’


3.1 However, section 3.2, “Contribution to Borough Plan Priorities & Strategic Context”, of the very report we are considering here, sets out the council policy context explicitly. It also does so far better, and without the party political bias of Cllr. Tatler’s foreword.


3.2 The Report is about Strategic Community Infrastructure Levy funding to deliver a new publicly accessible courtyard garden and a community centre at the Council’s Cecil Avenue development, part of the Wembley Housing Zone. It is not about the housing project as such, but para. 3.1.3. of the foreword, in particular, concentrates on housing, beginning: ‘The housing crisis did not begin yesterday ….’


3.3 In this part of her foreword, the Lead Member for Regeneration, is putting forward views which appear to be different from the adopted Council policy she is meant to promote and deliver. Brent Council’s housing policy, is set out in Strategic Priority 1, “Prosperity and Stability in Brent”, of the Borough Plan 2023-2027. The key references are:


‘We will create more accessible and genuinely affordable housing. We want to be the leaders in London for inclusive housing development that works better for everyone. This means buying houses; building new social, accessible and affordable homes and improving our existing estates. We will also continue working with partners to increase the supply of private rented accommodation.’


‘DESIRED OUTCOME 2: Safe, Secure and Decent Housing - We will continue with our pledge to deliver 1,000 new council homes and be leaders in London in building inclusive and genuinely more affordable homes. This includes our pledge to deliver 5,000 new affordable homes within the borough, of which 1,700 will be directly delivered by the Council, by 2028.’


‘What Success Will Look Like - More council homes and more temporary accommodation provided by the council. More genuinely affordable and accessible homes available to families and residents.’


3.4 Cllr. Tatler’s version of the Council’s housing policy is:


‘We have a moral imperative to do all in our power to build more housing and communities that last long into the future. The regeneration that underpins the Wembley Housing Zone, is exactly that – an effort to build a better Brent, a place where home ownership is a reality, not just a dream.’


I’ve used bold type again to emphasise what she is championing in her Cabinet Member Foreword. Whereas the Council’s policy is to deliver new genuinely affordable Council homes, Cllr. Tatler’s agenda appears to promote homes for sale. 


Sadly, that is what the Brent Council development, under her “Regeneration” guidance, on Council-owned land at Cecil Avenue is actually going to deliver, with 150 (out of 237) of the new homes there being built for private sale, and only 56 as Council homes for genuinely affordable rent.


4.0 My email to you of 5 April suggested that the inclusion of Cabinet Member Forewords in Officer Reports to Cabinet should be reviewed, because I could see no valid reason for them. I think that our correspondence has confirmed that view (see 3.0 and 3.1 above), and I hope that you and the Chief Executive, to whom I am copying this, will initiate that review and publish its results.


4.1 Another reason why such Forewords are unnecessary, given in my email of 5 April, was because: ‘the Lead Member has the opportunity to make any additional comments she/he may wish to when introducing the agenda item at the Cabinet meeting.’


Cllr. Tatler proved this point at the Cabinet meeting on 8 April, when in introducing item 9 she read out large extracts from her Cabinet Member Foreword, including the claim about ‘a Labour pledge met.’ The evidence is on the webcast, published on Brent Council’s website.


4.2 If ‘the Cabinet Member who is accountable for initiating and implementing council policies within the relevant portfolio’ wishes to put their view on what those policies are to her or his colleagues, in writing and in advance of the formal Cabinet meeting, they can circulate their own document to their Cabinet colleagues. Those views should not be included in a Report by a Council Officer, on which the Cabinet is being asked to make a decision.


4.3 That is especially true if the Cabinet member has included political material, which the Council is prohibited from publishing, as part of their “Foreword”.


In view of the above, hope you will be happy to advise officers signing off reports to Cabinet that they should not, in future, include Cabinet Member Forewords in those reports.


I look forward to receiving your confirmation of this. 


Best wishes,


Philip Grant.



Anonymous said...

As always Philip is perfectly right and accurate.

Anonymous said...

He's right, but will Brent take any notice???

Anonymous said...

Shouldn't there be higher up association holding Brent Council to account re these matters??? Can they be reported???

Anonymous said...

well done for holding them to account on continual breaches which have adversley affected so many and will continue to unchecked! i watch with keen interest! keep up the great work!

Philip Grant said...

Thank you all for the comments above.

Because Brent's Labour majority is large, its backbench councillors too willing to unquestionly "follow to leader" and to vote down any ideas put forward by the small opposition groups, and not to apply any real scrutiny (through committees that are meant to scrutinise), it is left to a few ordinary citizens to try to hold the Council to account.

It is not an easy task, especially when Senior Council Officers seem determined that they have to defend what is sometimes the indefensible.

I received a response from Ms Norman late on Friday afternoon. I will respond to it in the next few days, and will ask Martin to publish that exchange, so that readers who wish to are kept in touch.