Tag Archives: Scrutiny

The Tudor Court of Sir Robin

19 May

Guest post by Ken Taylor

I have just listened to a recording of Monday night’s Newham Labour Group meeting. This was the biannual meeting where standing order rule amendments and reports by Group officers are considered and, most importantly, elections by Labour councillors of group officers for the next 2 years.  

A long-serving retired Newham Councillor, in his autobiography, described the Council under the control of Sir Robin Wales, as resembling a 16th century Tudor Court. Last night’s Labour Group AGM certainly did nothing to counter that impression. 

Tammany Hall Politics

Firstly, there was a series of biased and clearly manipulated elections. Labour Party rules quite rightly state that the chair of a Labour Group cannot be a member of the Council cabinet. Group officers are supposed to be a brake on the power of the Executive, part of the necessary check and balances. In Newham there is no significant difference between Cabinet members and Executive advisors – some cabinet members are part-time, while some advisors are ‘full-time’ and receive substantially higher allowances. The current chair, Clive Furness, is paid £34,000 on top of his £10900 councillor earnings by the mayor as his advisor on Adults & Health. Obviously, he has to support the wishes of the mayor or he will be sacked. A majority of councillors are either on the Mayor’s pay roll, or want to be. It was little surprise that Cllr Furness was re-elected, although 23 out of 56 (41%) of Councillors voted for his opponent, John Gray, via secret ballot.  Always remember that Newham residents, who are some of the poorest in the country, pay for the Mayor’s financial favours for his supporters through their Council tax; it does not come out of Sir Robin’s own pocket.  

While it was good news that two independent-minded councillors were elected to chair individual Scrutiny commissions, it was not surprising that a former Mayoral advisor was elected as the chair of Overview and Scrutiny by the votes of other paid Mayor advisors. So the councillors who the Mayor decides to pay huge amounts of money to be his advisors decide who should scrutinise them? This is no-one’s idea of accountability.

Safely re-installed as chair, Clive Furness then went on to wreck a motion calling for paid Mayoral advisors not to be allowed to vote in future elections for his position by only allowing 2 speakers on the motion. He then insisted only the Mayor should have the final word and refused the proposer of the motion the right of reply to the Mayor’s venom. The Chair obviously earned his money that night. Well done!  

Bragfest

In his AGM report the Mayor went on his usual ego trip, bragging that Newham was so far ahead of all other Labour councils in the land, who he thinks are all useless, incompetent and badly led. Such a contrast to Newham under his leadership!

He attacked the motion on preventing his paid advisors controlling Labour group officers by claiming it was undemocratic and wrong for anyone to restrict the choice of who to vote for. It would lead to the destruction of the Party and the end of all civilised life as we know it. This is despite national Labour Party rules which restrict who can be cabinet members and vote in Scrutiny elections. He also seems to have forgotten that he agreed last year to a convention that East Ham Labour Party would exclude all councillors from being branch officers.  

What would be laughable, if it was not so serious, was Sir Robins boast to Group that he had introduced secret ballots for Group elections! This is of course a blatant untruth. You have to wonder why he makes such preposterous claims. Why the constant need to feed his ego? Who knows.

Trigger Ballot

In the next 12 months or so there must be a “trigger ballot” of Labour Party members and affiliates in Newham on whether the current Mayor is automatically the Labour candidate for Mayor in 2018. If you think that, regardless of the many talents (and faces) of Sir Robin Wales, after more than 20 years of his rule we need a choice in Newham, then you will vote for an open and transparent election process. It may turn out that Sir Robin is the best candidate, but members should surely take the chance to consider alternatives. I hope members will vote to give themselves a real choice.

OMG. I have been invited as a guest to the formal Newham Council AGM tonight (Thursday). The mayor promised at the Group meeting that there will be even more bragging about himself. I must bring earplugs – and a large hip flask.

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Visions of scrutiny

13 May

Next week sees the annual general meeting of Newham council’s Labour group. This is where elections for political positions takes place. It is also where the chair of overview and scrutiny is chosen, as the position is meant to be independent of the executive.

This year three candidates have put themselves forward: Anthony McAlmont (Royal Docks), Neil Wilson (Plaistow South) and Conor McAuley (Custom House). Between them there are sharply contrasting views as to the role of scrutiny and its relationship with the executive.

Anthony McAlmont is the incumbent and one of Sir Robin’s most reliable toadies. His election statement reads like it could have been written in the Mayor’s office – and it quite possibly was.

I am the incumbent chair of OSC. I held together and led the scrutiny chairs and the commissions in the face of what sometimes seems like an extension of group; so very often, this put at risk scrutiny’s ability to: effectively work with the Executive in terms of policy development; carry out more in-depth scrutiny inquiries into policy outcomes and resident engagement.

I inherited an OSC that was not fit for purpose in that the current scrutiny model is unable to adapt or respond adequately or address any emerging priorities and any additional pressures arising in year. I believe that we need a scrutiny model that is able to engage and support a wider range of scrutiny activities in areas such as commissioning arrangements, external partnering arrangements, transformational and income generating initiatives (Council Small Business Programme – CSBP and Red Doors) through more in-depth scrutiny inquiries.  

To address the above issues OSC adopted new protocol arrangements to enhance the effective working of the scrutiny process; however, I now believe that this is not enough. The new protocols must now be accompanied by a new scrutiny model. 

I do not believe that Newham’s scrutiny must be adversarial, but rather adopt a constructive partnership working which allows it to contribute to the effective running of the Council in the interest of residents, thus making Newham a place people want to work, live and stay. To this end I shall be working with the mayor, fellow members, officers and partners to scrutinise and develop recommendations which will support Executive members to transform and develop policies on budgeting and service delivery thereby ensuring that services are effective, transformational and value for money. 

That Cllr McAlmont claims the new protocol was adopted, rather than imposed by the mayor, shows how far up Sir Robin’s backside he is. Under his watch the scrutiny function has been a joke – as those of us who witnessed the ‘inquiry’ into the East Ham Campus overspend and the ultra vires opening of Newham Sixth Form Collegiate will testify. If he is re-elected the mayor will continue, confident that nothing as bothersome as scrutiny will get in his way.

Neil Wilson isn’t exactly threatening to rock the boat either.

In this post I would wish to make a clear priority the in-year performance and financial monitoring that is so crucial to ensure both value-for money and quality assurance from the realignment of budgets/services. I would encourage the more frequent use of “task-and-finish” groups to ensure that there is constructive feedback to proposals from the Executive in areas such as the Small Business Programme, the devolution of service provision to the Neighbourhoods.

Scrutiny work which aims to develop and review policy tends to constitute the bulk of work considered to be the most effective, and so I would always seek to be collaborative, working with the Mayor and Executive, and of course, the other Scrutiny Chairs.

Conor McAuley, by contrast, is up for a fight. After 34 years on the council and with his front bench career firmly behind him, he has no need to tolerate the leadership’s bullshit. 

Newham is unique as a local Council in that we, the Labour Party, hold all 60 Council seats and the Mayoralty. This places a special responsibility on us to be open in our dealings with the community we serve and in particular, open to scrutiny.

In the two years since the last election we have failed to live up to this.

In February 2015 Overview & Scrutiny started its enquiry into issues around the £11Million + overspend on the East Ham Campus. A year or more later, we still await the conclusions and sight of the report.

Many attribute this delay to the “Mayor’s Scrutiny Protocol” which he initially imposed upon the Group in July 2014. This protocol has since been assimilated into the Council’s Constitution. It now requires all scrutiny requests and questions to be routed through the Mayor’s office giving three weeks’ notice of questions and invitations to already scheduled meetings. This has been a recipe for delay.

It is bizarre that the political leader of the Council and his Executive determine when, how and even if, they will be scrutinised.

Throughout these two years I have been a member of the Regeneration & Employment Scrutiny Commission. This has not been an onerous task because the last Regeneration & Employment Scrutiny Commission meeting was held on February 11th 2015 with the Vice Chair in the Chair.

An entire municipal year has now passed without another meeting and a colleague has been paid an allowance to chair this commission. This is indefensible!

I want to re-invigorate Scrutiny in Newham and I would start with a revision of the Council’s scrutiny protocols.

Well good luck with that, councillor!

As I have said at almost tedious length in the past, scrutiny is a vital function of the council. Under a directly-elected mayoralty it is the only way that Sir Robin and his well-remunerated chums in the executive can be held to account. If councillors aren’t prepared to engage in the process properly there is almost no point at all to them being there. 

More cuts, less scrutiny

23 Nov

Three Wise Monkeys 2010

The mayor’s vision for scrutiny in Newham

Every cloud has a silver lining and Sir Robin Wales has found a very shiny benefit to the £50 million of cuts he has to implement: the excuse to slash funding for Scrutiny.

The seven scrutiny committees, which cover all aspects of the council’s activities, from health to crime & disorder, are now supported by a single officer.

As a consequence, the number of scrutiny meetings has been severely curtailed. Some committees, including the Health and Social Care Scrutiny Commission, haven’t held a public hearing since June. This is despite the many pressing health issues facing the borough, fundamental changes in the funding and delivery of Adult Social Care and serious concerns over the quality of services delivered by our local hospitals.

Councillors who actually want to do the only real job they were elected for – scrutinising the executive and holding the mayor to pubic account for his decisions – are becoming increasingly frustrated. The lack of support means things that members want to look at have to be ‘prioritised’ as part of an overall ‘work programme’- a mysterious process that is managed by the chair of overview & scrutiny, Tony McAlmont. As Cllr McAlmont owes his position and the significant ‘special responsibility allowance’ that goes along with it to the mayor, his view of ‘priorities’ may not be entirely independent.

Even when work gets ‘prioritised’ it has become nigh on impossible for committee chairs to schedule public meetings. The mayor’s new, legally dubious ‘scrutiny protocol’ (which councillors obediently nodded through in September) requires all requests for witnesses to be made via the mayor’s office, with at least 15 working days notice. The mayor then gets to decide if the requested council officer or Executive member will attend or provide only written answers. Witnesses can suddenly become ‘unavailable’ at very short notice, or substituted with someone of the mayor’s own choosing, rendering the hearing pointless.

One scrutiny commission chair has written to the council’s chief executive and Cllr McAlmont to express their concern:

We are all trying very hard in scrutiny to work within the new regime, forced upon us by government cuts, but I feel that we are being blocked at every turn. When scrutiny of the council’s business is now more important than ever, our capacity to do our work is very constrained through lack of resources.

I must urge you to […] do everything in your power to support scrutiny before we lose all but the statutory minimum of functions.

Nothing will come it. Sir Robin hates scrutiny and holds the entire process in contempt. 

At last week’s Cabinet he threw his toys out of the pram when a scrutiny report suggested his pet ‘Every Child A Musician’ programme might have some issues with variable quality in delivery. He blasted the committee for the ‘markedly lower quality’ of their research (compared to well-funded, full-time professional academic researchers he had previously paid for!) and rejected out of hand a recommendation that the aims, objectives and expected outcomes of the programme be reviewed, saying this would be a waste of money.

If Kim Bromley-Derry and Tony McAlmont want to keep their jobs they’ll say nothing – and do even less. For the mayor, defunding scrutiny is a dream come true.