I wrote recently to Max Caller the Lead Inspector for the recent Best Value Inspection which exposed so many dangerous and serious failings inside our Council systems and political leadership. Much of what he said was absolutely spot but as a democrat I believe that much of what he said in regard to the democratic system to be followed in Liverpool will be seriously damaging to the work that Councillors can do and their work within the communities.
Liberal Democrats will meet on Sunday to consider who our Group leadership will be and how to respond to the recommendations that the Chief Executive has laid out in the Council summons in a draft format for our consideration. We have yet to decide our full response but clearly have serious disquiet about the proposals relating to democracy.
Our basic problem is that Caller fails to provide any evidence to support his assertions that moving to a smaller council with single members wards having elections on a four-yearly basis would actually improve things. This is hardly surprising because there is no such evidence. I have scoured the LGA files, academic studies and think tank reports and I all find is the same assertions that are in the Caller Report but not a shred of evidence that changes such as those proposed have improved the work of councillors either inside the Council or inside their communities.
Basically, Caller’s contention which is effectively that the way to deal with improper political processes is to reduce democratic accountability between elected representatives and their electors, is clearly unfounded and meritless. He has made no attempt to justify it other than to say that this is the trend and it is what Ministers want.
Some of his assertions are wrong;
- Despite the fact that he had to change his report to Parliament over the Mayoralty he has failed to think through the consequences of that. Liverpool Council does not need a referendum on the Mayoralty. It could choose to have one but could also choose to take the decision itself after a full consultation with the people and businesses of Liverpool on the four options which are available to it. Let’s not forget that a free-standing referendum will cost the council at least £500. Money which we believe could be better spent.
- In all the areas which have gone to unitary 4 yearly elections there is also a substantial parish or Town Council system. It is true that about half of these rely on co-options as much as elections to fill their seats but all of the larger councils are fully contested often as vigorously as elections to principal councils.
Caller fails to acknowledge the fact that however they get there they are a vital safety and support mechanism if the single member situation which he proposes results in a system where that member is ill, pregnant or for other reasons such as taking a major council role, is unable to fully service the needs of constituents.
In all my 38 years as a Councillor I have had to be a county, district and parish councillor. I can do this because I have always been able to share the work with my two colleagues to cover both ward and council work.
- Mr Caller claims that some unspecified research in some unspecified area has shown that some people like having one councillor because they know who that is. Where was this research conducted? Who by? What was the sample base? Did it compare the new system with the old one in terms of electoral knowledge or any other facet of governance?
- As a believer in evidence-based policy making I cannot accept that we should do things because a Government Minister wants us to. This is a Government which is mired in corruption, where the Secretary of State himself had to apologise for an illegal decision based on a desire to support a Tory donor and where the Queens Speech only yesterday took steps to discourage voting in a way that can only be described as Trump-like.
I liked most of the Caller report. As a former Chief Executive of a Council he understands the nuts and bolts of how councils should work. He clearly showed up the manifest failings of what is wrong in our City Council. Much of what he asked the Council to do is common sense and will simply return us to the good governance which pertained when the Lib Dems left office in 2010. However, none of the three Inspectors have ever been on the democratic side of the Council and frankly that showed up in your report. Audit Commission Inspections always included an experienced Councillor to ensure a full understanding of all processes. Regrettably yours failed to.
The Liberal Democrats have yet to finalise our final position for next week’s Council Meeting but we clearly will not be supporting the attempts to stifle democracy and due process in the democratic systems of checks and balances in the City. Democrat is in our name and democracy is in our heritage. We will fight for it whenever we are needed to and whenever we can.