Saturday, 22 March 2014

The examples you are after

After a night of reflection, I thought I would provide the colour I said I would about my decision to stand down as Leader in May. I could trawl back over the last year and bring back loads of examples, but in truth I don't have to look too far in the past to find enough examples to make my point.

Full Council agenda next week. I could go on and on about what we are discussing next week. But here are three examples from just one meeting:

  • Flying the LGBT flag. I realise this is a serious issue for some, and let me be plain, if I ever thought Cambridgeshire was discriminating in any sense against anyone, I would be horrified and angry - in fact the motion to Full Council does highlight the fact that we have a good story to tell in this area. I was asked a question about flying the rainbow flag at the last Full Council meeting, I said we would discuss it at Group Leaders (a meeting of all the Leaders of all the political groups). The current Cambridgeshire policy is to match the flag flying policy of National Government, this was explained to Group Leaders and the majority accepted it and agreed that we should not fly the rainbow flag. Now, I find we have a motion at Full Council to discuss it. So, Cambridgeshire County Council will have discussed the issue of flying a flag three times. Let me make it plain, I agree with the council policy on flags, once you deviate away from a policy that has structure behind it you open up all sorts of doors and complications. But, if Group Leaders had said they wanted to fly the flag, I would not have tried to revisit the decision at the next Full Council, I would have accepted it and moved on. Under a committee system, people are going to have decisions go against them - if people continuously find ways to revisit them, we will grind to a halt. It is this sort of behaviour that forced the Labour Government to introduce Cabinet systems in the first place (one of their better decisions) and we are seeing elements of that sort of practice in Cambridgeshire already.
  • Filming at Full Council. We have a motion next week discussing whether to do live webcasts of our Full Council meetings. The motion is correct, in that we could do this at low cost; not no cost, but low cost. All the evidence from elsewhere shows that when Councils webcast very, very few people watch it. There are plenty of informal mechanisms in the Council to raise and discuss this issue, but instead, we have to use one of the most time consuming, most costly meetings of the Council to discuss it. Bearing in mind a Full Council ties up the time of every single elected member, every single one of our most senior managers and many other officers - this discussion, which the evidence suggests there is little public interest about (note "little" not "none" is going to cost you the tax payer thousands and thousands of pounds to debate, whatever the outcome. Be assured, the reason this is being debated in this way is not about you the resident, it is about a few Councillors being able to put a leaflet through a door saying "look what we've done!" - a bit of populism that will cost you thousands. Full Council meetings need to discuss the biggest issues of the Council, let's leave the other issues for elsewhere.
  • Addenbrookes motion. We have a motion next week to debate supporting the move of Papworth Hospital to Addenbrookes. Sounds really important, and it is. However, it is not difficult within political structures to find out where the land lies Nationally on such issues. I did it with a few contacts at the Department of Health. Guess what I found out? It is fairly certain this decision has already been made, but is not yet signed off by Ministers. I am pretty sure the Lib Dems also know this, so when and if this motion gets support (which I suspect it will) and the National decision is signed off, the lovely Lib Dems will be able to put a lovely leaflet through your door saying "look what we did!". This motion is not about what's best for you, it is about the Lib Dems being opportunistic ahead of the elections in May.

I could go on about next week. To be fair, there are two important and very relevant motions for debate, one of which is about the Wisbech to March rail line, a motion I encouraged so we could genuinely make a statement about this issue (actually the motion was written well before the recent rail summit). But that allows me to make an important point. We have four UKIP County Councillors from Wisbech, guess how many of them have contacted me, expressed an interest or asked a question about this, one of the biggest issues facing their town? Not one.

UKIP. UKIP, as a new party, had the potential to offer something different to Cambridgeshire County Council. They haven't. They are a party that offer absolutely everything that people hate about politics, but they somehow manage to take it to a whole new level. There are loads and loads of examples I could use. But here are two.

Peter Lagoda. Last month, Councillor Peter Lagoda, a Wisbech UKIP Councillor pleaded guilty to benefit fraud. He pleaded guilty to "making a representation known to be false". What is worse is that he knew he was under investigation when he stood for election (he may even have been charged at that point, but I'm not sure) - ask yourselves a question, as a voter, if you had known he was under investigation for this, would you have voted for him? Now, some of you will say "yes I still would have" but many wouldn't - that latter group were deceived.

How did UKIP react to his guilty plea? You would have thought they would get rid of him instantly, in fact if you look at the National reaction, you would have thought they had - here is what they said in the National Press:

'If he has pleaded guilty to a criminal offence, the party will revoke his membership. He is currently suspended from the party and sitting as an independent"

That statement is not correct. He was, at that point, suspended from the UKIP group, technically that means that he is still listed as belonging to UKIP - he does not sit as an independent. That status has not changed since his guilty plea. You can check, he is still listed as a UKIP Councillor on the website.

In fact, what UKIP did was use the fact that he pleaded guilty to a charge that was lesser than the one he was originally charged with, to spin a story that this was all some sort of mistake. Let me repeat, he pleaded guilty to "making a representation known to be false".

Why does this matter? Well, apart from the moral issue, as a councillor who is suspended from his group, rather than as an indepndent, UKIP get more people on our committees. The number of people they have on committees is more important to UKIP than getting rid of a fraudster. (That probably explains why this guy is currently the UKIP Group Leader at Hunts District Council).

Wisbech. Wisbech is an important Town to the County Council. It is a lovely Town, with huge potential, but some big issues. I fight hard for it because I have a passion about deprivation. We started to get some good momentum in the previous council with the 2020 vision and we are still progressing on those issues, over the last year we have also made serious progress on the A47 upgrade and on Wisbech to March rail. Previously, we got challenge and great representation from our Wisbech Councillors. The current group are virtually invisible to me (to be fair Cllr Gillick is sometimes visible, but for all the wrong reasons).

A few months ago, I upset the Wisbech UKIP Councillors by highlighting the fact that I had invited them to a meeting to discuss Wisbech 2020 and they didn't turn up. They denied they were invited - I have checked the email trail, they were invited and they accepted.

You would have thought at that point, their group Leader would have had a chat and told them to up their game. So, what has changed? Absolutely nothing. I have still, despite the many things we are trying to do in the Town, yet to receive a single meaningful comment, question or challenge from a UKIP member about a Wisbech issue.

The truth is the only thing UKIP are interested in is having these people in their group as voting fodder. UKIP are happy to have people performing poorly as Councillors, as long as they turn up and vote at the right time. An important Town is suffering as a result.

I want to stress, these examples don't stand in isolation, they are a smattering of the sorts of pratice that has become increasingly prevalent since last May; I have found it incredibly frustrating. I don't mind a bit of party politicking at the right time, but the overall function of a County Councillor has got to be to provide strategic direction and drive as well as to represent their communities stongly and effectively.

Under a committee system, it is true that every Councillor is going to have more of an involvement in decision-making (I still contend that the quality of the decisions is more important than having the ability to stick your hand up more often, but I accept the change is going to happen). If we get bogged down in petty decisions that are all about party polliticking, if we get to a point where decisions are revisited numerous times because a minority of people don't like it, or we have political groups who are more obsessed with having numbers on committees than doing the right thing or are content for their Councillors to be voting fodder, as a Leader I would not be able to work to my strengths and lead that strategic vision. More importantly, if things don't change, the Council is going to have a serious problem. This is the reason I decided to stand down.

There may be others who are more able to succeed in that sort of environment (in fact there are definitely some in my group), I hope highlighting this issue might also force a few of the opposition group leaders to revisit their approach - or for their groups to make the necessary changes.

I have no doubt that the immediate reaction from those that I have discussed here will be to deny these issues. Remember what I have said - these are not the only reasons, they are a few examples that help paint the overall picture.

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