Friday, 23 May 2014

Dr Caligari's Council Cabinet

Very few people – especially those with any truly valid reason for disliking how their local council is run politically (apart from mere party preferences) – seem to have any idea why the 'Cabinet-plus-Scrutiny' model was imposed on councils above a certain size a dozen or so years ago.

The clues were there from the outset (as they usually are, to the more perceptive among us), though I waited for events to play out in order to have solid evidence rather than supposition and logical deduction alone.

The single biggest clue was that it was devised by Whitehall 'mandarins' and implemented ('sold') through a Labour government. Immediately this should get anyone's mental alarm bells ringing. Secondly, the Cabinet agenda everywhere was required to include a number of strategies and plans that were fevised by, and tightly constrained in format and content by – yes, you probably guessed it: Whitehall.

We probably all realise that Civil Service Mandarins' greatest ambition in life is to expand their empires and extend their control over our country, and the only way left by then was to take over local democracy, by proxy in order to preserve the appearance of what is called 'localism'.

Thus a scheme was devised by senior Civil Servants that would be easy to get a Labour government to implement, via the right 'sales pitch', but which in reality meant that a huge amount of the local policy agenda would be dictated far more closely by themselves. That's why, if you look down any Cabinet agenda for any council in the country, this fact will shout out to you after just a few such scans. It is glaringly obvious.
In practice, what all this has meant was that most (all but nine or ten) of a council's elected members immediately lost their policy voting rights on most topics, these now falling under the direct and exclusive control of the Cabinet. Some matters have to go to the Full Council to finally decide, but only after the Cabinet has already had first dibs at debate (a one-party debate at that) and it is their documentation that goes to Council... although the entirely powerless Scrutiny Committees (made up of the non-cabinet councillors) can also make 'recommendations'.

Here in Medway, the only 'local' agenda items for Cabinet are the long-standing Recruitment Freeze (a nod-through every time) and contract awards – which do not need to come to Cabinet. If you're paying a portfolio holder that much, and with a huge officer corps behind that person as well, there is really no need to make those decisions as 'Cabinet acting collectively'. A competent portfolio holder will almost always be able to handle that directly. It's not as if there is even any public interest in those agenda items...

Just like the Cabinet of Dr Caligari, the elected members that form local council cabinets are, in reality, under the control of another: in this case, Whitehall – though I suspect that many of them haven't even now, after all these years, cottoned onto this fact. If they have, they are complicit in the deceit and are not serving their electorate, however much they might try to deceive themselves that they are, because of, er, this and that (I'm sure they could pluck such things out of the air if challenged). Those ones are not fit to hold public office, ever. The others are too gullible to be entrusted with such office either – but all of that is for the electorate to decide, of course, when they come up for re-election.

Thus is was refreshing when the change of national government resulted in Eric Pickles offering councils the opportunity to revert to the former Service Committee structure instead of Cabinet-plus-Scrutiny, but without having to scrap any genuine benefits that the new system had brought (there have been a few, though more minor than they were trumpeted at the time they were introduced).

I asked a 'public question' at our local council (Medway) at the time this was being prepared at national level, asking if Medway would take up this offer once it was made. As I had expected, I received an evasive and (frankly) arrogant response – and the proof of the pudding is that (surprise, surprise!) they have not done so.

This has singularly resulted in an unstoppable trend that I had noticed over the years since the system was introduced in October 2001, continuing and worsening further. That is the disconnect between the public and their elected representatives, as it is portfolio holders who are invariably addressed by public questions, and they really don't handle it very well.

Now, a lot of what goes on is (predictably!) party political manipulation and dominance of the public questions item on the Council agenda – but even so there are glaringly obvious bad practices by most portfolio holders. I find it all acutely embarrassing – not because they are bad people, they really aren't, but because they have drifting further away from the public-at-large for so long that it has become all too easy for their opponents to label them 'out of touch' and gain a huge amount of (undeserved) political capital as a result.

The only way, in the whole of creation, that this trend can be halted and reversed is by scrapping the Cabinet system, and by having brand new committee chairmen who have never been portfolio holders. Frankly, there is no other way; and if the nettle isn't grasped soon it will mean that Whitehall will be able to strike the final few nails into the 'localism' coffin before very much longer, killing off actual local democracy Caligari-style, as has obviously been their intention all along.

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