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"Trust us, we're Tories" - Dacorum Borough Council Tories tell DBC Lib Dems

July 16, 2020 11:18 PM

Every Principal Council should set up structures to ensure the actions and decisions of the Council Executive and the policies of the Council itself are able to be scrutinised by councillors and by members of the public.

Dacorum Borough Council has set up three Scrutiny Committees to enable this process this be implemented. The Membership of the Committees must be politically proportionate but the Chairs and Vice-Chairs can be from any political party among the members.

Since May 2019 the compostion of Dacorum Borough Council has been 19 Liberal Democrats (the Opposition) and 32 Conservatives (the Administration). The Committees all have 13 members and the composition by party is 5 Lib Dems and 8 Conservatives (there are no DBC councillors from any other parties). This is the correct proportion of 37% Liberal Democrats. However across these three Committees there are 6 Committee Chairs and Vice-Chairs - and here is the problem. Of the 6 only one (a Vice-Chair) is a Liberal Democrat i.e. only 17%.

All Councillors have to agree to abide by the 7 "Nolan Principles" of Conduct in Public Life. The two most relevant are as below
4. Accountability

Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.

5. Openness

Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.

Scrutiny is important but with all the Scrutiny Chairs and 2 out of the 3 Vice-Chairs being Tories, the topics for scrutiny, the work schedules and the agendas of these 3 Scrutiny Committees are firmly under their control. They maintain that the Executive Members who run the Council are rigourously scrutinised at Conservative Group Meetings to an extent that is far more thorough that at the Scrutiny Committees themselves, and that the Conservative Scrutiny Committee Members are quite free to vote how they see fit when the official Scrutiny Committees take place. So that's all right then.

Oh no, it isn't. First of all the scrutiny at the Conservative Group Meetings takes place among a group of like-minded people rather than at the broader-based Scrutiny Committee proper, at which members of the public - at least in theory - could speak and even be co-opted. Secondly this process is not "open and transparent" as Nolan requires in Principle Five. Thirdly, because the members of the Scrutiny Committees are subject to prior influence from the Executive Members and the Group Leadership, they are very likely to come to Scrutiny with minds sympathetic to their own administration and already made up. Thirdly this obviously undermines the integrity of the scrutiny and weakens public confidence in the process to the extent that electors might doubt that "accountability to the public for decisions and actions" is adequately ensured, as in Principle 4.

It was to partially redress such concerns and to improve the effectivenss of scrutiny - and hence general governance - that Cllr Adrian England proposed and Cllr Claire Hobson seconded a motion calling on the Council to adopt the better practice of giving the Chairs of Scrutiny Committees to members of the Opposition. This would go a long way to further distancing the Executive and the Scrutiny Functions and so strengthening the scrutiny function and improving compliance with the Nolan Principles.

This move was defeated by the Conservative Group voting almost as a bloc against it - and rather making the point the Liberal Democrats had raised - amid rhetoric of hurt and protest that really boiled down to weakly telling the Liberal Democrats, "Trust us, we're Tories".