HOW ARGYLL & BUTE WORKS: THE BUDGET: NOW MSP ASKS QUESTIONS

I have been in Inverness the last 2 days at the Community Land Scotland conference, of which more later this weekend. For now, back to the scandal of Cllr Walsh’s undemocratic activities in concealing from the public and most councillors what is being discussed.

Michael Russell MSP has tabled the following questions in the Scottish Parliament. I will publish the replies when they appear.

S4W-25688 Michael Russell: To ask the Scottish Government what redress is available to a councillor who is refused access to papers regarding the local authority’s budget and the development of financial plans.

S4W-25689 Michael Russell: To ask the Scottish Government whether the power of general competence available to a local authority allows it to establish committees that (a) take no minutes, (b) do not permit their papers to be distributed to councillors who are not members of the committee, (c) forbid councillors who are not members of the committee to attend and (d) meet in private and exclude the public at all times.

S4W-25690 Michael Russell: To ask the Scottish Government whether it considers that the establishment of a local authority committee that (a) met in private and excluded the public at all times, (b) took no minutes, (c) refused councillors who are not members of the committee access to its papers, (d) refused councillors who are not members of the committee to attend and (e) gave no indication of the means by which its recommendations would be published or issued for final decision by the local authority would be consistent with best practice in local authorities in the development of budgets and financial plans.

More of Argyll & Bute and how it works, or not.

I regret the fact that this blog seems in many ways to be one that is having a go at Cllr Walsh but the reality is that much of what goes on in Argyll & Bute revolves around his way of operating. That way of operating seems designed to ensure that he has maximum power and control, to nobody’s surprise. This appears to have been the way things have worked in Argyll & Bute for many years as far as I can see so let me illustrate some of the things I mean.

On a number of occasions he has found a way to bypass at least 4 elected members, myself and Cllrs McIntyre, Dance and Marshall. There is a generally accepted ratio of administration councillors to opposition councillors when appointments are made to committees etc but by passing the 4 of us, Cllr Walsh disenfranchises 4 councillors and he is aided and abetted in this by the SNP Group accepting this unfair ratio. The SNP Group is therefore helping Cllr Walsh whether they know it or not. But they should know, and they ought not to do it.

Have a look at the correspondence below as but one example:

From: Breslin, Michael Sent: 14 May 2015 12:19 To: Walsh, Dick Cc: Hendry, Douglas; Macintyre, Neil; Dance, Vivien; Marshall, Bruce Subject: Ratio of administration to opposition

Cllr Walsh, can you explain to us please why you have an 8:4 ratio for, say, the project board we’ve been in correspondence over and why all 4 opposition places were offered to the SNP Group? The ratio is correct but the way it’s been used is not.

There are 13 members in the opposition, ie myself, Bruce, Vivien and Neil plus the 9 SNP members but with the 4 places being offered to the SNP Group the 4 of us have effectively been cut out of things, no doubt by accident. I know that 3 of the 4 have never been taken into account so I assume Neil is in the same position.

Thank you

Michael Breslin

No reply from Cllr Walsh so a reminder is sent on 20 May:

From: Breslin, Michael Sent: 20 May 2015 12:35 To: Walsh, Dick Cc: Hendry, Douglas; Macintyre, Neil; Dance, Vivien; Marshall, Bruce Subject: RE: Ratio of administration to opposition

Can you reply to this please Cllr Walsh?

Thank you

Michael Breslin

He replies on 20 May as follows:

From: Walsh, Dick Sent: 20 May 2015 17:14 To: Breslin, Michael Cc: Hendry, Douglas Subject: RE: Ratio of administration to opposition [OFFICIAL]

Classification: OFFICIAL

The minute of the Policy and Resources Committee and the public record is clear in terms of the democratic decision that was taken. You now acknowledge that the ratio of 8: 4 is correct. The membership of the Project Board represents 90% the membership of the Council.

I reply as follows:

That isn’t right or proper Cllr Walsh.

I need the monitoring officer’s views please Douglas.

Thank you

 Michael Breslin

I think it’s fair to say that I cannot be bothered with all of this. I would rather be working for the people of the area but on the other hand why should he get away with his way of working when it’s so blatantly undemocratic?

More soon.

How Argyll & Bute works: the community fights back

Last night over 40 people attended a hastily convened meeting to discuss the shenanigans going on in the council over the way they are handling the impending budget crisis for Argyll & Bute.

The cuts from the Tories will be passed on to the Scottish Government in due course and perhaps as much as £37m will be cut from Argyll & Bute’s budget over the next several years. The process set up by Cllr Walsh is secret and doesn’t publish papers or minutes. There was a good exchange of views last night and it was agreed an open letter would be sent to Cllr Walsh today. That letter is pasted below.

This is an open letter which will be published on the web and has been copied to the Dunoon Observer and Oban Times.

Cllr Walsh, there was a public meeting attended by over 40 people yesterday evening in Dunoon.

This was held  to discuss the budget issues the council faces and the secret manner in which the Service Choices project board operates where there are no papers to councillors not on the project board and no minutes. You as chair have also insisted on anything being discussed by this group stays secret within the group.

There was a unanimous view last night that the whole Service Choices process should be conducted in public. The view was clear: the process has to be brought into the full council process of published papers, minutes being issued and meetings open to the public. Your administration’s secret and undemocratic process needs to stop.

Will you agree to this please Cllr Walsh?

Thank you

Michael Breslin

Independent Councillor, Ward 7 Dunoon

How Argyll & Bute Works: The Budget: Update 19 May

I am making no progress on the issue of the project board proposed by Cllr Walsh which meets in secret with nobody seeing papers or minutes. The latest reply on the legitimacy of this project board came yesterday. The emails are shown below.

What has happened in the last hour is that a seminar has been called for elected members on the budget for the next 2 years so perhaps some of the pressure has made an impact. However, we had a day allocated for a seminar for Monday 1 June. Seminars are always on Mondays but the announcement today was to move this to Friday 5 June. This kind of date change should not happen because I suspect a number of people apart from me have other things they are doing that day. It would be easy to despair.

From: mills, susan On Behalf Of Hendry, Douglas Sent: 18 May 2015 10:40 To: Breslin, Michael Cc: Dance, Vivien; Marshall, Bruce; Walsh, Dick; Loudon, Sally Subject: service choices project board [OFFICIAL]

Classification: OFFICIAL

Michael

Happy to try to pick this up again, in the following terms:-

1.       The Scheme of Administration and Delegations, Section 1, paragraph 1.1.2 provides that “the Council may appoint such other bodies of Members as they may from time to time consider are required…”.  That covers the Project Board. 

2.       Standing Order 19.2 provides that “Standing Orders marked CS will apply to meetings of any Committee, Sub Committee and Short Life Working Group….”.  This provision is specific in relation to the bodies to which it applies, and does not include Project Boards.

3.       I note your view about the Scheme of approved duties for Members.  My view is that paragraph 1 of the Scheme covers meetings of the Project Board – “attendance by a Member at (an) … event, called or authorised by the Council or any Committee …”. 

4.       I note the views you express in the final paragraph of your email and as I have previously done in regards to previous opinions you have set out in our correspondence, I recognise your right to hold these.  As an officer, however, my advice relates to the competency and legality of the decisions which have been taken, and which you question, and that advice remains unchanged.  The matters with which you take issue regarding how the Council, via the Policy and Resources Committee have decided should be employed to take forward Service Choices are I would respectfully suggest ones which you need to pursue via dialogue with your fellow Elected Members. 

Thanks Douglas.

I was aware of your points 1 and 2 but the fact is that a method has been chosen that denies members any input to this very important process. I repeat what I said: Cllr Walsh has chosen this method of doing business in order to deny most elected members and the public sight of what is going on. That is undemocratic, poor practice and bad governance Douglas.

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

HOW ARGYLL & BUTE WORKS: CASTLE TOWARD AGAIN

I heard from a number of sources that there was to be an offer for Castle Toward now that it is back on the market after the failure of the community buyout. One of the issues that came up during the attempted community buyout was the fact that the sale never at any point went before the Bute & Cowal Area Committee. That is where the sale should have been dealt with but mechanisms were found to ensure this did not take place.

It looks as though history is about to repeat itself. I decided to ask Cllr Walsh if the area committee would deal with any new offers for the estate. He has said no, it will be dealt with by the council. As far as I am concerned this is completely against the council constitution, again.

My correspondence with him on this is at the link below. It appears that perhaps the constitution is only there to be adhered to when others think it’s appropriate rather than all the time. Can you imagine the rage of the members of a sports club if the club president flouted the constitution whenever it suited him or her?

Read on:

emails to and from Cllr Walsh re sale of Castle Toward in May 15

how argyll & bute works: the budget: latest at 12 may

As I said yesterday, I did get a reply from Cllr Walsh but only after he had seen my reply to Mr Hendry, see yesterday’s post.

His advice was that I hadn’t taken into account the full constitution although I think I had.  Nonetheless, I took his advice and read it again. The subsequent email sent to Mr Hendry is pasted below. Despite the fact this was sent 1st thing this morning, I have had no reply. Here is my email of today.

From: Breslin, Michael Sent: 12 May 2015 07:37 To: Hendry, Douglas Cc: Dance, Vivien; Marshall, Bruce; Walsh, Dick; Loudon, Sally Subject: RE: service choices project board [OFFICIAL]

Douglas, after I sent my reply yesterday evening, I got an email from Cllr Walsh, text pasted below.

You now have in your possession polite advice from both the Council’ Chief Executive and Executive Director of Customer Service. As a further help to you I would suggest you read the totality of the constitution. Clear precedent exists for the process that is now ongoing. There is absolutely no need to write to officers in the tone that you do. I have no comment to make on what one member thinks and says to you. I respond in the timeframe  appropriate  to my work priority.

As always, I took his advice and have gone through the “totality” of the constitution again. I can see no provision whatsoever to create a body which has the powers, once formed, to completely ignore the standing orders. Further, I can see no provision to get members of any such body to agree to meet in secret. Perhaps I am missing something Douglas so when you reply, please point out the specific provisions of the constitution that allow all of this.

Cllr Walsh refers to “precedent”. You and I both know that if the preceding instances of such a body were not founded on the constitution, then they were as unconstitutional as this instance is. Precedence, therefore, is not a justification, is it Douglas?

I look forward to your further reply today please Douglas. And, for the record, I have also reviewed my email of yesterday evening. I don’t detect any of the “tone” that Cllr Walsh detected.  Any “tone” might have been caused by my being mystified as to the constitutional basis for this “project board” that meets in secret and ignores standing orders.

If you did detect such a “tone” please accept my apologies in advance Douglas for the sin of being baffled.

Regards

Michael Breslin

When I get a reply I will publish it but I am more and more convinced that the “project board” is an unconstitutional construct devised by Cllr Walsh and others to remove proper scrutiny from elected members and the public. This is wholly unacceptable and those responsible need to be held to account.