It appears that the legal rules obtaining on multiple group memberships in Argyll and Bute Council have been confused by an ad hoc decision made by senior officers some years ago – and which appears not to have been previously or, until now, communicated to elected members.
The Local Government Act stated that:
‘No person shall be treated as a member of more than one political group at any given time and, accordingly, if a person changes the political group of which he is a member by a notice under regulation 8 or 9 he shall from the date of delivery of that notice be treated—
(a) in the case of a notice under regulation 8, as a member only of the new political group which is constituted in accordance with that regulation; and
(b) in the case of a notice under regulation 9(b), as a member only of the group named in the notice.
This position was also the understanding of the councillors who, on Wednesday 22nd May, formed the Argyll, Lomond and the Islands group, dissolving three groups which had severally housed them up to that point:
- the Liberal Democrats
- the Conservatives
- the Argyll and Bute Independent Councillors group.
The second new group formation
The following day, 15 minutes before the council meeting, official notification was circulated within the council that a second new group had been formed – Argyll and Bute for Change – listing councillors by name only.
This group was composed of 8 members of the Alliance of Independent Councillors, 3 SNP members, 3 Argyll First members and four solo independents.
On Thursday evening, Argyll First made it known to Council officers that it had been internally agreed that they would retain their Argyll First identity within the new Argyll and Bute for Change group, saying: ‘All three Argyll First members remain as a group within the new group. This should have been relayed to you within the correspondence that was sent to your office. Please amend accordingly.’
The 3 SNP councillors – Robert E MacIntyre, Isobel Strong and Gordon Blair - do not appear to have negotiated for the same position within the new group.
When Argyll First’s understanding of their own situation was made known, procedural queries on the legal position were raised with senior officers.
The result was the information that the legislation on group memberships was repealed some years ago – which would make it multiple simultaneous group memberships perfectly legal – but council officers had simply decided to carry on as before. The gloss is: ‘… this Council has for political and other convenience continued to recognise the concept [Ed: of single group membership only] in terms of reporting on any whip being applied after group discussions and as detailed for approved duties.’
It does seem extraordinary that officers may choose to ignore legislative change and carry on as before, regardless of their view of which legal position – the former or the current – is the most logical.
Officers remain unclear whether Argyll and Bute for Change is, as was Argyll, Lomond and the Islands, a new group with other previous affiliations abandoned or an umbrella for various groups and individuals. From the information they had been given in the way its membership was stated, apparently and reasonably understood it to be a new group with previous group memberships abandoned.
The legal position
Regardless of the informal continuing application of the old rule by council officers since the repeal of the Local Government Act’s provisions on group memberships, it would appear that it is perfectly legal for a councillor to have simultaneous memberships of more than one group.
This is bound to mean the return of party politics to Argyll and Bute – a move that will not now be welcomed by a substantial majority of voters.
This also sees the SNP group back in formal chaos, with 8 of them never having varied from their party group identity but with the ‘Russell group’ becoming members of the Argyll and But for Change group.
If this group of 3 now make it known that, like Argyll First, they are now choosing to retain their SNP group membership, that is now, formally, a split group, with a majority group of 8 SNP councillors retaining their single membership of the SNP group, as reported in our position summary of yesterday.
Consequences of belonging to more than group at a time
With simultaneous multiple memberships being legal, there will now be group hierarchies – with a range of individual groups, alongside individual elected members, being members of umbrella groups.
How will internal voting work in such a situation? Will a veto system be necessary where an umbrella group decision on a specific issue might necessitate an opt out or a veto by a member group that is party-based?
A key issue is that the electorate would need to know from each individual councillor and from each group in an umbrella group:
- Whose interests take precedence – Argyll’s, the umbrella group’s or the party/group?
- Who calls the shots on what they do – their party/group or their umbrella group?
The Argyll First position
Yesterday evening we received the following position statement from Argyll First:
‘The Argyll First group will work with and within the newly established ‘Argyll and Bute for Change’ group. We will continue to pursue our own established aims and objectives.
‘Our new colleagues have expressed a desire to see commonsense and stability returned to the Council after what can only be described as a period of unacceptable and avoidable turmoil.We will work together to promote change within the council, ensuring better practice is achieved at all levels with the objective of appointing the most talented Councillors to the lead roles, regardless of their political backgrounds. This would ensure that the most able Councillors would be in the right roles for the right reasons. The residents of Argyll and Bute deserve the best possible representation and this cannot be achieved by Argyll First alone - we therefore welcome the opportunity to work with our new and experienced colleagues to achieve this goal.’