This morning I went to Cambridge Guildhall to view the register of members’ interests for Cambridge City Councillors.
I was particularly interested in finding out which, if any, councillors are members of :
- The Jesus Green Association
- The Old Chesterton Residents Association
- The Friends of Midsummer Common
I have been concerned that residents associations such as these have undue influence in the City of Cambridge for many years. In recent weeks I have been worried that councillors at committee meetings have been delegating too much to them; and I wondered if they were delegating important items to groups they were heavily involved in themselves. Earlier last month it appeared the only forum in which councillors would get to see the Jesus Green Lottery bid would be at the Jesus Green Association; this has now been fixed both with a presentation, and distribution of a summary of the consultation response, before a full council meeting and an agenda item at the West Central Area committee. I was also perturbed when the North Area committee allowed the Old Chesterton Residents Association the final say on the details of the works to be carried out at the Penny Ferry in Chesterton.
Often on the question of lighting green areas overlooking residents have quite different views to those using the area. For example I believe many people “commute” across a very poorly lit Jesus Green in the Winter months as a result of local residents having a disproportionate say in what happens on Jesus Green.
Cllr Blair has let me know that while local councillors do attend such residents meetings they do so as “observers” not “members” so don’t have to declare their memberships in the register of interests.
On contacting the council I was advised it would be helpful if I made an appointment before attending the Guildhall to view the register. When I contacted the council I also attempted to confirm that I would be allowed to take notes and obtain photocopies. I was surprised that the officer responding told me: “I’m consulting with the Head of Legal Services, as I’m not sure whether entries in the Members’ register can be photographed or photocopied.” Once the legal opinion had been obtained I was able to make my appointment, I was told that an officer would sit with me as I looked at the register, and would make any copies I asked for.
So at 11am on Friday the 5th of September 2008 I found myself sitting on the first floor of the Guildhall, at a table in the public area outside the Council Chamber with the register of members’ interests and a council officer sitting opposite me. The register is a file made up of the original forms completed by councillors. As councillors send in updates by email or phone the register is updated by officers, in the case of emails the correspondence is included in the file. The vast majority of councillors have filled in their forms by hand, with only one or two using an electronic version of the form. If all used an electronic version it would be much easier to make the content available online. I expect that I am unusual in being prepared to make an appointment and spend a couple of hours going into the Guildhall to access the register, it was all quite a faff. Putting it online as other councils do would make it more accessible.
The questions on the form are designed to fulfill the requirements of the The Local Authorities (Model Code of Conduct) (England) Order 2001.
I was viewing the file shortly after it had been audited by the Audit Commission in August, prior to that council officers had clearly chased up entries for a number of members prompting them to update their entries. It appears that without prompting many councillors were unable to work out that:
(f) Address or other description (sufficient to identify the location) of any land which I have a beneficial interest* and which is in the area of the authority. *Having a ‘beneficial interest’ means being the owner, landlord or tenant of land or property, other than under a trust.
(h) Address or other description (sufficient to identify the location) of any land in the authority’s area in which I have a licence (alone or jointly with others) to occupy for 28 days or longer
Meant that in many cases they had to declare where they lived. I agree the phrasing wouldn’t win plain English awards, but it is worrying that so many of our councillors didn’t understand these questions and failed to cite homes they either owned or rented. There are many aspects of council meeting papers which are significantly more obtuse.
It appears that council officers were concerned auditors would spot the fact that so few of Cambridge councillors appeared to own or rent property in the City and encouraged them to correct their entries prior to the audit.
Another shocking common omission was that many councillors who have stood as members of political parties failed to note their party membership in the register of members’ interests. Many sources of guidance on making entries in the register make clear that party membership, and political party based councillor associations, ward based association, region based party associations etc. must be included. The legislation requires membership of a “body whose principal purposes include the influence of public opinion or policy” to be disclosed.
These omissions mean I have little faith in other components of particularly these councillors’ entries in the register. If a councillor has forgotten to declare their party membership then perhaps they have forgotten to declare any support that party gave them during their election.
My local ward councillors have entries which contain the following:
Works for Plextek. He is a member of the National Trust, English Heritage and the RAC. Bodies whose principal purposes include the influence of public opinion or policy he is a member (or holds a position of general control or management in) are: Friends of Histon Road Cemetery, Liberal Democrats, No2ID and Liberty. He is also a member of the British Computer Society.
Mike Todd Jones
Works in the Chemistry Department of the University of Cambridge as a librarian. He is a member of the Labour Party, Friends of the Earth, Campaign against the arms trade and the campaign for nuclear disarmament. He is also a member of UNISON and or the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals.
Timothy Derek Ward
Is a member of the Liberal Democrats, he has an interest in 10 and 12 Harding way as well as 104 Perse Way. He is a member of the Professional Contractors Group, Greenpeace, the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors, and the British Computer Society.
A number of members of Cambridge’s North Area Committee list no party membership yet are, I believe on the balance of the available evidence, Liberal Democrats: Cllrs Upstone, McGovern, Holness and Blair. There are others in the rest of the City.
Cllr Armstrong, the Chair of the North Area Committee started work as an usher at Cambridge Magistrates court on 10/01/2008 but did not register this with the council until 12/08/08 and only then as she was prompted to do so by an officer.
I took a copy of Cllr Blair and Cllr Nimmo Smith’s entries and have made them available here. I note the addresses included are already widely publicly available on the Cambridge Liberal Democrats and Cambridge City Council Websites.
- Wrote to the City Council making suggestions for improving the register, particularly accessibility and providing better guidance to members
- Wrote to Cllr Blair with observations on her entry
- Wrote to Clls Upstone, Holness and McGovern noting that they didn’t mention their party membership
- Wrote to the Audit Commission noting these party membership omissions, and asking about how they audit the registers (While auditing other council’s registers, they even find undeclared directorships.)