From the Barbican Association and Golden Lane Estate Residents’ Association
3 October 2019
Dear Members of the Standards Committee
We are disappointed not to have had a response to, or acknowledgement of, our letter to your committee of 9 August.
We have read the papers on the Committee’s agenda for 4 October (including the minutes of the dispensations subcommittees) and we would just like to repeat our dismay, on behalf of a large body of City residents, that the Committee is still in effect disenfranchising residents. That may not be its intention – but it is its effect.
The Localism Act states that members with a pecuniary interest should not speak or vote on a matter where their interest is engaged. But it allows for exceptions. The relevant one for residents (which we accept will not apply throughout most of the City, because most City members represent business wards) is
“A relevant authority may grant a dispensation under this section only if, after having had regard to all relevant circumstances, the authority—
(c)considers that granting the dispensation is in the interests of persons living in the authority’s area,”
We appreciate that the Committee has now conceded that members should in nearly all cases be able to speak on a matter, but the Committee has not really considered the issue of voting – as it undertook to do so in the Court of Common Council in December 2018. Indeed, its current policy continues to state that dispensations to vote will be granted only in exceptional circumstances and that the onus is on the applicant to show why a dispensation is required in all the circumstances.
These requirements constantly put residential members on the back foot in seeking to represent their constituents. If they cannot provide any other justification for wanting to speak and vote on a matter that affects their locality other than that the issue affects many people who live in the city – those who elected them – then they are stuck. And their constituents are stuck. Members representing their constituents is at the heart of the democratic endeavour – it’s why we voted for them. This may seem odd to City members, most of whom do not represent many electors and who see their job at that of running the “business” City – but it’s normal throughout other local authorities.
So far, in line with this policy, requests to vote for general dispensations by residential members have been refused. This must mean that the members of those subcommittees did not believe that voting would be “in the interests of persons living in the authority’s area” – for that is the test. We consider that that is not credible, and the subcommittee has not explained why it thinks that.
The subcommittee has also rejected general dispensations on the grounds of not having enough specific information on the issues. Yet the Standards committee does not have a workable mechanism for considering applications for dispensations when it does have more specific information – ie it cannot manage to form a dispensation subcommittee in the time between an agenda being published and the meeting taking place.
There is no evidence in the dispensation subcommittee minutes that the subcommittees took account of their own criteria and considered whether the failure to grant a dispensation would disadvantage a group, or that it took into account how many people would be disadvantaged.
In the few cases where the subcommittee did grant dispensations to vote dispensations were actually not necessary (on council tax and another matter where the subcommittee declared a dispensation wasn’t necessary).
With the greatest respect, we suggest that the Committee has developed an undemocratic, over-elaborate and unworkable policy. We think it should abandon its current policy completely, allow members to apply for general dispensations to speak and vote at the start of their term of office on matters where it is in the interests of people living in the area – and see what happens. Members are still obliged to act with integrity and should be trusted to use their judgement as to whether to rely on a general dispensation in every case. If such dispensations are in fact abused by residential members to further their own financial interests (and there is no evidence to suggest that this will happen) then the standards committee can revisit the issue when councillors’ current terms of office come to an end.
Finally, we would request the committee take whatever action is necessary to repeal section 618 of the Housing Act. There seems no justification for retaining this outdated and restrictive provision that applies solely to residential councillors in the City – and hence uniquely disadvantages City residents.
Jane Smith, Chair, Barbican Association chairBA@btinternet.com
Tim Godsmark, Chair, Golden Lane Estate Residents Association
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