Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Democracy and North Ayrshire Council.

Sometimes what first appears as something trivial becomes a bigger issue. Member of the opposition had been concerned about the amount the council was spending attending awards events. While it was good to see staff being acknowledged for good work on a national stage, we were concerned about the cost to the council of, large numbers of staff being out of the office for two days, their flights and being accommodated in central London for example.

An independent councillor from Ardrossan asked for a list of the events attended and for the corresponding costs as a written question to the SNP  Finance Portfolio holder at a council meeting. The SNPs Ruth Maguire said she was unable to provide the information at the time but would ask officers to provide it to members following the meeting. Subsequently a list was provided but it did not seem to be complete and pictures of staff attending awards were featuring in council press releases but not in the list provided. The total costs of which were claimed as £50,000 at that point. As it seemed obvious that the list was not comprehensive Councillor McNicol decided to ask for further clarification at the next council meeting on November 4th.
Surprisingly the administration claimed that asking for the full information was a repeat "item of business" and could not be considered again for 6 months unless the council suspended standing orders. (Standing orders are basically the rules which apply to council meetings). At the council meeting we questioned this ruling as it was clear to most people that a question is not a decision or ruling of the council which this rule was meant to prevent changing. However the SNP Provost took the advice of the Chief Executive (incorrectly in the view of most, the chief legal officer was not present) and ruled that the question was out of order and we would have to have a vote to see if the question was allowed to be asked. According to the rules a suspension of standing orders requires 2/3 of those "present and voting" to agree to suspend. Members requested a roll call vote which requires that each member publicly declares their vote 17 members, including all Labour representatives,voted in favour of suspension and all 12 SNP chose to abstain. The chief executive claimed, incorrectly according to the rules of most organisations, that the motion fell as those abstaining had voted and this view was supported by the SNP Provost. Organisations the world over would not include abstentions in this position however the officers of North Ayrshire took a contrary position and the information was withheld. Some councillors were so disgusted that they walked out at this point and took no further part in the meeting.

I asked for the councils monitoring officer to review the conduct of the meeting and unfortunately, again contrary to most legal opinions, chose to support the Chief Executives view.

So why is this an issue, well fundamentally councillors are there to represent the interest of their constituents and should be able to gain the information they need to ensure that the priorities and interests of North Ayrshire residents are the prime focus of the council and its staff. Whether by accident or design the information provided was either incomplete or incorrect and councillors were prevented from getting the accurate information they asked for. At the meeting members were allowed to ask a number of other questions, and the written answers provided to two of the them was incorrect. We are in the position of the administration continually making mistakes in the day job while chasing awards at night.