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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.