Councillors fail to scrutinise the agenda, the #Manchester budget, themselves

Manchester City Council is having to make very big cuts to its budget. Councillors on the Neighbourhoods Scrutiny Council wanted reports on different options, but will not get them. On Tuesday 16th November they kicked off at everyone – but themselves. Marc Hudson reports

What to cut? What to save? The members of the Neighbourhoods Scrutiny Committee wanted to have informed opinions, ahead of the budget-setting process. It is their democratic duty, and some of them are facing the voters next May. (1)

At their November meeting they had requested a number of reports to come to the December meeting. Time was short, because by January a draft budget would have been created, and the bureaucratic and political momentum would be behind the proposals in it.

And did the minutes of the November meeting reflect those requests? And did the agenda of the December meeting – published a week previously – contain items called “discussion of budget” or “those reports you requested”? And did any of the councillors raise this in a timely fashion before the meeting, making sure they were able to fulfil their obligations?

No. No. No.

Instead, there was a 20 minute heated wrangle about the accuracy of the minutes. It is available online to see, if you can stomach it (bring a sick-bag). It was a bewildering and frankly embarrassing scene. One observer, in a position to know, said “this is exactly how not to chair a meeting.”

But it is the members of the committee – rather than the chair or the scrutiny officers – who should be reflecting the most. Rather than blame individuals in the heat of the moment, or pin the blame on the people who wrote the minutes (2), the councillors need to think for a minute; how did they let it come to this?

The meetings agenda (3) was out a week before. It contained only two items – Green and Blue Infrastructure report (more on that debacle later) and the Homelessness Task and Finish Group.

Did NONE of the councillors check this agenda? It seems not, because if they had, they could have communicated, with days to spare, that something was amiss.

They could then have contacted their colleagues on the committee, and someone could have watched over the discussion of the November meeting and made a written list of amendments to the formal minutes, That could have been submitted in writing days in advance.

And, more importantly, got the budget reports that they requested brought in a timely fashion.

So that there can be proper scrutiny of the draft Budget BEFORE it starts to be set in stone.

But that didn’t happen. Instead we had a chaotic, undignified and unintentionally hilarious squabble.

There are some very good councillors on the NSC. But this was not their finest hour.

So was this – the lack of reports to Neighbourhoods Scrutiny – a conspiracy or cock-up? Almost certainly cock-up. But isn’t it funny how cock-ups always end up centralising power in the hands of a few? The cock-ups never increase democratic oversight.

What else do we learn? That it isn’t just members of the public who are unable to influence the machine that is the Executive-Senior Officer Nexus. Elected councillors, even ones with positions of authority within the Labour Group, are also treated with disdain and contempt. Welcome to Manchester.

Footnotes

  1. The truth is that the Labour party is currently invulnerable. The Greens and Lib Dems have no hope of winning any seats. UKIP theoretically might get up in a couple of wards (Moston?), but it ain’t likely. Labour could recruit Mark Thatcher, or the corpse of Augosto Pinochet, stick a red rosette on ’em, bish bosh, new councillor.

  2. The reason given for the incompleteness of the minutes was that the minute-takers were at times struggling to get the video recording to function. You could ask “well, why didn’t they watch the video back, to catch the bits they missed.” It’s a fair question, but maybe they didn’t because – thanks to staffing cuts – they simply don’t have time and are doing the jobs of three people? A reliable source tells MCFly that the officers involved are among the best that Manchester City Council has, and MCFly’s experience confirms that.

  3. The chair has the responsibility for the agenda. Did HE not see that the reports requested by the members of the committee were missing? Eh?

Below is an email exchange with a Council officer with responsibility for these sorts of things. What is interesting is that, contrary to what one councillor once said to a Liberal Democrat who was chairing a committee, a meeting CAN go ahead without minutes being agreed…. Too late now, but good to know…

Tuesday afternoon.

Hello,

I attended Neighbourhoods Scrutiny Committee today (16th December).  There was a prolonged (35 minutes) discussion about the accuracy of the minutes of the November NSC.

Members were very reluctant to agree the minutes. At one point an Exec member (who made clear he was NOT a member of the committee) said that if he were, then he would call for them to be “referred back”.

The meeting progressed in some ambiguity to me.

My question (presumably to the City Solicitior?) is about the mechanisms for meetings going ahead when the previous meeting’s minutes have NOT been agreed as a true and accurate reflection.

What does it mean for a meeting’s minutes to be “referred back” (I admit, I may have got the terminology wrong)

Can a meeting go ahead without the previous meeting’s minutes being agreed?  If a meeting physically goes ahead without agreed minutes, what is its legal status?

How often has this happened in the last four years?
many thanks

Wednesday morning

Dear Mr Hudson

Your question to the information compliance team have been passed to me. I am not responding to it ‘officially’ as an FoIA request, as you will see below.

The minutes of all meetings in the Council have a number of jobs to do:

  • they need to establish an accurate record of the decisions made, if any, and the rationale for those decisions;
  • comply with legal requirements (such as recording attendances);
  • where the minutes are used by the Council to make decisions, the minutes need to explain to the Council what the issue is and what decision(s) the Council is being asked to make (for legal reasons this is not something that Scrutiny Committee minutes ever do – the Executive, and Non-Executive Committee meetings, will do this from time to time); and
  • provide adequate information about the authority’s business for the public, the press and any other councillors who were not present so that they can know what business was conducted at the meeting.

The legal significance of minutes varies, depending on the meeting and the matters considered at the meeting. For example, the minute recording the granting of planning permission will be legally very significant should the legality of a development ever be challenged. Likewise the minute that records the setting of the Council Tax each year is important. Scrutiny Committees are not decision making committees, they are not legally empowered to take decisions of that sort. They have to refer matters requiring a decision on to other decision-making committees or to the Executive. So a question about whether a scrutiny committee’s debate is accurately described is not going to be as significant as a question over whether planning permission was granted or not.

“What does it mean for a meeting’s minutes to be “referred back” (I admit, I may have got the terminology wrong)”

Councillor Andrews did say he believed the correct term was ‘referred back’. That is something that a meeting of the Council can do when it is considering and receiving the minutes of a committee meeting. Any issue in the minutes of the committee’s meeting that the Council believes needs further work or consideration can be ‘referred back’ to the committee. But in the context of yesterday’s meeting it is not relevant. The committee cannot refer its minutes back to itself.

“Can a meeting go ahead without the previous meeting’s minutes being agreed?”

Yes, indeed it must go ahead if there is a quorum present.

“If a meeting physically goes ahead without agreed minutes, what is its legal status?”

Exactly the same as if the minutes had been confirmed as correct record. It makes no difference to legal status of the meeting.

“How often has this happened in the last four years?”

It depends what you mean as ‘this’. Minutes are routinely corrected for accuracy at the next meeting, the probably happens half a dozen to a dozen times in a  normal year. In such cases the minuets are normally approved as a correct record subject to the changes being made to them after the meeting that were raised and agreed at the next meeting. Minutes not being adopted as a correct record and brought back to the next meeting is very rare. I have a recollection that it has happened at least once before in recent years but to give you an accurate answer to both types of changes will need us to go through the minutes books, and we will need to deal with this as a FoIA request if you want the precise numbers. Please let me know if you do.

I hope this helps.

Regards

Donald Connolly
Governance and Scrutiny
Chief Executive’s Department, Manchester City Council

And reply

Dear Mr Connolly,

first of all, I want to say thank you for the extreme speed with which you have replied  (and thanks to information compliance for passing it on!).

Secondly I want to thank you for giving clear and comprehensive answers to my questions.

Thirdly I want to confirm that I do NOT want to take up staff time on going through the minutes book.  Your recollection is perfectly fine for me.

Finally (!), upon further research, it seems to me that the minutes of NSC were agreed as an accurate record at the last Full Council meeting.  That does seem to render the discussions held yesterday somewhat moot!  Now that full Council has voted these minutes to be an accurate record, can they be amended?

Best wishes
Marc Hudson

 Dear Mr Hudson

Thank you for sparing us a search through the minutes of all the meetings held in the last four years.

“it seems to me that the minutes of NSC were agreed as an accurate record at the last Full Council meeting”

If I can save you some research: no, scrutiny committee minutes are presented to the Council for the Council to note, never for the Council to approve as a correct record. If you were to study the minutes of Council meetings you will see that when scrutiny committee minutes are considered the records shows…

“Decision

To receive the minutes.”

That is not the same as “To approve the minutes.”

The only minutes a Council meeting ever ‘approves’ are those of the previous Council meeting.

Regards

Donald Connolly
Governance and Scrutiny

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About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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