Was this an attempt to put the final dagger in the heart of democracy in Barnet Council?

Well, if it was - it had failed, and we have successfully defended our democratic rights. Reports Barbara Jacobson:

Yes we can!

Yes we did…

The Constitution, Ethics and Probity Committee, which ran out of time last week before it could vote on the revisions to the constitution, met again on Wednesday, 10 April at 7pm in Hendon Town Hall. Cllr M. Cohen, the chairman, sat in the middle of one long table, flanked by at least six council officers, only two of whom spoke during the meeting; presumably the others are there in case they are needed. Opposite Cllr Cohen sat the vice-chairperson and the eight other councilors on the committee, one of whom said nothing at all at any time during the meeting … as usual; presumably Cllr Strongolou was there just to ensure the Tory majority was maintained during a vote. At the table between the two sides was a chair and microphone for use by members of the public who would ask questions and make comments. Some little distance behind this chair were the rows of chairs for the public, who are so important to these meetings. So far, just like all recent committee meetings.

Making sure he did not repeat the mistake of last week, Cllr Cohen announced that there were 43 public questions and a supplementary question would be allowed for each one. So it wasn’t the same mistake, but a new one: there were only 31 questions. Derek Dishman was responsible for 29 of them. He didn’t need to ask supplementals for those where the answers showed that the errors he had pointed out would be corrected, but he did try hard to get the chair and officers to provide time frames where the words ‘regular’ and ‘regularly’ were used to indicate the frequency of reviews, and to get clarification where different terms are used for a single category. Thus he proved the value of public questions. Nothing unusual about that.

Next it was time for public comments. The chair said there would be six speakers (in the event, one speaker was unable to attend), and that certainly seemed more than usual. Once again Derek Dishman took to the microphone, followed by Barbara Jaccobson, Julian Silverman, Daniel Hope and Bob Jacobson. You can read some of these statements on the BAPS website and perhaps view them on YouTube. The comments were fairly wide ranging, with several explaining why removing the right of residents to ask questions at scrutiny meetings would be a bad idea, suggestions for greater codification and clarity, and Julian’s motion for a conference of councillors, council staff and residents ‘to thrash out a new constitution to help restores our council, our services and our community’, which was seconded and ‘passed’ by the public in the gallery.

There were some Tory councilors who seemed to find one of the speakers amusing for no reason, and there was Cllr Strongolou who paid no attention to any of the speakers, so nothing new there. But, on the whole, all the councilors (except Cllr Strongolou) looked at the people speaking and appeared to be listening. This and the fact that there were hardly any questions directed at the speakers, none from Tory members and none that were contemptuous or dismissive, were notable differences from other recent meetings.

The rest of the meeting seemed different too: opposition councilors argued strenuously for the ‘six-month rule’ to be removed at area forums and committee meetings, and although they did not succeed outright, it was agreed that the issue would be discussed at the next meeting of the committee and it was then agreed to reschedule that July meeting to precede the Full Council meeting the same month. Cllr Scannell’s only contribution of the evening was to accuse the opposition councillors of ‘playing to the gallery’ with these efforts, which received the angry refutation it deserved. Please send in your thoughts about Area Forums – for example, about the restriction on what you can talk about, the six-month rule – to Barry Rawlings ([email protected]), Alan Schneiderman ([email protected]), Alison Moore ([email protected]) or Jack Cohen ([email protected]).

Many of Barry Rawlings’ amendments were accepted outright. It happened so quickly there was just time to register that there was a different tone at this meeting, one slightly more open to the views of people other than the Tory hierarchy.

Now here’s what you’ve been waiting for: by the time we got to the meeting an addendum had been submitted deleting the new Section 5.3, the one removing the residents’ right to ask questions at scrutiny committees. Yes, we won, we did this – it would not have happened without our opposition – and we won some time after the last meeting, because that is where we first raised our objections. We were given a copy of the addendum before this meeting began, but we made our speeches anyway. People might argue about the size of the victory in view of the huge battles we are fighting, but make no mistake, this is an important victory for several reasons: it protects a democratic right, it is the first time the Tory majority has dropped a proposal because of our opposition, and therefore it acknowledges our power. That should give us strength as we go forward, enhancing that power as we get closer to the elections in 2014.

* * *

The Call For Action that worked; published here 24 March 2013:

You would think with the national publicity around the judicial review in the High Court this week, that Barnet Council would seek to avoid further bad publicity, but I suppose after 11 years of power and with a massive majority they believe they are untouchable!

Which is why we must thank the ever vigilant Barnet Blogger ‘Mr Reasonable’ for warning us who care about local democracy about this latest attempt to close down any semblance of scrutiny and local accountability here in One Barnet.

This Thursday 28 March 2013 at 6 pm (just to make sure no resident can attend) we have the Constitution, Ethics and Probity Committee which should be renamed “The Farcical Constitution, No Ethics and No Probity Committee”

It is quite simply breathtaking that at a time when the Council is literally in the dock (High Court) about consultation they seek to implement this:

5.3 Public questions are not permitted at Overview and Scrutiny Committees when they are considering call-ins or undertaking pre-decision scrutiny of executive decisions.” (APPENDIX M Section 4 – Public Participation and Engagement)

If this had been implemented earlier it would have meant all of the public questions on the big One Barnet outsourcing decisions would have been refused. Secondly, with the DRS outsourcing project still to be brought before scrutiny committees it would mean residents will not be allowed to ask questions at both of these committees.

Anyone who has the time and cares about Barnet should write to all councillors on this committee an urge that this proposal is withdrawn.


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