I attended Cambridge City Council’s full council meeting on Thursday the 16th of July 2009. Those councillors still present when the motion was debated (at around 23.00 after an 18.00 start) unanimously passed a motion intended to massively improve the council’s openness. An initial Liberal Democrat motion was substantially strengthened by amendments put forward by Conservative and Labour opposition members. The full text of the motion as passed is below:
- believes in the principles of open government
- welcomes the Publication Scheme adopted by this council in January 2009
- notes the good progress in publishing information online
- aspires to make all information held by the council readily available online by default unless there is a good reason not to
- notes the 250% increase in Freedom of Information Act requests in 2008-9 over those in 2007-8
The Council therefore requests the Director of Customer and Democratic Services to:
- expedite the publishing of information in the Publication Scheme that is not currently on the website
- review requests received by the council to see which replies may be published, and publish those requests.
- work with the Freedom of Information Officer to ensure that a Freedom of Information disclosure log is setup to publish the substance of all replies to requests in the appropriate place on the website
- Further enhance the transparency by making changes to the website to assist the public in locating this information
The Council further notes the heightened public concern about reimbursements and remuneration to politicians following the recent exposures of fraudulent and erroneous claims by some Members of Parliament.The Council therefore resolves to enhance the timeliness, accessibility and detail of the information which it publishes on the website relating to:
- members’ allowances
- expenses and dependent carers’ payments reimbursed to members
- benefits in kind received by councillors
and further to include
- expenditure incurred by the Council in support of councillors’ attendance at training and other events and attendance at other specified external events and to publish on the website details from the following registers which are currently only available for inspection on paper.
- the register of members’ interests
- the register of members’ gifts and hospitality
Points from The Debate
- The Mayor, Cllr Russ McPherson – who chairs council meetings, deserves credit for the manner in which he handled the debate. He suspended the meeting to allow members from all sides to work together on producing a version of the document all could agree to. Too often in council meetings you get a situation where the detail is left to be agreed by a couple of members outside the meeting.
- Cllr McGovern introduced the final amended version of the motion, referred to the WhatDoTheyKnow.com website and pointed out that if people made FOI requests via that they would be available to everyone and used that as an argument for the council also publishing requests and responses themselves. He highlighted the fact that anyone could request their own copy of a response in any case so publishing them all online simply improved accessibility. Cllr Howell made similar points during his speech.
- Cllr Taylor and Cllr McGovern both introduced the original motion, explaining it was a combination of two motions they had considered brining independently (one on FOI and one on expenses). Cllr Taylor proposed the formal motion and it was seconded by Cllr McGovern. This initial motion was unclear it was proposing the council ought actually set up a disclosure log containing the full substance of the responses to requests ie. the information released. (currently the council just list the titles of requests). Cllr McGovern assured the council that actually publishing the information was his intent, and so later he welcomed the opposition amendments clarifying this. It appeared that some councillors and officers thought they already had a “disclosure log” even though it in its state at that time it didn’t contain any information released.
- Cllr Amanda Taylor said that her constituents wanted reassuring that the corruption, fraud and bad judgement shown by members of Parliament had not spread to the council. That was why she was proposing the online publication of expenses. She noted the lobbying for this which had already come from within (looking at Cllr Howell) and from outside (looking to me) the council. Cllr Taylor used her informed position within the council to note some of the things missing from the published information; she said that while car milage payments were listed, reimbursements for use of public transport were not (she noted these were small amounts, but ought be available). She also was the first to point out that rail travel on “rail warrants” was not listed. Cllr Rosenstiel later explained that the reason his travel expenses appeared the highest was that he booked his train tickets well and advance and he had a good knowledge of the train ticket pricing schemes so was able to get good value for taxpayer money; however this meant the he paid for his ticket and the council reimbursed him. His reimbursements were being made public, but the costs to the council of those travelling on rail warrants was not.
- Cllr McGovern spoke about how openness would enable accountability and engender trust. He quoted President Obama on openness and transparency saying it will “promote efficienty effectiveness and promote accountability”. He also said “information is more valuable when its shared”, hinting towards his more ambitious aims than he thought he would be able to get passed in this initial motion, he said he hoped his motion would be “the first brick of many”.
- Cllr Newbold introduced the Labour amendments; the Liberal Democrats had not specifically included “benefits in kind”, such as parking in the city’s car parks. Cllr Newbold noted there had been a FOI request for that information (from me). He also wanted the reasons expenses were being claimed made clear; eg. when expenses were related to training courses intended to ensure that councillors were aware of current legislation those reading the expenses should be able to see that fact.
- The leader of the Council, Ian Nimmo-Smith was mumbling to himself about the coffee machine while benefits in kind were being discussed. Councillors have a tag which they can use to get free hot drinks, presumably he was wondering if the extent of his and his colleagues tea and coffee drinking was to be publicised. No one mentioned the sandwiches provided at full council meetings!
- Cllr Hart made the request for general improvements in the city council’s website, and pointed out how hard to find the current information on allowances / expenses etc. was to locate.
- Cllr Cantrill was the only councillor to express any concerns about the motion (while too expressing general support). He explained that as the executive councillor responsible for the area which would be tasked to act on the proposals he was concerned about costs. He prompted a bit of a debate about if the council ought simply express aspirations or commit to doing things; he and Cllr Rosensteil appeared enamoured by the fact that expressing an aspiration doesn’t cost anything, though Rosensteil mused that “it doesn’t achieve anything either”. In order to “take into account resources” Cllr Cantrill and Cllr Taylor expressed a desire to take elements to a Strategy and Resources committee rather than decide them at the council meeting. Surprisingly when Cllr Cantril, Smart, Howell, Newbold, Taylor and McGovern and others emerged with their final draft which they had prepared during the short adjournment of the meeting called by the mayor the suggestion of referring elements to the scrutiny committee had been dropped.
- Cllr Rosensteil pointed out the council doesn’t have a Director of Customer and Democratic Services (it’s just appointed the one it had to Chief Executive), the council agreed it had the established post, and so it was fine to address parts of the motion to the holder of that post despite it being currently vacant.
I am very impressed with what the city council has done; as Cllr McGovern recognised there is a long way to go yet but this is a big step in the right direction.
Minuting Questions and Answers
I have been lobbying for some time for the council to publish the answers to questions which councillors ask executive councillors and the leader during full council meetings. Another major step towards openness and accountability made at the full council was to adopt a policy to do this into the council’s Code of Corporate Governance.
All the below, could, and perhaps ought, be extended into full articles:
- Member of the public, Paul Harvey, spoke at the beginning of the meeting asking councillors to scrap their magazine – “Cambridge Matters”. He pointed out it was making a loss, and claimed it was biased and inaccurate with respect to climate change. Independent John Hipkin was scathing about the quality of the content in the publication, Conservative Cllr Howell and the Labour group were also highly critical – pointing out it was patronising and suggesting people didn’t need to be told by the council how to wash-up or use their fridge. Opposition councillors were skeptical about claims that 65% of residents read Cambridge Matters and 27% of these have acted on what they’ve read in it. Cllr Pitt defended the publication on behalf of the ruling Liberal Democrats. The council agreed to review the effectiveness and value for money of the magazine. I have previously complained about the council distributing its taxpayer funded publication on election day.
- Cllr Sanders (Lib dem) spoke at the Full Council prefacing her remark with: “this is a first for me”. I believe this might have been her first contribution to a full council meeting since her election in 2007. She got a round of applause from Liberal Democrat members after saying a couple of words in praise of the council’s “councillor speed dating” project for introducing young people to democracy. I wonder if Cllr Kerr, the new councillor for East Chesterton, will leave it as long to make her first contribution, she sat through the whole meeting playing with her mobile phone and putting her hand up when the other Lib Dems put theirs up. There are many backbench Lib Dems who make a minimal contribution. Cllr Sanders didn’t even return for the second half of the meeting after having had her sandwiches.
- Cllr Todd-Jones introduced an important motion urging the council to consult and take notice of council tenants before building new council houses on the site of existing ones. The Lib-Dems added an extra element to the motion, noting that the recent Government announcement about giving local authorities more funds to build council houses had not been matched with action, noting there is no housing bill in the draft queens’ speech. (They need to make sure the MP knows about their concerns) Labour leader Lewis Herbert whipped his party instructing them to vote against the amended motion saying: “we’re not accepting criticism of the Government”. This resulted in the rather bizarre state of affairs of Cllr Todd-Jones’ motion getting adopted by the council, but without him voting for it himself.
- Cllr Smith agreed to look into means tested (or otherwise targeted) free swimming for under sixteens during the school holidays. She claimed she’d not been able to discuss this with the company who run the pools due to the absence of a key senior city council officer. I thought this was a poor excuse for inaction, and highlighted that she ought demand the officer organise her department better so that her absence isn’t so disruptive to its operation. A mark of a good head of department is that their department keeps running when they’re on holiday or away, not that it can’t operate without them for a few days.
- Cllr Ian Nimmo-Smith, the Liberal Democrat Leader of the council wore a suit, with open sandals.
- Cllr Reid confirmed that she was: “making efforts to move Marshall to an adjacent airfield”. Labour members, who support Marshall were highly critical of the Liberal Democrat policy to try and move the company. They asked Cllr Reid if she would: “apologise to those who would be forced to move away from their friends and family, or worse, lose their jobs” following a Marshall move. Cllr Reid dismissed the Labour comments as being inappropriate, and based on unattributed rumour. Presumably she has not seen these letters which indicate Marshall may undertake a UK wide search for a new site.
- Problems with the way the council deals with council tax for students was discussed, without resolution.
- The appointment of a new part time Dog Warden was announced, she will start on the 20th of July. The previous appointee lasted only a few days, he was commuting over 100 miles to do the job.
- Jesus Green outdoor pool was reported to be at 22 degrees C; [That sounds almost warm enough to swim in!]
- The money the council lost due to the folk festival online ticket sales and Icelandic investments were discussed, with no significant new information added