Jacob Williams
Monday 26th November, 2018

Chair and chair alike

Chair and chair alike

Pembrokeshire County Council committee meetings with a 2pm start are something of a rarity at County Hall these days.

But tomorrow sees an exception to the usual 10am start with a meeting of the corporate governance committee.

Corporate governance has always been one of the more interesting arenas, having hosted a generous share of the Kremlin on Cleddau’s most classic showdowns.

Whereas most committees meet monthly or on a cycle, this is an an ad-hoc committee which meets only when there is a proposal to discuss, relating to the authority’s constitution.

I’ve sat on this august body for years, where I would argue in support of proposals tabled by me or my fellow opposition members aiming to shed a bit more light on council affairs – though rarely with success against the synchronised voters of the formerly-ruling IPG ranks.

Things like my proposal that the council webcasts cabinet meetings, or the one which allows members of the public to table their own questions to full council meetings.

Tomorrow afternoon us committee members have been summoned to consider two items of business which will return to the December full council for a final decision.

Both agenda items have been tabled by Cllr. Mike Stoddart – one of which has an interesting link to something I covered on this blog a couple of months ago (see: False start.)

Readers will recall that time when the chairman of the authority’s partnerships overview and scrutiny committee, Conservative group member Cllr. David Bryan, sent his apologies to his committee’s September meeting.

Some said at the time that, as chairman, Cllr. Bryan’s absence was difficult to excuse because the whole year’s meeting calendar is set well in advance – at the AGM in May.

And the fact that Cllr. Bryan was absent because he was on holiday tested even the most forgiving of sorts.

Now nobody could begrudge a councillor taking a trip abroad – even one like Dave who receives over £8k as an annual committee chair bonus.

But sources in the know were quick to point out that it was the second September running that Cllr. Bryan was a no-show at his own committee!

And this year’s non-appearance was doubly embarrassing as the meeting had to be aborted before it even started, as it was inquorate.

A valiant effort was made by a search party dispatched to see if there were enough eligible councillors on the premises who could be appointed to allow it to go ahead, but it was all in vain.

Triply embarrassing was the fact that, among the items on the abandoned meeting’s agenda was a Wales Audit Office report looking into the effectiveness of PCC’s overview and scrutiny committee arrangements!

This was a point made by the council’s leader, Cllr. David Simpson, who, following the embarrassing spectacle emailed group leaders and councillors like me who aren’t affiliated to any group, saying he was “not aware of such a situation ever arising before” and that “it cannot be allowed to happen again.”

Cllr. Simpson said the events “reflect very poorly on the Council” and that it wasn’t just a waste of councillors’ and officers’ time but external representatives from the police force and the West Wales Care Partnership who had travelled down too.

It’s worth quoting the following part of Cllr. Simpson’s email in full:

“My understanding of the situation is this. Five Members of the Committee were in attendance, five tendered an apology, two neither attended nor tendered an apology and one subsequently turned up late after the meeting had been cancelled.

I accept there will always be genuine reasons why individuals cannot attend a particular meeting, nonetheless it is essential that effective processes are in place whereby Group Leaders can arrange for substitute representatives to attend on behalf of your group in a timely manner.

For those Members who are not affiliated please contact committee services in good time (preferably 24 hours prior notice) to tender your apologies if you think that you are not going to be able to attend.

Committee Services not only can offer support on every aspect of your attendance/ involvement in any meeting, but need to know in advance if there are any issues arising. Of course you can also assist by ensuring your diary is kept up to date.”

Now this got a few of us thinking.

Ok, it got me thinking.

In the past – and since – whenever PCC’s Tory group members were unable to attend a meeting of a committee they had been appointed to, they had an admirable record of having their group leader appoint a substitute in their stead.

Substitutions, or more accurately reappointments, are a luxury only afforded to political groups – and the Conservatives are so well organised on this front you’ll rarely if ever see a Tory absence.

Which begged the obvious question to nosy parkers like me: why didn’t Cllr. David Bryan – who would’ve known in advance that he’d be out of the country enjoying a piña colada – ask his group leader to appoint one of his colleagues to substitute him?

I’m afraid to say that the obvious conclusion is that the Conservative group’s failure to substitute the holidaying Cllr. Bryan is driven by cash – or more crudely – the potential to lose out on it.

If Cllr. Bryan had been substituted, even if only for an hour, it would necessarily mean breaking his membership of the committee, and, chiefly for these purposes: he couldn’t possibly be its chairman.

Earlier you’ll recall I mentioned that Cllr. Bryan – along with four other overview and scrutiny committee chairs – receives a special responsibility allowance (SRA) of over £8k for chairing the committee which meets a handful of times annually.

Substitution would have carried the real risk for Cllr. Bryan of jeopardising his claim to the SRA.

So it may not have been an oversight by the hitherto conscientious Tories, but a canny decision – deliberately allowing Cllr. Bryan’s absence, thus protecting his cash bonus.

Considering this occurred two Septembers in a row, the theory isn’t just well within the realms of ‘possibility’ but strays toward the epicentre of ‘probability.’

You might be wondering what Cllr. Bryan’s autumnal absences have to do with tomorrow afternoon’s corporate governance committee meeting.

Well, members will be debating the following motion tabled by Cllr. Mike Stoddart:

1. When the chairman of an overview and scrutiny committee fails to either attend a meeting of that committee, or make arrangements for a member of his/her political group to attend in his/her stead, the amount payable to that overview and scrutiny chairman by way of a Special Responsibility Allowance (SRA) shall be reduced by a proportionate amount.

2. When, for whatever reason, the chairman of an overview and scrutiny committee is unable to attend a meeting of that committee the chair must be taken by a member of the group to which the chair has been allocated by the relevant legislation and the person so occupying the chair shall be entitled to a proportion of the SRA commensurate with the duties undertaken.

The joint report on the proposal authored by the council’s two Claires – head of legal Claire Incledon and monitoring officer Claire Jones – rather suggests that Mike’s proposal would be a laborious one to implement, creating new “significant administrative burdens on both Committee Services and Payroll.”

If that’s the best argument against implementing attendance or performance-related pay for committee chairs, Mike’s surely onto a winner.

It could be a good debate – among the committee’s members is the Tory group leader Cllr. Bob Summons – who appointed himself as the Tories’ other SRA-receiving committee chair.

It’ll be interesting to see if Bob feels compelled to explain why he failed to substitute perennial holidayer Bryan…

The corporate governance committee meeting starts at 2pm tomorrow, Tuesday 27th November, and will be webcasted live (and subsequently archived for later viewing) at the following link.

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  • Patrick

    On a light note, I feel the September meeting should be filed under the title of ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’, for easy retrieval.

  • Malcolm Calver

    If the simple proposal by Cllr Stoddart to switch the SRA (Special Responsibility Allowance) adds significant administrative burdens on committee services and payroll, as suggested by head of legal services Claire Incledon and monitoring officer Claire Jones, it just shows how little work is done by highly paid officers/employees at County Hall.

    Perhaps it is time current highly paid employees sought alternative employment.

  • John Hudson

    While officers have every right and duty to point out the implications of proposals affecting the administration of the Council, open to question must be their advice or opinion of the “significant administrative burdens” which would arise from the hopefully few incidents such as this.

    Should not councillors be made fully aware of the impact of their actions or in-actions and their responsibilities?

    How do we get to know why councillors, especially committee chairs do not attend committees they are paid to attend by us but appointed to by their political groups?

  • Keanjo

    Just watched the webcast and well done to you and Mike for getting the motion approved – you almost chaired the meeting!

    On the other item on the agenda – the election of a presiding member to chair county council meetings, which of course usurps one of the chairman’s most important functions, why is this needed?

    I note the committee recommended no remuneration above a councillor’s normal allowance. I can think of only a handful of members who will want the job.

  • Flashbang

    This just proves the ruling party’s claims of good governance are nothing but hot air. It’s still snouts in the trough and protecting the incompetent and dare I say it the corrupt.

  • John Hudson

    Perhaps all council and committee meetings should choose their chairs by the toss of a coin. This committee webcast is worth a look.

  • Pembs. Exile

    Could the county council save money by having a more robust appraisal system for officers of the authority?

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