FURIOUS Liberal Democrats have launched a scathing attack on their Conservative counterparts amid the administration’s bid to rewrite the local council constitution.
The minority Lib Dem Group on Woking Borough Council have condemned the Tories’ plans to remove the right of the opposition to chair scrutiny meetings.
The borough’s Overview & Scrutiny Committee have, since the turn of this century, been chaired by a member of the opposition.
Also since 2000, councillors have been scheduled to elect the chairman and deputy of the committee after the first council meeting following the elections, which in Monday night’s case would have been a Lib Dem, with a member of the ruling majority taking the post of deputy.
However, on Friday councillors received the bombshell from the authority’s Legal Adviser, Peter Bryant, concerning two significant proposals by Council Leader John Kingsbury.
The first was: “That council direct the first meeting of the Overview & Scrutiny Committee to take place on June 23, and not immediately after the meeting on June 9.”
Not receiving what they believe to be a satisfactory reason for the proposed deferral, angry Lib Dem councillors opposed the delay.
Lone Labour man Ilyas Raja added: “It is the tradition and a moral right of the opposition to chair the scrutiny meetings. If tonight’s is being postponed, I would ask the leader to reassure the opposition that at least their moral rights will be intact.”
The proposal went to the vote. All but one of the Conservatives present elected for deferral – 18. All 11 Lib Dems voted against. The motion was carried.
The second proposal was: “To consider a request from the leader that the Overview & Scrutiny Procedure Rules should be amended by deleting the requirement that the chairman has to be elected from an opposition party.”
In a statement the Lib Dems said: “A hastily arranged council meeting on June 23 has been advertised so the Conservatives can use their majority to push through a change to the constitution.”
If the proposal is voted for – which, as with the deferral, is highly likely under the ruling majority – it is also probable that a Conservative will take over as chairman.
Scrutiny is the last platform to question important decisions made in the council. The result will mean that such decisions affecting residents and council taxpayers, which are made predominantly by the ruling majority, will also be under scrutiny at the hands of a Tory chief. Lib Dem Group Leader Councillor Will Forster said: “It is appalling that the Conservatives want to hide from and undermine scrutiny by stopping the opposition from chairing and setting the agenda on that committee.
“It is accepted as best practice in local government that the opposition party chair the authority’s scrutiny work to ensure there is an adequate check and balance to the running party’s power.
“Scrutiny committees in Elmbridge, Mole Valley, Surrey and Reigate Councils are all chaired by an opposition party.”
Cllr Kingsbury, however, believes the chairman should be the ‘best man for the job’, regardless of their allegiance.
He told the News & Mail: “Currently, the chairman of the Overview & Scrutiny Committee has to be drawn from members of an opposition party.
“Following the recent elections, when the Lib Dem representation was reduced to 11 councillors against our 23, it is the wish of the Conservative Group that this restriction be removed.
“If this is agreed at the meeting on June 23, it would then be possible to elect a chairman from any political group.
“Several other Surrey boroughs and districts do not restrict themselves to appointing a member of an opposition party to this important position, and it seems to me that the best person for the job should be able to stand, regardless of his or her political affiliation, which of course would include a Conservative councillor.”
A disappointed Cllr Forster said: “Appallingly, Woking Conservatives do not want an independent check on their power.
“This is sadly what happens when they have a decent majority on local authorities. They abuse their power and act like bullies.
“On Surrey County Council, they have used their large majority to give senior Tory councillors a 60 per cent pay rise, and at Woking they now want to stop all impartial scrutiny of their decisions.”
Cllr Saj Hussain defended the Conservatives’ position. He said: “We think this is the right decision because we want to be able to hold officers to account.”
However, the Lib Dem statement added: “As Chairman of the Overview & Scrutiny Committee for the last two years, Lib Dem Councillor Liam Lyons has led a public study of the effect that new housing development is, and will have, on infrastructure.
“Over the course of several meetings, he and other Lib Dem councillors held providers of these services to account and scrutinised the way they prepared for, and respond to, the increasing demands that new residents are placing on our schools, road and local health services.”
On Monday Cllr Denzil Coulson made a plea to the Conservatives. He said: “I am shocked by this autocratic behaviour. Your party is taking the one position on the council that can hold the executive to account. How can the party be in charge and scrutinise itself objectively?
“You might as well flush democracy down the toilet. I urge you to reconsider this.”
Cllr Forster told the meeting: “I am angry and disappointed.
Woking residents will be losing an important, independent voice.”
Until June 23 those positions are in limbo and no decisions will go under scrutiny. All the other committee positions were appointed on Monday.