Friday 29 March 2013

"Judge a man by his questions" not in Barnet

Last night's Constitution, Ethics & Probity Committee was a case study in chaos. From the very start the meeting was on a collision course for disaster. The redoubtable Barbara Jacobson had submitted a series of questions about the prohibition of questions at Overview & Scrutiny Committee (OSC) meetings. With responses tabled at the meeting she was then asked to submit her one supplementary question. Barbara seemed surprised. But the rules say we get a supplementary for each question. Ah, not tonight Barbara. The thought police have a new chief and her interpretation was just one supplementary. It was a classic case of light the blue touch paper! Cllrs looked deeply uneasy as residents in the public gallery shouted out their condemnation. Cllr Melvin Cohen who was supposed to be chairing the meeting seemed to lose control with everyone trying to speak at once. Eventually, after trying to justify the unjustifiable, the council backed down and Barbara asked her supplementary questions. Did she get an answer - not likely! Tirza Waisel also tried to ask her supplementary questions but again no answers.

We then moved on to speeches. I was up first. I set out my concerns and why I thought this knee jerk response could have knock-on consequences. I have included my speech below for those who might be interested. I was then questioned by Labour and Lib Dem Councillors (Tory Cllrs were mute at this stage). I made the point that having analysed the last 32 OSC meetings, public questions were asked at only 8 of those meetings - so 75% of meetings are question free. I also made the point that the questions that were asked focused on three main topics, Friern Barnet Library, Pinkham Way waste site and the NSCSO contract, three issues which are both controversial and deeply unpopular and also which have been banned from discussion at residents forums. I suggested that residents could either be viewed as a resource, the 12th man on the OSC team, or as an adversary, the Council clearly viewing us as the latter. I suggested that if the council closes one channel for residents to ask questions they will simply find another channel. The unintended consequence of stopping residents asking questions at residents forums has stimulated more questions at OSC meetings. Stopping them at OSC meetings will  simply mean they pop up at other meetings but with residents even more frustrated.

Julian Silverman then gave his speech and Daniel Hope, who had requested to speak, did not attend.

Cllr Richard Cornelius asked what all the fuss was as the scrutiny committees were going to be abolished in a year's time. Exactly Richard, why tamper with the constitution if things are going to change in 2014, just leave the rules as they are now.

It was apparent that the Council thought these amendments would simply be nodded through and as such Cllr Melvin Cohen had made arrangements to go off to another engagement. "Can we deal with these amendments in 10 minutes?" No, so the meeting was adjourned and another meeting will be held on 10 April to allow further consideration.

Barnet have consistently underestimated the value residents place on the ability to challenge and question the council and yet again last night they showed just how out of touch they are with public opinion. the Council need to think long and hard about the consequences if they introduce these amendments. I hope common sense prevails.

Speech to Constitution Committee

"The amendments proposed tonight will reduce democracy in Barnet. I will start with amendments to article 3. 

You have amended 3.01d from public participation to public engagement, a subtle shift which appears to show the council’s true motives, a rejection of public participation. The rest of the paragraph appears to contradict proposed changes you are making elsewhere in the constitution. It states that:
Citizens have the right to ask questions and make comments at committee meetings, make representations at Residents’ Forums and contribute to investigations initiated by Overview and Scrutiny Committees (such as Panels or Task and Finish Groups). 

However, other amendment you are seeking to introduce tonight will stop residents asking questions at Overview & Scrutiny  Committee meetings and make it even more difficult to ask questions at residents forums. 

At article 10, residents forums, you are seeking to move the deadline for asking question back from 6pm the day before the forum to 10am two working days before the forum. Until two years ago, when you imposed restrictions of residents forums, residents could ask questions on the evening. This was especially useful for 1 in 5 who do not have access to the internet.  You have made no attempt to identify if the changes you made 2 years ago have been successful yet you seek to impose even more restrictive practices without consultation. 

Moving onto article 6, clause 6.03 sets out the specific functions of overview and scrutiny committees including the requirement “to consider and implement mechanisms to encourage and enhance community participation in policy development”. Indeed, Mr Craig Cooper’s statement at the Judicial Review last week said that one of the roles of overview and scrutiny was “to amplify the voices and concerns of the public”.

Yet as part of these proposals you are seeking to stop members of the public asking questions on call ins and pre decision scrutiny. 

That’s not amplifying the voices of the public that’s gagging the public. Many of the call ins are delegated powers reports which will never be subjected to public questioning without call ins. As for ruling out pre decision scrutiny questions that may be a resident’s only opportunity. That is because clause 5.1 of the public participation rules specific excludes the public asking questions “On any matter which has been the subject of a decision of any committee in the previous six months” and that rule was used to prevent me asking question on a post decision scrutiny review in December 2010. On that occasion it was only thanks to the common sense and discretion of Cllr Rayner who agreed to suspend public participation rules that enabled me to ask my questions.
So there you have it. You want to stop us asking questions on pre decisions and call ins and rules already prevent residents from asking questions on post decisions so that means no public questions at scrutiny full stop.

These latest proposals send one very clear signal and that is you want to eliminate public participation in Barnet. Two years ago you ignored the views of the public and pushed ahead with the draconian restrictions to the residents forums. They are now in their death throes and you want to kill them off permanently. With no outlet to question the council in residents forums this led to more public questions  at Overview and Scrutiny. So your response is to kill off participation in those meetings too. Perhaps that in turn will lead to far more FOI requests. 

In summary these amendments seem to be an incredibly ill timed response considering the events that took place in the Royal Courts of Justice last week. Legal challenge increasingly looks like the only way residents can get their questions answered in Barnet. Please think very carefully before agreeing to these amendments as in time they may prove to be disruptive and a very costly error of judgement."


  1. I have written 10 April down John as the adjourned date and at 7pm because Cllr Melvin Cohen hasn't got anything more important to do that night than the duty of Chaiman for which he gets a handsome allowance. I have asked to speak for once.

  2. and if we judge the ruling councillors by their answers - they are lacking!

  3. Well said, as usual, Mr R. Why amend the constitution now? Because they want to stifle public challenge over the DRS contract, about to be awarded, we can predict with well, reasonable confidence, to Crapita Symonds.