Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Cornwall Tories believe they are above the law

Cornwall Council's Conservative leadership seem to think they are above the law at the moment. As well as using the authority's resources for internal party issues, it now appears that they are ignoring formal legal advice.

This latest issue concerns the role of Cabinet Support Members and whether or not they undertake 'executive functions'. It might seem a bit technical, but it's vital for the executive function of an authority to be separate from the scrutiny function. You cannot have a councillor holding him or herself to account.

In question is the role of Conservative Cllr Steve Double on the corporate resources scrutiny committee. Steve has been on the committee for some time and heads up a panel looking at communications and confidentiality. But in May he was made the Cabinet Support Member for Alternative Service Delivery - a subject area which is scrutinised by the corporate support committee. The CSM role is a bit ambiguous. Are they simply unpaid little helpers for Cabinet members or are they exercising executive functions in their own right. Cllr Alec Robertson, as Leader of the Council, was asked to clarify the CSM role and made it clear that these people would be full Cabinet members were it not for the restriction in numbers to a maximum of ten.

Cornwall Council's legal and scrutiny officers have therefore produced legal advice for Cllrs Robertson and Double which makes it quite clear that he cannot continue to hold both scrutiny and executive roles. Yet last week Cllr Double attended a meeting of the corporate resources committee as a member. I understand that he wants to complete the work of his panel and that's all very well, but such niceities surely can't come at the expense of what is legal.

Clearly Cllrs Robertson and Double think they are above the law. This does Cornwall Council's reputation no favours. I have asked the Council's Head of Legal to take action to formally remove Cllr Double from one of his two roles.

The formal advice given to Cllrs Robertson and Double is as follows (I have taken out the names of individual officers):

The advice that (the Head of Legal) and (the Head of Scrutiny) have given to the Leader is informed by the Local Government Act 2000, Chapter 22, Part II with respect to executives.

This states that, in relation to Overview and Scrutiny Committees,

“Executive arrangements by a local authority must ensure that their overview and scrutiny committee has power (or their overview and scrutiny committees have power between them) (a) to review of scrutinise decisions made, or other action taken, in connection with the discharge of any functions which are the responsibility of the executive…”

It also states that

“An overview and scrutiny committee of a local authority, or a sub-committee of such a committee, may not include any member of the authority’s executive.”

It is our view, therefore, that given the Leader’s recent message where he referred to the role of the Cabinet Support Members as being regarded as Cabinet Members, fully involved in the work of the Cabinet and fully responsible for their Portfolio areas (albeit not being able to make executive decisions or vote at Cabinet) that it is not, therefore, appropriate for them to sit on Scrutiny. The Leader’s message also made it clear that in relation to Scrutiny that they would take full responsibility for attending, liaising with and being held to account by the relevant Overview and Scrutiny Committee in respect of their Portfolio areas.

The Leader advised that he would be speaking to Councillor Mann, as Deputy Group Leader, about this situation. The advice has also been passed to Councillor Double.

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