Antidemocratic Changes Proposed to Cambridgeshire County Council Constitution

Monday, May 16th, 2011. 4:41pm

Proposed changes to Cambridgeshire County Council Constitution

Proposed amendments to Cambridgeshire County Council’s constitution have been published today, just one day before they are to go before a meeting of the full council on the 17th of May 2011.

The amendments have been put forward by Councillor Nick Clarke, who was recently elected leader of the ruling Conservative group on the council, and as such is almost certain to be elected the leader of the Council during the meeting on the 17th.

I am concerned that many of the changes appear designed to reduce the effectiveness of full council meetings as a place where councillors can hold members of the cabinet to account. It introduces substantial restrictions on the subjects of questions which can be raised, as well as limiting the time available for questions and capping the number of written questions.

Mr Clarke has not explained the reasoning behind his proposed changes. He may be seeking to streamline, and speed up, full council meetings, but by doing so he is taking power away from councillors who are non-cabinet members and making it less likely such councillors will be able to ask the questions they want to ask on behalf of their constituents at full council meetings. If Mr Clarke was to improve the opportunities for all councillors to get involved in policy making at an early stage, and give them an opportunity to engage in detailed scrutiny at committees he would, naturally, reduce the burden on the full council. He’s going about things the wrong way though, rather than encouraging discussion of matters outside full council by improving the other routes; he’s starting by reducing the opportunities the full council offers councillors.

My Comments on Key Proposed Changes

  • Full council meetings are to include a session for questioning those councillors the council has appointed to represent them on the county’s Fire & Police authorities. I think this is an improvement and it’s important that the council holds these people to account for what they’re doing on behalf of the people of Cambridgeshire. I hope that from time to time others such as the chair of the Police Authority, the Chief Constable will also attend the full council and take questions from councillors and the new provisions will be in addition to that.
  • The full council is only to get recommendations from Cabinet meetings and committees not full reports. This may well restrict what councillors can ask questions on.
  • The highly controversial “Policy Development Group” meetings are to be scrapped. These enabled councillors, on a confidential basis, to participate in policy formation. Liberal Democrats (including almost all of those representing Cambridge residents) abstained on principle as they didn’t want to have their say in secret meetings based on documents they were forbidden from sharing and discussing with their constituents. It is great they’re being abandoned, however they are to be replaced by: “Informal Advisory Groups” and it is not clear if “informal” means the secrecy will continue. Ex-councillor Rupert Moss-Eccardt has suggested, via twitter, “informal” means expenses and “fact finding” trips will be in the gift of the convenor.
  • P.170 of the “track changes” document showing the proposed amendments describes what councillors will be able to ask questions on at full council meetings. I think the punctuation here makes it very unclear what can and cannot be asked. Can questions only be raised at full council if they’ve already been raised at a Cabinet or Committee meeting?
  • There are sixty-nine councillors at Cambridgeshire County Council but the changes proposed by the ruling group include limiting written questions to thirteen per full council meeting. The allocation will be shared out by political parties; seriously reducing the power of individual members to hold cabinet members to account. Party members will be effectively reduced to asking questions on behalf of their parties – as they’ll be using the party allocation. More independent minded members of parties (and those who’ve fallen out with party bigwigs for whatever reason) may not get a look in.
  • Setting on street parking charges is to be taken away from local councillors on the Traffic Area Joint Committees. In Cambridge this means these charges will no longer be set by local city and county councillors, but (presumably) by the representatives from elsewhere in Cambridgeshire who make up the ruling group.
  • A positive and common sense change is the removal of the provision which required the full 250 page hard copy of constitution to be sent to all councillors. Now they won’t get one unless they ask and the standard procedure is for a link to be emailed.
  • Scrutiny committees are to be renamed “Overview and Scrutiny Committees”. It isn’t clear to me how this is any more than just a name change, and what if anything the addition of “Overview” is intended to signify. There is no requirement for chairs of scrutiny committees to be opposition members, or for any rotation/balance to be present among the chairs to ensure all non-cabinet members are able to influence how the scrutiny committees work and what they get to discuss.
  • The Head of Democratic and Members’ Services becomes the County’s Returning Officer
  • Membership of the “Overview and Scrutiny Management Group” includes “two Conservative lead members”. This kind of thing ought not in my view be in the constitution; the constitution ought be a set of rules which functions regardless of who is elected to the council and which parties they’re members of.

As far as I can see the council’s constitution can be changed by a simple majority vote of the full council. I think this is wrong. Substantial changes to the way democracy is conducted in the county should only be made with broad support from the full spectrum of elected members. I am surprised there are not already safeguards in place to prevent the kind of antics being proposed by the ruling group to entrench their power and make it harder for those seeking to question what they are doing.

Publishing major changes like this, just a day before councillors are to be given the opportunity to debate them and vote on them shows an astonishing lack of respect both for opposition councillors, and for the people of Cambridgeshire. With these, as with other proposals, there is a need to publicise them well in advance so that those interested can read them, and let their representatives know their views on them.

Labour Cllr Tariq Sadiq (Coleridge) has tweeted to say he is to be on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire at 8am on the 17th of May discussing the proposed changes. Cllr Sadiq’s tweet described the changes as “rushed and undemocratic”.

I will write to my own County Councillor, Paul Sales (Labour) pointing him to my views as expressed in this article. I will also tweet in the direction of those Conservative members on twitter inviting them to comment, and perhaps justify, these changes.

16 comments/updates on “Antidemocratic Changes Proposed to Cambridgeshire County Council Constitution

  1. Steve Tierney

    One key difference for Overview & Scrutiny is that the committees can comment on (and suggest improvements/amendments to) developing policy. So a scrutiny committee could attach one of its members to a cabinet proposal and scrutinise it in development – rather than just after its in action.

  2. Richard Taylor Article author

    I’ve written to Cllr Sales:

    Cllr Sales,

    I’ve written an article on the changes to the Cambridgeshire County Council constitution, released this morning, and on the agenda for tomorrow’s meeting:

    I hope you are able to speak and vote against these anti-democratic measures which will restrict the ability of councillors at full council to hold the cabinet to account.

    If streamlining full council was the aim; then that could have been achieved “naturally” by improving opportunities for scrutiny and involvement in policy development in other public meetings.

    There is no way the newly added language could be reasonably be described as clear in my view. For example I can not, for certain, determine what it is permissible to ask oral questions at full council about. It is not clear what “informal” in the new “Informal Advisory Groups” means; does it mean secret? Will the papers for Informal Advisory Group meetings be confidential?

    I am astonished the constitution is considered such a fluid document and there are not greater safeguards to prevent it being changed in this way. I’d suggest at least two thirds of councillors ought need to approve such changes (perhaps even at two meetings a month apart!).


    Richard Taylor
    [Full Address]

  3. Rupert MOss-Eccardt

    The law requires that 5 working days notice is given of such things but they can‘t be considered ‘urgently’ if the Chair agrees. Unfortunately the Chair will be John Powley who is unlikely to consider the public interest.

    There are two bits to this – the rush and the substance:

    Firstly, the rush. It is interesting that Nick Clarke was on the PDG that, last year, decided that no change to the constitution was needed. Now he must have these changes instantly. I don’t see why this couldn’t have waited until next time or, if really urgent, a properly convened emergency Council. As I understand it, the only person who has been able to look at these changes properly is Nick Clarke himself.

    Now on to the detail. The change of name of the Scrutiny committees I hope means they will become proper pre-decision scrutiny but I can’t tell as there are no details of what further changes are planned. I understand that all the Chairs and Vice-Chairs will be from the Conservative group. Even if this was all going to be done properly I don’t see that it balances out all the restrictions that are in this first lump of changes.

    Written Questions: The LibDems will get 5 of the 13. Admittedly there haven’t always been more than that at a meeting but with the other changes this will make it very hard for local councillors to raise things on behalf of their residents. Simple aritmetic means that only 1/4 of LD councillors will be allowed to ask a written question.

    Oral Questions: Allowing for asking questions and getting noticed by the chair, this could limit questions to about 8/9 per meeting, including Fire and Police Auhority. And that’s shared across the 69 councillors, or 59 if you exclude Cabinet.

    Cabinet Reports: Non-members of Cabinet will no longer be able to discuss decisions of Cabinet, unless they call it in. They can’t talk about it at Council any more and speaking at Cabinet is at the discretion of the Leader and is only expected to be by a ‘local’ member.

    Ad-hoc Groups: This is rather vague but there is a key phrase that has been inserted in the description to ensure the meetings qualify for Travel and Subsistence. This looks like a reward mechanism to me.

    There is a key section that illustrates the whole running theme:
    This from the actual motion:-
    (a) In the third from last line of section 11.03, delete ‘in consultation with the other political Group Leaders’.
    (b) In the second bullet point under ‘District area based LSPs’ delete ‘following consultation with the other Group Leaders and members of the LSP Board’.
    (c) In the second paragraph of section 11.07 delete ‘but only after consultation with the other political Group Leaders’.
    (d) In the third paragraph of section 11.07, delete ‘having due regard to the wishes of the other political Group Leaders’.

    So it’s Nick Clarke doing a 1930′s German Chancellor. (Oops!)

    The real question is, what is he planning to do to the Council that requires this iron grasp?
    Surely he has learnt the lessons of Suffolk?

  4. Andy pellew

    In the last year not one single Conservative has asked a written question – not one (stats on my blog).

    And yet they will now get the lions share of the questions?

    Additionally Group Leaders will now be able to filter and censor questions if there are too many – in what way is that good for local Councillors??

    I’m deeply opposed to this undemocratic centralising and poorly thought out change.

  5. Richard Taylor Article author

    The council leader designate, Nick Clarke, has been on the BBC Radio News to defend and explain his actions. Audio clip:

    Mr Clarke explains he doesn’t want the full council to spend its time debating decisions which have already been made.

    The newsreader says the proposals could make the council more like Parliament.

    The Labour Leader Tariq Sadiq was asked to respond later in the breakfast show:

    Tarqi Sadiq called the proposals anti-democratic and says he’s astonished the constitution can be changed so easily. He too drew parallels with Parliament, talking of “legislation” and how in Parliament such changes would have been debated line by line in a committee.

    Mr Sadiq describes the proposals as ridiculous; but says he isn’t confident he could convince a High Court judge they’re manifestly absurd – the threshold he says would be needed to overturn them in court.

  6. Richard Taylor Article author

    At the full council meeting the new leader Cllr Clarke made a speech in response to his election as leader. He spoke about empowering local councillors; this was made to jeers from opposition members due to the changes to the constitution he put forward. He said he believed in strong leadership, given the context of his proposals this prompted laughter from the oppositon.

    When it came to the debate on the constitutional changes the chair ruled that they could be considered under rules designed for urgent business and the usual notice period could be waived. This ruling was challenged by Liberal Democrats who said they hadn’t read the proposals; the Lib Dem leader said she had been given lots of different versions of the proposals the day before and wasn’t sure what was to be debated.

    The chair dismissed the concerns of councillors and upheld his own ruling.

    The Lib Dem leader then called for a recorded vote of the full council on a motion that the constitution item be skipped and the council move straight to the item after it on the agenda.

    A rollcall vote was held which saw all Conservatives back their leader and vote in favour of the constitution changes being debated. Other councillors all voted against, except the chair and vice chair who abstained.

    Two last minute amendments were introduced in the council chamber. One to reverse the deletion of Regional Spatial Strategies (top down housing targets) on the grounds the government hasn’t actually got rid of them yet. And deleting the mention of two Conservative members I highlighted in my article (though Lib Dems claim this left another similar reference elsewhere in the document).

    An impassioned debate then took place with Labour and LibDem councillors as well as the UKIP and Green members all speaking against the curtailment of councillor’s ability to ask questions at full council meetings.

    Cllr Whitebead spoke on the removal of power to set on street parking charges from Cambridge Councillors and centralising that in the Cabinet (who’re not Cambridge Councillors). She noted this move was not being done where there are Conservative controlled district councils, only for Cambridge where the council is Lib Dem controlled.

    Cllr Wilkins said the history of democracy is littered with tin pot dictators who changed the rules to suit themselves; he gave examples of ruling parties not telling the opposition where meetings were held but noted he wasn’t accusing Cllr Clarke of that … yet.

    Another Liberal Democrat said the Tories have taken their toys home and given up on democracy for Cambridgeshire.

    Lib Dem leader Cllr Fiona Whelan called Cllr Clarke’s approach “playground bullying tactics”.

    The meeting stopped for lunch. The chair asked if the debate could be wrapped up, but the LibDem leader insisted that all members who wanted to speak should be given the chance to given the importance of the matter under debate.

  7. Richard Taylor Article author

    Cambridgeshire County Council have provided me with an electronic copy of council leader Nick Clarke’s speech in support of the constitutional amendments proposed:

    I am pleased to move the recommendations set out at agenda item 9. I am grateful to the chairman for allowing the late submission of the additional paper.

    The changes are necessary to improve the political management of the council and to improve clarity and operational practice.

    As I have already discussed with opposition group leaders, there may be some very final minor changes and amendments, but these will be made in accordance with delegated powers.

    There is a significant section dealing with LGSS. The changes proposed reflect recent decisions by Northamptonshire County Council (NCC) full council to increase the scope of the functions that NCC delegates to LGSS.

    It also seeks to make the delegations clearer. One point to note. It talks about the post of LGSS managing director. This post is currently filled by the chief exec of NCC and there is currently no intention to make it a standalone post.

    Let me turn to the additional paper which deals with political management.

    I have watched the operation of this council and it’s committees with interest. I have also listened to members from all sides as to preferred ways of working and pondered on the impact on local people. Of course I have also looked at how other councils operate.

    I have sadly witnessed the development democratic deficit where Liberal Democrats divisions have not been represented in developing policy through the PDG process.

    This is in stark contrast to the minority parties who have played a significant role in shaping policy by actively engaging with the process. It is clear if politically opportunistic behaviour and point scoring is swept aside, members from all parties can make a significant contribution to this council and to the well being of the people of Cambridgeshire.

    As the new leader of this Council I am not prepared to let the boycott of policy development by the Lib Dems continue. It is unfair on the people of Cambridgeshire and a failure of democracy, which I lay at their door.

    At the heart of my proposals will be the local member, irrespective of political affiliation, a sentiment I know my opposition group leaders approve of.

    Cabinet members and officers will engage with local members much earlier and that engagement will be meaningful. Members will be informed about issues before they are in the press wherever possible.

    Policy development groups will be abolished. Cabinet members will from time to time convene informal ad hoc task and finish advisory groups to help form a view on emerging issues. These will be held in private.

    All party Overview and Scrutiny committees will be introduced to replace the current scrutiny committees. Not only will they look back at what has happened but forward to help shape emerging policy.

    This is the opportunity for members on all side if the chamber to influence policy development, not by wasting time reviewing decisions which have already been taken.

    We need to be more efficient in how we operate and that includes at full council. Endless discussions on information items that have already been aired in public made no sense to me.

    These committees will have Chairmen and Vice Chairmen who have demonstrated a desire to engage with policy development. This will not include opposition members.

    My proposed changes will put in place the constitutional changes necessary to provide a framework that the scrutiny management group can work within to develop the details.

    At Council, Members will be able to ask questions on any matter relating to the business of the council or matters which affect the County. It will be time limited to one hour.

    Up to a total of 13 written questions will be allowed allocated by proportionality.

    This is an opportunity for the council to look forward with structures fit for purpose.

    I commend these proposals to the council.

  8. Richard Taylor Article author

    The text of the above speech states that the informal advisory groups will be held in private. Lib Dems responding certainly thought that was the case and criticised it. I didn’t hear or note that he’d said that myself.

  9. Richard Taylor Article author

    Liberal Democrat Leader Fiona Whelan was just interviewed on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire. Compared with her, and her collegues’ performance in the council chamber her remarks were very muted. I think she did a poor job of getting across quite how damaging to democracy these changes could be; and how inappropriate it is to overhaul the constitution of the County Council with just a few hours notice of the proposed changes.

    Her interview:

  10. cobweb

    It’s undemocratic that the Chair decides whether the constitution can be voted on without proper notice. Somehow the fact that all the Tories were in favour but the minority against seems undemocratic too. Bit like voting and seeing that yes, one party got the most votes but put together the others had more.

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