29 June 2010

The Town Hall Law Breakers

A member of the public was unlawfully excluded from a public meeting, so that a member of town council staff could be present.

High Peak Transparency can reveal the latest occasion that town hall staff have viewed their so-called 'rights' as being above the law that applies to the rest of us.

First, the law background.  The relevant statute is the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960.  Under Section 1, all meetings of public bodies, and bodies exercising public functions, must be open to the public.  The public (not any individuals) may be excluded under the Act on certain very limited 'public interest' grounds, but if this happens it must be the public in general, and it can only be after a specific resolution is made - again in public - for that exclusion to take place.

The meeting at which the law was flouted was the New Mills Town Council meeting of 28 June 2010.  At the appointed start time the members of the public were seated in the public gallery area of the council chamber, and the member of press was present (Emma Downes, Buxton Advertiser

Bafflingly, there was no town clerk.  Then the meeting's chair, Cllr Chantal Hannell went outside the council chamber to look for her.  Next Stephen Lewis, who has responsibility for parks in the town etc, was called outside.  Being very well brought up, Cllr Hannell used the expression 'Can I borrow you for a moment?'

In New Mills, High Peak, Derbyshire, things sometimes seem to be only ever one moment away from being bizarre.  Because the next thing to happen was that all of the councillors were called outside the council chamber, and the members of the public were left in.

When they came back in Cllr Hannell, presumably speaking on behalf of the New Mills town council, then addressed an explanation to the public in general and some remarks to one member of the public in particular.

It transpires that the member of the public has agreed, in writing, not to be within 30 metres of Stephen Lewis.  The pressure/threat of high potential legal costs was put on him to agree to this.  The whole matter arose because of a long-running dispute, mainly in High Lea Park.  To summarise, Stephen Lewis is broadly alleged to have broken off from the strimming to do a little light shouting now and then.  The member of the public, Tim Burgess, and Stephen Lewis don't get on and there seem to have been fisticuffs. Mr Burgess shouted out a rude word and then, when challenged, said it was a description of a former Labour councillor.

Away from the soap opera and back in the council chamber, Cllr Hannell offered advice that the member of the public should leave the town council meeting.  Clearly upset by this development, Mr Burgess volunteered to leave.

As this, in effect, was breaking the law, New Mills Town Council should offer an immediate apology and make it completely clear that Mr Burgess's statutory right under the law in respect of attendance at public meetings can never be curtailed by an agreement like this, made in private.

If any councillor is worried about the possibility of 'disturbance' at a town council meeting, and there has never been the remotest indication that such a thing might ever happen in this case, then there is a clear separate local government power immediately to remove any person causing a disturbance if they refuse to leave when they are instructed to do so.

By a strange irony, about halfway through the meeting a face appeared at the open window.  It was like the ghost of Christmas past but not as good looking.  Its owner, standing on Hall Street, was watching the proceedings of the town council.  On seeing this, at least one councillor urged them to 'come in, it's a public meeting!'

High Peak Transparency is happy to make it clear that no Conservative members of the town council were present during the events before the meeting, described above.

This article has sequels:
The Town Hall Law Breakers - Part Two
The Town Hall Law Breakers - Part Three


19 June 2010

Bingham 'Not Slick' Shock

Andrew Bingham MP's maiden speech has now been delivered.  It was stammering and hesitant, read out from a frankly not brilliant script.

Mind you, what normal person wouldn't suffer performance anxiety in such a situation: Mr Bingham had been dreaming of, and planning and working for, the possibility of his crowning moment in the mother of parliaments for many, many years.

He spoke about the need for a bypass in the north of the constituency.  However, this part of the speech was so equivocal that it seemed he didn't want to offend any part of either the pro- or anti- lobbies:
"In Glossop and Tintwistle, the Tintwistle bypass is an issue that has meandered on for many years. It was promised by my predecessor 13 years ago but has still to be built. It is a difficult issue. There are difficult environmental consequences to be considered but something needs to be done to alleviate the traffic difficulties suffocating Glossop. Tintwistle shudders and resounds to the thundering of wagons as they cross the Pennines. I know that money is tight and will be for some time, but if money becomes available a workable solution may be achieved."

The script did contain some lighter moments.  Quite a few MPs laughed in recognition when Mr Bingham noted that the Royston Vasey location is within the constituency.

He pronounced Tintwistle as it is spelt on the page.  Of course the locals call it Tinsel. However, one has to think of Hansard, which would have reported his homage to a Christmas decoration instead of a village.

Seige, Congestion And Pollution From Queues Of Stationary Vehicles: No End In Sight

According to Hansard, our MP has now had the following written exchange in Parliament:

Andrew Bingham: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will prioritise funding for a solution to traffic congestion in Glossop and Tintwistle.

Norman Baker (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Regional and Local Transport), Transport; Lewes, Liberal Democrat):

"In his written ministerial statement to the House on 10 June 2010, Hansard, column 35WS, regarding major schemes the Secretary of State for Transport made it clear that the Department will not be able to identify those major investments that can be supported until the conclusion of the Government's spending review in the autumn.

Therefore at this time I am afraid that I cannot provide any assurances on funding for a solution to traffic congestion in Glossop and Tintwistle."
So basically, because of the spendaholic unstable vote-buying New Labour nutters, who printed and wasted vast amounts of money like no-one would ever have to pay it back, sensible necessary projects are cancelled or have to wait.

10 June 2010

Rogue Apostrophe

Slightly annoying to stumble upon a fellow local politics website, but then to find that (at the time of writing) there have been no posts on it since before the general election:

While on the subject of our MP, two glaring grammatical errors are in his Buxton Advertiser column this week:
"Last week also saw the first Prime Ministers Question's (sic) of the new Parliament"
 "Also along with many of the new MP's (sic) I still await an office..."
Andrew Bingham MP's predecessor Tom Levitt's columns were grammatically immaculate.

However, late in Mr Levitt's tenure it was revealed that in fact he didn't write the columns, but was getting a consultancy closely associated with the Labour Party to write them - paying the invoices using our money.

Given the antics of some other members of the last parliament (of all parties), probably better a couple of rogue apostrophes than a rogue MP.

Support Your Local Pub

The Chairman of Buxton Pubwatch, Ken Howarth, complains bitterly (no pun intended) about High Peak Borough Council's spending on a giant screen for a handful of football matches.

The 20ft television and sound system will be put up in the Octagon Suite in Buxton, in an attempt to attract up to 500 people per match.

The majority of the screened matches have evening kick-offs, so this new giant system will damage or erode the hard-pressed High Peak pub trade and those whose livelihoods depend on it.

Buxton Pubwatch has therefore legitimately asked why taxpayers' money is being spent on this.

03 June 2010

The Prime Minister, Speaking About The New Transparency Revolution

The issue chosen for the very first prime ministerial podcast is...

Here are David Cameron's words on the subject, published this week:

"This coalition has started as we mean to go along; a government that saves money instead of wasting it; that trusts people who work in our public services, instead of dictating to them; and one that gives power away to people instead of taking it from them.

A big part of giving people more power is giving them more information. And this coming week, we’re going to be making a start on that.

If there’s one thing I’ve noticed since doing this job, it’s how all the information about government – the money it spends, where it spends it, the results it achieves – how so much of it is locked away in a vault marked sort of private for the eyes of ministers and officials only.

I think this is ridiculous. It’s your money, your government, you should know what’s going on.

So we’re going to rip off that cloak of secrecy and extend transparency as far and as wide as possible. By bringing information out into the open, you’ll be able to hold government and public services to account. You’ll be able to see how your taxes are being spent. Judge standards in your local schools and hospitals. Find out just how effective the police are at fighting crime in your community.

Now I think that’s going to do great things. It’s certainly going to save us money.

With a whole army of effective armchair auditors looking over the books, ministers in this government are not going to be able to get away with all the waste, the expensive vanity projects and pointless schemes that we’ve had in the past.

We saw what happened with MPs’ expenses once they were put online, out in the open. No one will ever be so free and easy with public money again.

But it’s not just about efficiency and saving money. I also think transparency can help us to re-build trust in our politics. One of the reasons people don’t trust politicians is because they think we’ve always got something to hide.

Well, by the time we’ve finished, there will be far fewer hiding places.

We’re making a start by publishing details of public spending over the past 12 months, information about hospital infections, and some of the salaries of senior officials in government.

They are just tiny, tiny steps down the road of transparency.

The first information we’re publishing won’t be perfect, it won’t always be in the most convenient format, and I’m sure there’ll be some mistakes. But I don’t want to hang around making sure everything is perfect – I want to get on with it, to make a start on this transparency revolution that we’re planning.

In time, I want our government to be one of the most open and transparent in the world.

We’re making a small start. But eventually, it’s going to make a big difference.

People will be the masters. Politicians the servants. And that’s the way it should be."
The podcast, spoken by David Cameron personally, is available at the 10 Downing Street website

01 June 2010

Freedom of Information

Staffordshire County Council has decided to pay Nick Bell, its chief executive, £195,000 every year.

That is about £1,000 a week more than its Derbyshire County Council neighbour.  The chief executive there is Nick Hodgson.

Simon Baker, who acts as chief executive to two councils, gets £151,000 a year.  Each council pays half towards the cost, just under £76,000 per council.  The two councils are Staffordshire Moorlands and High Peak Borough Council.

Supporting transparency, new prime minister David Cameron today pledged to 'rip the cloak of secrecy' from local government and other areas where ordinary taxpayers have suffered the costs of mismanagement and dishonesty in the past.

Mr Cameron is a Conservative, leading a coalition including the Liberal Democrat party, and the Freedom of Information Act was a Labour government measure.

The forces of transparency in public life continue to make good progress against the opposition.

Supporters of secrecy and wrongdoing - and confidential meetings behind closed doors in town halls - continue to be on the defensive.  Some of them are having to try to devise new ways of stopping embarrassing  facts and information from reaching the public.  A simpler, easier and much cheaper way forward is just to be honest.