Manchester needs citizens who can attend the meetings of the Council’s “scrutiny committees” and report on who said what. The media is incapable – underfunded and too close to those in power. The minutes of the meetings usually hide more than they reveal. Now, at last, most meetings are being webcast. But who has two hours to watch every minute of a meeting. No, citizens with notepads, brains and the will to write are needed.
Fortunately, we have one (so far; more to follow?). Here is the account of two meetings that took place yesterday. It is written by Dick Venes, of Manchester Green Party but writing in a personal capacity. Thanks to Dick for spending his time both attending AND for doing such a brilliant write-up!!
I attended yesterday’s MCC Economy and Communities Scrutiny Committee meetings. I hope this report may be of use to some of you. I’m happy for material in it to be forwarded to other interested parties, with the proviso that it’s my interpretation of events and details may not necessarily be completely accurate.
The Economy Scrutiny Committee (ESC) met at UK Fast’s not-so-whizzy as expected new offices in Hulme. I arrived on my bike at the same time as Executive Member Cllr Flanagan’s big black 4×4 and was disappointed to find inadequate bike parking – 3 Sheffield stands too close together to allow comfortable parking for 6 bikes and 4 other bikes locked to assorted car park metalwork. Not a good advert for a company that made a long presentation about corporate social responsibility at the last ESC meeting. But – the company does have an on site gym! I have emailed them about increasing bike parking provision.
1. The first 3 items (numbered 5,6, and 7) on the ESC agenda were concerned with apprenticeships. After the first Powerpoint presentation went on too long the Chair went straight to questions on the other two items/reports. From questions from Councillors to the people presenting the reports it was clear that some Councillors are concerned about the quality of apprenticeships in Manchester/ Greater Manchester. For example, businesses in retail and catering using the offer of ‘apprenticeships’ to reduce costs, and the rate of ‘churn ‘ of apprentices. There was some discussion of the lack of contact between businesses and schools, gender bias in careers advice in schools, and the lack of understanding of business and young employee expectations of work (from both sides). Councillors were concerned that the statistics in some of the reports were not easily understandable and were not presented in a way that gave information down to ward level. They also identified and acknowledged that informal methods of recruitment through volunteers, sports clubs and other organisations are not easily measured, when trying to work out if MCC’s employment initiatives are cost effective.
2. Items 8 and 9 on the agenda were down as ‘Budget saving options for the Growth and Neighbourhoods Directorate’ and ‘Budget saving options for Children and Families Directorate’. Lengthy reports full of statistics were tabled as part of this item. Despite platitudes from Cllr Flanagan, executive member for Finance, Councillors were concerned that they were being asked to choose options for cost cutting in these areas despite not having an adequate overview of information on all the Council’s current spending. They were keen to see the Corporate Core budget report as well (post meeting note – this was on the agenda of the Finance scrutiny committee meeting on 20th November). Councillors quoted examples like Christmas lights, firework displays and cash grants and how they could explain to citizens the value of these options. On cash grants, one Councillor quoted the example of £200 spent to help 25 volunteers do a clean up, the value of which to the Council far exceeded the cost, a good reason for retaining the cash grant system. Cllr Flanagan pointed out that a lot of the budget expenditure is ‘protected’. Cllr Karney was concerned about how the Council could adequately convey information about budget choices and cuts to the public, given that 90% of the budget expenditure is on no interest to the media (MEN implied).
In the end, there was no discussion on the detailed options presented in the two reports. The Committee agreed that a small group would discuss options and report back to the other councillors, before the Committee’s views were fed back to the Executive. Generally Committee members appeared unhappy with the situation and seemed to feel they are not being consulted sufficiently or in a way that enables meaningful decision making (RV comment – a bit like citizens will feel if they try and participate in the Council’s forthcoming budget ‘consultation’).
The agenda of the Communities Scrutiny Committee was occupied almost completely by just one item – discussion of an interesting report on domestic violence and abuse (DVA). The meeting was attended by representatives of various outside agencies, including GM Police, Manchester Womens’ Aid/Pankhurst centre, Sahili Asian Womens’ Project, and a new Community Rehabilitation Company, owned by Interserve, which is taking over (as a privatisation) the low and medium risk functions of the Probation Service.
There was a comprehensive discussion of the Report presented to the Committee, with plenty of relevant questions from Councillors and informed answers and discussion from the various agency representatives. As with the previous Communities scrutiny meeting I attended, I was impressed by the knowledge and concern of Committee members. There seemed to be a couple of points of disagreement between the statutory bodies and the charity representatives:
a) the difficulty of identifying cases of non-violent abuse and coercion within some communities e.g. BME, Roma, LGBT, which specialist voluntary sector groups have better information on. Cllr Watson also raised the issue of abuse amongst older people, including dementia sufferers whose behaviour may be affected by their condition. There was significant concern from the voluntary sector reps that budget cuts would severely affect their ability to continue both this and more conventional work.
b) there was concern from some Councillors and others that victims of abuse are unwilling to go to statutory services (e.g Police, Social services) because of loss of confidentiality and being categorised as ‘troubled families’ when this may not necessarily be the case.
Councillors appeared keen to put more than 5% of the current estimated annual expenditure of £24 million (across all Council services) on DVA on prevention and early intervention, but discussions did not identify how this could be done. There was some discussion of FGM, but no-one was able to illuminate how much of a problem it is in Manchester. An ongoing project at the University of Manchester may provide some information.
At the end of the meeting there was a very brief discussion among Councillors about the December meeting, which will likely include discussion on budget options on issues under the Committee’s jurisdiction e.g. advice services. An item on ‘City Centre protests’ was postponed – no details of this were given, but further information would be very interesting, given MGP’s recent participation in these!
Hon Secretary, Manchester Green Party.