16 November 2017

High Peak Borough Council Leader’s Illegal Secret Ballot Scheme Thwarted






Should the Leader of a council with a £10 million budget of public money promote or be involved with law-breaking?

That is the situation residents of the High Peak find themselves in today as a result of antics of Conservative Leader of the Borough Council Tony Ashton.

Councillor Tony Ashton is a Conservative councillor on both High Peak Borough Council and New Mills Town Council within the borough.

Cllr Ashton proposed a policy for co-options of new members of the town council that requires secret ballot to be the method of voting during council meetings when co-options are being decided.  Cllr Ashton proposed this illegal policy to the New Mills town council meeting of 11 September 2017.

An up-front definition of the most important term used in this article:  Illegal: Forbidden by law.


Here is why Cllr Ashton’s policy is illegal

The relevant extract of Cllr Ashton’s policy:

“Paragraph 5:  Councillors shall vote by secret ballot under the agenda item.”

The law that governs the method of voting during town and parish council meetings is the Local Government Act 1972, Schedule 12, Paragraph 13: “13 (1)  Unless otherwise provided by the council’s standing orders the manner of voting at meetings of a parish council shall be by a show of hands.”

The law refers to a council’s formal standing orders.  The relevant part of the New Mills Town Council’s standing orders is paragraph 3 (q):  “Unless standing orders provide otherwise, voting on a question shall be by a show of hands. At the request of a councillor, the voting on any question shall be recorded so as to show whether each councillor present and voting gave his vote for or against that question…"

Councillors Tony Ashton and Ray Atkins have erroneously claimed that the council’s standing orders have somehow “been changed”.  To prove that they haven’t, here is the standing order specifying the method which must be used if the New Mills town council wishes to change its standing orders:

“Standing Order 25 (b):  A motion to add to or vary or revoke one or more of the council’s standing orders, except one that incorporates mandatory statutory requirements, shall be proposed by a special motion, the written notice by at least 6 councillors to be given to the Proper Officer in accordance with standing order 9 above.”

At no time during this matter has the necessary written notice by at least six councillors been given to the town council’s Proper Officer.  Therefore it is a fact that no change has been made to the council's standing orders.


New amendment, same illegal voting method

When Cllr Ashton’s illegal co-option policy came to the vote, an amendment proposed by LibDem Cllr Ray Atkins was carried.  Unfortunately, this amendment also included the fatally flawed ‘secret ballot’ method of voting in New Mills town council meetings:

“Councillors shall vote by a show of hands under the agenda item, unless two or more councillors request a secret ballot, in which case voting on the co-option process shall be by secret ballot.”


First council meeting following the illegal new policy

On 13 November 2017 came the first attempt to use the illegal co-option policy in New Mills council chamber  – illegal because of the prohibited ‘secret ballot’ method of voting that it contains.

What transpired was as follows:

The town council chairman read out Item 7 on the agenda, which was: ‘Co-option applications and decision for a Councillor for Whitle Ward’

Cllr Lance Dowson read out his prepared statement, published yesterday on HPT.

Chair of the council Barry Bate started to explain what would happen in this agenda item.  There were three candidates for one seat.  Ballot papers were prepared with the three names on.

The Town Clerk then held up the tenth (latest) edition of Arnold-Baker on Local Council Administration for all councillors to see.  This is a fat volume with a striking yellow cover.  The Clerk read out, verbatim, the part of that authoritative book which explains lawful voting during town and parish council meetings.

When voting time came, no-one present in the room seemed overtly interested in having a secret ballot.  It would have been pointless if they had, because Cllr Lance Dowson explicitly exercised his legal right as a councillor to require a named vote on the agenda item.

Accordingly, all votes on the co-option candidates were by show of hands.  This is how it must be on a well-run local council.  We don't need to report who voted for whom; that is not the point  of all this.


Here comes the 'Jerry's Final Thought' bit:

The fact that every councillor has the legal right at all times to a named vote on any decision being made by a council showed up the ultimate futility of this ‘secret ballot’ plot.

Unnecessary reputational and political self-harm was caused, and all for no benefit.

We look forward to the time we are able to report that the current illegal, unlawful co-option policy of New Mills town council has been corrected to comply with both the law and also with the openness and accountability standards that are now required of those in public life.

All that is needed to accomplish this is to strike out the sentence(s) in the policy that refer to ‘secret ballot’ as the method of voting.

And finally…

Welcome successful candidate Joyce Tyldesley to membership of New Mills town council.

15 November 2017

Authoritative NALC Verdict On New Mills Town Council's Co-options Debacle







Esteemed HPT readers will be aware of the co-options mess that New Mills town councillors got themselves into following the 2015 local elections.

At those elections, only six councillors were elected to the council's twelve places.  Where not enough members have been publicly elected to a town or parish council, the law permits that council to internally co-opt new members to fill the vacant places.

Following the co-options debacle, extensively covered here on HPT since the local elections, here is the recent letter sent to New Mills Town Council by the specialist local government solicitor employed by the National Association of Local Councils:


"Client: New Mills Town Council
Subject Matter: Co-option

"I have been allocated this request to advise upon and I have seen your emails dated 4 and 6 September 2017 together with an undated four page summary of the co-option process with attachments labelled 1(a) to 1(i) and 2(a) to 2(d); an extract of the Town Council Standing Orders; a copy of Town Council minutes 2015/138 to 2015/140; an email dated 13 May 2015 from the Town Clerk to the Town Council Chair and a four page document containing recommendations from Councillor Diana Ruff and Councillor Sue Bean on behalf of the Derbyshire Association of Local Councils.

"The issues in this request is whether it was valid for the Town Council to co-opt councillors without allocating them to specific Wards and whether it was appropriate to co-opt an applicant who was not available for interview. I will deal with these questions in that order.

"New Mills Town Councillors represent a Ward and it is not possible to have any Town Councillors who do not represent a Ward. At the co-option process five councillors should have been co-opted for Ollersett Ward from those that applied for that Ward. I understand that only one application was for Thornsett Ward and if that person was not considered suitable, then the vacant position of Town Councillor for Thornsett Ward should have been re-advertised to find additional applicants. It was not appropriate to co-opt an applicant for the Ollersett Ward into a position reserved for the Thornsett Ward. When the Thornsett Ward vacancy was re-advertised it would have been permissible for an unsuccessful candidate for the Ollersett Ward to apply for Thornsett Ward if they wished.

"As the co-option process was by interview it was inappropriate for a candidate to be co-opted despite the fact that they had not been available for interview. In doing so the Town Council operated an unfair process which was in breach of the Town Council's own resolution as to how to process the applications. As you have correctly identified it was not possible to reverse that decision except by special motion on notice as under Standing Order 7.

"However, Section 82 of the Local Government Act 1972 states that the actions of a person elected as a councillor will still be valid despite them not being qualified. Although the point has not been decided by a court it is highly likely that this provision also covers councillors who were co-opted by a faulty procedure. As a result, the actions of the co-opted councillors are not invalid and council business has not been damaged. Nevertheless, there were serious failings in the co-option process and those failings must be remedied.

"I note that at the meeting for the co-options there were six councillors attending and a further six were co-opted making twelve councillors in all. I note from the High Peak Borough Council website that there are currently ten councillors so I assume that there are two vacancies for the Town Council to fill, either by election or by co-option. One the vacancies should be assigned to Thornsett Ward so a validly elected or co-opted councillor can be found for that Ward. The remaining unallocated councillors should all be allocated to Ollersett Ward to ensure that all Wards are represented by the correct number of councillors. Every councillor must be representing a Ward.

"For future co-options a policy should be adopted by the Town Council to ensure that co-option takes place to specific wards on the basis of the ward applied for by a co-option candidate. The Town Council should also adopt a policy guaranteeing a fair process applied to all candidates for any position with the Town Council.

"I hope that this clarifies the position but if the council requires any further information or advice please contact NALC again.

Yours sincerely

Gary Barker
Solicitor
National Association of Local Councils
109 Great Russell Street
London
WC1B 3LD"


Statement by Cllr Lance Dowson to the New Mills Town Council meeting of 13 November 2017


Latest edition of the town and parish council bible


As the New Mills town council chairman was about to start discussion on Agenda item 7 "Co-option applications and decision for a Councillor for Whitle Ward" , Cllr Lance Dowson read out the following statement.

Because Cllr Dowson's statement on this issue supports the public good of transparency and openness in local government, it is published here to promote wider public understanding:


"I wish to make a statement about the next agenda item:  the co-option of a councillor onto this council to represent Whitle ward.

"I will be taking no part in any debate or discussion regarding any of the applicants because, as I said at the meeting of the 11th September when council adopted this Policy, I believe that by implementing and using this policy you, as councillors, are not complying with the Local Government Act 1972, Schedule 12 Para 13 (1) which states that 'unless otherwise provided by the councils standing orders voting at a meeting of the parish council shall be by a show of hands'

"The relevant part of New Mills Town Council’s standing orders is:-
“3 - meetings generally... (c) - 'unless standing orders provide otherwise voting on a question shall be by a show of hands'

"NALC’s Legal Topic Note 5 of February 2015 (Paragraph 60):-
'A secret ballot is permissible only if standing orders so permit'

"The town clerk's advice that she offered you, as your proper officer, at the 11 September 2017 meeting when you adopted this policy.

"I believe, therefore, that you are not following the relevant legal statutes, the councils policies and not taking notice of, and following, the legal and professional advice offered to you.

"I would point out that, I believe, a policy which includes any degree of secret voting, such as the one that you are about to implement, is not in the public interest and by implementing and following such a policy councillors are not acting in the public’s best interests by not being as open and transparent as possible and thereby enabling residents to understand the reasoning behind the decisions that you make, and by restricting access to information when the wider public interest or the law requires it.

Thank you."


31 October 2017

Some Other Town and Parish Councils Break the Law, So Why Can't We?




A New Mills councillor has been in touch about the current attempt by some New Mills councillors to use secret ballots during upcoming town council meetings.

One of the councillor’s complaints about High Peak Transparency’s coverage is that HPT draws public attention to New Mills town council’s new-fangled secret ballot scheme while at the same time ignoring two High Peak parish councils which have already used secret ballots during council meetings.

The standing orders and relevant recent minutes of those two other councils have been sent to HPT.  What follows are the results of scrutiny of those documents.  One council fails in its public duties of transparency, openness and accountability.  The other council suffers the same failures and in addition breaks the law while doing so.

A reminder of the relevant frameworks of best practice and law:

The best practice guide for everybody in public life is The Seven Principles of Public Life.  Additionally, the best practice guide for members of town and parish councils is The Good Councillors Guide. The law that governs the method of voting in town and parish council meetings is The Local Government Act 1972, Schedule 12, Paragraph 13.

Full text of The Local Government Act 1972, Schedule 12, Paragraph 13:

13 (1)  Unless otherwise provided by the council’s standing orders the manner of voting at meetings of a parish council shall be by a show of hands.

13 (2 )  On the requisition of any member of the council the voting on any question shall be recorded so as to show whether each member present and voting gave his vote for or against that question.


----------------------------------------------

The secretive local councils referred to in the complaint about HPT’s coverage are Chapel-en-le-Frith Parish Council and Hayfield Parish Council.


Chapel-en-le-Frith Parish Council

Chapel-en-le-Frith Parish Council has fiddled with the National Association of Local Council’s Model Standing Orders and altered them to include secret ballots as a voting method during its meetings.

This tampering means that Chapel parish council flouts the Seven Principles of Public Life, which include Openness and Accountability.  Chapel’s parish councillors also contravene the Good Councillors Guide containing the same values of Openness and Accountability.

If Chapel parish councillors contravene the Good Councillors Guide, which they have done, then are they bad councillors?  By definition, yes they are. By flouting the Good Councillors Guide, Chapel parish councillors are bad councillors.  Until they come back into line with the best practice set out in that Guide and amend the council’s current dodgy standing orders back to the good model.

Any Chapel-en-le-Frith parish councillor who in future exercises his or her legal right to a named vote - on any agenda question that other councillors were planning to be a secret ballot - defeats the secret ballot method of voting.  Self-evidently, that councillor is then no longer in the bad councillor category.


Hayfield Parish Council

The documentation sent to HPT relating to Hayfield Parish Council reveals that council also contravenes the Good Councillor Guide and the Seven Principles of Public Life.

Even more seriously, Hayfield Parish Council broke the law while doing so.

Hayfield Parish Council has not fiddled with its standing orders in respect of the voting method in council meetings.  In Hayfield council’s standing orders, the manner of voting at council meetings is required to be by a show of hands.

But contrary to its standing orders a recent Hayfield parish council meeting used a secret ballot when voting.  The law prohibits this.  Hayfield Parish Council broke the law, in this case the Local Government Act 1972, Schedule 12, Paragraph 13(1).

Hayfield parish council has already been told off by DALC for trying to do co-options in Part Two of council meetings during which the public are excluded.  Doing co-options in that part of a parish council meeting breaks the law.

A question for all the good people who care for the reputation of the town of Hayfield:

Are the lawbreakers going to persist with their offences in future Hayfield parish council meetings?
Or will they come in from the cold and be lawful, transparent and accountable in their method of voting in future council meetings?








11 October 2017

Analysis Of The Secret Ballot Ploy, Part Three: The Law That Will Stop Secret Ballots In New Mills Council Meetings




Correspondents have been in touch, concerned that an attempt by one or more bad councillors could be made to change the standing orders of New Mills town council.

The reason we can describe them as bad councillors is that their attempted change would be to try to insert ‘secret ballot’ as a voting method in town council meetings.

This would be in place of the open, transparent ‘show of hands’ voting method.

This scenario is unlikely, but an attempt at it is possible.

The pro-transparency forces like to plan for every eventuality.  Therefore, those pro-concealment councillors who want to pervert the standing orders of this town’s council need to be aware of the following law of this country.  This law will stop any such 'secret ballot' plot from working.

Local Government Act 1972, Schedule 12:
Paragraph 13 (2):

On the requisition of any member of the council the voting on any question shall be recorded so as to show whether each member present and voting gave his vote for or against that question.

So long as at least one New Mills town councillor uses this legal right in the council chamber, no secret ballot can take place.

More than one councillor has stated that they will immediately use their above legal right under the law if any secret ballot were to be proposed in a town council meeting.

Because this pro-transparency law is contained in a statute, no council policy or standing order can prevent any councillor from using their legal right to a named vote when the new co-options are being voted on in a forthcoming town council meeting.


10 October 2017

Analysis Of The Secret Ballot Ploy. Part Two: The Seven Principles of Public Life





When considering the scheme in New Mills by Conservative Councillor Tony Ashton and Liberal Democrat Councillor Ray Atkins that attempts to sneak secret ballots into town council business, a look at the Seven Principles of Public Life is invaluable.

Truly enlightening in fact.  Seekers of honesty and truth, read on...


The Seven Principles

The Seven Principles of Public Life apply to anyone who works as a public office-holder.  Needless to say, all councillors are public office holders.

1. Selflessness
Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.

2. Integrity
Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.

3. Objectivity
Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.

4. Accountability
Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.

5. Openness
Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.

6. Honesty
Holders of public office should be truthful.

7. Leadership
Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.


Compare and Contrast 

Compare the Seven Principles of Public Life with the murky scheme to sneak secret ballots into New Mills council chamber.

Accountability and Openness are the two Princples of Public Life that would be directly flouted in any attempt at a secret ballot by councillors in the town of New Mills:

Accountability:  holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.

Openness:  holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner.


Background

The Seven Principles of Public Life were first published in 1995 by the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

It is remarkable how the Seven Principles have stood the test of time since their publication in the last century.

For further information on the Seven Principles and the work of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, visit the Committee’s website and blogsite.

The Seven Principles are viewable direct on the government's official website by following this link.


Analysis Of The Secret Ballot Ploy. Part One: Lawbreaking




This is one of a series of articles that will analyse the deeply troubling attempt by two town councillors to sneak secret ballots into the business of New Mills town council, which is a public body.

This article sets out the law governing the matter.  Other articles in the series will set out:

The Seven Principles of Public Life

Practical obstructions to a secret ballot taking place in the New Mills council chamber

The secret ballot scheme's unintended consequences.

The damage to the public reputation of the council if any secret ballots were to be attempted

Transparency in public life



The law of voting in council meetings

New Mills town council would break the law if it were to attempt a secret ballot during a council meeting.

Here is the law as applied to the facts of this case:

The Local Government Act 1972, Schedule 12, Paragraph 13 (1):

Unless otherwise provided by the council’s standing orders the manner of voting at meetings of a parish council shall be by show of hands.

In the case of New Mills town council, its standing orders do not 'provide otherwise'.  The council's standing orders require that the manner of voting at meetings must be by show of hands.  The relevant council standing order is 3 (q):

“Unless standing orders provide otherwise, voting on a question shall be by a show of hands. At the request of a councillor, the voting on any question shall be recorded so as to show whether each councillor present and voting gave his vote for or against that question…"

To use the language of town and parish council standing orders, LGA 1972 Schedule 12 Paragraph 13(1) above is a ‘mandatory statutory requirement’.

Councillor Ray Atkins has recently claimed that the council’s standing orders “have been changed”.

With all due respect to Cllr Atkins, who is customarily a decent law-abiding councillor, his claim on this matter does not stand up to scrutiny.  Here is the only method the New Mills town council’s standing orders can be changed:

Standing Order 25 (b):
“A motion to add to or vary or revoke one or more of the council’s standing orders, except one that incorporates mandatory statutory requirements, shall be proposed by a special motion, the written notice by at least 6  councillors to be given to the Proper Officer in accordance with standing order 9 above.”

That change to standing orders has not happened.

No special motion to change the standing orders has been proposed by any councillor, let alone by the named six that would be required in advance in the event that any attempt at a secret ballot in the New Mills council chamber were to be tried.

Nor has any written notice of such a thing been received by the council's Proper Officer.



20 September 2017

Some Additional Information About the Heritage Centre's Continuance or Closure



Picture courtesy of the Buxton Advertiser


Today's online edition of the Buxton Advertiser carries the following story, published here verbatim:

The future of New Mills Heritage and Information Centre has been thrown into doubt after it emerged that the landlords had reached the ‘end of the relationship’ with the tenants - the town council.

Site owners Maryland Securities Limited says it has not heard from New Mills Town Council since the lease came up for renewal nearly a year ago.

The town council is in charge of the day-to-day running of the facility. But speaking to the Advertiser this week, Maryland associate director Robert Timson said: “We think it is the end of our relationship with the council. “We put the terms of the new lease to them several months ago but they have yet to respond and say whether they are suitable. “Discussions and negotiations have been protracted from their side, we have given them every opportunity to say if they want to stay but heard nothing back.

“We are already making plans on how we can develop the site as we believe the council wish to give notice and look for new premises. “There is no ill-feeling or upset on our part and to some extent the ball is in the council’s court and we await their response.”

The centre - which is run by the town council and is housed in several rooms on the ground floor of a converted building - was opened in July 1989 and attracts 12,000 people every year. But despite the uncertainty surrounding it, town council chairman Barry Bates insisted this week that the authority was ‘committed to the Heritage Centre’. “However, I can’t tell you the council’s plans for the centre’s future because whether we chose to keep the lease on or not has not been fully discussed with councillors and it will have to be put to the vote to see where we go from here,” he said.

The running costs of the centre, which generates income by selling books, maps and trails, are met by the town council. An administrator employed by the town council is responsible for the day-to-day running of the centre and is assisted by a large group of experienced volunteers. The current curatorial adviser is a former member of staff of The Manchester Museum.



Here is the link to the original article in the online edition of the Buxton Advertiser:

http://www.buxtonadvertiser.co.uk/news/axe-looms-for-new-mills-heritage-centre-after-26-years-1-8763393


12 September 2017

New Mills Heritage Centre May Close After 28 Years


Model of New Mills in circa 1883. The large central empty space is where Union Street now is



Last night's New Mills town council meeting learned that formal Notice to Quit has been served on New Mills Town Council in respect of the New Mills Heritage And Information Centre by the landlord Maryland Securities.

Set up by local history enthusiasts in the late 1980s, its official opening in 1989 was conducted by broadcaster Brian Redhead and local Labour stalwart Marion Williams.

An interesting fact stated in Sir Martin Doughty's 2003 book The Park Under The Town:
"High Peak Borough Council now meets the annual rental costs."  This may explain why some recent correspondents with HPT mistakenly believed the annual cost to the New Mills town council of the Heritage Centre is "only" £5,000 per year.  In fact it costs the New Mills council taxpayers about £14,000 every year, according to the latest accounts prepared for the town council.

The capital cost of converting the then-derelict cellar to house the Heritage Centre was £80,000 in 1989 prices.  This was nearly all public money spent on the project to get it open.

Among other things, the wonderful large but delicate model (pictured) of the town at the time of the key Union Road bridge construction will have to be removed from the Centre and preserved very carefully.