Lawyers, a call to arms, you need to defend local democracy

Cllr Clive Stevens outlines the need for more transparency in local government and highlights the role monitoring officers play.

Oh who would want to be a monitoring officer in a mayoral authority? Sandwiched between a powerful mayor and the mayor’s assistant controlling messages and pushing to limit access to information. And on the other side, baying councillors calling for every snippet, document and report that ever existed or so it seems in Bristol anyway.

My description above does take some poetic liberties but the battle over LGA72 Schedule 12a part 1 para 10 is raging and will be televised, live, at 2pm on Monday 23rd when the Council’s Audit Committee tears itself apart again.

Before you all rush to your law books, the LGA72 reference is the public interest test that monitoring officers use to decide whether documents should be exempt or not. The battleground on Monday will be whether public trust, indeed Audit Committee’s trust of the public authority, and the need to restore public faith in democracy should come into that equation.

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This issue has been running at least three years starting off with cover ups over a payoff. This particular episode started in June 2020 when the External Auditors discovered they had not been sent or informed of an important Council report by Ernst & Young which helped assess the value and future prospects of Bristol Energy. The information within it was material to the post balance sheet event they were finalising in the accounts. The Audit Committee had to fight to get access to see this too and most members were shown the document over Zoom page by page. It took well over an hour with a loyal Democratic Services Officer at the other end of the camera slowly turning the PDF pages.

This painful experience (see part two of the 25th June meeting on catch-up) ended up with the Chair moving a motion that Audit Committee should have access to nearly any document it wanted. It passed unanimously. This request was repeated another time and communicated to Full Council.

But now five months later, officer reports have come in showing the legal basis as to why Committee can’t see the documents it needs to do its job and explaining that we should simply trust officers, "be assured", they say. Poor officers, they are stuck in the middle of this battle between the Mayor, his assistant and councillors.

This is more than an academic exercise. The Mayor is setting up more businesses to “get things done”. Investing public money and sometimes losing it. Bristol Energy, likely to be the subject of a Public Interest Report from the External Auditors lost over £30 million. We don’t know exactly how much, it’s exempt. So there’s a lot of mistrust over the wisdom of investing tax payers’ money into such ventures yet they are kept away from effective scrutiny. Usually just reports to Cabinet when the businesses need more money.  

We are seeing the gradual drift away from democratic checks and balances in many aspects of Government. This is just one example but the direction needs to be stopped. The rule of law is an important aspect of protecting our democracy, one that underpins all our rights and liberties. Lawyers and monitoring officers you need to play a role.

Clive Stevens is a councillor at Bristol City Council.

For more on these issues, read Clive's new book, After The Revolution, Lessons from Local Government in designing a dynamic democracy, which is published by www.tangentbooks.co.uk  

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