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Culture of Secrecy

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Culture of Secrecy

Culture of SecrecyThis is a photo of Fylde's current Deputy Mayor, Cllr Peter Collins of Clifton, whose intervention at Council last Monday marked a pivotal moment for Fylde - read on to learn more.......

We have long argued that democracy died at Fylde when the former Commissar John Coombes overrode his own public consultation - in which a majority of people voted to retain the Committee System at Fylde - and he imposed what became the Cabinet System on both an unwilling electorate, and on uncompliant Councillors. (See Death of Democracy in Fylde)

Former Cllr Barbara Pagett was an early casualty when she voted according to her conscience.

As we showed in 'The Commissar Strikes' at a kangaroo court on 4th October 2005, a proposition from Tim Ashton had Barbara Pagett suspended from the conservative group for two months, and removed from the vice chairmanship of the Development Control Committee for daring to vote with her conscience.

She resigned from the Conservatives, became an independent Councillor, and was held in high regard for maintaining her principled stance. counterbalance dubbed her 'Saint Barbara Pagett'.

When this happened back in 2005, we said "The introduction of this undemocratic cabinet/politburo system will create a permanent internal struggle for power. There will be intense competition to secure - and then hold - a place on the all-powerful Cabinet.

In the best Stalinist tradition, Commissar Coombes will rule the roost, killing off those who oppose him, and appointing those who will do his bidding to positions of power, whilst aspirants hang around the margins hoping to catch his eye.

Like Saddam Hussein, unable to carry the argument by debate, he has resorted to rule by fear. He appoints the favoured to power, he rules with an iron fist, he will brook no dissent, and uses ruthless methods to stifle opposition."


Over time, things have not improved much - as last Monday night's Council meeting showed.

But at that meeting, there was a shaft of gleaming transparency into the dark and murky secrecy that is now Fylde's natural habitat.   We were treated to a wholly unexpected, and bravura performance by Fylde's Deputy Mayor, Cllr Peter Collins who is pictured above.

The hesitating and sometimes faltering style of his oration - as though he did not really want to say what he felt he had to say - only heightened the effect of the content of his speech. He had the whole council spellbound, and the Conservative group squirming in their seats, as he quietly, but firmly, tore into this appalling system that had seen real decisions made out of sight in 'informal Cabinet Meetings' before being announced in Cabinet proper; an appalling system that will now see a joint 'Management Board' - with Cabinet members and unelected officers having equal standing - whilst Councillors who are not Cabinet Members are prevented from attending such meetings; and an appalling system that has emasculated and damaged confidence in the scrutiny process and in the Council itself.

New regulations require Cabinet Meetings to be more open and transparent. Fylde's response for the future is to create meetings of the Cabinet and officers in a new forum. These meetings are to be called "Management Board Meetings"

This is an awful name - because it implies - as with any board - a decision-taking purpose and capability which does not exist in this context.   And it is a disastrous concept, because it places Cabinet Members and unelected officers inside the meeting, and excludes all the other 44 elected Councillors.

Cllr Collins said he thought it was being done because this was the only way the Cabinet could get around the new openness and transparency regulations being introduced by Government, and he concluded that he no longer had confidence in the working of the Council.

Our readers can follow this link to see the video of the whole meeting . Cllr Buckley introduces the item at 51min 51 seconds into the video and Cllr Collins speech begins at 54min 20 seconds in. Readers should be able to follow this link to the start of Item11 , and can follow this link to the start of Cllr Collins oration - although we have reproduced what he said as text below.

Whilst it may not be the most powerful speech we have heard in style, we think the content, and even more, Cllr Collins' willingness to be so honest about just how bad things have now become at Fylde, ranks his speech as one of the top five speeches of all time at Fylde Council. It was bang on the head of the nail, and it pulled no punches.

It was all the more impressive because Cllr Collins hardly ever speaks in Council meetings. We can only recall him speaking once or twice in all the time we have seen him on the Council. So when he asked to speak at this meeting it was very unexpected.

We believe his speech has fatally wounded David Eaves as Leader of the Council and Leader of the Conservative group.

For some time now it has appeared that Cllr Eaves has been forced into defending rogue elements within his party who pursue and value the exercise of power more than the public service they were elected to deliver. Those for whom ambition exceeds both their humility, and their ability to subscribe to the concepts of consensus and the 'common good' for public service.

So how did this all come about?

Well, on Fylde's Council Agenda last Monday there was an item about Councils being more open and transparent, and the issue of secret briefings and decisions being made behind closed doors at Fylde, was first broached at the start of the meeting in a public question that wanted to know why other members of the Council did not have a right to attend meetings when Cabinet members were being briefed by officers, and whether the Council meeting itself could vote to require such meetings to be open to all Councillors to attend.

The essence of Princess Karen Buckley's reply to this question was it was common practice at Fylde and elsewhere to exclude other councillors from Cabinet briefings, and no, the full Council did not have the right to require Cabinet briefings to be open to all Council members, but the Council could seek permission to do so, and ask the Cabinet if it would agree to allow other Councillors to attend its briefing meetings.

At this point, we have to ask: whatever sort of lunacy have we got operating now at Fylde, when all the 51 Councillors acting together are not even allowed to decide their own administrative arrangements?

How can it be right that the will of 51 Councillors can be overridden and overruled by the will of just seven of them.

It is preposterous: and it cannot endure.

The secrecy matter arose again in item 11 which had the rather un-snappy title of "New Regulations Regarding Executive Arrangements And Access To Information"

It was a report proposing amendments to Fylde's Constitution to comply with the even less snappily named "Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012." which came into force on 10th September and which Fylde have now got round to considering.

In essence, our hero, St Eric Pickles, has made regulations that govern meetings of the Cabinet and how its decisions are recorded.

His aim in this is to "clarify and extend the circumstances in which local authority Executive decisions are to be open to the public by ‘requiring’ maximum transparency rather than ‘allowing’ it."

Before implementing the new regulations, the Government undertook a short consultation of their plan. The Local Government Association said they thought no amendments to the old regulations were necessary. But the Government did not share that view.

Right on, St Eric!

The new Regulations require that all Executive meetings must be held in public unless exempt information is likely to be disclosed.

They also impose a notice period of 28 days where Cabinet meetings or parts of them are to be closed to the press and public. This is to allow the press and public the opportunity to make representations that challenge the reason for such secrecy.

We gave notice of these regulations in "Their Worst Nightmare?" which we published on 26 August (readers can find more details of the new proposals there), and where we noted that another key element of the new regulations required Councils to afford decent facilities access to documents online for citizen journalists and bloggers to report their meetings.

Fylde (and other Councils) sought clarification about the Cabinet Briefings matter from St Eric's department.

He told them “The purpose of these Regulations is to ensure genuine transparency and openness by introducing for the first time a clear presumption that meetings of a council’s cabinet, its committees and sub-committees, must be open to the public except in very limited, specifically defined circumstances. This means that a council’s cabinet cannot simply choose to meet and conduct business in secret session and exclude the public."

St Eric went on to say "However, the Regulations do not affect how council’s cabinet can be briefed by officers or political officer/assistant without the public being present."

We accept that position so far as the public are concerned. But we do not accept it for other Councillors, and we do not believe that is within the spirit of the regulations issued by St Eric.

It's easy to see why such openness and transparency measures were never going to be popular with any administration that operates on the mushroom principle. (Keep 'em in the dark and feed 'em a load of bullshit from time to time).

And it looks as though Fylde were not happy bunnies. They seem to have sought legal advice on how much they had to comply with the requirements, and were told that meetings solely between the Cabinet and the Officers' Management Team for the purpose of briefings, did not fall within the definition of the new regulations and thus the public could not claim access as of right under the new regulations.

Fine.

They could have left it at what St Eric had told them, and saved the dosh in legal advice costs.

But it appears from Princess Karen's answer to the public question, that Fylde's officers were responsible for the advice that added "and it is reasonable to exclude other members of the Council".

This is the first time to our knowledge that a formal decision to exclude any councillor from a briefing meeting has been put to Fylde, and we suspect that by including this comment in the report (which seeks to alter Fylde's Constitution), and having the report approved, Fylde's Constitution could now be amended to say just that, and then it really will become enforceable.

Councillors are not excluded from any other meeting - even when the press and public are excluded, so we can't see that it ought to be 'reasonable' to exclude any councillor - because all were elected equally to serve - from meetings of any sort involving officers if they want to attend.

And so the stage was set for the debate on Item 11, the 'new openness and transparency regulations'

Princess Karen Buckley (who is increasingly shaping herself into being the heir apparent to current Leader David Eaves) introduced the item.

Then, first off  Saint Paul Hayhurst of Elswick wanted to know if the new openness and transparency would extend to cover the 'informal Cabinet meetings' at which a lot of decisions seem to have be made.

Then the Mayor called the Deputy Mayor to speak, and Cllr Collins began what we saw as the local equivalent of Earl Spencer's oration at the funeral of Princess Diana.

He took as his example the unexpected £100,000 grant from Government for town centres (called the High Street Innovation Fund), and the way decisions on that had been made. (We referred to this in 'Snippets September 2012').

We're going to reproduce what Cllr Collins said in full because eventually the video of it will disappear, and we believe this was a pivotal moment in Fylde's history.

He said: "Fellow Councillors. I don't know where to start. What I want to talk about is how the High Street Innovation Fund was handled, how the decision regarding that was taken.

Cllr Oades and Cllr Silverwood attended the Cabinet Meeting when that decision was taken, and they weren't happy with the way it was discussed. In fact, very little discussion took place at that Cabinet Meeting.

Cabinet Meetings are where decisions are made. Not informal Cabinet Meetings, Not Briefing meetings. And not meetings of what I believe is now going to be called a Management Board.

I didn't have any particular interest in the High Street Innovation Fund, and I only got involved in that meeting
[we believe means the Scrutiny Committee 'Call-In' of the Cabinet decision] because I substituted for another Councillor. I was unaware of what was on the agenda, so when I went in, and the call in was discussed, I went in with a clear mind, I didn't have any prior bias or anything, I just wanted to look at how the decision was made.

Not what the decision was, but how the decision was made.

Quite frankly, I was appalled.

It was *obvious* to anyone in that meeting that the decision had been made at an informal Cabinet meeting. Call it an informal Cabinet Meeting, Call it a Briefing Meeting, but that decision had been made before the Cabinet Meeting.

I have the minutes of that Scrutiny Meeting where this call-in was discussed
[and he went on to quote from them as follows]. It talks about Councillor Eaves. It says he went on to confirm that there was an informal meeting of Cabinet Members on 23 May 2012 to consider the options available for the use of the High Street Innovation Fund. He explained that at this meeting there was *considerable discussion* of all the options available. And it was at this meeting that Cabinet Members formed a *clear view* that the Business Support Scheme was the best option for businesses across the Borough of Fylde. A further informal meeting of Cabinet Members was held on 25th June 2012, and this scheme was again considered. It received Cabinet Members recommendation. It went on to say that the decision was announced at the formal Cabinet Meeting.

During that Scrutiny Meeting I asked if I could attend - because if a decision is being made, we, as Councillors, have a right to be there. I was told by the Monitoring Officer: No, I didn't have a right to be there.

This puzzled me.

I had an overnight sleep on things, and the following day I was still puzzled by it, so I got the Constitution out, looking to see what it said about informal or Briefing meetings of the Cabinet.

There is nothing in there.

There is just a set procedure for meetings of the Cabinet.

During the Scrutiny Meeting, I asked Councillor Eaves if he was happy, yes or no, with how this decision had been made. He couldn't answer 'Yes.' He answered 'No'

This is the Leader of this Cabinet, of this Council. This is his Cabinet, and he wasn't happy with that decision.

A decision has been made in the wrong place. It wasn't made in the Cabinet Meeting, it was made elsewhere. This is a failure of Governance, and also I think, a failure of Scrutiny. The decision was Called-In. The decision should not have been allowed, it should have gone back either to the Cabinet or to the Full Council.

I don't want to dwell on the ins and outs of what is a 'Briefing Meeting' and what is an 'Informal Meeting' but the way forward now - it's proposed - is this Management Board.

My understanding is that the only way round these new regulations, is for the Cabinet and for the Officers to have equal standing in these meetings.

Now, if a decision is made in those meetings - as it clearly was regarding the High Street Innovation Fund - this means that Councillors - elected Councillors - if they're not in the Cabinet they can't be there. But if you're an officer you're there as an equal. You're a party to that decision.

Now if the Officers want to make decisions, I suggest they stand at the next election.

If it was purely a briefing meeting, I'd be quite happy with that. There was a briefing meeting today for myself and the Mayor ahead of this meeting. I was quite happy, and I'm quite happy for anybody else to be there.

I believe the Chief Executive has offered, to have the same briefings as are given to the Cabinet, to the opposition, to any group, on the same evening and on the same subject. But if these are purely briefing meetings, if it's purely information being given from the officers to members, why can't we all be briefed at the same time?

I don't believe this is the way forward. I don't have confidence in the Management Board, and I am losing confidence in the way this Council operates.

Thank you".

You could have heard a pin drop.

Councillors were stunned into silence.

We wanted to cheer.

Then Cllr David Eaves responded. He said: "I don't want to go back over the Scrutiny Meeting, I'd just like to please correct Councillor Collins in the fact that when he asked me the questions was I happy with the way the decision was made, I replied 'Yes', not 'No'"

Cllr Collins immediately responded "Rubbish! You did not. You did not. You did not". A clearly angry Cllr Collins would not back down, and maintained his position.

Cllr Duffy was then called to speak. He said he agreed with everything Cllr Collins had just said. He noted that he was at the same Scrutiny meeting and he had not heard Cllr Eaves say he was happy with the decision making process. He thought Cllr Eaves had spent a lot of time trying to evade answering the question at all, so he was evidently not happy with the way the decision had been made.

Cllr Duffy went on to pursue a line of forcing admissions from the Leader and Chief Executive about what constituted a decision and *where* matters were decided. He went on to establish that if decisions were made in informal meetings, it was a breach of the regulations.

He was setting up the bottles for next time of course.

In theory, this should mean that Cabinet now have to at least try to look as if they are making decisions at Cabinet meetings.

Many of the non-conservative Councillors have spoken of their concern about the culture of secrecy that is growing up in and around Fylde's Cabinet.

In response, both Princess Karen and the Chief Executive re-iterated that other Councillors had been offered the same briefings on the same day if necessary, but they would not attend them.

Some of those 'other' Councillors responded with "Well if they are going to be the same briefings, on the same topics, on the same day, why can we not attend the same one that the Cabinet gets?"

We had to admit a certain logic to that. And as anyone who has done any supervisory or management training at all will know, one of the first things you learn is to brief collectively to those affected.

Furthermore as Queen Elizabeth said "It's very difficult to request a briefing when you don't know what to request a briefing about, and that is one of the problems with us having briefings, because we don't know what's going on, and so therefore, we can't ask to have a briefing if we're not aware that there are items being discussed."

When an administration takes refuge in secrecy to maintain its power, it is become despotic.

There was quite some to-ing and fro-ing of debate - you could see it was an issue of significant concern, and our readers who want more can watch the video of course.

Queen Elizabeth Oades of Kirkham had joined the fray in this matter. She said she rarely heard debate at Cabinet, and that meant no-one knew how decisions were arrived at, and other Councillors such as her could not then explain to their electorate how decisions have been made.

She giving notice of two amendments to the recommendation.

The first of these was "We require all Management Board briefings to be opened to any elected Councillors to attend".

Debate on this amendment opened and, during it's course, Princess Karen reminded her of what she had said in answer to the public question - namely that "Whilst Council could make its view known, what it could not do, and this advice has come through the Monitoring Officer, is to require Cabinet to hold those sort of Briefing Meetings open to Councillors, and I just think it's important that I remind Cllr Oades of the answer to that very specific question".

Cllr John Davies tuirned this on its head and asked what Cabinet had got to hide by excluding other Councillors from their briefings.

Like a Wise Owl, Cllr Oades, having manoeuvred for this position said she would change her amendment from "require" to "request" - and that went to a vote.

Just as she would no doubt have expected, the Conservative members outvoted the proposal to request Cabinet Briefings be opened to others.

So not only would the Cabinet not allow it, they would not even hear and consider the request to allow it!

It shows how far the culture of secrecy is being used to deny open democracy and transparency in the Fylde's Cabinet System of Government, and why the Government's intervention with regulations - such as those now issued by St Eric - is both necessary and important.

In answer to Cllr Collins' comment about the new Management Board being a way to get around the new regulations, Princess Karen Buckley said "We are not seeking a way around these regulations. I do need to make that clear. The spirit of these regulations is openness and transparency, and where the decisions are taken is in the Cabinet Meeting. And yes, we exchange views, and we may exchange our views very robustly, but it is right that when we come together and meet as a Cabinet in public, we come with the opportunity to change our minds, to answer questions put to us, and to have a debate which may change the tone and may chan...... so that we will not be pre-dispositioned when we come to that Cabinet Meeting, and that is what is in issue here."

We think, if readers care to dissect that statement with us for a moment, we will all see exactly what is wrong.

Cllr Buckley implies that the exchange of views between Cabinet members does happen, and that sometimes it happens robustly - (for which you can read there are strong arguments and disagreements) - but she appears to believe that should happen behind closed doors, in informal meetings with the press and public excluded, so that when they come together and meet as a Cabinet, as she says *in public*, they do not display those arguments and disagreement.

She says they come to the public Cabinet Meeting with the ability to change their minds (which itself implies they have already been made up), they have the ability to answer questions, and they do have further debate which may change the tone (whatever that might mean).

But what these private meetings also do is to deny the electorate the ability to see who takes which view in the robust debates that are going on behind the scenes. No-one can know how strongly individuals feel about issues under discussion. So how on earth can we decide who we want to vote for if we don't know what they believe and support.

This is not openness and transparency: this is stage management. The Cabinet has become a theatre where well rehearsed lines are trotted out for decisions that have, as Cllr Collins said, been made elsewhere.

There's an easy way to test this for yourself Dear Reader. Just look back over the videos of Cabinet meetings past, and see if you can find any items where there is proper, real debate (or for that matter see how many you can find where the Portfolio Holder is not reading from a prepared speech). We recall only three items where there was anything like proper debate over the last 10 years or so.

It is this fear of the electorate seeing disagreement amongst them, and the need to manage information destined for the public arena with spin doctors, that is at the root of the secrecy.

And the price we must pay for the Cabinet's comfort in this matter is to be kept in ignorance.

Refusing Councillors access to Cabinet Briefings is not the law. There is nothing to say Cabinet briefings must be held in secret, either in the law, or in the Council's Constitution. If there had been, the Officers and Cllr Buckley would not have been able to say Councillors could 'request', but not 'require' access to Cabinet Briefing meetings.

Given that the Council may only operate within the law and its Constitution, and, as Cllr Collins said, there is nothing in the Constitution to give or refuse access, we think the maintenance of this prohibition of access is not lawful at the present time. That will change if officers amend the Constitution after this Council meeting of course.

No, it is not the law, it is simply the naked use (some might say abuse) of power to restrict the flow of information so that only Cabinet members know the whole story. It deprives the other 44 Councillors from knowing the details that are given to the seven members of the Cabinet.

When he came to power, David Eaves promised a new era of consensus and transparency.

We've no doubt at the time, he was genuine and he meant what he said.

Readers might have noticed that in a spirit of hope and co-operation we stopped referring to his Cabinet (and it is his Cabinet because each of the Portfolio Holders is his own, personal selection) as the 'Pollitburo Cabinet' when Cllr Coombes left, and Cllr Eaves took over.

But Cllr Eaves has failed to deliver the promised era of consensus and transparency.

We believe - and as our friend the Blue Mole has shown-   that's because he is prisoner of elements within his own party, but for whatever reason, he has failed, and spectacularly so, when he and his party will not even allow a request for access to meetings to be made to them.

That well illustrates the depths to which Fylde has sunk.

But as if that were not enough, Cllr Mrs Oades was ready with her (predictable) second amendment. It was - of course - that when Cabinet was to be briefed by officers, the agenda and papers for such a briefing should be circulated to all members of the Council for information.

You know where this is going don't you Dear Reader?

Yes, that's right. Another forest of Conservative voting-fodder arms were stuck up to vote down the amendment, and to refuse to provide information to other members of the Council - those that we all elect as equals - about what was being considered.

It was nothing short of a disgrace. It is an insult to the electorate they serve, and to mark the event, will return to using a modified name for Fylde's Cabinet in future. We will henceforth refer to it as 'The Blue Peter Politburo Cabinet' because it is totalitarian and secretive in spirit, and it features decisions that are just like the ones we made earlier.

That's what Fylde's Cabinet is become.

Dated:  7 December 2012


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