Sunday 3 May 2009

Duncan Macdonald’s Nugget

One of the reasons Gordon Brown is in such difficulty at the moment is because of his pathological inability to accept that sometimes his opponents are right.

It does not serve the public good to adopt an inflexible partisan attitude where everything your party says and does is wonderful whilst everything your opponents do is wrong.

When Labour came to power in 1997, the Conservatives opposed giving independence to the Bank of England, but now agree that this was a good move.

In Barnet, the LibDems have been leading the debate over the council’s reckless investment decisions which have resulted in £27.4 million (plus interest) of taxpayers’ money needlessly being put at risk.

Certain characters in the Conservative party have spread false statements that my support of the LibDems position is somehow proof that I am not really a Conservative. This is, of course, manifest nonsense. I simply recognise that, with respect to the council’s Icelandic investments, the LibDems are right and Mike Freer is wrong. I know that many Conservative councillors agree with me, but they won’t speak out against Cllr Freer publicly.

At the last full council meeting, LibDem councillor Duncan Macdonald (pictured left), gave an excellent speech in the debate on Iceland. Even if, like me, you do not agree with the LibDems on many of their policies, it is important to recognise a good speech, irrespective of who makes it.

Unlike many forward thinking councils which record public meetings and put them on the internet for all their residents to hear, only people who were in the council chamber last month would have heard Cllr Macdonald’s speech so, in the interests of democracy and posterity, I reproduce it below.

Speech by Cllr Duncan Macdonald, Barnet Council 7th April 2009
Debate on Icelandic Banks Scrutiny Working Group Report

The central issue in this motion is what you think the role of leader of the council entails and what you think the role of Cabinet member for resources entails.

If members really believe that both these roles involve no more that deciding a policy and then sitting back whilst officers implement it then they should vote against this item.

Many if not all of the members on the Conservative side seem to believe this to be the case. Go to a few meetings, don’t bother to read the papers, say nothing and let whatever recommendation the officers have made go through and draw a nice fat allowance for doing so.

I believe that the Icelandic banks investment fiasco has shown the dangers of this approach.

You cannot leave the processes that run this council in the hands of officers alone without any adequate checks on whether that policy is being implemented. We see from the Iceland banks working party report that there was systemic failure in both decision making and the auditing of those decisions and the leader and cabinet member for resources knew nothing, was told nothing and asked nothing, because apparently it was not his job to do so.

Apparently when he found out that the money was lost he asked if procedures had been followed. He didn’t ask for proof. He didn’t ask for evidence. He didn’t ask anything. Then when proof that there was something very wrong came out back in October in the exempt report he obviously didn’t read it.

If that is the job description for leader and member for cabinet resources then he is well qualified for the role and this policy item is a waste of paper.

The trouble is that that is no longer the job description. The audit committee report identifies what is required of members. It says of the role of cabinet member for resources

“Train those elected members who have accountability for the stewardship of public money so that they are able to scrutinise effectively and be accountable for the treasury management function;”

It is clear that the days of blissful ignorance must go. The reality is of course in good authorities they were already doing what the audit commission recommends. In Barnet . . . Well we were letting the officers get on with it weren’t we.

As the audit commission states;

local authorities with the largest sums at risk tended to have weak
governance and scrutiny arrangements, were overly dependent on external
advice and failed to consider adequately the risks associated with their decisions.

Although actually here in Barnet we didn’t just have weak governance and scrutiny. No we had no governance or scrutiny, or at least no governance or scrutiny that actually worked. Of course the cabinet member for resources and the leader of the council didn’t know there was a problem because he didn’t ask. Even now he’s attempting to weaken scrutiny by whitewashing scrutiny reports. In my opinion Clr Freer should not be combining the posts of member for cabinet resources and the post of leader of the council. He shouldn’t be cabinet member for resources and further more he shouldn’t be leader of this council.

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