Plus ça change ?
Do the LibDems have the confidence to govern?
Next week sees a raft of council meetings that in each case mark the first District Council meeting since the May 2nd election. Two of the more interesting meetings will be at Mendip and South Somerset, but for very different reasons.
The old Mendip District Council was often described as complacent. On more than one occasion The Leveller had reason to point out that they flouted best practise believing that rules that other councils complied with, need not apply to them. That may be at least part of the reason the Conservative administration lost. It has been replaced by “no overall control” but with the LibDems being the largest party.
South Somerset was quite a different matter. It was the only council in Somerset that actually complied with government guidelines for the make up of an audit committee. Here a once small LibDem majority is now a very large one.
What will be of great interest next week is whether the LibDems in power, stick to the principles of good governance. Or fall into the same trap of “we’ve got a big majority so we can do what we like” that characterised some former Conservative administrations.
The answer to that question will largely be determined by the way the Scrutiny and Audit Committees are made up. Most Committees (planning, regulation, business development, licensing etc) that carry out the business of a District Council are composed of councillors roughly in proportion to each political party’s number of seats on the council. Which is how it should be. The people have spoken and the government of each District should reflect that voice.
The exceptions are Scrutiny and Audit. These are the two Committees that “keep the council honest”. They are there to challenge and to ask awkward questions. They are there to make sure the administration is sticking to the rules and conducting business fairly.
It is the sign of a confident political grouping that is comfortable with holding power, that they will willingly give the chairmanship of those committees to a member of the opposition. Why would you not want the comfort of independent scrutiny of everything you are doing?
The converse is also true. If you stack the Committees with your own (as Mendip used to do) it begs the question what have you got to hide? Even if you have nothing to hide, even if you are scrupulous, the fact you are not prepared to allow others to scrutinise your practise will inevitably raise questions.
Under Ric Pallister’s Leadership, LibDem controlled (just) SSDC was scrupulous. Conservative Sue Steele chaired the Scrutiny Committee whilst Derek Yeomans, also a Conservative, chaired Audit. As I mentioned above SSDC was the only council in Somerset that actually had an audit committee that met the requirements of best practise and complied with government guidelines.
The question we now have to ask, is do the LibDems in Mendip and South Somerset (and indeed in Somerset West and Taunton) have the confidence to govern? We will find out next week.
But if they simply stack the Scrutiny and Audit committees with LibDem councillors, they will stand accused of being little better than the old regime in Mendip.
As the Finance and Legal Portfolio Holder for SSDC I always welcomed the hard work our award-winning Scrutiny Committee members put into the development of policy, for example the “Task and Finish” groups that helped with to keep Council Tax Relief fair to both applicant and taxpayer.
In a similar spirit, the challenge from an opposition controlled Audit Committee ensured that we were seen to have adequate financial and decision making probity, backing up by strong internal and external professional audit teams.
As the Election Count concluded, I sat down with the former Audit Chairman to seek his views on the best way to preserve this strong challenge. Unfortunately it will be difficult to match the previous standard with so few opposition group members, many of whom are new to local government. For this reason the Leader and I have asked the former Audit Chairman, who lost his seat at the Election, to consider coming back as an independent appointed member of the Audit Committee, so that his experience is not lost. I have yet to hear whether he has accepted, but I hope this indicates how seriously we take your point.
Cllr Peter Seib
Finance, Legal and Democratic Services Portfolio Holder, South Somerset District Council.
Yesterday evening we attended the Full Council meeting at the offices of South Somerset District Council, the Conservative Group were ready to nominate experienced Councillors to Chair both the Scrutiny Committee and the Audit Committee as good governance dictates together with our candidates for Chair and Vice Chair at Area East where the Conservatives have a majority of 8 to 5, the rule has been each area votes for its own Chair and Vice Chair for decades.
The Liberal Democrat leader, Val Keitch refused to take any nominations and appointed Liberal Democrats to Chair scrutiny and Area East going against good governance and years of tradition.
Following this it appears the Lib/dems are neither Liberal or democrats given this and their refusal to accept the referendum vote.
Deputy Leader Conservative Group
Nick, the reasons were explained in the meeting. The best qualified and experienced person was appointed as Audit Committee Chair. An incidental benefit is that both Conservative members (you are only allowed two, due to your poor showing in the Election) will be able to focus on the content, rather than running the meeting.
The other point made was that we are seeking an outside person (a member of the public) to augment the Committee. It turns out that this has to be an open recruitment, and we can’t simply add the former Chair as previously described.