It is now both known and documented that Councillor Isobel Strong, Provost of Argyll and Bute Council, attended, as a representative of her party, a meeting between two party groups exclusively negotiating political management arrangements at the council.
This negotiation directly undermined the role of the cross-chamber Short Life Working Group on Political Management Arrangements. This group, a committee of council, was established by the full council at its meeting at the end of June – in the presence of Audit Scotland’s commissioners. It was tasked with bringing to council regular reports on its progress and, in due time, its recommendations on the manner of political management arrangements acceptable to all in the current dysfunctional circumstances.
A substantial group of councillors, the ten strong Argyll Lomond and the Isles Group , was excluded from these covert discussions. At the meeting, the Provost was a representative of the SNP Group which – as is documented in minutes of an SNP Group meeting which we published earlier today – was negotiating political management arrangements with the Argyll and Bute for Change Group of the majority of independents.
This conduct is a breach by the Provost – and a serious one in the current fragile circumstances of the council – of the detachment from the political required by her role.
When an elected members become Provost, they are translated to a different level of operation, certainly as representative of the entire chamber and of the area the council represents and, on occasion, an adjudicatory role in internal disputes.
The role of Provost in local government equates to that of Speaker in the House of Commons where, traditionally, personal political affiliations and interests must be set aside.
It is inconceivable that it is proper for a Provost to be directly complicit in the exclusion of one body of elected members and to engage in such exclusion in the interests of a partisan and competitive element.
Moreover, the Provost has been seen to act in this way in defiance of the assurances given to the national audit commission,
The commisisoners witnessed the minuted commitment of the council,in a roll call vote at the June meeting, to move to chamber-wide collaborative political management.
Here we have the Provost herself conniving to undermine that commitment, disabling the council’s Short Life Working Group on Political Management Arrangements from being able to deliver on its understood responsibilities.
It is hard to see that the Provost can now have the universal trust of the entire chamber, as is a baseline requirement of her job. She has manifestly shown no interest in seeing that the interests of all councillors have been fairly represented.
It is equally difficult to see how, with any credibility the Provost, in this overtly partisan engagement, can be seen to represent the council as a whole – and to present an apparently objective council-wide view to bodies like the Audit Commission or to the electorate at large.
Audit Scotland have been investigating member-to-member and member-to-officer relations within Argyll and Bute Council.
Provost Strong has seen fit to act as a partisan negotiator in discussions that excluded ten of her fellow councillors altogether – and where she represented a subset of her own party group in an action which her own party’s Leader of the Council and three other of her party colleagues do not support. All of this indicates that she cannot be said – as Provost – to be working to improve member-to-member relations in any way.
It is simply imperative that elected members in Scotland’s local authorities – and Argyll and Bute in particular – come to understand the imperative of probity and start working to attain it.
For Provost Strong, there is no foundation for trust here – in any sphere – where trust is the sine qua non of the role of a Provost.
This would indicate powerfully that it is time for the Provost to consider her position.
The role of the Provost
West Lothian Council, which we take to be indicative, describes the role of the Provost [Ed: the emphases are ours] as:
‘The Provost is required to ensure that the interests of all councillors are represented fairly and that they are given a fair hearing in Council meetings.
‘The responsibilities of all members of West Lothian Council to maintain the highest standards of conduct apply particularly to the Provost who is in a position, through personal conduct, to promote the values of the Council, to provide an example to others and to enhance the reputation of the Council and West Lothian.’
‘The Provost is required to act at all times in a manner to enhance the reputation of the Council in terms of fair representation, open government and accountability and as a representative of both the Council and the community, to maintain the highest standards of integrity and behaviour in accordance with the Council’s Standing Orders and the Councillors’ Code of Conduct approved by the Scottish Parliament and enforced through the Standards Commission and any local arrangements applicable within West Lothian.’
For Argyll interprets ‘fair representation’ and ‘open government’ to be the antithesis of what the Provost has been doing in this matter; and we interpret the responsibility to act as ‘a representative of both the council and the community’ to mean that the interests of the substantial spectrum of the ‘community’ of Argyll and Bute who voted for the excluded councillors are far from being represented at this critical time.