‘What we have now is legitimate democratic challenge stifled at birth’ 

Cambs CC leader Steve Count

Cambridgeshire County Council Conservative opposition leader Steve Count. - Credit: Harry Rutter

It was November 12th, the end of a week where democracy and governance was attacked on all fronts. 

It was when I saw yet another decision made behind closed doors that I realised the final nail had been hammered home into the coffin, that carries the now limp body of democracy. 

The list so far

Abuse of chair’s emergency powers at the first meeting of full council 

De-prioritisation of health in the middle of a pandemic 

Dubious as to delegation decisions being made behind closed doors 

Cancellation of Wisbech secondary school 

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Chair’s attempt (leader of the council Lucy Nethsingha) to block a committee from discussing Wisbech secondary school. 

Lack of scrutiny and challenge as regular committee meetings moved from monthly to quarterly 

Reports diluted with essential information missing. 

Political blockages to be overcome in utilising audit and accounts appropriately 

Substitutes now able to be drafted in at 24 hours' notice, breaking away from national model rules of governance. 

Amendments not to be moved at full council, without two working days written notice. 

Amendments not to be moved at committees, without two working days written notice, allowing no allowances for debate or questions to officers. 

Five-minute speaking rule, arbitrarily used to incorporate questions of officers 

Failure to notify of important changes to papers. 

That decision, sorry but I can’t tell you, as gagged by the new administration as it’s apparently covered by confidentiality clause.  

The reason given was urgency; yet another one? Surely not!  

Have the officers under the new administration suddenly become completely hopeless at horizon scanning?  

I don’t think so.  

But when faced with waiting up to three months for a meeting, calling an emergency one with one week's notice, or issuing an executive decision, it seems that the secretive third option is now this administration’s default position. 

Surely a few decisions made behind closed doors out of public scrutiny would not amount to the end of democracy? 

Unfortunately, these are only the latest examples.  

The first act in power, abuse the council chair’s emergency powers, to reduce committee meetings from monthly to quarterly. 

At the same time de-prioritising health in the middle of a pandemic.  

The reason was urgency but no meetings were scheduled for a couple of months. 

Since then, we have seen an increase in the number of decisions made behind closed doors.  

Lack of time to get those decisions in front a committee quoted as justification.  

Yet the reduction in meetings from monthly to quarterly was this administration’s decision, and they ignore the fact extra committee meetings could be called within 7 days.  

Noticeably, the worst one of all, the cancellation of Wisbech secondary school, dealt with as a fait accompli, with no concern whatsoever from the administration of the impact on the area of greatest need on the whole county.  

The potential loss of £489,000 of taxpayers' money hidden and responses to vital questions held back by the administration until after committee meetings have been held. 

We are fighting to have the audit and accounts look into this particular decision.  

However, the Liberal Democrats appointed one of their own as chair and whether to look into this well be at his discretion.  

I fear that impartiality and independence of the audit committee may have been consigned to history, with this move, therefore I’m not positive if he will allow it.  

Which would be a repeat of the whipped children’s committee having already voted against an audit enquiry. 

As the scrutiny tightened and the exposure of these issues increased, was the joint administration's reaction to improve democracy and accountability? 

No, the very reverse as we discovered at full council this week.  

Model rules of governance, used by local government throughout the country jerrymandered in favour of changes to suit this chaotic administration’s difficulties.  

For example, the well-established rule of changing subs with five days' notice changed to 24 hours leaving them no real chance to appraise and examine the issues.  

Even before this rule was changed, the quasi cabinet the joint administration operates didn’t worry about upsetting their own newer members.  

This was then committee members were whipped to allow a substitute outside normal practise.  

The reason, not because they may be one short, but because they didn’t trust their newly appointed councillors with the job and insisted it must be one of their cabinet. 

An even more difficult change they implemented is the rule on amendments.  

Not just at full council but at every committee, should an amendment be proposed it needs to be submitted in writing at noon two working days before the meeting.  

With papers published five days before (and often late) that really makes it difficult for members to examine, question officers, discuss with colleagues any issues spotted that require an amendment to be voted on.  

What is worse is the vast majority of amendments at committee level come about due to questions and answers from officers leading to a conclusion.  

That is the purpose of debate and good governance.  

What we have now is legitimate democratic challenge stifled at birth.  

However, the constitution does allow chair’s discretion, the issue is we have already seen how politically biased that is at every level. 

In one committee the five-minute rule has been utilised to incorporate questions of officers, not just the debate.

 

At another, the strategy and resources committee, the chair (and leader) Cllr Lucy Nethsingha informed members she would hear no debate on the Wisbech secondary school issue.  

Only backing down when told she had overstepped the limits of her authority. 

What I am saddened to see is the joint administrations newly appointed councillors ready and silent acceptance to be led down this path and side lined so repeatedly by their own leadership.  

All I and my group are able to do is to shine a light on what is going on and perhaps draw an analogy to George Orwell’s animal farm.  

Recognising how quickly “four legs good, two legs bad”, was soon replaced by those who had gained power to “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” 


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