#EXCouncil meeting to amend the #Exeter “Conventions”

This evening there was a meeting of  Extraordinary Full Council  to make changes to City Council’s Constitution, by amending the Exeter “Conventions”

I spoke in favour of the change and this is what I said…

Thank you Lord Mayor.

I attended an interesting Executive meeting last night.

I heard almost all the Conservative group speaking with passion and insight. Some spoke with eloquence, others straight from the heart.

I learned about how they perceive the workings of Labour group.

They seem to think that that all the Leader has to do is say jump – and those of us on this side just ask Cllr Edwards how high.

Well, that’s what we allow the Leader to think!

My feet are firmly planted on the floor of this historic Guildhall and I’ll say two things. Cllr Edwards has my full support as Leader and it was this Group’s backbenchers asked the Leader if the Exeter Convention could be changed.

As I understand it the Convention was put in place when there was a succession of minority administrations – how much of a majority do the leading group need before the benches opposite couldn’t fill the vacancies?

I will also say that I will take a different than the Leader did at Executive last night.

We haven’t asked for this because in some other local authorities (and even Parliament) the majority party takes some – if not all – of the chairs of scrutiny – we’re asking because we think it’s right for THIS authority.

I spent over an hour listening to how those sitting on the benches opposite viewed scrutiny.

And for those 60 minutes or so, it felt that my contribution to the process over the past 4 years was for naught.

The view I got from them was that only the opposition could scrutinize the Executive effectively.

I don’t think that the Scrutiny process has become less effective as the number of members has grown on this side.

They suggested that the chairing of scrutiny contributed to the Charter Plus for Member Development.

I’ll take a slightly different view of that award – it was for the operation of scrutiny, acknowledging the contribution of all members sitting on those committees.

Scrutiny isn’t about criticizing – the role has been described as providing a “critical friend” challenge.

I’ve used scrutiny to praise – like when RAMM won museum of the year – and to question the actions of our (not my) executive if the situation demands.

Like Cllr Harvey, I too have been reading research from the Centre for Public Scrutiny.

Last night he highlighted the 4 guiding principles of good scrutiny. I’ll not repeat them here, but advise all members to look them up.

I’ll use something from the introduction to An Overview of Scrutiny published by CfPS

“Scrutiny councillors should not act in a party political manner.

“However, they can and should bring their political skills and unique understanding of the needs of local people to bear in their discussions – and they should also recognise that, by definition, scrutiny’s work will focus on issues that are of local political contention.”

So the Scrutiny remit is neither to act as an appreciation society, nor to prove political opposition to the Council’s Executive.

I truly believe that it works best if able to side step the dividing line between political parties,

That’s the way I’ve always TRIED to act at Scrutiny

As a returning member, I’ve taken advantage of refreshing my knowledge by attending some of the member induction sessions organised by Democratic Services.

At one, I was reminded on the role of Scrutiny and how we do it.

Using a pre-decision scrutiny process we evaluate, monitor, consider, advise and review.

That is what scrutiny has been doing, and doing well.

And that is as important – if not more – than the view opposite, of holding the Executive of account.

It does worry me that the mechanism for doing that, the call-in, is based around of one third of scrutiny committee membership.

 We need to think about that…but we need to think about that whoever holds the chair.

 So, let’s look at the role of the chair.

 I believe that the chair has a particular duty to avoid party political behaviour during the meeting – they have a duty to run the meeting.

 At several meetings I’ve attended, I’ve heard the chair apologise to the members present as they add their own line of questioning.

 I believe they could be more effective when freed from the shackles of chairing the meeting.

Throughout my 4 years sitting on scrutiny, I have always seen a round-table discussion, with mutual trust and relevant, constructive contributions leading to consensus politics.

We facilitate, broker, guide rather than oppose.

We have to remember we don’t only look within the Council, we also have a remit look to the wider community.

Sometimes that may happen at the wrong committee – I’m thinking of the recent discussion on traffic matters at community scrutiny, which I believe should have happened at economy? 

Sometimes, it’s wondering who asked for a particular Task & Finish Group. And why.

And sometimes suggestions seem to go into a black hole.

Here, I’m thinking of my own worry that this Council and the wider support network isn’t in place to successfully deliver Universal Credit, which comes to the city on 09 November this year

The members opposite seem to think that the new convention of appointing chairs would remove transparency and openness.

The only way that scrutiny meetings in future could become divisive would be if members of the opposition stopped engaging in the reflective negotiation and dialogue of the past.

Last night were heard about the perceived threats – I hope I’ve managed to put forward some of the added advantages of the new constitution.

The recommendation before us is that any elected member can be a Chair or Vice Chair. I would hope – and expect – that members opposite would fill the Vice Chairs.*

I’ve  glass here…it’s half full, as I’m ever the optimist.

I’m looking forward to the coming year, where I hope to see Scrutiny continue to go from strength to strength.

I hope the benches opposite will join us on that that journey.

*The opposition were offered the Vice Chairs of Scrutiny, but they declined the invitation.


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