Falkirk Council’s SNP Group is to call in local government watchdog, AuditScotland, in the row over changes to the council’s decision making structures. The SNP are angry at proposals to disregard the principal of proportionality of membership and instead concentrate power in an “Executive Committee overloaded with members of the Labour / Tory Administration at the expense of the SNP opposition.
The Executive Committee, dubbed the “Polit Bureau” by the SNP has 9 members of the ruling Labour / Tory Administration with only 3 opposition Councillors, likely to be 2 SNP and 1 Non Aligned Independent, a majority of 6 despite the fact the ruling coalition can count on a majority of only 2 when the full council meets and all Councillors are present.
Controversially, the Executive Committee is being given full delegated authority to take policy and spending decisions without the ability of the opposition to call in reports to the full council.
As a counter balance to the Executive Committee the council is to establish a “Scrutiny Committee”. However, while the vast majority of councils who have an Executive Committee have a majority of opposition Councillors and have an opposition chair in charge Falkirk Council is to have a Scrutiny Committee of 10 members with 6 Administration and only 4 opposition Councillors, likely to be 3 SNP and 1 Non Aligned Independent.
The SNP believe that the ruling coalition are in breach of Audit Scotland guidelines in a number of areas as well as breaching the 1989 Act of Parliament that enshrined proportionality of representation on council committees. Although the Act was never implemented inScotland, only inEnglandandWales, Scottish local government entered into a voluntary code of practice that agreed to adhere to the terms of the Act. Indeed Falkirk Council has adherence to the Act within its own Standing Orders (34.8).
The SNP further argue that the proposed structure is in breach of AuditScotlandguidelines on the following grounds;
The Administration can not properly scrutinise itself, By insisting on a majority of Labour and Tory members the Scrutiny Committee can block any criticism of the Executive or alternative proposals from the Scrutiny Committee effectively meaning there is no proper scrutiny as the Executive will control both bodies.
By insisting on an Executive of 12 with a Scrutiny Committee of 10 the balance of the remaining Councillors, 10 in total will not be involved in the business of the council effectively robbing their constituents of a voice. Of tho 10 Councillors 8 are SNP members leading to accusations of discrimination by the Nationalists.
The structure is undemocratic in that it fails to provide a “call in” mechanism to the full council for controversial matters thus places absolute power in the hands of only 9 Councillors out of a total of 32.
The new structure corrupts the 2012 election result where the SNP won 13 seats on 40% of the First Preference votes cast to Labour’s 14 with 37% of the First Preference votes cast. While the Nationalists accept Labour have a majority of 1 over them as a “quirk of the system” at last year’s elections, they argue that an split of Executive places of 9 – 2 in favour of Labour is a major departure from democracy.
SNP Group Leader, Cllr Cecil Meiklejohn, the author of the complaint to AuditScotland said,
“Since this story broke in the Falkirk Herald the response from the general public, including Labour voters, has been shock and dismay at the blatant gerrymandering of the council’s decision making structures.
People do not like dictatorial Administrations who refuse to allow themselves to be properly scrutinised as it goes against the all the values and principals of democracy itself.
Labour and their Tory allies can not re-write the 2012 election result as they are trying to do, the people did not vote for an outright Labour majority or the Polit Bureau proposed with its artificial Labour majority and absolute power.
Our complaint to Audit Scotland is that Falkirk Council is in breach of the guidelines issued by that body in terms of the role of elected Councillors. A total of 8 out of 13 SNP members will be excluded from either the Executive or the Scrutiny Committee set up to scrutinise the Polit Bureau which is totally unacceptable in the eyes of any fair-minded person.
The lack of transparency within the local authority also has major implications for the ability of the local press to report events from the council in a balanced manner.
The lack of the ability to properly scrutinise developments within the council where all of the policy development work will be undertaken behind closed doors means that all the press will receive will be sanitised press releases and Administration spin.
I am confident Audit Scotland will see the merit in our complaint as the justice of it is obvious. However, it isn’t too late for the council’s Labour and Tory leaders to scrap these ill conceived and dangerous proposals and engage with all elected members on a sensible way forward. They should never forget that we all have mandates to represent our constituents and play an equal role in the delivery of local services.”