Sunday, November 11, 2018

Inscrutable scrutiny at Kingston Council

A few weeks ago a Freedom of Information request was made to Kingston Council asking for email correspondence in my official role as a councillor.   

I firmly believe in openness and transparency in government – it is after all a key Liberal Democrat principle.  So I fully expected Kingston Council under the new Lib Dem administration to take such requests seriously and answer them in the spirit of open government.

Local people should be able to scrutinise the decisions elected representatives make on their behalf and importantly also how those decision are reached.  In this the seven Nolan principles of public life are vital.  These are: Selflessness, Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openness, Honesty and Leadership and they feature prominently in Kingston Council’s own code of conduct.

Sadly, the response to the Freedom of Information request the Council has released is incomplete. This is not my decision and I would have hoped a Liberal Democrat council committed to openness would feel they have nothing to hide.

For legal reasons I feel unable to share the email in question, given RBK has refused to release it - not once but now twice. However, I can confirm the email (sent by the Lib Dem group secretary about the Murray House decision in July) links who can sit as an alternate on the Scrutiny Panel with the group line - AKA a "whip". 

Local people need to be confident in the decisions their elected representatives make – whether they agree with them or not. It is clear that many committee decisions require a group line to allow the administration to get the job done and their manifesto commitments carried out.

But scrutiny is differentAs scrutiny is residents' last opportunity to have their views heard they need to know they will be listened to - and where decisions have been poorly executed - they can be looked at again.  So councillors have a duty to weigh up the evidence in front of them with open minds. It is why Scrutiny Committees are legally supposed to be non partisan and not pre-determined. It was clear the email undermined this important principle.

In May the public voted to change the way Kingston was being run. There frankly wasn’t a lot of difference between the parties’ manifestos, so the Lib Dems overwhelming victory was down to people seeking a more transparent, open and compassionate team to lead the borough.

The refusal to release this email highlights an unfortunate unwillingness among the Lib Dem leadership to be held accountable for their decisions and be subject to the openness and transparency outlined in the Nolan Principles of public office. 

I believe that enough is enough. Its time for administration to publicly admit they've got this wrong and simply release the email. Kingston Council has been reported to the Information Commissioner at least twice for its lack of transparency on this issue. This is damaging our council's reputation, pure and simple.

If the Lib Dem leadership continue to allow this matter to run and run - they risk having the next three years dominated by campaigns centring on the councils lack of transparency. So it really is time for them to step up and do the right thing.

1 comment:

  1. Two things. Yes, a party might need a group line to get things done, but that should never override the making of robust, transparent, evidence-based decisions, which are taken according to due process and with correct authority. That is not happening in Kingston and bad decisions need to be challenged by as many people as possible. And secondly, yes,a public authority always needs to be accountable, open and transparent in the decisions that it makes. The internal auditors are meant to examine whether this is happening. It most evidently was not happening under the Tory administration and it appears that it is still not happening now.