Wednesday 3 September 2014

An Innocent Abroad, or: Let's see how it goes - ethics and probity, in Broken Barnet - the first committee meeting

Trying to find evidence of ethics, and probity, in the London Borough of Broken  Barnet

Councillor John Marshall is one of the old survivors of the glory years of Barnet Conservatism, a grandee of the age of Thatcherism. 

As old as time itself, no: before there was time, look: there was Councillor Marshall; and when the universe was created, there he stood, finger pointing, waiting for the birth of the blessed Margaret, and her arrival in Finchley, here to delight us all. 

And here he still stands, undaunted, and happily in better health after a recent illness: appointed now to the position of Chair of the new Constitution, Ethics and Probity Committee.

What? Yes, of course we do not have any ethics or probity in Broken Barnet, but we have set up a committee for the purpose of sniffing out any signs of the emergence of such dangerous notions, and stamping it out, before it interferes with the running of our local council.

What? Chair, Mrs Angry? Tssk. There are no 'Chairs' in the new, retro organised committee system, which aims to drag us back to the good old days, when women were ladies, and knew their place, at home, making dinner for their Tory councillor husbands, and warming their slippers in front of the fire, rather than getting ideas about entering local politics, and daring to speak out in front of the men. 

So we have reverted to the title of 'Chairman', and quite right too, because the idea of a woman as Chair is risible, and must not be countenanced. And anyway, as the Tory councillors have told us, gender is of no importance when it comes to titles, and to make a fuss about such things is petty, and quite unnecessary.

I feel like An Innocent Abroad, declared Councillor Marshall, as he took his place as Chairwoman.

I hope, he added, that it will be an Easy Baptism ...

Mrs Angry smiled politely, and hoped against hope that it would be anything but. 

Marshall noted with approval that the previous meeting, had finished in fifty five minutes. The three Tory councillors nodded happily  - Antony Finn, Melvin Cohen and - oh no, surely not, a Woman, or rather, as she prefers to be addressed, a Lady, Joan Scannell. 

Council meetings, in Broken Barnet, are of course not to be seen so much as vital part of the democratic process, or opportunities for debate, but as a flipping nuisance, an ordeal to be endured for the sake of rubber stamping their previously agreed agenda.

The Chairwoman expressed the fond hope that this committee would work by consensus, rather than be driven by partisan politics.

What this meant, of course, is that the committee should be driven by Tory politics, and Labour should just shut up, and let the meeting finish in fifty five minutes.

Not altogether a popular idea with the Labour councillors. Leader Alison Moore demurred, suggesting the purpose of the committee was to produce the best constitution. Even she had given up on the idea that the Tories might be interested in matters of ethics, and probity.

New Labour member Dr Devra Kay (aka La Bloggeuse) reminded the Chairwoman that they could only come to a consensus if they, the Labour members ... agreed to things ... Which of course, they might not. The Chairwoman appeared baffled by such an impertinent suggestion, but conceded that the Labour leader may be right about the constitution. She was right, sometimes. She was right, often, replied the Labour leader.

On to the agenda, a long, tedious and largely pointless discussion of tiny amendments to the constitution, navigated in her usual laconic style by the Monitoring Officer, Maryellen Salter.

So, she began. She begins every sentence with 'So', even responses to questions, and indeed this is apparently required form for all senior officers of the London Borough of Broken Barnet - and it is extremely tiresome. 

The subtext, leaving aside the mindless use of corporate jargon that most of our senior officers - and friends from Crapita - adopt at the committee table, is that they really want to disregard the irritating interjections of elected members, and get on with their own agenda. So anyway, in other words.

A mild objection from the opposition to a change that potentially could lead to a misuse of power: the Chairwoman shrugs: When people start playing games, as they sometimes do ... 

It could run counter to democracy, suggested the Labour leader.

The Chairwoman looked on, blankly. The Tory members sat round the table, and looked on, blankly. Democracy?

Another objection to the way in which school governor appointments are made, obstructed, wilfully or not, by the administration. The Tories look away, indifferent.

Endless small adjustments are made, or not made, agreed, or mildly objected to. On and on, like the droning of bees. 

The soporific effect filled the room. Even the People's Mayor, Councillor Lord Mr Shepherd, was unusually quiet, no heckling, desultorily inspecting some of the many papers he carries everywhere with him, or making the odd note with one of the pens from his stationery filled top pocket: pens, scissors, sellotape at the ready. Occasionally the buzzing of constitutional wordplay was interrupted by his tearing off of bits of paper, and sticking them back together again.

After the meeting Cllr Shepherd told Mrs Angry, clearly with some sense of affront, that he had offered a pairing arrangement with the Chairwoman, but had been rebuffed. He also took her back down the committee room corridor to show her a lovely photo of a mayoress taken in the seventies, unusually young - without a moustache, even - displaying a rather revealing decolletage. This picture, he pointed out, with stern disapproval, was coupled with the Wrong Mayor. 

We then had a laugh about one of the names of the former Mayors so lovingly inscribed in gold letters for posterity. That man, he claimed, ruefully, was the only Trotskyite Mayor of Barnet. So far. We live in hope.

 The People's Mayor, Councillor Lord Shepherd

Back to the meeting.

The Labour clearly enjoys this sort of analysis of small points, and is good at spotting anomalies: then, whoosh, she was off, bemusing the Tory councillors with a casually lobbed in use of the word 'oblation'. 

Did you say ... 'oblation', asked Antony Finn, as if the use of such language was some sort of outrage, or indeed, an indecent proposal? 

Explain that, demanded Melvin Cohen, as they sat there like lower set schoolboys, trying to keep up. There followed a patient explanation, couched in simple terms.

Serious debate about the adoption of the word 'should', then, instead of 'must', a debate which went on for some time. 

Ah: and then some consensual action, right there, in front of everyone watching, like punters at a corporate peepshow. From this grotesque coupling, however, emerged something lovely, all wet and shiny and new, a form of cooperation - a bi party agreement called the 'Moore-Finn Amendment'. 

Mrs Angry, whose hearing is less than perfect, was obliged to ask the Barnet Bugle if they were discussing the use of morphine, and heartily wished she was in possession of some.

Mrs Angry gave up making notes, at this point, and made a few half hearted sketches of the Tory councillors, finding that constant glances at their bored faces at least eventually began to make them feel slightly uncomfortable - and keep them awake.

Mrs Angry is Bored

Appendix R, part of the reports submitted to the meeting deals with 'Protocols for Member-Officer Relations. This is a most amusing read, and Mrs Angry recommends it to all those with an interest in ethics in probity in public life. 

Admire the committment to 'Open Local Government'. Witness, whilst putting to one side your sense of ironic detachment, the staunch support expressed for the Nolan Principles, explained in full for the benefit of members, many of whom appear to have no grasp of the lofty ideals here stated. 

Selflessness, honesty and integrity, objectivity, acountability, openness, personal judgement, respect for others, duty to uphold the law, stewardship, leadership ...

Yes - all of them qualities in almost total absence from the remorselessly self serving, evasive, scheming, malodorous quagmire that is Tory run Barnet, in other words.

Aha: Devra Kay raised an interesting point about a statement made in this appendix:

4.6 Members should not ask for information on a matter on which they would have to declare an interest.

Indeed they should not. Do you think they ever do, or have done, readers? Hard to believe, isn't it? Unthinkable.

Councillor Dr Devra Kay, in her innocent way, was confused. Bearing in mind the fact that the Monitoring Officer has been 'persuaded' to grant dispensation to Tory members not wishing to declare their interests, how does that affect this requirement? 

Linda Cohen, an officer from HBPublic Law, was present at the table. She seemed to slightly misunderstand the point, referring to the register of interests in which members are supposed to make declarations, so that they are in the public domain. 

She thought it unlikely that there might be a 'fishing expedition' by an elected member, 'in order to feather one's nest'.

Hmm. Of course not. Heaven Forfend, commented Mrs Angry.

In regard to the register of interests, dear readers - a few months ago, when it was brought to the notice of the Monitoring Officer that a certain Tory councillor had apparently forgotten to update his declarations to include a property he owned, it was implied that this sort of compliance was no longer necessary. The declaration, however, was immediately amended.

Cllr Kay's question was perfectly valid. If the Tory members can now exempt themselves from having to make declarations of interests at meetings when they wish, how can members of the public be assured in the integrity and probity of the standards required of elected members? 

What assurance is there that a member has not, will not raise a matter that touches on his or her own interests? There is no certainty that an officer would know the significance, and can we really rely on the honesty of councillors when they have gone to such lengths to protect themselves from obligations to transparency with their shabby dispensation tactic?

The end of the meeting approached. The Chairwoman began to call matters to a close. But the Labour leader had an important issue still to raise: one that is of the most pressing importance.

At five o'clock this afternoon, there is to be a meeting of the Group Leaders' Panel, convened in order to discuss a complaint made by local Assembly Member Andrew Dismore, regarding allegations about the conduct of the Tory Mayor, Hugh Rayner. Or rather some of the allegations, as for some reason the Monitoring Officer has disallowed some of the complaint. 

You may well question why such a serious matter, relating to the Mayor's alleged conduct in his business affairs, as a local landlord in receipt of benefit income, and other allegations regarding declarations of interests, has been sent to this panel, rather than immediately referred to the police for investigation.

When totally bogus claims of wrongdoing - on a much less serious scale - were thrown at a Labour councillor earlier in the year, no time was lost in sending this matter to the police and CPS, in a publicly humiliating move for the individual concerned. It is really quite incomprehensible why the same urgency has not been shown in the matter of a Conservative member. Or is it?

It should also be noted that the meeting is going ahead even though Andrew Dismore made it clear right from the beginning that he cannot attend as he is away. Of course arranging meetings when Labour representatives cannot attend is the new tradition of Tory Barnet, despite all pretence of adherence to the Nolan principles in public life, which is why we will see a full council meeting this month deliberately moved to the day of Ed Miliband's speech at the conference in Manchester.

The Barnet Labour leader now protested at the format of the Group Leaders' Panel, a creation  not agreed by the opposition, who wanted a Standards Committee that functions, as natural justice surely demands, without the bias of politically weighted membership, and the inclusion of independent members who no longer have a vote.

John Marshall looked across the table, unmoved, untroubled. There is a meeting, he declared, airily, referring to today's farcical arrangements ... Let's see how it goes ...

Yeah: let's see how it goes.

Linda Cohen mentioned the inclusion of independent members: Devra Kay reminded her that as they cannot vote it means that the Tory members will always win their case, and Labour members will always lose. This, she said, really isn't fairness, or justice.

Such an arrangement, along with the new dispensation of declarations, amounts to a scandalous distortion of the very values this Tory administration affects to have adopted.

Such hypocrisy comes easily to Barnet Tories. So what, if it flies in the face of the concept of localism so loudly championed by their own party in government, Pickles' flagship policy? 

If such anti democratic procedures are retained, they will form an open channel of opportunity for corrupt practices, and represent the gravest risk possible to the reputation of the council, the Conservative party, and the very principles of ethical standards and probity in public life. 

Do they even care? 

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

What is the point of Having a standards committee if there are None ? What is the point of a standards committee if by introducing what can be only unfair & corrupt Rules , that only Favour the Rulling party !! A re.title to the No standards committee might Be in Order !!! But with such a tenuous hold on power is it wise ? They themselves may be on the end of those same Rules , sooner than they might think !!'

Mrs Angry said...

We don't have a standards committee any more, Anon: the Group Leaders' Panel is its replacement, and bears no resemblance, but is an inversion of the principle of justice, being politically biased, so that the administration can always win the vote, and the opposition must always lose. Independent members no longer have a vote.

It could be said that if members voted objectively, the system might work, but our Tory councillors clearly do not intend to protect the need for fairness, or objectivity. It is, in short, an absolute disgrace.

As you may be able to tell, I am writing this after having attended tonight's panel hearing of the allegations regarding the Tory Mayor. Post tomorrow.