I can see right through you

11 Jul

Transparency, openness, accountability, all phrases that trip off a politicians tongue. These words have been given more than a fair share of airing by the new Cornwall Council, and perhaps I am expecting too much from these “new brooms”. I was expecting to be really impressed by the new PACs, (Portfolio Advisory Committees), because they offered the public a chance to ask questions at a lower level of the machine than ever before. We have been able to ask questions at Cabinet and Full Council level, but never at what is a Committee level.

Full of bonhomie, I attended the first meeting of the Transport and Waste PAC and had a question down for answer. There were quite a lot of people in the Committee Room public area and all the new Councillors were all there with their scrubbed faces, ties and satchels (or perhaps I should say man-bags), just like I remember the new kids on the first day of term. The new Chair and Vice Chair were elected on the nod, and we began with public questions, and this went as would be expected, but with a much gentler and more informal tone than the previous administration. There was also one question down for answer from a Member and this was also dealt with correctly.

Then up stepped a lady Officer from Democratic Services, (a misnomer in this case), to tell the public they had to leave. There was much consternation as some people had come some considerable distance to observe the proceedings and the meeting had only lasted about 20 minutes. Matron told us that we had to leave because the meeting was going into informal session and the public were not allowed to be present. The last time I attended a Council meeting that went into informal session, the Committee first voted to agree to go into informal session and then certain members of the public were not excluded, they were actually asked to come forward and take part in the debate. No warning was given on the Agenda notice, and no vote was taken.

We all filed outside to be greeted by some of the PAC Members who told us that they didn’t know this was going to happen either. The irony is that this situation happened in the same week that the Government has issued new rules on transparency for Council Meetings. We can now take cameras and recording equipment into any Council Chamber in the land and record what goes on in public sessions. In addition, if the session is to be closed to the public, notice must be given 28 days in advance. 28 days, we didn’t even get 28 seconds!

It turns out that the reason for the informal meeting was because the new boys and girls needed to undergo training on how the PAC worked. My take on this is why does the public have to be excluded, are we not entitled to know how our representatives are trained? I was worried that there was a darker side to it and therefore a few days later I turned up for the Environment Heritage and Planning PAC. Exactly the same thing happened there, except that the public part of the meeting was even shorter, perhaps ten minutes.

It has since struck me that it would have been more economical to have gathered the new intake together and given them all training on PACs if they sit on one. This way it would be OK to excuse the old hands who could do something more productive, and the training would not have to be spread out over several days.

But perhaps there is a more sinister reason for each PAC to undergo this secret training separately. Could this be because the grinning row of Officers present want to indoctrinate the new boys and girls into how they should think and vote on the various tricky issues that are the pet creations of these unelected eminences with their big salaries? I wonder.

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