I wasn’t going to go to the Cabinet meeting at Rugby Town Hall last night. I had an operation to repair a hernia at St Cross last week and wasn’t sure if I’d be up to it. As the procedure went well and I was feeling fitter yesterday, I decided to trundle down there. Not that being there changes anything, but I wanted to see first hand how the Tories are handling the opposition to Craig Humprey’s new arrangement.
The first thing to bear in mind about how Rugby’s Public Question Time is that it’s not really like the one on TV. You have to send in your question in full by 10am on the previous working day. And when you get to the meeting, the answer has already been given in writing too. So what happens in the actual ‘Question Time’ part of the meeting is just reading out the text of both. The Public can’t add a supplementary question, or point out that their question has not, in fact, been answered.
The second thing to remember is that this has already been decided, and before it was decided it was being done. Public questions about things like the legality, the extent of savings, the lack of openness or alternative approaches are not going to sway them.
So here’s the full answer to my question:
You are wrong to suggest that many discussions of Council and Cabinet are taken in private. The vast majority of decisions are taken in public. Matters are only taken in private where reports contain exempt information as set out in legislation and the Council’s Constitution. These usually centre around the need to protect personal information or commercial confidentiality. We will continue to act in a way that is open and transparent
On the first point, it seems that Cllr Humphrey wants to make this a semantic debate about the definition of ‘many’. In the past year, Cabinet has taken 29 items in the ‘Part 2′ section of the agenda. Full Council has taken 9. Included in these are, bizarrely, items on the election of the Mayor & appointment of a deputy Mayor. They can’t even elect a Mayor in public?
On the wider answer, which merely states the legal position that they can’t openly discuss matters like individuals’ salaries or contracts yet to be signed, etc. this is still only part of the issue. Once a decision has been made, sometimes the details can become public. But the last sentence of the answer does not correspond to the answers given to a whole host of points made by others last night.
In total there were five people asking questions, and some were able to get several questions in at one go (have the Town Hall relented on their strict one-question-per-person policy?). It would take far too much space to go through all of them, and some were similar to each other, but here’s a precis of some of the basic points being asked, and the responses given:
- Will the Council publish the report used as a basis for their decision to give the Leader more responsibility, even a redacted version that ensures that privileged information is not disclosed?
- As savings were used as one reason for making the change, what percentage savings were indicated in the report?
A The report used the current budgets, and it would have been wrong to anticipate any changes to allowances or pay
- If the Leader is taking on more responsibility, do we need 6 Cabinet members – it could go down to 4?
A The arrangements were aligned with restructuring in 2006 and we believe them to be robust and fit for purpose
- Responses to Freedom of Information requests suggest that no legal advice (aside from that to keep the report confidential) was sought by officers or councillors – is this the case?
A “The options set out in the report did not raise any legal or constitutional issues that required specific legal advice”. I’ll take that as a yes
- The Leader has claimed that the electorate would not be interested, but there do seem to be a lot of people interested with letters in the press and comment on the internet. Will you retract that?
A There have been changes over the past few years and no-one from outside the organisation seemed to notice
So, basically, even a simple question like what kind of savings can be expected or whether the report used can be published in an edited form are met with evasive replies.
The press were there, and it will be interesting to see how they perceive it. Local paper journalists will usually find council business interminably boring (and frankly, even as an ex-councillor, I can see why it is not hugely exciting), and the way that Public Questions are presented doesn’t really help that. Certainly we are no closer to the truth than before, either.
Do we have to wait for remuneration reports before we work out that the savings are minimal? Do we have to wait until there’s a legal challenge before the Tories realise that something really smells about this?