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Dispensations Sub-Committee of the Standards Committee - 18 November 2019

As a resident I went to the  meeting of the Dispensations Sub-Committee of the Standards Committee held at 2.30 pm on Monday 18 November in the Guildhall and below are my thoughts. You can also watch a film recording.

 

Background

The main purpose of the meeting was for the Dispensations Sub-Committee to consider identical applications made by three resident councillors - Sue Pearson (Golden Lane Estate resident, Cripplegate), Mark Bostock (Cripplegate) and Brian Mooney (Queenhithe) - for “’general” dispensations to speak and vote on any matter which affects their constituents and in which they may have a “pecuniary interest” except for a matter which:

(a) affects them uniquely or more than any of their constituents; and

(b) insofar as regards a dispensation to vote only, falls within the restriction imposed by section 618 of the Housing Act 1985, for as long as that provision remains on the statute book. [The Policy and Resources Committee, among other committees, is due to consider lobbying for the repeal of this outdated provision that applies uniquely to the City of London.] 

This “general” dispensation does NOT apply to a matter which affects a resident councillor more than any of their constituents. It does enable those constituents to be properly represented by their elected councillors being able to SPEAK and VOTE on matters affecting the area in which the constituents and councillors live. The law provides for dispensations to be granted to speak and vote equally, in the interest of democracy.

The Standards Committee has a policy that allows dispensations to be granted to resident councillors to speak, but only because the committee was compelled to change its policy to allow this following a motion put by a pro-resident councillor in the Court of Common Council last December. The policy does not, however, allow dispensations to be granted to resident councillors to vote except “in exceptional circumstances”, contrary to what the law provides, and democracy requires.

This is clearly problematic for residents and their elected representatives: the three applications for “general” dispensations challenge this deficient policy.

It should also be noted that these are not applications for “blanket” dispensations, as wrongly described by some members in two previous meetings of the Dispensations Sub-Committee on 3 July and 4 September and in a meeting of the Standards Committee on 4 October in which these applications were considered.

It is also worth noting that at the meeting of the Dispensations Sub-Committee on 3 July, the City Solicitor advised its members that “policy is a relevant matter, but you can depart from it.”

 

What happened at the meeting on 18 November

The City Solicitor provided the same advice to the Dispensations Sub-Committee at the meeting on 18 November, but this time added that the sub-committee could depart from the existing policy only if it had “good reasons" to do so (see 02:42 of the recording).

As a layman I felt that the City Solicitor was leading members to believe that they needed to offer a significant legal argument. After speaking to other observers with a legal background it would seem, very simply, that a sufficiently good reason would have been what the law provides (ie “policy is a relevant matter, but you can depart from it”), and democracy requires. It should be noted that a member of the Standards Committee, pro-change and with a legal background made themselves available to the sub-committee but was not selected.

Despite this, Councillor Barbara Newman (Aldersgate) made a spirited attempt to support the granting of “general” dispensations. Councillor Mary Durcan (Cripplegate) seemed to accept the argument that "the stumbling block seems to be over this word ‘general’” (at 14:29). Councillor Durcan had previously signed the petition and voted in favour of a ward mote resolution calling for “general” dispensations of this kind to be granted, but she then voted against granting “general” dispensations of this kind at the meeting of the sub-committee on 3 July. 

The "co-opted" (ie unelected) member of the sub-committee, Judith Barnes, revealed that she knew nothing about the geography of the Barbican (at 01:12), which is the City’s most populous residential area. She had no hesitation, though, in prescribing to Barbican resident councillors what they should not be allowed to do in representing their constituents. She said that “If, for example, Mr Bostock, and possibly his wife, have an interest in a particular planning application because they can make a lot of money out of it (now I’m using this purely hypothetically as an example), and nobody else in the ward benefits, then they would still be able to speak and vote and that’s got to be completely wrong” (at 09:25). This statement was plainly wrong, as the terms of the “general” dispensation exclude its application to a matter which affects the resident councillor "uniquely or more than any of their constituents”, as in her example.

Unfortunately, although Councillor Durcan queried this statement, she was not supported by the Chair, Councillor Jamie Ingham Clark.

Judith Barnes’ failure to have properly read the papers, and the gratuitous slur that she cast on the character of Mark Bostock, a well-respected member, and his wife (who is not a councillor), form the basis of a complaint which is being made to the Standards Committee for breaches of the code of conduct.

She had also spoken at the meeting on 4 September, saying that “[granting “general” dispensations] would open the door to future members who might take advantage - the wrong sort of people might join the Corporation.” The only way to “join" the Corporation as a member is to be elected. She must therefore have been concerned that the City residents might elect the "wrong sort of people”…

At the 4 October meeting she had to be reminded that she had no voting rights when as part of an indicative vote she tried to vote against a general dispensation to speak.

 

Meeting conclusion

The sub-committee decided to refer the three applications back to the Standards Committee for a decision at its meeting on 24 January at 11 am.

Several residents took time out of their busy day to attend the meeting. It turned out to be a waste of time.

 

What next?

The City Corporation only has the status of a local authority because it has residents, however in this key matter of democracy it is clearly not acting in their interest. If we will not be heard by the Corporation’s councillors, 80% of whom “represent" business voters, most of whom don’t know or care about the Corporation, perhaps we should be demanding that the Corporation be replaced by a more normal local authority.

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This account of the meeting on 18 November misses, unfortunately, the important point at issue in the ‘general’ dispensations requested. It is nonsense to say I had not properly read the papers before the meeting. The wording used by Mr Bostock, Mr Mooney and Mrs Pearson in the papers was plain; it meant that, if any of those members had been given a ‘general’ dispensation in the terms requested, that member would have been able to vote in favour of, for example, a planning application which benefited that member and the member’s spouse, even if it was against the interests of everyone else in the area. How can this be democratic? How can it be in the interests of residents? How can it be in the interests of the City of London as a whole?

This is the point I was making at the meeting on 18 November. The punctuation used in the extract included in the report distorts the meaning of what I said, which I hope would be apparent to anyone listening to the whole recording.

It’s important when considering a dispensation to explore the consequences of granting it. The way to do this is to spell out what the member in question would be able to do if granted the dispensation. It would be absurd to take this as a slur on the member’s character - even if I hadn’t added that the example I gave was purely hypothetical. Trying to stop members of the committee discussing the implications of granting a dispensation by branding it a slur on the character of the person applying for the dispensation is dangerous; it can stifle debate on the best way to implement the protection the law gives the public against possible wrongdoing.

That protection is valuable. There have been cases up and down the country of the ‘wrong sort of people’ being elected, as there is little way of knowing in advance whether someone standing for office is going to misbehave. We should all be able to vote for the candidates whose policies we support, secure in the knowledge that there are good enough systems in place to pick up any misconduct.



Hi Jacqueline.  I so agree with you, and know, with years of experience, that the City Corporation does not act in the interests of its residents, and also clearly does not understand the different needs of residents either.  I often wonder how would they feel if someone treated a member of their family in the way they often treat us! 

I suggest that anyone reading this response from Judith Barnes reads the full correspondence here: Representing residents: not a hypothetical mater  

You will then see how none of her points are valid. If you are a City resident, do you really want your elected representatives to be told that they can’t vote on matters affecting you by a co-opted member of the Standards Committee, who knows nothing about our local area and who thinks that you might in the future elect the “wrong sort of people”?

An echo of the Standards Chair telling the many residents who signed the petition calling for fundamental reform of the City’s “Standards” regime that they were “confused”....

This latest incident is yet another reminder how our “standards” committee needs to be responsive to the electorate, not the other way round.

It sounds to me very much as though Judith Barnes is railing against the culture of complacency, backscratching and graft within the City and her resilience should be applauded. No matter who tries to marginalise and belittle her with semantics

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