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THE LAST WORD….Standards Committee Climb Down and Spin

The recent climb down by the City Corporation's Standards Committee over its dispensations policy was a victory for residents. The Standards Chair, though, has tried to spin it as an achievement of her committee. What follows is her “delighted” announcement and my satirical response, which reminds the Court of Common Council that it was the persistence of residents that compelled the Standards Committee to reverse its policy.


The fact that in a period of more than a year:


- well over a thousand residents signed a petition declaring no confidence in the City Corporation’s standards regime, including its dispensations policy; 


- their representative associations wrote repeatedly to the Standards Committee asking for change; and


- several residents took time (in some cases out of work) to attend a series of committee meetings, and to film them for those who could not attend;


 to get the same right to be represented by their elected councillors as residents in other boroughs is no cause for the City Corporation to be “delighted”.


This episode, like the City Corporation’s recent climb down over the proposed expansion of the City of London School for Girls, proves that resident activism can defeat the Corporation. But it shouldn’t be necessary for residents - who are the only truly engaged section of the City’s electorate - to fight their own elected body. They have to do so because only 20% of City councillors are elected by residential wards; the rest are elected by the undemocratic business vote, which doesn’t exist anywhere else (and for good reason). Abolishing the business vote, and disaggregating the City Corporation’s various non local authority functions, is the key to bringing democracy to the City.


I’m delighted to say that we have agreed further liberalisation of our dispensations policy.


At the meeting of the Standards Committee, on 24 January, we considered the opinion of Philip Kolvin QC. The Committee voted nine in favour with one abstention, to accept his opinion that the approach suggested by Mr Harrower is unlawful.


We then continued to agree ways in which we are able to further liberalise our policy. Greater detail of our discussion can be found in the draft minutes of the meeting, which are now available on the website, as are the public committee papers, which include Mr Kolvin’s opinion, previously circulated to all members.


Our Policy


Members have been advised to seek advice from the Comptroller as to whether or not their disclosable pecuniary interest (DPI) is engaged, if they are in any doubt as to their position in any given case.  In accordance with the wishes of the Court, since March 2019, our policy on granting dispensations to speak to those who do have an engaged  DPI has sought to be as liberal as possible.


Delegated Right to speak


Since that time, in addition to a dispensation to speak and vote on council tax, general dispensations to speak have been allowed for a member’s entire term of office on general housing matters and, for those who are not members of those committees, to speak, as a member of the public, on planning and licensing matters. At our meeting on 24 January, we agreed to extend such dispensations to include storage and car parking within general housing matters, and also to allow members of the Planning and Transportation and Licensing Committees to speak as members of the public. Members  can still apply for dispensations to speak as a member, and members of Planning and Transportation, of course, remain free to seek a dispensation to speak and/or vote as a member of that committee*. Such a right would be unlikely to come into force for members of licensing panels, as the committee’s own rules do not allow members to sit on panels, which are dealing with applications in the ward they represent.


It was also agreed that, upon election, members will routinely be invited to make an application for these dispensations. Officers will put in place arrangements for this.


Specific applications to speak


Since March 2019, all specific applications to speak have been granted. Following the meeting in May, in order to make the process easier, the application form was significantly shortened.


Since the meeting of the Standards Committee in October, panels have been set up at bi monthly intervals - the first had to be cancelled as there were no applications to consider. We will continue to monitor and, if necessary, arrange these to take place at shorter intervals. Since March, members have been advised to seek dispensations as early as possible and not to wait for a matter to appear as an agenda item. If an application needs to be decided before an arranged panel is to meet, every attempt will be made to assemble one. Urgency arrangements will continue to be in place, to deal with situations where the unforeseeable occurs, and a dispensation is required at short notice.


Dispensations to vote


Those with an engaged DPI on housing matters will usually be resident in City owned properties. Section 618 of the 1985 Housing Act prohibits such members from voting on housing matters and has no facility for dispensation.  At its meeting, in October, the Standards Committee set in progress seeking the repeal of s 618. 


Most other applications for dispensations to vote relate to planning matters and applications will continue to be considered on their merits.


At its meeting on 24 January, however, the committee decided that in these cases it would apply the tests recommended by Philip Kolvin QC, rather than state that such dispensations would only be granted in exceptional circumstances. It was further agreed that members applying should be directed to address these test matters in their application forms.


In Conclusion


There has been considerable liberalisation of our dispensations policy over the past eleven months. I hope that the Court will now feel confident that we are operating as liberal a dispensations policy as the law will allow.


Please feel free to pass on this email to anyone to whom you think it may be of interest.


*However, a member with a financial interest in a planning matter or where there is otherwise ‘a real possibility of bias’ (objectively viewed in all the circumstances) will be precluded, by the rule against bias. We have no power to disapply this rule.

*    *     *     *     *


Members will have seen the email from the Standards Chair last Friday afternoon about the “liberalisation” of the dispensations policy.

I trust that all members accept that full credit for this “liberalisation” belongs entirely to the Standards Chair and the other longer serving members of the Standards Committee, notwithstanding that:

(1) these same members had supported a policy that denied resident councillors the right to speak, until the Court compelled them to reverse that policy because of a motion I proposed in December 2018 which was supported by the City’s two largest residents’ associations; and

(2) these same members had supported a policy that allowed resident councillors the right to vote "only in exceptional circumstances”, until they reversed that policy after a year of intense pressure from residents, many of whom signed a petition declaring that they had no confidence in the City’s standards regime. This resulted in the Standards Committee becoming such a reputational liability to the Corporation that all its recent meetings have been attended by members of the City’s PR department. 

I also trust that no member will give any credence to the notions that: 

(a) the most recent reversal was initiated by an external legal opinion, which drew attention from the substantive reversal of the policy by opining that the procedural solution of “general” dispensations was “unlawful”;

(b) that opinion was widely promoted to the Court and (via the Corporation’s website) to the public, apparently to discredit me for having advocated that procedural solution during the previous six months, although no-one had during that period suggested this solution was “unlawful";

(c) the opinion was obtained on the basis of partial instructions, and many of the issues I raised (which were not posted on the Corporation’s website) remain unaddressed;

(d) the Standards Committee (with the exception of one member) accepted the opinion, thus ignoring the advice of the counsel who wrote it that “members should not automatically accept an opinion by Queen’s Counsel as a definitive statement of the law”; 

(e) the opinion covered when a “pecuniary interest” was engaged in a matter in a way that undermined entirely the Corporation’s case in the standards proceedings that it brought against a member in 2018; and 

(f) processing applications for dispensations at two monthly intervals when members usually only have a week’s notice of what will be considered at a committee meeting makes no sense.

I expect all members appreciate that when the Corporation does a U-turn on an important policy in just over year, it is appropriate for it to do the following:

(i) not to admit that it has made any mistakes;

(ii) to spin a narrative to make it look as if it is doing something good on its own initiative; 

(iii) to smear those who compelled it to make the U-turn (by calling a significant part of its residential electorate who signed the petition “confused”);

(iv) to promote its narrative in the local press, which receives significant revenue from the Corporation and no longer publishes material critical of it; and 

(v) to have the last word. 

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Comment by Iain Meek on February 28, 2020 at 14:44

What?  Is the current situation unworkable?

       "(f) processing applications for dispensations at two monthly intervals when members usually only have a week’s notice of what will be considered at a committee meeting makes no sense."

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