September 2008 Strategy and Resources Scrutiny Committee Cambridge


Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008. 1:50am

I attended the Strategy & Resources Scrutiny Committee, of Cambridge City Council, on Monday the 1st of September. My primary reason for attending was to speak in response to the internal review of the Council’s use of powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).

The meeting was held in a large meeting room, (meeting room 1), in Cambridge Guildhall. While there were only nine councillors on the committee, there were at least that number of senior council officers in attendance. These included the Chief Executive, The “Head of Legal”, the Human Resources Director, the Director of Community Services, Alistair Wilson (Who appears to have a huge range of titles from Green Spaces Manager to Safer Communities Coordinator), and the head of Accountancy. All were sat around a very large oval table, behind place markers indicating their names and/or positions. For councillors these were colour coded according to party membership. There was no portrait of the monarch, or other royalty on the wall, there was modern art above the chair, and line drawings of Cambridge Street scenes on another wall. St. Edward’s church, which was flying the Union Flag could be seen out of the full length windows, which were open letting the sounds of Peas Hill and the Market Square pervade the meeting.

A Liberal member of the committee was absent, and the alternate Cllr Blair “could not attend because it is the school holidays”. I wonder how many of Cllr Blair’s constituents realise she doesn’t represent them for significant chunks of the year when the schools are on holiday? I note she also did not attend August’s North Area Committee Meeting.

Climate Change

The climate change strategy and action plan was discussed first. Cllr Howell (Conservative) provided the only opposition to the report recommending a focus on each of the areas of – Council, Industry and Individual.

Equalities Review

The Annual Equalities Review was up next; and it was revealed that some councillors had been on training courses, apparently paid for by public funds to enable them to learn about the Muslim faith and Muslim culture. It was also reported that council officers were supporting those wishing to build a new Mosque in Cambridge.

The next group of items were those referred for scrutiny by the Labour opposition group on the council.

Medium Term Strategy

The first was the medium term strategy, which appeared to me to be a high level budgetary report. Cllr Howell opposed the year on year increase in the council tax, and noted the overall strategy appeared to be to set the council tax at a point slightly below the maximum allowed and then make the rest of the numbers add up to fit that.

The amount being spent on busses, under the free travel for older people scheme was discussed. Cllr Howell suggested negotiating with Stagecoach rather than paying the amount they were demanding. He further suggested that the council should take over, or threaten to take over a commercially viable bus route in the city to use as a bargaining chip in his proposed negotiations. He was promptly shot down by Cllr Nimmo-Smith who stated; “Thatcher had passed legislation which prevented us doing that”, a council officer interjected – “certainly if it is profitable”.

RIPA – Review of use of powers

Having sat though about two hours of the meeting to reach this point, the agenda item I had come for was reached. My speech, and the response to it is available via this link. Councillors demanded a further more informative report on the council’s use of its RIPA powers, and its use of surveillance more generally to be brought to a future meeting of the committee.

Dispersal Orders

Next a dispersal order was up for scrutiny. It is following my campaigning throughout 2007 that all dispersal zones authorised by the council leader are now taken to scrutiny committees. Councillors asked sensible questions, such as the potential of displacement to areas removed from the zone. Cllr Nimo-Smith spoke in a manner which reassured me he realised this was a very draconian tool, the use of which was not to be taken lightly. Councillors did not discuss how well these orders can be enforced by the courts. Cllr Nimmo-Smith explained how they were mainly intended to deal with “street life individuals”, “those who live a more chaotic life than is desirable”. However the law treats everyone equally, and any group of two or more people is liable to be dispersed by a police officer or PCSO.

It was reported that two new “dispersal orders” are now available to use in Cambridge, “Section 20″ and “Section 27″. The Safer Communities Coordinator described one of these new orders as: “A mini-dispersal zone around an individual rather than an area”. The Director of Community Services said this was a section 27 order. Section 30 refers to the Anti-Social behavior act, sections 20 and 27 of which refer to parenting orders. I believe the officers were talking gibberish at this stage of the meeting.

The council leader left at this point, despite the main function of this meeting being to scrutinise his decisions and hold him to account

Supply of Fuel for all fleet vehicles

Cllr Howell asked why there was a need for a 5 year contract.
The council has a contract for the supply of fuel at a discount, there is no future fixing prices, prices the council pay track market prices.
There is a contract for emergency supply with a secondary supplier.
A discussion on the efficiencies gained by moving to LPG was held.

Appointments to outside bodies

Cllr Herbert asked when he would be able to scrutinise council appointments to the Cambridge United Charities board. I don’t think he got a reply.

Quayside Steps

Photo of the Quayside steps in Cambridge, showing the drop between the last step and the current water level
Emergency action had been taken by officers and the Council Leader Ian-Nimmo Smith had approved the installation of a gate on the steps at Quayside. This followed the council becoming aware that the centre steps at Quayside are being used in connection with independent punt operations in a manner that presents a significant danger to members of the public. Officers reported that there had been another incident on the day of the meeting involving an elderly gentleman, who had presumably fallen in the river. The council’s health and safety officer had advised the steps were dangerous and it was this which resulted in the requests for urgent action.

Cllr Herbert wanted to ask questions surrounding this decision. The Chair of the meeting Cllr Taylor was very reluctant to allow him to do so. She stated the decision had already been made, and was “not up for debate”. Cllr Herbert tried again: “I was hoping to make a couple of points”, he was again rebuffed and had to become quite forceful addressing the chair: “As the chair of scrutiny your role here is surely to assist scrutiny”. Mr Herbert was then able to explain how he was concerned about the use of emergency / urgency procedures, as there was clearly time for this committee to have been consulted. He also commented that there had been no consultation with those who the decision affects.  The “Head of Legal” explained that the council was seeking to establish its ownership of Quayside with the land registry; as the Cam Conservators, (Which the Council Leader is a member of) won’t give their consent to the gates until the council can prove they own the land. It was confirmed that this process would take quite some time; the officer said: “it won’t be quick”.
Cllr Ward, also a Cam Conservator, confirmed this, so there is no chance of getting the gates installed quickly.

What is the point of a scrutiny committee if its members are not able to scrutinise and debate the executive councillor’s decisions? I was very surprised to learn this committee thought it could not overturn the decision, or at least refer it back to the leader with advice or up to the council (presumably it actually can).

The next items were potentially confidential, and members confirmed on being asked by the chair that they wanted to discuss confidential matters.

The chair of the meeting read out some “official wording” citing various Acts of Parliament giving the committee the power to exclude the press and public. The committee didn’t actually vote on it though. I left the meeting at this point feeling as if I can now empathise slightly with those who have been “Read the Riot Act”.

4 comments/updates on “September 2008 Strategy and Resources Scrutiny Committee Cambridge

  1. Richard Article author

    I have written to Mr Roberts to ask him to clarify his comments on the new: “Mini Dispersal Zones Around Individuals”.

    Mr Roberts,

    During Monday’s Strategy & Resources Scrutiny Committee you reported verbally that two new “dispersal orders” are now available to use in Cambridge, “Section 20″ and “Section 27″. You described one of these orders as: “A mini-dispersal zone around an individual rather than an area”. The Director of Community Services then said this was a section 27 order.

    Could you please point me towards further information on these new powers; their formal title and a reference to the relevant Act of Parliament would enable me to research them further.

    I note Section 30 refers to the Anti-Social Behaviour Act, sections 20 and 27 of which refer to parenting orders.

    Richard Taylor

  2. Richard Article author

    I have written to the committee manager pointing out two flaws with the agenda; hoping that they can be addressed for future meetings.

    As you know I attended the Strategy & Resources Scrutiny Committee on Monday.

    I would like to make some comments on the agenda.

    Under the heading :

    “NON KEY ITEMS REFERRED FOR SCRUTINY BY LABOUR GROUP”

    Items included the:

    The RIPA Report
    The Dispersal Zone

    In the case of the RIPA report the council leader stated at the meeting that he had ensured it was on the agenda, not the Labour Group. In fact I believe both wanted it to be discussed at the meeting.

    In the case of the Dispersal Zone, the agenda itsself states this item is on the agenda because it is council policy to bring these before the committee.

    As neither of these items were on the agenda solely because they were referred for scrutiny by the Labour group, I think to include them under this heading was misleading.

    I would like to suggest that one way of improving the clarity of the agenda would be to title the section: “Non Key Items Referred for Scrutiny by Members”, with a note next to each item identifying the member/group who put it on the agenda.

    Also as I am commenting on the agenda I would like to note that the “Decisions for the Leader” were grouped together and taken first and the “Decisions for the Executive Councillor, Customer Services and Resources” followed. The council Leader left when ‘his section of the meeting’ was over. However the decision on the Quayside steps was misplaced. It was according to the report a decision taken by the Leader, but it was placed on the Agenda directly under the heading of: “Decisions for the Executive Councillor, Customer Services and Resources”. I believe this error resulted in the Leader not being present to participate in the discussion on this item.

  3. Richard Article author

    Mr Roberts has replied to clarify.

    I was referring to s.27 Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006. Directions to individuals who represent a risk of disorder.

    These powers enable the police to give anyone aged 16 and over a direction to leave a locality, to minimise the risk of alcohol-related crime or disorder arising and/or taking place.

    The Cambridge Community Safety Partnership in May discussed how these powers could be used in areas where dispersal zones under S.30 of the Antisocial behaviour act were removed.

    The powers came into force on the 22nd August 2007. Cambridgeshire police claim they were among the first in the country to use the powers in Peterborough in February 2008. They are now being described as “new powers” in Cambridge.

    I cannot currently find any evidence PCSOs can use these new powers, where as they can enforce dispersal zones.

  4. Richard Article author

    Cllr Blair has responded to this article:

    Mr Taylor, I note that on your website you have written the following:

    “A Liberal member of the committee was absent, and the alternate Cllr Blair
    “could not attend because it is the school holidays”. I wonder how many of
    Cllr Blair’s constituents realise she doesn’t represent them for significant
    chunks of the year when the schools are on holiday? I note she also did not
    attend August’s North Area Committee Meeting.”

    I take great exception to that. My record of attendance at Council meetings is exemplary and the North Area Committee in August was the first one I have missed as it coincided with a two week holiday, my first holiday in two years as it happens. I assume you are not saying that councillors are unable ever to have holidays and as I choose not to take my children out of school during term time any holiday will inevitably fall in the standard school break.
    I was unable to attend as alternate at Strategy and Resources as I was on a planning training course, together with the Chair of the Planning Committee, for which I had sent my apologies some time previously.

    If you are to write about me please ensure that your facts are accurate.

    With regards,

    Cllr Blair

    I replied:

    >On 6 Sep 2008, at 21:53, Clare Blair wrote:

    >I was unable to attend as alternate at
    >Strategy and Resources as I was on
    >a planning training course

    This is not what was reported to the meeting by the chair. It was noted you were the designated alternate for the Liberal Democrats, but “could not attend because it was the school holidays”.

    I have accurately reported what was said to the meeting by the chair. I am happy to publish your version too.

    Richard.

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