Saturday, 27 July 2013

"Democracy Is A Minority Issue"

Both Autonomous Mind and Richard North have superb pieces on the arrogance of local councils, specifically Brighton and Hove, and their refusual to hold a referendum on any proposed council tax increase:
The referendum rule is mad. It’s not really workable and would cost about £300,000 to run.
As AM notes:
There you have it.  A sitting councillor who no doubt prattles on about ‘democracy’ and the ‘wishes of the people’ when trying to get elected, declaring that having to seek our democratic consent for a raid on our personal wealth, is unworkable.  In other words, the council should be allowed to demand what it likes and to hell with what residents think.
Quite. Though I guess there is one positive outcome - it is clear validation of at least one of the Harrogate Demands of "no taxes or spending without consent". Local councils would not be so vigorously against the idea of referendums if they did not work.

Arrogance and a sense of entitlement. Recently an acquaintance of mine has had a similar experience courtesy of Oxfordshire County Council via email albeit on a rather more modest issue than one of spending our own money.

As I noted in May the recent local elections saw the Conservatives lose control of Oxfordshire County Council which lead to one of the incumbent Tory councillors losing his temper at the count. Four Independents were elected but after the election three of the four opted to form a “Conservative – Independent Alliance” (Lynda Atkins for Wallingford, Mark Grey for Benson and Cholsey and former Labour Councillor Les Sibley for Bicester West), thus ensuing that the Conservatives would retain effective control of the council after a deal had been struck:
The alliance means the independents will support the election of Tory leader Ian Hudspeth on Tuesday and add their weight to the party’s budgets for the next four years, but they will not sit in the cabinet. 
Occurring as it did after the election had taken place meant the deal had no reference to the electorate's wishes and certainly had no mandate on which the independents were elected (interestingly the only independent who has remained so and upheld his promises is the one that represents me - but then I know where he lives).

The leader of this independent grouping (if that is not an oxymoron) is Lynda Atkins (from Wallingford) and she has publicly stated, in what is an attempt at some sort of a defence, the following (my emphasis):
It’s not an administration, it’s not a coalition, we’re calling it an alliance. We’re not joining the Tories. This is something which fits the current circumstances, something that will work right here and right now.

We believe that what we have done is very much in the best interests of our constituents and all the other residents of Oxfordshire. I think we always have to go back to our voters and explain our decisions, and this will be no exception.
A crucial element in explaining to voters decisions that have been made is to have the voting records of local councillors made as a matter of public record. I'm not sure how well known this is but there is no statutory requirement for councillors to record their votes. Conversely it is a matter of public record just how our MPs vote in Parliament (and indeed the EU Parliament as well) but there is apparently no such equivalent requirement for county councillors to demonstrate transparency to their electorates.

There is the option at county council for someone to publicly wish for their vote to be recorded in the minutes but crucially it is not compulsory - for most votes only the overall result is recorded. However, any councillor can ask for the way they voted to be added to the minutes. Similarly, if there's sufficient support among the councillors at a meeting, the votes of each member can be recorded.

As Oxfordshire County Council do not keep records of councillor voting records, not unreasonably due to the "deal" done, an enquiry was made via email to Lynda Atkins of which the following is an extract:
That in the interests of open, honest and transparent governance, you agreeing to the publication of your voting records is the only manner in which your electorates can have faith in your promises to hold the conservative minority administration to account.
After a delay in response and further promoting for a reply, Lynda Atkins eventually responded in a revealing manner (I publish her replies without permission in respect of her views of explaining decisions to the voters):
I prioritise emails and deal with non-urgent ones such as this when time allows, and am happy to take 3 or 4 days if that means I can focus on more urgent matters earlier.

The way in which County Council votes are taken is entirely different from that in Parliament, and recording who votes how is very cumbersome and time-consuming.  Yours is the only request I have ever come across (in 5 years on the County Council) for votes to be routinely recorded, so there does not seem to be a broad wish among residents for that to happen.  Given the problems of introducing a routine system of recording votes, I would not support it.
Intriguingly Atkins lets us know what she thinks are urgent issues as per the first paragraph, then makes assumptions on the "broad wishes" of residents (who actually may be unaware that votes are not recorded and would welcome them if informed that was the case), then with a flourish she decides that such a process would be "very cumbersome and time-consuming". Atkins presents no specific evidence of that of course and nor can she since she has no experience given Oxfordshire County Council do not implement such a system.

It's unacceptable that we have no public record of how councillors vote - using the excuse of cost to hide the workings of the council is simply arrogant, particularly in a public organisation with a budget of nearly £600 million. Ensuring transparency and accountability via voting records can be done relatively simply - for example recording such things in the minutes or by a method that the use of a piece of paper, pen and a pair of scissors cannot solve. The Ventnor Blog - Isle of Wight's local site - showed a possible low cost way in 2011:
We thought it would be helpful for you to know how your local councillor voted, so have built a system to let you know. We’ll endeavour to update it live as the votes are being taken.
Atkin's concerns therefore look suspiciously more like concealing her decision-making than a concern for public savings. Further reiterated by a subsequent email in response to one that pressed her on the above points:
All I can do is to repeat what I said previously, that you are the only person who has mentioned this as an issue.  I was not 'surprised' at your request, but I do believe that it is very, very much a minority view. 
Thus in the words of an "elected" councillor a moderate request for democracy becomes "very, very much a minority view".

Here we have a small number of councillors (three), holding the balance of power in Oxfordshire County Council who then refuse to let their electorates see just how they intend to support this failing council. Lynda Atkins' statement about “explaining decisions” is entirely worthless if she, and the rest, refuse to let the public know how they voted.


  1. Yes, excellent pieces and we have the problem in our council too.

  2. Quite agree, we need to introduce some transparency into local government.