Last week there was a Group Leaders Panel to investigate a complaint made by me and at least one other person. It related to comments made by Cllr Brian Coleman in a Council meeting where he said that Conservative councillors attending overview and scrutiny meetings were entirely whipped, especially in relation to One Barnet matters. Now failing to declare whipping arrangements at Overview and Scrutiny Committee (OSC) meetings is a breach of the constitution, a very serious matter, all the more so because Scrutiny is there to provide checks and balances on the executive, the ten members of the cabinet who make all the decisions in Barnet. According to the rather brief minutes which have been posted on the Council's website this morning.
- That there was no evidence before the Panel that the Conservative Group where (sic) subject to the whip at Overview and Scrutiny Committees.
- That there appeared to be some difference in the understanding of the whipping process and that Groups should clarify this to their Members at their Group meetings.
Digging a bit deeper it transpires there is a report, prepared by the solicitor from Harrow (where Barnet's legal services are outsourced) you start to see a fascinating picture that borders on the Kafkaesque. Let's start with the investigation.
"The focus of the investigation is whether there was a failure to declare whipping before Overview and Scrutiny Committees. A point made by Councillor Coleman to me has been that this is a political matter and not suitable for standards investigation. I take Councillor Coleman’s point to some degree and have made redactions to some appendices where I feel appropriate including details of discussions at Conservative Group meetings".
Well hang on just a minute. Failing to declare whipping arrangements before a OSC is a breach of the constitution it is therefore not a political matter it is a constitutional matter so why treat it with kid gloves.
And what were these investigations? my comments are in RED.
"The email at Appendix 6 was sent to 19 Councillors. I received 9 responses. So more than half the councillors concerned simply ignored the investigating officer completely. One member did not respond directly to me but had responded to the Monitoring Officer following notification of the allegations and so I have included this response in my considerations. The responses did not always address the specific questions asked but did comment to some degree on the issues raised. Sorry but if they don't answer the questions ask them again. A summary of the responses is below:
a. Nine respondents said that they had never been whipped in relation to overview and scrutiny. One member referred to being whipped in relation to the Budget in the sense that it was automatically Group Policy;
b. One member stated that where an issue was declared policy the whip only applied in relation to group policy at full Council meetings. Another member said that it ‘usually’ only applied at full Council in relation to declared policy;
c. Conservative group policy is determined at group meetings;
d. It is rare for a matter to become group policy other than the Budget (see below); and apparently not One Barnet. "Apparently"! Is this an investigation or a cosy fireside chat? It either is or isn't; apparently just will not do.
e. The Budget automatically becomes Group policy;
f. One member stated that they presumed One Barnet to be group policy but was not sure. Three other members stated that it was not group policy. All others did not address the question; So only 4 out of 19 councillors answered this question and one made a presumption that was wrong.
g. There were some differences in the answer to the question whether the whip is applied on declared policy. This may be because the rules state that a member may not vote or speak against group policy and this may not be understood as whipping; Well if Councillors don't understand the rules how the hell do they expect members of the public to understand them and given they are paid £10k a year then perhaps they ought to make it their business to understand.
h. The whip is communicated either in writing or orally; so if orally there is, rather conveniently, no paper trail.
i. One member stated his understanding that there are no pre-meetings of the group prior to overview and scrutiny meetings and therefore felt there was no mechanism for whipping; oh so whipping can only take place at a pre-meeting I don't suppose people use the telephone or email then.
18. In relation to a. above, I sought further clarification from the member concerned who stated that he had been whipped. He could not recall a specific instance of the whip being declared at the Budget and Performance Overview and Scrutiny Committee but his understanding is that the chair of the committee (currently Cllr Finn) would declare the whip on behalf of the Group. Which is wrong as surely it is the responsibility of individual members if they have been whipped to say so otherwise what's the point of having scrutiny.
Cllr Finn was interviewed during this process as he is chief whip yet amazingly, he also sat as a member on the Group Leaders Panel, although he didn't vote. Surely good governance would require that he should have been excluded from the panel altogether.
On the issue of group policy it transpires that once a matter has been declared "group policy" no member can speak or vote against it. As such this appears to render the OSC entirely impotent on any matter which is directly, indirectly or tangentially policy in which case just scrap the whole scrutiny system rather than give the entirely false impression that ruling group councillors actually have any independent thought.
The conclusion of the investigation is:
23. There does appear to be some difference in the understanding of the whipping process amongst those Conservative members responding.
24. However there is no evidence that One Barnet was declared policy of the Conservative group and therefore subject to the whip.
Run that one by me again, One Barnet was not policy and therefore not subject to the whip. That is nothing short madness.
I made the complaint because Overview and Scrutiny is an essential mechanism to provide checks and balances to way the council operates. I have, for a very long time, felt that the committees are a joke with the ruling group out voting any concerns raised by the opposition members irrespective of the seriousness of the matter. This investigation underpins all my worries and suspicions are born out by this result. Governance in Barnet is morally bankrupt and bereft of any sense of decency and morality. The scrutiny system is entirely discredited and soon to swept away yet I suspect that any replacement will be equally deceitful, devious and devoid of democracy because that's the way politics works in Barnet.