Thursday, January 21, 2010

£2,700 per annum to serve on a public body that won't talk about what it does

Review of Public Administration logo

The results of the Review of Public Administration were published in November 2005 and March 2006. The review included health, libraries, education and local government.

  • In April 2009 the old eleven heath trusts were reduced to five.
  • The single Library Authority took over bookish responsibilities from the five education and library boards in April 2009.
  • The remaining functions of the five education and library boards were to be replaced with a single Educations and Skills Authority (ESA) this month, but that has run into problems.
  • By May 2011, there is a plan to reduce the number of local councils from twenty six to eleven. Voluntary transition committees made up of members of the affected merging councils are up and running. However the legislation to give them statutory powers and enable the May 2011 switchover is under pressure due to boundary disputes.

The voluntary transition committees have been meeting monthly. With the possible exception of disputed areas around the fringes – important, but disputed, areas – Lisburn City Council and Castlereagh District Council will be merging. The Castlereagh/Lisburn committee will be working through issues around the delivery of public services as well as property and staffing.

As the transition date approaches, more and more decision-making responsibility is being pulled away from the two separate councils and being put into the hands of the combined committee that can take a collective and strategic view of the future merged operation. So the transition committees are not without clout and power.

The Department of the Environment’s Local Government Policy Division oversee all of this. Recognising the importance and significance of the decisions that will be taken by the voluntary (ie, non-statutory or pre-legislation) transition committees, they issued guidance on reporting, transparency as well as setting the allowances that are paid to councillors serving on these responsible bodies.

Circular LG 16/08 – 28 October 2008 [highlighting mine]



5 Reporting and Transparency

Transition Committees will be subject to the accepted norms of internal and external scrutiny. They will operate to best practice in management of meetings, reporting arrangements and general administration.

The terms of reference for Transition Committees provide advice on meetings, agendae, and reporting. In particular, the terms of reference state that ‘minutes of meetings will be in action format listing key decisions and actions to be taken and will be prepared by the Secretariat. Copies of such minutes should be submitted to the Strategic Leadership Board.’ The Strategic Leadership Board and Department of the Environment will require regular reports on transition progress for the effective coordination and strategic management of the reform process.

To ensure transparency, Transition Committees will make arrangements for public access to the decision making process. A communication strategy should be developed to regularly inform the public and stakeholders.

8 Responsibilities and Allowances

The Terms of Reference set out the responsibilities of a Transition Committee. As these responsibilities will constitute an important role for the Councillors appointed to Transition Committees they will be paid from the DOE allocated block grant an agreed supplementary allowance for the additional responsibility involved. The amount proposed is £2700 pa, in parity with the Strategic Leadership Board and Policy Development Panels. Members appointed to Transition Committees should have the time, capacity and commitment to contribute effectively to the development of new Councils.

A December 2008 briefing Circular LG 19/08 also make clear ...

In addition, expenses may be claimed and travelling will be paid in accordance with the rates determined by the Department under the Local Government (Travelling and Subsistence Allowances to Councillors) (No 2) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1973, as amended.

Lisburn City Council

Lisburn City Council told its ratepayers (well, it issued a press release) back in August 2009 that:

“Minutes from the Lisburn-Castlereagh Transition Committee are available to view online at

But they’re not.

And Castlereagh District Council don’t publish minutes of any council business online – though that might change with the level of scrutiny they’re under following the allegations made against a councillor in the recent Spotlight programme!

Given that Lisburn has eight councillors appointed to the transition committee, each being paid £2,700 per annum for the privilege – that’s a shade over £21,000 of public money being handed out, plus the same again for the Castlereagh councillors involved – it seems reasonable that ratepayers should have some idea of what they’re up to.

I’ve asked a number of times whether Lisburn City Council would be meeting their published commitment. The response at the end of October 2009 was

“a decision has yet to be made on the publicising on Lisburn Council website of the Voluntary Committee of Lisburn/Castlereagh Transition Committee minutes.”

So reluctantly I asked again to

formally request copies of the minutes of the Voluntary Transition Committee meetings from this year - either by email or by publication in the Council’s existing public document repository … I would be grateful if you could confirm by email that you have received this request, and I look forward to receiving the information (or your reasons for rejection) "promptly, but no later than 20 working days".

The Freedom of Information Act sets out the legal framework for public bodies – like councils – making information available to members of the public requesting it. Put simply, they have twenty working days (starting the day after you ask) to respond in one of three ways:

  • (1) releasing the information;
  • (2) explaining that they don’t hold the information so cannot release it; or
  • (3) confirming that they hold the information but issuing a Refusal Notice that explains specifically which of the limited exemptions in the FOI Act they’re using to justify withholding the release of the information.

Twenty working days later, Lisburn City Council manufactured a fourth option which was

  • (4) don’t respond at all and breach the legal obligations!

Not even an acknowledgement that they’d received the request. I chased it up and my chasing email was acknowledged! But another twenty days later – that’s forty in total – still no reply to the request.

Around day 45, I ran out of patience and emailed them a deadline three days hence, after which I would forward the request as a complaint to the ICO if they hadn’t replied. Seventy minutes shy of the deadline, they responded!

“The minutes of the Joint Castlereagh Lisburn Voluntary Transition Committee are not currently within the Scheme of Publication of either council.

This matter is due for discussion at the next meeting of the Committee on Thursday 21 January and I will arrange for you to be advised of the outcome of that discussion.”

The committee meets tonight.

One of the main sticking points seems to be that the committee does sometimes discuss commercial and personnel issues. However, this argument doesn’t hold much water, since these discussions merely have to be redacted from the minutes.

Of course, despite the current secrecy, one set of minutes of the Castlereagh/Lisburn joint transition committee is available online! Google turns up the minutes from 20 May 2009 which are held on the Northern Ireland Local Government Association’s website! They discussed a variety of business.

  • In the interests of ensuring the “recruitment was open, fair and transparent”, the councillors voted to go ahead and engage an external recruitment agency to help appoint a Change Management Officer (who would aid the transition process) rather than rely on the cheaper alternative of relying on the Human Resource sections of the two councils.

  • In response to a consultation from Deloitte which proposes a common Information Systems strategy across the new Northern Ireland councils they asked the IT staff from both councils to prepare a joint paper in response. (Interestingly, when faced with the same NILGA-commissioned Deloitte consultation, Belfast City Council endorsed the common approach subject to some clarifications on resource, governance and capacity.)

  • How to respond to the consultation on severance arrangements for councillors.

  • The number of councillors from each council needed to turn up to so that meetings had a quorum: three from Lisburn and three from Castlereagh.

  • Back in May 2009, Edwin Poots (wearing his Lisburn Councillor hat) was the chair of the joint transition committee and not yet Minister of Environment. In light of “responses from the Minister [that would have been Sammy Wilson MLA] in respect to the Boundaries Review … Alderman Poots advised that Lisburn City Council had sought legal advice and were currently seeking a judicial review regarding their boundary allocation.”

It will be interesting to hear what the committee decide tonight. Anything short of publishing the minutes as promised six months ago would seem to fall short of their responsibility to “make arrangements for public access to the decision making process” and shroud the transition arrangements in an unnecessary cloak of secrecy.

Update - Tuesday 22 January - Someone from Lisburn City Council was in touch to say that "the Lisburn Castlereagh Transition Committee agreed yesterday evening to recommend that ratified minutes of meetings be placed on council websites. This decision is subject to ratification by both councils which should take place by 2 February and will (if approved by both councils) be actioned thereafter."

By by reckoning, if the minutes are published on the 2 February - though the statement suggests "thereafter" - that would be 67 working days after I requested the information, with no formal reason yet given to explain why the council feels it can stretch their 20 day legal responsibility this far.


Anonymous said...

If Lisburn are in such a flagrant breach of the FOI ACT I hope you have lodged a complaint with the relevant authorities.

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

At this stage, no point until I see if they do or don't publish the information. But it's still a possibility.