So by my reckoning, 73 working days after being asked for a copy of the minutes of the Lisburn Castlereagh voluntary transition minutes, Lisburn City Council have finally complied with the request by loaded them onto their public website. (Go to the Lisburn City Council minutes page and select Transition Committee from the pull down and click Search.)
Local government transition committee across Northern Ireland only have “voluntary status” until the Reform of Public Administration legislation is passed by the Assembly. With boundary issues still outstanding, there is no sign of the Department of Environment starting to turn the legislative handles* just yet. In the meantime, decisions taken at the transition meetings are recommendations, and the minutes are then tabled for approval at all councils concerned before they can be ratified.
* Update - Not quite right. The transition committees will be legally established by the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill which went through consideration phase last Tuesday, and is due for further consideration stage next week, final stage two weeks after that and royal assent a few days later. So they should be legal entities within six weeks. (There's a handy timetable to follow bills' progress.)
Of course, the Department of the Environment’s Local Government Policy Division issued guidance on reporting and transparency:
Circular LG 16/08 – 28 October 2008
GUIDANCE ON THE ESTABLISHMENT OF TRANSITION COMMITTEES AND TRANSITION MANAGEMENT TEAMS
Annex 3 GUIDANCE NOTES ON GOVERNANCE FOR TRANSITION COMMITTEES
5 Reporting and Transparency
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.
The Lisburn/Castlereagh minutes for June 2009 – which have to be read in conjunction with the July 2009 minutes due to various problems with signing off their accuracy – stated:
3.8 Meeting of Transition Committee – Media, Public and Press
It was agreed that meetings of the Transition Committee would be open to the media, public and press. The Committee would still retain the “Into Committee” arrangement for consideration of confidential business during which the media, public and press would be excluded.
Agenda and reports (minus appendices) would be furnished to the media in advance of the meetings, with the appendices being provided, if requested, with the exception of any confidential correspondence.
Very open and transparent. But not for long ...
The July 2009 minutes show that at the suggestion of two Castlereagh councillors, June’s decision was rescinded:
5.3 MEETING OF THE TRANSITION COMMITTEE - MEDIA, PUBLIC AND PRESS (Minute Ref No: 3.8 refers)
Following a proposal from Alderman Henderson, which was seconded by Councillor Beattie, it was
RECOMMENDED: That Minute Ref No: 3.8 be withdrawn.
Later in the same July 2009 meeting, another Castlereagh councillor further tightened the transparency and accountability screws:
8. AGENDAS FOR TRANSITION COMMITTEES REGARDING PRESS MATTERS - CLARIFICATION OF PROTOCOL
Councillor [Gareth] Robinson again referred to the voluntary status of the Transition Committee and suggested that, until the Committee becomes statutory, the minutes should not be made available to the public or press. Therefore, it was
(a) until such time as the Transition Committee becomes statutory, the minutes of the meetings should not be made available to the public or press.
(b) Furthermore, each Council should, in the interim, consider the minutes of the Transition Committee during the “in committee” section of their respective Council meetings.
(c) The meetings of the Transition Committee will take place “in Committee”, until such time as it becomes a statutory Committee
So no longer public meetings. The transition committee would meet “in committee” and the two councils would have to ratify the minutes while “in committee” too. No mention of Secret Squirrel badges and passwords ...
But Lisburn City Council seemed to rebel! The August 2009 minutes show:
5.11 Transition Committee – “in Committee”
The Chief Executive (LCC) reported that Lisburn City Council at its meeting held on 28 July 2009 agreed to refer back to the Transition Committee that part of the minutes of the Meeting of the Transition Committee held on 16 July 2009 recommending that the minutes of the Transition Committee be dealt with “in Committee” by both Councils. Lisburn City Council felt that this was an unnecessary procedure and that the minutes of the Transition Committee should be dealt with in the normal manner by Lisburn City Council, and that any matters of a confidential nature could be dealt with individually “in Committee.”
It was agreed to recommend that:
- the minutes of the Transition Committee be considered at the respective meetings of Council in the normal manner and any matters of a confidential nature be dealt with individually “in Committee”, and
- should one Council agree to adopt the minutes and the other Council did not, the relevant Officers liaise with the other Council in order that the minutes were not made public until the other Council had adopted the minutes.
The Chief Executive (LCC) reminded the Committee that no decisions of the Transition Committee were progressed until both Councils had adopted the relevant minute.
So, when the August minutes were ratified by both councils – probably sometime in September or early October – the minutes and the meetings were public.
Of course, the minutes might be getting shorter in future (November 2009):
4.2 Minutes of Transition Meetings
It was agreed that in view of the significant workload involved in Committee Secretarial support that minutes would be in bullet form for future meetings, whilst allowing Committee members to request full text to be included on request at the relevant meeting.
At the beginning of the transition committees, a quorum of three councillors from each council had was required. But Gareth Robinson successfully argued in July 2009 – when only two Lisburn councillors had turned up – that as the committee was voluntary and didn’t have a statutory status, the quorum rule could be suspended.
As there were only two Elected Members from Lisburn City Council present at tonight’s meeting, Members discussed whether a quorum was applicable in this instance.
Councillor Robinson stated that the meeting should proceed on the basis that the Transition Committee was currently a voluntary group and the standing order relating to a quorum would not take effect until it became a Statutory Committee. Furthermore, as the minutes of the Transition Committee would be tabled at each of the respective Council meetings for ratification, Elected Members would have an opportunity to raise any issues or disputes relating to their content.
The Vice-Chairman sought the opinions of the two Elected Members from Lisburn City Council and they agreed that the meeting could proceed on the basis that Members would only be making recommendations at tonight’s meeting and the minutes would subsequently be tabled at both Council meetings for ratification.
(a) the standing order relating to quorums would not be applicable to the present Transition Committee, due to the fact that it was still operating on a voluntary basis and standing orders would only take effect once it became a statutory committee ...
Handy, since part way through the November 2009 meeting, Lisburn were down to two councillors again! Of course, all this is while councillors get paid an additional allowance (£2,700?) to cover their work on the transition committee.
Remember that none of these minutes will be easily accessible from Castlereagh Council's website as they don't do online publishing.
While we’re talking about minutes, Sinn Fein MLA Daithí McKay recently blogged about tabling a number of questions to the Environment Minister on the subject of local councils publishing minutes online. The answer came back only two councils don’t publish minutes online – Castlereagh and Dungannon. (Magherafelt only started publishing there minutes online in October … after a bit of a battle to see them.) Daithí has now tabled some more questions on the subject ... to be continued!