This morning’s performance at Argyll and Bute Council’s August meeting was symptomatic of the irresponsibility that has characterised much of local government here since May 2012 and well before then.
If you had imagined clear physical expression of warring groups, cold shoulders and overt tensions – there is virtually no superficial evidence of any of these.
All is apparently chummy with little dissent – because they have made fudge together beforehand.
The entire chamber is effectively conspiring to defraud the electorate, by failing – still - to provide from any source, a political management that has a forward-looking lifespan and stability.
The bottom line from this morning is that there is no change to the situation at the Council since or before the council meeting at the end of June.
Argyll is to stagger on for at least another month, with the paper still in place over the cracks .
Part of the reason for this is that there is no agreement yet to describe the obligations of the coalition partners. Unbelievably, the SNP Group ‘negotiators’ did not participate in any joint preparation of such an agreement but left it to their senior partner-to-be, Argyll and Bute for Change to present them with a draft agreement. This proved unacceptable but some members of the SNP Group, led by the Provost, were prepared to accept it anyway. Others wanted to take back for further discussion what was not acceptable.
This meant that nothing could be presented to the council today – and the fudge was to agree to let the hare sit for the moment.
So – the SNP’s Councillor McCuish is still Council Leader, having been denied the support of some of his own party group.
No Deputy Leader is in place, causing delays in getting some matters signed off in the accustomed timescales.
All current senior posts remain as they were for yet more of the time being.
And no one appears to be in a position to do anything about this state of affairs – or to want to do so.
However, at today’s opening farce, there was interesting evidence [see below] that the seat of power has already shifted, although there is no formal recognition of the fact.
Stirring the fudge
Before the council began, there was a private meeting of the SNP Group in the Council Chamber – with members distributed around seats on the two long forward facing rows of desks. Group Leader Sandy Taylor was wandering around at the front, addressing them. These guys don’t even know how to meet.
There were other caucuses going on elsewhere.
Councillor Walsh was deep in conversation on procedural matters with an officer on the staircase.
At the start of the session Councillor Fred Hall raised the issue of a motion submitted for the meeting by himself and Councillor Iain Angus Macdonald. This had not been placed on the agenda. Neither Councillor had been notified of any inability in the motion nor of any veto exercised in its non-appearance. He asked for it to be read aloud to the chamber and wished to know if the Provost was aware of the decision not to table it.
She said she was – but clearly had no understanding of the reasoning behind the decision. In a flounder, she was rescued by a nimble intervention from the Executive Director of Cutomer Services, Douglas Hendry. He said that the matter of the motion related to the work of the Short Life Working Party on Political Management Arrangements [SWLG]. Tradition apparently prefers to avoid any duplicated discussions and, since there was a report to come to the council from the Short Life Working Group, the feeling had been that the concerns of the absent motion could be raised under the discussion on that item.
In the event, there was no discussion whatsoever on the SWLG report [see below], which is itself of concern – and Councillor Hall raised no issues. Given that both of these councillors are members of Argyll and Bute for Change, a shoe-in to lead the next coalition, it would be important to know of the content of this motion, which might at least, for clarification, have been read aloud as Councillor Hall had asked.
The agreed avoidance of action on political management
When the meeting got going, Item 4 on the agenda was a report from the Short Life Working Group [SWLG] on Political Management Arrangements at the Council.
The two key paragraphs of this two page report came together at the end of it:
‘The SWLG will hold another meeting on 9th September 2013 and is conscious that it deliberations will need to take into account the report from Audit Scotland once it is made available to all members in September or early October.
’3.3 In light of the detail at 3.2 the Council is invited to note that the SLWG has not yet completed its remit but anticipates that it will be in a position to do report back to the September Council meeting.’
The issue here is the contradiction between these two paragraphs and the reality of timescale they simultaneously reveal and conceal.
The first one says that the Working Group’s deliberations will ‘need to take into account the report from Audit Scotland once it is made available to all members in September or early October‘.
This makes clear that the final deliberations of the SWLG cannot be guaranteed to be completed until after early October. This means that no final recommendations to council can be assured before the meeting at the end of October.
Then the last paragraph, 3.3, says that the SWLG ‘anticipates that it will be in a position to report back to the September Council meeting’.
This does not commit to submitting its recommendations to the council at the end of September. With the probability that the Audit Scotland report will not be accessible to all members until early October, no such commitment could credibly be given.
However, the tone and carefully vague working of that last paragraph – suggesting an end to the matter - means no more than that another report from this group will come to council at the end of September.
We understand from Audit Scotland that the availability of the commissioners’ report to all members is very unlikely to come in September; and that ‘early October’ might be a tad optimistic.
So what we are looking at, at best, is recommendations coming to council from the SWLG at the meeting at the end of October.
Suppose that the Audit Scotland report is made available in, say, mid-October – on Monday 16th.
According to the public calendar on the council website, no date has yet been set for the October council meeting; but it is traditionally held on the last Thursday of the month. That would be Thursday 28th October.
Audit Scotland have had serious and delicate matters to investigate and will have, in the way of these things, perhaps unduly, guarded conclusions to present.
No one knows what Audit Scotland are going to be saying.
When the report is available, unless it issues a clean bill of health on member-to-member relations and on member-to-officer relations in the council, whatever it says will require mature consideration in any recommendations on the way forward.
It is hard to see the SWLG preparing its final recommendations in the small space available between this possible reception of the Audit Commissioners’ report and the October council meeting.
So the earliest we can reasonably expect recommendations for political management of the council from this group is the November meeting of the council.
Yet we know that backstairs arrangements are well advanced – outside the SWLG – to see into power a new coalition led by the Argyll and Bute for Change Group and with the SNP Group as junior partners.
Quite how this improper situation is finessed into some sort of apparently acceptable procedural conclusion is impossible to understand. But that will be done.
There will be a smooth and challengeable shoe-horn statement made to council by the Executive Director of Customer Services – which will not be challenged because anther batch of fudge will have been made beforehand.
This morning, in any responsible circumstance, there ought to have been, from somewhere in the chamber, an objection to the situation created by the report from the SWLG. But there was not a single bat-squeak.
The entire chamber, with no evidence of contrary advice from senior officers, appears to believe it is OK for Argyll to carry on in its current limbo. One evidence of that limbo in the absence of recommendations from the SWLG was the sheer length – again – of today’s agenda: 29 items with an urgent one from the Education Director added at the start of the meeting.
The signal of transfer of power
As the meeting was to move to the next item from the non-consideration of anything to do with the report of the SLWG, Lay Member of Council, Mr William Crossan, former Headmaster of Campbeltown Grammar School asked – pointedly – if there would be a value in establishing an Education Committee, since the council tended not to address education issues in much detail.
At this point, Councillor Dick Walsh – still formally Leader of the Opposition – intervened, without invitation from the Provost in the Chair, to assure Mr Crossan that there were matters in train which would address his concerns.
This assurance cannot have been given from the authority of the Short Life Working Group on Political Management Arrangements since that is chaired by Council Leader McCuish; and since the brief report of the SLWG to council today contains no mention of any discussions on the possible scrutiny of education matters.
This was a point of information and assurance to the chamber from the man who is now effectively – but below formal visibility, the seat of power in Argyll and Bute Council.
Our concerns here remain with the probity of procedure – which appears to be a matter of little concern on the elected or the executive side of Argyll and Bute Council.
This morning’s deployment was perfectly surreal.