How Argyll & Bute Works: The Budget Process Update at 16 May 2015

This is the latest on the scandal over the secretive and unconstitutional manner in which Cllr Walsh has handled the Service Choices programme which deals with potentially the largest cuts in the history of the council. See previous posts with a similar title for more information.

The summary position is that the so called Project Board, proposed by Cllr Walsh and agreed at the April meeting of the council’s policy & resources committee, is unconstitutional. I am now being told we have other unspecified powers to do this but I doubt this very much.

Yesterday morning I decided that the matter had to be taken elsewhere and I have referred it to the council’s audit committee and to the council’s performance, review and scrutiny committee. These are, rightly, chaired by external people, Martin Caldwell and Ian Ross. My email to them is shown below. The full email correspondence on this that was attached to the email can be downloaded at the link below.

full email trail re project board up to 15 May 2015

From: Breslin, Michael Sent: 15 May 2015 08:00 To: martincaldwell46@googlemail.com; MacDonald, Iain Angus; Blair, Gordon; Corry, Maurice; Trail, Richard; Sheila HIll Cc: Anderson, Kevin; Ian Ross (stmargaretsmanse@googlemail.com) (stmargaretsmanse@googlemail.com); Michael.Russell.MSP@scottish.parliament.uk Subject: Governance Issue Importance: High

Martin and others, good morning. I wish to raise with you a matter of great importance relating to the governance of this council. I am copying Ian Ross into this since this issue also has relevance to the PRS committee as it deals with scrutiny. I am copying Michael Russell MSP into this given the serious implications for local democracy.

We are all aware of the impending financial issues to hit all councils in 2016/17 and beyond. We are also presumably aware that these issues will be exacerbated in Argyll & Bute due to the declining population. The council is calling the process of addressing these issues Service Choices.

At the April meeting of the Policy & Resources Committee the first draft of Service Choices was discussed. I assume that this first draft was carried out by officers and the policy lead/council leader. In that draft there was a proposal to take some £52m of service costs out of the Service Choices programme and to concentrate any cuts in the balance of the budget. This made me ask a number of questions of officers and the council leader and I attended the meeting in April to ask further questions. I also asked, to no avail, that the Service Choices matter should be one that is considered by all elected members by way of series of seminars with final decisions being made by the full council.

The papers and the minutes can be found at:

http://abc2k30105:8080/ieListDocuments.aspx?MId=6611&x=1

You will see from the minutes that there was agreement to form a project board of 12 elected members and 2 trade union officials. Myself and Cllrs Vivien Dance, Bruce Marshall and Neil McIntyre were all effectively excluded from being on this project board because the council leader asked the leader of the SNP Group to nominate the 4 members of the opposition. The SNP Group leader did not ask any of the 4 other opposition members if they wished to be considered but that was probably a blessing given what I now know.

When no papers were issued for the project board and when I found out only by chance the date the project board was first meeting, I started to ask more questions. We are all well aware that the standing orders are quite clear about the process to be followed for official meetings of the council. They have been completely ignored in this case.

In contravention of the standing orders, no papers were issued for the first meeting of the project board in late April other than to the members of the project board. Other elected members were not even told there was meeting as far as I am aware. There were no minutes issued after the first meeting, merely an email from the council leader that didn’t say very much. We now know there won’t be any minutes, ever. I was told that at that first meeting the council leader got agreement from those present that the meetings were to be held in secret and that what was discussed in the room stayed there. He has not denied this. Why the others in the room went along with this I have no idea.

I made more enquiries and am now satisfied that the project board is unconstitutional in that there is no provision for it within the constitution. It looks to be an artificial construct of dubious legality (see email trail attached) that has the effect of denying every other elected member any information on the progress of what will be the largest cuts in budget this council has ever suffered. For there to be no papers or minutes and for the meetings to be secret without any legal basis means this process is beyond the scrutiny of all other elected members. Worse, the public then have no idea what is going on.

All elected members will only be involved towards the end of the process when the budget has to be set in February 16, with one possible seminar prior to that. Getting any change at that late stage will be well-nigh impossible.

Audit Scotland has rightly pointed out on more than one occasion that the levels of scrutiny in this council require to be improved but in my view scrutiny is bound to be worse with this kind of charade.

I have raised these issues with the chief executive, the monitoring officer and the council leader. All 3 have strongly defended what is going on but none has been able to point to any clause in the constitution that legitimises a project board of any nature in terms of the council’s constitution. There has been no attempt to justify the complete breach of standing orders. Just yesterday, I was told that Mr Hendry told the P&R committee that the council had general powers of competence to allow such a body to be created. Again, I suggest the attached is read for more information. I have put the full email trail in the attached and changed it to standard chronological order for convenience.

I consider this matter to be important and urgent. This apparently unconstitutional process will continue to be a block on effective scrutiny so it’s incumbent on either the audit committee or PRS (or both) to take a view on this as soon as possible. I suggest that, as a minimum, this issue is raised at the June audit committee or, ideally, at an emergency joint meeting of audit and PRS in the coming few weeks.

I have pasted below some text from CIPFA’s guidance for audit committees for information.

Thank you

Good governance is ultimately the responsibility of those charged with governance, as well as those with leadership roles and statutory responsibilities in the organisation, including the chief executive, the chief financial officer and the monitoring officer.

Michael Breslin

Independent Councillor, Ward 7 Dunoon

Author: Michael Breslin

I am no longer a councillor with Argyll & Bute Council but given the appalling treatment I got from the senior officers and a few elected members, I plan to continue keeping an eye on what the council is doing.

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