Interest declaration: The author is a member of a trade union and a member of the media affected by this law change.
There was an Any Other Business item at Wirral Council’s Cabinet last night, with a recommendation from Surjit Tour, the Acting Director of Law, Human Resources & Asset Management (which was agreed). It seems to be in response to a point I made a week ago by email to a Wirral Council councillor when the Cabinet agenda was published and follows on from this blog post, as the law referred to came into effect on the 10th September 2012.
I had previously brought it up with my trade union, that Wirral Council didn’t seem to be complying with the new law, which is why I followed the approach suggested and brought it up with Wirral Council’s legal team and the people involved. One councillor on the Cabinet has asked for an email about it which I will write in the near future.
That Cabinet authorises the Council’s Chief Officers to seek all requisite consents and/or agreement on behalf of Cabinet from relevant persons as required by The Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 where an item to be considered by Cabinet includes exempt information and it is not possible to provide at least 28 clear days notice of that item.
Personally, it’s not quite resulting in the outcome of considerably more openness and accountability I had hoped for (although most legislation has caveats and loopholes that can be exploited). It is however, a step in the right direction as it (hopefully) provides a check and balance on the executive power of the all-Labour Cabinet’s future attempts to make decisions behind closed doors resulting in less scrutiny from the press and public, as really (because to do so without giving 28 days notice they have to first seek consent from the Chair of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee first) should (unless officers and councillors are deliberately trying to make an administration make major decisions in secret) only happen very rarely.
This seems to be one small step on the way to complying with the legislation (whether the spirit and intent behind the legislation is followed depends how Wirral Council implement it in practice), which means regulation 5(2) and 5(3) don’t have to be complied with (see regulation 5(6)) if the part of the meeting held in private is “urgent and cannot reasonably be deferred” and they get the agreement of the relevant Chair of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee (or if they’re not available others are mentioned)).
Personally as last night’s Cabinet meeting (it wasn’t a special meeting but a regular one) was in the calendar of meetings decided on the 12th April 2012 and it was a matter that had been known about since 26th June 2012, why wasn’t the 28 clear days notice given (which would’ve had to have been given around the end of August 2012)? Well firstly, the Colas matter did need urgent attention (as Colas have been behaving churlishly since the public interest report by the Audit Commission as to how the contract was awarded to them was published and announced they don’t want the contract past 2014. So who’s Cabinet Portfolio does these two items fall under? It’s Cllr Harry Smith’s (Labour), the Cabinet Member for Streetscene and Transport.
Personally I think it should be the relevant Cabinet Member or Cabinet asking for consent from another councillor rather than Chief Officers on their behalf, although the legislation can be interpreted in different ways. In my opinion what was agreed last night puts too much power in Chief Officer’s hands, whose powers of persuasion over Wirral councillors are well-known.