Falkirk Council’s ruling Labour / Tory coalition has been thrown into a state of turmoil over their controversial new committee structure after the intervention of Local Government Minister, Derek McKay.
The council recently moved to scrap its traditional committees that had been appointed on a proportional basis in favour of an Executive Committee that exercises absolute power. However, the 12 person committee does not pass the proportionality test as it contains 8 Labour members, Labour ally, the Tory Malcolm Nicol, 1 non aligned Independent and only 2 SNP members.
A second committee was established to oversee scrutiny of council business but Labour and their Tory partners grabbed control of this committee also as well as “hamstringing” the committee by failing to give it the powers to properly scrutinise the activities of the Executive Committee, dubbed the “politburo” by disaffected Nationalists.
In a letter addressed to SNP Group Leader Cecil Meiklejohn, and read out at Wednesday’s full council meeting the Minister says,
“As you probably know the legislation requiring political balance on council committees was enacted in 1989 and while it has been in force in England and Wales since then it has not been put into force in Scotland. I think this has been on the basis that in general proportionality was the norm in Scotland and so there was no need to bring it within a legal framework. However recent developments such as those in Falkirk indicate that this is changing. I don’t think there can be any serious argument that proportionality ought to be standard practice and if we can not rely on this being done on a voluntary basis then we really should indeed look at whether it needs to be enforced by law. I am therefore seriously considering whether the relevant provisions of the 1989 Act ought now to be brought into force.”
The 1989 Act enshrined the principal of fair representation on all council committees for opposition members and was introduced in England and Wales at that time.
The legislation was never implemented in Scotland after local government leaders north of the border gave a voluntary assurance to respect the principal of proportionality in the make up of council committees.
Now after strong lobbying by not only the council’s SNP Group but also local MSPs the Local Government Minister, Derek McKay, has stepped in and intimated that unless local councils honour that commitment he will implement the 1989 Act.
A resolute Cllr Meiklejohn said,
“While I am pleased that the Minister is taking action to end this abuse of power I am saddened that, once again, the reputation of Falkirk has been tarnished by the Falkirk Labour Party aided and abetted by their Conservative Party partners.
The principals of openness and fair and equal access to the decision making process for all elected Councillors should be at the heart of every corner of the council but the onus recently has been on how to avoid being accountable.
The Scottish Government have been forced to step in and I would call on the Labour /Tory coalition Administration to respect the government’s authority on this matter.
The council’s leaders now have two choices, they can wait to be led to a more democratic structure or they can lead this themselves by talking to us and seeking a decision making structure that allows proper scrutiny and fair access for a elected Councillors.
Their second option is to continue to focus their energies on denying democracy within the council at a time when these energies should be focussed on the challenges posed by the Westminster Government’s Austerity cuts recently endorsed by Labour’s Ed Milliband”
Councillor Meiklejohn was supported by Angus MacDonald and Michael Matheson, both of whom lobbied the Scottish Government and arranged meetings between the council group and Ministers.
Falkirk East MSP, Angus MacDonald, continued on the theme of change when he said,
“A mature Administration will respect the fact that elections to local government are on a proportional representation system and the council committees need to reflect that.
The Labour / Tory coalition should therefore stop seeking ways to exclude democratically elected SNP Councillors and learn to respect the role of the opposition in holding the Administration to account.”
Falkirk West MSP, Michael Matheson, said,
“The lack of democratic accountability at the heart of the council changes is simply unacceptable. Constituents have a right to expect their local councillors to be able to represent their interest effectively in the council and these changes prevent that.
“Sadly these changes are more about party advantage than democratic accountability and the council should act now to repair the damage that has been caused to its reputation as a result of these changes.”