Inconvenient Questions

Just before the local elections kicked off officially, Rugby had a Full Council meeting. It lasted about 10 minutes, and had little business in it, except for a question from councillor. This is the exact text from the minutes:

QUESTIONS PURSUANT TO STANDING ORDER 10.

Councillor Miss Lawrence asked the following question of the Leader of the Council, Councillor Humphrey:-

“Given the number and nature of questions that have been presented to Council and Cabinet by elected members and the public in the last year, does the Leader of the Council consider the amount of officer and member time spent on this process is justified ?”

Councillor Humphrey to reply as follows:-

“Our aim as a local authority is to be lean and efficient. That way we can provide the services that the people of Rugby want. Enquiries are dealt with, wherever possible, at the first point of contact, driving waste from the system.
We are open and transparent. It is therefore frustrating to note the volume of work created for officers from quarters within this Council. It often does little to help us deliver our corporate strategy, distracts us from being efficient and is often used to appease a different audience.”

I’m still trying understand what it means. I did ask the Rugby Tory party what their view was, as the question was from a Conservative councillor, and the answer from the Leader of their group (and of the council). The tweeted response was less than helpful:

@DanivonUK Questions aren’t asked as a political group, you would need to ask the councillor who asked the question.

— Rugby Conservatives (@RugbyTory) April 25, 2014

I am detecting a pattern here – Tories don’t like “questions”.

But to go back to the point of Cllr Lawrence’s question, and the answer…

What is interesting about it is that it does not tell us how many questions have been asked, or how much they ‘cost’ to answer. I can think of a way to save officer costs, though. Perhaps instead of insisting that the public (and councillors) present their questions in writing, days in advance to officers, and perhaps if the answers were not pre-arranged, officers would have less to do.

And perhaps the ‘value’ of allowing councillors to ask questions freely is that they get to do their job – holding the Council itself to account, overseeing the work of the officers, and representing their constituents.

And perhaps the ‘value’ of allowing the public to ask questions is to hold the councillors to account.

It seems to me that the only bit of democracy that Craig Humphrey and his cronies like is the elections bit (because they have been winning them). But the part where people have an open debate, oh no, that gets in the way, “distracts us from being efficient” etc.

It was asking awkward questions that helped to scupper the waste of money that was the “pedestrianisation” in the Town Centre.

And I am perhaps to blame in part for the idea that people are asking unfair questions of our ‘lords and masters’ at the Town Hall. Earlier in the month, this was my question to the Cabinet (I could not make the meeting myself as I had done my back in that day):

(i) The following question was received from Mr Owen Richards. Mr Richards did not attend the meeting.
“In recent media articles, it has been reported that the Borough Council has changed an aspect of housing policy, particularly affecting people who are homeless and going through local shelters. What was the basis for this change, and was it change determined by officers with or without reference to the Cabinet member responsible – was there any consultation with other councillors or the public?”
For reference, an excerpt from the Rugby Advertiser: http://www.rugbyadvertiser.co.uk/news/local-news/homeless-figures-reachcrisis-levels-in-rugby-1-5920881
“Senior support worker Pete Wayman said many winter shelter guests automatically qualified for council help under what is called ‘band one provision’.
He said: “This meant that some guests were helped to leave the shelter and find accommodation much more quickly.
Published 9th April 2104
“The council housing team remain very supportive of us and do what they can but their recent decision to make winter shelter guests ‘band two’ only this winter has only added to our pressures.
“We have asked the council housing team to urgently reconsider this decision.”
Councillor Humphrey, Leader of the Council, responded as follows:
“The council has a responsibility to allocate fairly the limited number of council homes to local people. Prior to the review of the allocations policy in May 2013, on which we consulted widely in line with the Warwickshire Compact, local homeless people were being given different priority for housing depending on whether or not they had approached the winter night shelter or not. Now homeless people living rough or sofa surfing are placed into Band One, a high priority for social housing, if they are so vulnerable that the council has a statutory responsibility to house them, regardless of whether they have visited the winter shelter or not. Homeless people who are less vulnerable are placed into Band Two, which still gives them a good chance of being offered a council home. The council continues to work closely with people allocated this lower priority to find them housing with other providers, such as housing associations or private landlords.
Most recently, the council has had a number of discussions with those managing the winter night shelter, HOPE4, on this issue since the opening of this year’s night shelter, in part to discuss with our community partners the reasons for the changed approach.
As we review the allocations policy later this year, we will again be consulting widely with local community groups in line with the Warwickshire Compact. We are happy to revisit this issue then, but I must be clear that fairness in letting scarce public housing will be at the centre of any changes”

First of all, I don’t understand why Craig Humphrey answered, rather than the Cabinet Member responsible for Housing. Secondly, this does not actually answer my question.

It really is simple – who changed the policy? Which councillors were involved or consulted? Why can’t you share with the public the ‘reasons for the changed approach’?

I tell you what, these question thingies may or may not be ‘value for money’, but perhaps if the leader of the council answered them (and truthfully), it would help a lot.

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