How Argyll & Bute Works: The Budget Latest

If you have not read the previous posts on this, the first one can be found here.

In summary, the first stab at tackling the council’s serious budget shortfall was made public for the meeting of the policy and resources meeting on 2 April 2015. The budget proposals at that date can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/p-r2april

At that meeting, I asked to vote though I am not on the committee. The chair, Cllr Walsh, refused. I also asked some questions, especially about the £52.5m that had been deemed to be out of scope for any cuts to find that the costs of councillors, salaries and expenses, was tucked away in this £52.5m. Cllr Walsh proposed the setting up of a “project board” of 12 councillors to consider the proposed cuts further.

The board comprised Cllr Walsh and 7 of his administration plus 4 SNP councillors. Cllrs Dance, Marshall and Neil McIntyre, plus myself, were not even given the opportunity to be on this. I would not have wanted to be on this knowing what I now know which is that this group meets in almost complete secrecy. The group operates as follows:

  • nobody else is told the dates the group meets
  • nobody else is provided with the papers
  • the papers don’t appear anywhere on the council website
  • minutes are not taken nor issued
  • the group has agreed that what they discuss is kept secret among them.

This group therefore meets and operates completely outwith the standing orders that apply to all other council meetings. Worse, we already have a mechanism that would have complied with standing orders. Cllr Walsh could have proposed setting up a Short Life Working Group but he didn’t. Ask yourself why this might be other than to operate below the radar.

In my previous posts on this topic I have tried to give chapter and verse on what has happened since I became aware of the clandestine nature of this group. I won’t repeat these here but the summary position as of today is as follows:

  • the 3 senior officials charged with ensuring good governance have confirmed, yesterday, that they consider this to be good governance.
  • I asked the independent external chairs of the council’s audit and performance review and scrutiny committees to look into this but they have said they are satisfied with the arrangements.
  • I offered a way out of the current position on Tuesday morning this week which is pasted below. This has been completely ignored.

I cannot make much by way of comment because some parties are hoping I make public criticism of officers which would allow a further complaint to be made that I have breached the code of conduct. Now that the officers have told me they think this is good governance, I am unable to say publicly that it’s not, if that was my view.

In 2010, the Accounts Commission published guidance on elected member/officer relationships. This can be found here: http://www.audit-scotland.gov.uk/docs/best_value/2010/bvrm_100826_councillors_officers.pdf

Some of this guidance relates directly this issue and parts were quoted in the email pasted below sent on Tuesday morning, to which nobody has replied.

I can’t say much more about this but this council is your council, and you may wish to say something. Please comment on this issue but keep your comment moderate or they won’t be accepted. You can also do a very short survey at: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/B87JZ82

Over to you.

From: Breslin, Michael Sent: 02 June 2015 07:28 To: Hendry, Douglas Cc: Dance, Vivien; Marshall, Bruce; Walsh, Dick; Loudon, Sally; Barrett, Steve; Taylor, Sandy Subject: RE: service choices project board [OFFICIAL]

Good morning all.

I detect some significant difficulty in trying to say that these governance arrangements are good in the sense suggested by CIPFA. Let me offer both guidance and a way out of this because I am sure  we have all spent more than enough time on it.

The guidance I offer is taken directly from the Accounts Commission guidance issued in June 2010 on roles and working relationships. It offers some examples of good working practice and in Exhibit 2 it talks about working groups, getting it right. The guidance is clear in saying these can be a good thing but it then goes on to say why, ie they work well when:

•             there is a clear purpose for the group

•             there is a clear and shared remit

•             there is representation by all political parties

•             participants discuss policy options and delivery in an open and transparent way

•             discussions are formally noted and notes are made available to all interested parties.

Working groups can help to:

•             discuss and test policy options with councillors before developing formal proposals

•             make officers more aware of the motivation and expectations of councillors

•             provide councillors with an insight into the challenges of service delivery.

I don’t need to point out that the so called project board doesn’t meet a number of these points.

The way out of this might best be handled by us all (ie including the leader of the SNP group) having a meeting but, among other things,  it will involve a motion going to the June council meeting that will reform what we currently have;  bring it into our standing orders; provide proper political balance and allow all councillors access to information and the opportunity to attend meetings of the reformed group if they wish.

In order for us to achieve this the administration will need to be willing to move from its current entrenched position. The end result will be that we all can say this is both good governance, without qualification, and that it meets the guidance from the Accounts Commission.

If there is a willingness to meet to discuss a way forward, it would be good to get a date  agreed in the next day or so.

I trust this helps.

Regards

Michael Breslin

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.

2 thoughts on “How Argyll & Bute Works: The Budget Latest”

  1. Just to be clear, so we have an essentially unofficial, clandestine group operating within the Council at the behest of the Council Leader and, according to the three senior officials charged with ensuring “good corporate governance”, this is all above board.

    I’d be interested to know the reasoning why they are happy with this and whether there is precedent.

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    1. I am assured the group is legitimate. That doesn’t mean this is the right and proper way of operating. Precedence there may but that still doesn’t justify this occurrence of a group that meets secretly.

      The distinction between being technically correct and what is the most open and transparent way of doing things is the nub of the issue.

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