Register of Members’ Interests – Cambridge City Council


Friday, September 5th, 2008. 6:29pm

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 :

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:

Alan Levy

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.

Observations

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.

Cllr Nimmo-Smith’s Entry on the Register of Members’ Interests as of 5 September 2008.
Cllr Blair’s Entry on the Register of Members’ Interests as of 5 September 2008.

Actions taken:

  • 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.)

12 comments/updates on “Register of Members’ Interests – Cambridge City Council

  1. Richard Article author

    Neale Upstone has responded to me on the question of his largely blank entry in the Register of Members’ Interests:

    Mr Taylor,

    I’m not inclined to spend time answering your questions when you say: “These apparent omissions give me little faith in the veracity of the rest of your entries.”

    If you want to make politics more accountable, which I certainly do (see links below), then I’d suggest that you ask questions before pre-judging the answers.

    You are basically accusing me (and Neil and Marian) of lying, based on assuming that what you describe as “omissions” is both correct and intentional.

    You could have instead awaited the answer, before pre-judging. Instead, you’ve just lessened my inclination to trust you to be a partner in what I am seeking to achieve.

    If you really are committed to making a difference in this area, then I’d suggest you don’t try doing so by unnecessarily insulting innocent people.

    Knowing the character of Neil, and Marian, I think I could vouch for them too.

    Sincerely,

    Neale Upstone

    Neale Upstone
    Liberal Democrat Councillor for Kings Hedges, Cambridge City Council

    Let’s have people power not big donor power http://politicalfundingwatch.blogspot.com Vote for the party committed to real change, the Liberal Democrats
    Read Nick Clegg’s first conference speech here http://www.libdems.org.uk/news/nick-clegg-promises-a-new-type-of-government.14005.html

    I replied

    Neale Upstone,

    I feel I have started here by asking questions, not pre-judging.

    I have read your links, and note you are able to write critical articles about the manner in which the Labour Party is funded largely because they are now open about their sources of support. However by deciding not to answer most of the questions on the Register of Members’ interests form you do not appear to have been open about your support and potential influences yourself.

    I am totally committed to making democracy work in this country.

    I did not intend to insult anyone; you might well have simply replied to explain your highly unusual entry in the Register of Members’ Interests.

    I have tried my best to act constructively following my experience of consulting the register though writing to individual councillors. I have also suggested the council improves the guidance and assistance it gives councillors in completing their entries, and have asked about the audit process; which apparently does pick up those not declaring interests in properties and companies but not those failing to declare party memberships. I also made suggestions for improving the accessibility of the register.

    Neale Upstone further replied suggesting that it is possible that his current entry in the Register of Members’ Interests consists of a form he had expected officers to merge with his previous entry on the register.

    This appears highly probable to me, and it is possible he has identified something which may affect other councillors too. I will look into this.

  2. Richard Article author

    Antoinette Jackson, Cambridge City Council’s Director of Customer and Democratic Services wrote to me advising me I may be in breech of the Data Protection Act by publishing personal information (the entries on the register of members interests) on my website.

    My response included:

    Bulletin 20 from the Standards Board states the Information Commissioner has given guidance that councils can publish their registers online.
    (http://www.standardsboard.gov.uk/Publications/TheBulletin/filedownload,16078,en.pdf)

    I see no difference between a council publishing a register entry and me doing so.

    I am concerned that perhaps Cllr Blair has persuaded this council officer to act on her behalf in a personal matter.

    I have decided to redact the user part of Cllr Blair’s Tesco.net email address, despite it having been widely published in association with her political activities. I note I published it as an ‘image’ and not text.

  3. Richard Article author

    Cllr Upstone has updated his entry in the Register.

    Unusually he decided to clarify in the register:
    “I no longer have a Tesco clubcard”.
    This made me wonder if Cllr Blair was trying to keep secret the fact she uses Tesco as her email service provider. (She visits my website following searches on Tesco.net.)

    Cllr Upstone’s other interests which he is now declaring include:

    • Member of the Liberal Democrat Party.
    • Green Liberal Democrats
    • Greenpeace
    • Amnesty International
    • Cooperative (supermarket) member
    • Member of the British Mountaineering Club (BMC)

    I find it interesting that many councillors of all parties and none in Cambridge are members of the same political organisations. If the whole register is made available electronically it might become easy to answer such questions as do organisations such as Liberty, Greenpeace and Amnesty have a “majority” on Cambridge City Council?

  4. Richard Article author

    Following from this thread I met Neale Upstone today and we discussed the register of members’ interests and transparency in government. We are both in favour of open democracy.

    Cllr Upstone is now considering declaring his membership of “Streetcar“, particularly in light of the fact the city council promotes the scheme and cooperates in providing space in their car parks.

    I was quite surprised to learn that Cllr Upstone is not in favour of one of the Liberal Democrat’s flagship policies – the abolition of council tax. I wonder how many people voted for him, seeing the “Liberal Democrat” badge and assuming he was going to campaign against the council tax. In fact he proposes fixing the council tax. He is a supporter of ALTER, the Lib Dem campaign for Land Value Taxation.

    Cllr Upstone also liked the idea of encouraging candidates to publicise their interests so that the electorate can see, for example, what political organisations their candidates are members of. This is the kind of thing which could be facilitated by the City Council in Cambridge and promoted by the parties. He was also in favour of a register accessible online.

    We discussed a range of other items too, from Jesus Green, to Policing to Planning.

    On planning he let me know the background to the Liberal’s Motion to Cambridge City Council this week:

    The Council therefore calls on all its members to take part in and vote on all other planning items on their area committee agenda

    This is apparently not simply a cheeky point scoring exercise criticising the Labour party for their principled objection to taking part in planning decisions but is aimed at some Liberal councillors too. Apparently there has been a planning decision recently with very few votes in favour, possibly only two, and many councillors either absent or abstaining.

    I note Cllr Clare Blair was absent from the Planning committee, which she is a member of on the 13 August 2008.

  5. Richard Article author

    Antoinette Jackson, the City Council’s Director of Customer and Democratic Services has written to me again to say:

    We are gradually updating the content of our website and my longer term aim is to make sure we do publish the register electronically.

  6. Richard Article author

    At a full council meeting on 11th September council officers were reminding selected councillors to update their entries in the register of members’ interests. I believe this was a result of my efforts.

  7. Richard Article author

    The register of members interests is now available online. That’s quite a welcome change in position from a year ago when a legal opinion had to be obtained before I could take a photocopy of an entry in the register and the council’s monitoring officer (now Chief Executive) warned me against publishing entries due to a breach in the Data Protection Act.

    Each councillors entry is available via a link next to their contact details at:

    http://www.cambridge.gov.uk/ccm/content/council-and-democracy/councillors/councillors-details.en

    Cllrs Blair, Upstone and McGovern have added membership of the Liberal Democrats to their declarations since last year.

    Cllr Upstone has also declared ownership of a plot of land near Heathrow, part of the “Air Plot” intended to prevent the building of a 3rd runway.

    Cllr Julie Smith is the only councillor to have placed a signed copy online; none have been countersigned by the monitoring officer.

  8. Richard Taylor Article author

    Councillors still appear not to be taking their declarations seriously.

    Cllr Anna Smith has declared under question 5. Licences – Any licence (alone of jointly with others) to occupy land in the area of Cambridge City Council for a month or longer; for example, a lease. that she:

    Owns a Flat

    Ownership of property should come under a separate question (so perhaps she owns a lease?), but in any case the entry is useless as it doesn’t give “the address or other description (sufficient to identify the location) of any land” – that phrase being the one used by many councils to describe the detail required on the declaration of interest.

    People give up a degree of personal privacy when they become councillors and consequently are required to make declarations.

    Different councils have different forms for the register of interests and they ask slightly different questions. I think what is required to be made public can be quite inconsistent and at times intrusive; especially when it comes to people’s partners, living arrangements, and membership of health related bodies. For example requiring a declaration of a membership of self-help group for a specific condition forces a councillor to reveal sensitive personal information.

    I would support councillors taking a stand against unwarranted intrusion if they did so clearly and accompanied any refusal to declare material with open and public lobbying of our MP.

    If candidates and elected representatives (and those nominating people for election) should have to make public where they live (if it doesn’t directly impact a specific decision before them) is a question without an obvious answer. Perhaps it should be up to the electorate – if candidates aren’t prepared to say where they live then that’s something people can take into account when casting their vote.

    I am concerned that overly intrusive requirements to declare interests might put people off standing for election or participating in how we run our society.

  9. Richard Taylor Article author

    In 2011 I challenged a Cambridgeshire County Council policy of allowing councillors to opt out of having their register of interests entry published online.

    See also all tweets mentioning RTaylorUK and “Register of Interests”.

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