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News and Comment February 2012

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1 February (Part 3) - The petition - Strangled at birth

Councillor Don MasseyAs you will be well aware, this website, various councillors and senior council officers collaborate closely to ensure that any reputation Bexley council may have once had is as comprehensively trashed as is possible on a regular basis. Last night the Finance and Corporate Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee came up trumps by endorsing a council officer’s rejection of the 2,219 signature petition which asked the full council to debate the renegotiation of senior officers’ pay to reflect government policy more than it does now. It would have been a tragedy if the decision had gone the other way; if ‘Not Listening To You, Working to Line Our Own Pockets’ had not been upheld the whole of 2012 may have been blighted by the inability to constantly refer back to it.

The unelected council officer who took the decision to not let councillors debate the widely supported petition was Kevin Fox (Head of Committee Services). He had written a two page letter to the petition organiser, Elwyn Bryant, on 22 December giving five reasons for his decision. Mr. Fox briefly reiterated his case to the Scrutiny Committee. Mr. Bryant was allowed five minutes to say why he thought Fox was wrong. As there was no evidence that the councillors present had looked at any of the documents in advance he began by outlining the reason the petition existed, its widespread support etc. and at each stage was interrupted by the Committee Chairman, councillor Don Massey complaining that he must confine himself to “the process” and that he was out of order. When Mr. Bryant referred to the five reasons for rejection put forward by Mr. Fox the chairman professed not to understand the points being made and pre-empted my own thoughts perfectly when he exclaimed “I may be thick”. So thick that I wondered if he displayed the same degree of thickness when undertaking his magisterial duties in the nearby Court.

Following Mr. Bryant’s address, Mr. Fox again restated his claim that he had been told at the midway point of his signature gathering exercise that the petition would be rejected but he carried on regardless thereby “misleading” petitioners who subsequently signed. Apparently he and his political masters believe the unelected Mr. Fox is in a position to single-handedly dictate residents’ wishes and what message they wished to be conveyed to councillors. In this case they were shown what senior officers were being paid and if they didn’t like what they saw they signed on the dotted line. Simple freedom of choice but anathema to Bexley council.

Ed Milliband then surprised everyone by espousing a firmly held view that Stephen Hester was worth every penny of his salary and bonus as Chief Executive at The Royal Bank of Scotland and that good men must be paid the going rate for every job even while many people are losing theirs. Hang on, something must be wrong there, let me look at my notes again. Ah yes; it was councillor Alan Deadman (Labour, North End ward) who said that about Will Tuckley and his cronies, my mistake. Chairman councillor Massey should have warned Deadman that he must confine himself to “the process” and not the petition subject but it is futile to expect equality of treatment at the hands of the local despots.

Section 84Councillor Steven Hall with rather more skill than the Chairman could ever muster, tried to rescue the floundering Fox by asking him “Does ‘inappropriateness’ apply solely to Standing Order 84?” After considering the implications for a short while, Fox replied “Yes”. Thanks to councillor Hall further discussion could be more focused. Four of the five reasons for rejection out of the window with a solitary incisive question.

Councillor Seán Newman (Labour) said he was unhappy with Mr. Fox’s interpretation of Standing Order 84. His views were indistinguishable from Mr. Bryant’s. Councillor Deadman said S.O. 84 was clearly inadequate for the purpose to which it was being put. It wasn’t fair he said, for residents to have to put their names to a petition which could be dismissed in such an “airy fairy” fashion.

Petition rulesMr. Bryant reminded the Committee that S.O. 84 referred to debates that had gone before the full council and what should be done if certain subjects cropped up and it wasn’t an excuse for no debate at all. Mr. Fox quoted his final point (see extract above) about Questions and Deputations relating to HR being “likely to be refused” to which the obvious retort was that a Petition was being discussed not a Deputation. Mr. Fox then came out with an unfathomable explanation of why he actually meant to say Petition. The Chairman recognised the confusion and produced the perfect solution. Mr. Bryant’s Petition was in fact a Deputation. He was deputised by 2,219 Bexley residents to stand in front of him and present their views. Councillor Massey may not be as thick as I thought he was but he is every bit as devious. A pity he contradicts the rules. “We will treat something as a petition if it is identified as being a petition.” Fox accepted it as a petition two months ago. Now the goalposts are moved and it is a deputation.

The petitionThickness was however not so far away in the shape of councillor Philip Read who moved that the rejection of the Deputation be upheld. He was aided and abetted by councillor Mike Slaughter (†) who seconded Read’s suggestion. The Chairman suggested that councillors took the decision away for further thought but his faith in their abilities was misplaced. One of the few Conservatives present with the ability to think is councillor Colin Campbell. I’m never quite sure what to make of Colin Campbell. I think I quite like him but only in the way some of the American public admired John Dillinger in the 1930s. Councillor Campbell offered the opinion that if the petition had not begun with the example salaries taken from Bexley’s website it may well have succeeded. That is quite a thought. The real heart of the petition began with the words “We therefore petition and appeal…” and what went before was no more than a scene setter, a preamble. Does councillor Campbell really believe that keeping would-be signatories in the dark before asking them for support is more honest and open than explaining to them why it might be a good idea to sign? Probably he does; keeping people in the dark is in Bexley council’s DNA.

Inevitably the vote went ahead along strictly party lines as they always do in Bexley. Both councillors Deadman and Newman voted for the petition to go forward to full council and all the Conservatives preferred to stamp on the voice of their electors. If I heard him correctly against the background noise of rejoicing Conservatives, councillor Newman insisted that his objections be recorded in the minutes of the meeting.

So what now? The unlawful application of Standing Order 84 to a petition and the rules on petitions having been ignored, the case must go to the Local Government Ombudsman for a ruling. Meanwhile the effort put into gaining more publicity will continue. Probably the News Shopper will cover the rejection, they sent a reporter to the meeting, and there is a reasonable chance Bexley will once again be featured on one of the national political websites over the coming days.

The collaboration between leading Conservative councillors and Bonkers towards their exposure as cheats and charlatans can continue unabated. Democracy has dared to peep over the trench top and its head has been well and truly blown off.

† My angle of view was such that this identification is reliant on others.


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