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There was an unusual meeting at the Civic Offices last night, one we have
seen only once before and that was four years ago. Its purpose was to select an
Independent Person, something if taken absolutely literally Bexley Council would hate absolutely.
An Independent Person is required under the 2011 Localism Act to sit on the Code of Conduct Committee which judges Councillors who are the subject of a complaint.
It wasn’t very easy to get in. The lady on reception said she’d been advised that no members of the public were expected which was presumably true. Bexley Council always hopes not to be scrutinised.
In May 2013 a single two year appointment was made but as no complaints had been made by 2015 the Independent Person’s appointment was extended for another two years. This time the plan is to have two Independent Persons.
The appointment process for an Independent Person is rather obviously held under the provisions of the Localism Act that demands one. The rules that govern the process are the seven Nolan Principles which include Accountability, Openness and Honesty; none of them being qualities closely associated with Bexley Council.
Last night it was decided that Accountability and Honesty translated into total exclusion of the public from the whole of the meeting. It was open only for the three seconds it took to appoint a Chairman and for the public to be told to go.
Appointing a meeting Chairman is supposed to be a democratic process but in Bexley it is always a sham vote. Every single time. Last night Councillors Cheryl Bacon. Louie French and Stefano Borella (two Conservatives and one Labour) were present and as always they simply pretended to vote.
The Chairman is always appointed beforehand and it’s very obvious. The chosen Councillor is always already sitting in the appropriate chair and doesn’t say a word. The others give the same name unanimously. If the selection was genuine, one would once in a while hear another name or the Chairman would offer one and not be consistently already sitting in the right place with a prepared opening speech.
Councillor Bacon had been pre-selected and John Watson asked why she was excluding the public. The response amounted to no more than ‘because I can under Schedule 12A of the 1972 Local Government Act’. The 2011 Act has many references back to the 1972 Act but not specifically to Schedule 12A. Bacon was simply reading from her script.
Elwyn Bryant introduced himself as a member of the public and asked how, as stated in the Agenda, it would be in the best interests of the public to be excluded. Chairman Cheryl Bacon had no answer and suggested Elwyn submitted his question in a letter. I suspect he will.
Another question asked if applicants were to be interviewed after the public left. Not immediately, but some time later was the answer.
Presumably individual candidates would first be discussed by the Panel in which case one can begin to understand the exclusion but if so why had the meeting been publicised as an open one when in practice only the sham Chairman vote was?
Maybe the Localism Act dictates an open meeting without any provision for exclusions as would be expected when Accountability and Openness are the guiding principles. A secretive Council would naturally look around for a way out, the 1972 Act passed 39 years earlier.
Appointing the ‘right’ Independent Person is very important to Bexley Council. True independence from Teresa O’Neill could be a severe embarrassment. The last Independent Person was only called upon to make a decision once and leaked emails said she made the wrong decision. One that didn’t please the Leader.
The Independent Person concluded that Councillor Maxine Fothergill had done nothing at all wrong when hauled before the Code of Conduct Committee. Her real ‘crime’ was shopping a Tory thief to the police. Maxine’s lack of loyalty to the party had to be punished.
As might be judged from the photograph the Councillors were not unfriendly and I see no grounds for a complaint about the Chairman, she was merely doing what she had been told to do and being unable to explain why she was doing it is unsurprising. Hers was in many ways an identical performance to the infamous meeting of June 2013. There would have been no complaint about her performance there either, it was the lies she told afterwards that caused the police to send her name to the Crown Prosecution Service.