current affairs

One year on: Tories give up on openness & accountability

It has now been a year since the new constitution was waved in by a Tory and Labour vote. This created an all Tory cabinet who have, through grated teeth and with much complaining, tried to maintain a semblance of ‘openness and transparency’ which they said was at the core of their administration. In real terms these core values weren’t worth much.

At the last Cabinet meeting they started ruling some of my supplementary questions out of order for not being relevant…. completely specious and a blatant attempt to stifle debate.

Today’s Cabinet meeting was the final straw as Cllr G Theobald led the retreat. Yes, a complete surrender on their attempts to maintain any notion of being open or transparent. Instead of answering my four written questions Cllr G Theobald instead penned a missive (copied in full below) stating that because I had asked him too many questions he wasn’t going to answer any more. He also complained that my questions take too much officer time yet he found it appropriate to get an officer to compile a list of all the questions I have asked at Council and Cabinet meetings — bizarre!

Cllr G Theobald tells me my number of questions is unprecedented in Brighton & Hove, I’m making history, how wonderful. Perhaps it is more because he is so poor at consulting and the arrangements he governs over have been so shambolic that these questions are needed — as shown by my ongoing bulging (electronic) mailbag on the communal bins issue.

The fact is the Tories don’t really like being held to account and some of the Cabinet members particularly don’t like questions which highlight the fact that they haven’t got to grips with their portfolio. Like Ministers, I believe Cabinet members have a clear duty to provide factual answers when requested in writing by any elected member using the proper procedure, as I always do.

If you look at the questions I ask and then the claims by Cllr G Theobald that answering them takes too much officer time, one is led to one of two possible conclusions:

  • They really don’t want to answer questions; OR
  • the department isn’t in control of its affairs and doesn’t have basic management data to hand.

Either way it reflects very poorly on the Conservatives’ ability to run this Council effectively. Frankly I’m appalled that the Leader of the Council, Cllr Mary Mears, allowed Cllr Theobald to make such a dismissive response to my genuine and rather simple questions.

Cllr Theobald makes much of inviting me to speak to officers – however I do this all the time, but for the policy issues I think it’s only fair to deal with them at the political level. Similarly, if there are failings, it is the portfolio holder’s responsibility to take, I should not be directing it at officers. These are the protocols of Member/Officer relations and it is inappropriate for Cllr Theobald to keep passing the buck to his officers.

The irony of all this of course is that any resident can ask these same types of questions through the Freedom of Information Act and the Council would be required to respond. Power to the people rather than their representatives!

UPDATED 23/5/09 to include video of the Cabinet meeting.

The full questions and then Cllr Theobald’s non-answer answer (which for some reason is not yet online either):

(a) Councillor Kitcat

“Can Cllr G Theobald provide detail on the cost of the metal stoppers being added to the non-foot pedal communal bins? In particular:

  • The cost per bin of adding the stoppers;
  • The total cost to the council of adding the stoppers;
  • How this cost will be met and from which budget.”

(b) Councillor Kitcat

“Can Cllr G Theobald explain why a small number of non-foot pedal communal bins have rubber seals on the flaps which reduce the noise of closure whilst most do not?”

(c) Councillor Kitcat

“Does CityClean have any plans to expand the use of communal bins in the city?”

(d) Councillor Kitcat

“Could Cllr G Theobald update the meeting as to current versus previous recycling and waste tonnages in the city centre where communal bins are used?”

Response from Councillor Theobald, Cabinet Member for Environment, to all four questions.

“Thank you for your questions Councillor Kitcat.

As you are aware, beginning with the Council meeting on 4 December, you have asked some 30 questions at Council and Cabinet meetings. Notwithstanding my reservations and the pressure it was putting on officers, I have, up to now, endeavoured to answer all your questions in the hope that they are the last ones. I have a list of all your questions with the answers supplied if anyone wishes to see them. However, as is obvious to any fair minded, objective and impartial observer, this number of questions coming from a single Member about a single issue is excessive by any standards and certainly unprecedented in the history of this authority.

Give the number, frequency and nature of the questions, a disproportionate amount of officer time and resources has been spent in doing the research and preparing the answers. I firmly believe that the interests of the hard working Council Tax payers of Brighton & Hove is better served with officer time and resources being spent in delivering the service rather than having to research and answer an endless list of questions that add no value to the service.

I have always treated questions from Members and the public with respect and answered them. However, given what I have just said, and having taken advice, I do not feel it would be appropriate to continue to reply to a constant and endless list of questions on this subject from one Member.

As you are no doubt aware, at the Environment CMM on 7 May, I extended an invitation to all Members to meet Officers to share any concerns they have about waste and recycling issues. I repeat that invitation again. I do not therefore intend to answer your questions on communal bins as I believe that for anyone genuinely interested in helping to improve the service, taking the invitation that I have again extended to all Members is a more appropriate way of making a difference than constantly tabling questions after questions at Council and Cabinet.

Thank you.”