Cambridge City Council Representation at Cambridgeshire Health Committee

Wednesday, May 27th, 2020. 8:12pm

As we are in the middle of a serious pandemic I observed Cambridgeshire County Council’s health committee on 5 May 2020. I was shocked to learn Cambridge City Council had a seat on the committee but its representative hadn’t turned up. This prompted me to review the published attendance information and subsequently submit the following public question/statement to the 28 May 2020 full council meeting:

“I am speaking as an individual, and not on behalf of anyone else or any organisation.

According to the Cambridgeshire County Council constitution the county council’s health committee has delegated responsibility for the county council’s public health duty and is responsible for review and scrutiny of the operation of health services in Cambridgeshire.

One member of the committee is a Cambridge City Councillor nominated by the city council.

Meeting proceedings and Cambridgeshire County Council papers indicate that a city council nominee was not present at either the key 5th of May 2020 meeting which discussed the response to the covid-19 pandemic, and the papers also indicate there has been no Cambridge City Council nominee present at the committee for over a year.

Is this accurate, and if so, what is the explanation? Will the city council be effectively represented at future meetings?

At its last meeting on the 5th of May 2020 the health committee considered important subjects including contact tracing, discharge of those with covid-19 to care homes, dental care during the pandemic and the provision of protective equipment to health care workers. The city council did not appear to be represented at that meeting”.

Potential Follow-ups

Council procedures permit a brief follow-up question, so it makes sense to plan for that in advance. My thoughts on how I might use the follow-up are below:

If a full explanation, showing an understanding of the opportunity lost here, is given and a plan is set out to ensure effective representation at future meetings then there will be no need for a follow-up. I will merely thank the responder for their full answer.

My question is a genuine question, I do not know for sure what the answer will be. There may have been I decision which I (and the Health Committee Chair) are unaware of, for example for the city council representatives not to take part in meetings. I will suggest better publicity of any such background.

At Cambridge City Council responsibility for “public health, working with the county council and health services” and “health promotion” lie with the Executive Councillor for Communities, Cllr Anna Smith. I expect Cllr Smith may answer my question. If not addressed, I may ask if the executive councillor intends to appoint the same councillors to serve on the health committee next year, given the lack of attendance in the previous year. The appointments are, as I understand it, due to be made on the day of the full council meeting.

If the response doesn’t cover the arrangements for enabling a substitute member to know they are required, and to be entitled to attend, I may ask about those. County Council papers indicate many of the absences were absences without apologies, I make ask if that could, or would, have made it harder, or impossible, for the substitute member to step in.

Unfortunately often councillors attack those asking questions or raising concerns rather than merely addressing the matters raised. If a personal attack is made as part of the response I will point it out, and note it as an inappropriate way to respond to a substantive question.

The response may attack my assumed motivations for asking the question. The facts are simply that I observed the 5 May 2020 Cambridgeshire County Council Health Committee and was astonished to find there was no Cambridge City Council representative present. I felt all councillors should be aware of this absence, and what I then found to be a pattern of non-attendance by a city council appointee, so they can take action to correct it. My hope is that better engagement of with the committee will occur in the future, and that my question may assist that. My personal threshold for using a public question at the council is currently very high. This matter is, I think, currently of huge importance to the city. One reason for using a public question is that as the prime member nominated to the committee is from the Labour Party and substitute member of the committee is from the Liberal Democrats it the usual partisan scrutiny and check may not function in this case.

I think it is important for the city council to engage with the local strategic public health approach, which has the potential to reduce the incidences of death and suffering.

Cambridge Labour have issued a statement on the absences from the Health Committee stating:

“Cllr Massey was volunteering for the community lunch project Richard.”

While helping with a community project may well be laudable I don’t think it’s a rational and proportionate reason for failing to turn up to the Health Committee.

Failing to attend a strategic committee, responsible for the health of many hundreds of thousands of people, and focusing instead on relatively few people benefiting from a project within Cambridge appears to me to breach Labour’s “For the Many not the Few” campaigning mantra. Remembering that mantra might help with future prioritisation decisions.

I may be told that councillors were not aware meetings of the committee were happening. This has been a common excuse given by councillors who have missed meetings. When meeting calendars are published, and meeting papers are on the web a week or so in advance of meetings, and typically councillors are lobbied in advance of meetings, I’m not impressed by this explanation.

Experience tackling food poverty could have helped inform the Health Committee and help that committee understand the impacts of the pandemic on city residents.

As Cambridge City Council’s representatives on the Health Committee have other roles, including Cllr Massey being the Cambridge City Council appointed member of the council of governors at the Cambridge University Hospital Trust there was an opportunity to co-ordinate local health activities, an inform the Health Committee with information from the hospital. The lack of a hospital representative at the meeting was lamented by those present.

The role of the Health Committee is always important, but it is particularly important at the moment as it has the opportunity to lead the local public health response to the covid-19 epidemic. Local public health decisions are having particularly significant impacts on the city and its residents at the moment, it’s really astonishing that the city council wasn’t represented during the pandemic.

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