D minus for Democracy in Manchester Town Hall – better scrutiny needed

Dar and Doswells demands for detail deliberately derailed during debate.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a couple of councillors walk into a scrutiny committee meeting and say to the chair/officers “I’d like some answers please…”

But it’s no joke when elected members can’t get straight answers.

Today at a special (but also very ordinary) meeting of the Communities and Equalities Scrutiny Committee (1) Cllr Majid Dar (Labour, Ancoats and Beswick) wanted to know a straightforward thing:  what the Council’s response to a letter, signed by 50 homelessness organisations, about the Council’s proposal to bring in a “Public Spaces ‘Protection’ Order” (PSPO).  He wasn’t given a straight answer, or even the promise of one, from the relevant officer. Plus ca change.

Then, at the death of the meeting, after various recommendations had been made, Cllr Jade Doswell (Labour, Fallowfield) wanted a straightforward answer. She had earlier asked why the new powers were needed, since the existing ones seemed perfectly adequate (no real answer to that). Now, at the end, she  wanted to know if the very existence of the PSPO – which is due to run for three years – might be up for discussion when it is reviewed in six months (and there’s ANOTHER story there about how long six months is).

This time it was the chair of the committee who gave an answer worthy of Sir Humphrey Appleby. (the exchanges can be seen on the webcast here).

Democracy in Manchester is as sick as a parrot (a Norwegian Blue, since you ask).  The committee which met today had NO members from any party other than Labour, and no co-opted members of the public who might be able to provide a counter-weight.  This close to local elections, you can’t expect ‘awkward squad’ politicians from Labour to ask searching questions of Executive Members (though there was a highly entertaining tussle at one point, about a side conversation being had when it shouldn’t have been.)

Why are you reading about this on a climate change website?  Well, this issue – whether the Council has additional powers to police protests (oh, but they’d never USE those power – course not), and to wave a big stick over vulnerable people – is not a climate change issue.  But the questions being asked by the aforementioned councillors (and others) were typical.  They were often the right questions, framed well.

And, as we have seen so often when the question of climate change is on the agenda,  they were almost always not answered.

To return to the opening alliteration, it was a damnably depressing display.

Two things are clear.

1) when we see Councillors trying to scrutinise and failing to get a satisfactory answer, citizens should back them up by putting the question forward as a Freedom of Information Act request. Yes, 20 working days, additional work for officers, but if they answer the questions during scrutiny which (checks notes) they are supposed to, then life wouldn’t have to be this way.

2) if we are going to get anywhere on climate policy, we need a seventh scrutiny committee.  There is a petition which anyone who lives, works or studies in Manchester can sign. We are running a signature blitz from Friday 20th to Monday 23rd March, and we would really like your help – please email us on  petition@climateemergencymanchester.net

 

Footnotes

(1) Communities and Equalities is one of the six scrutiny committees. You can learn more about how the Council works by reading the recent CEM report “MCC and Climate Change for beginners.”

 

Author of this blog post, as if you could not tell from the largely uncontrolled and toxic snark, is Dr Marc Hudson. Have at ye, varlet.

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