Sunday, February 01, 2009

Decisions are made by those who show up

A report this week has suggested the Communities Secretary Hazel Blears is considering proposals to allow Councillors to vote from the pub instead of attending Council meetings.

The suggestion is apparently being made "to help overcome the barriers of time, circumstance and distance that might discourage members from participating in meetings".

A laudable enough aim, perhaps, but the idea is misguided. As councillors, we are elected to represent our constituents on the Council. That means, amongst other things, attending Council meetings and committees - a time commitment for which we are paid an allowance. If we can't make the necessary commitment, we should not stand for office.

This of course has a particular resonance in Greenwich, where Labour Councillor Danny Thorpe remains a Councillor for Shooters Hill ward, despite living on the other side of the world. He has been in Australia for the last year, and has attended just one meeting - a cynically organised Council meeting in September contrived to allow him to fly back and avoid disqualification. Council Leader Chris Roberts has angrily defended his protege, saying that his ward colleagues are covering his work, and that as Thorpe is not claiming his allowance, there is no case to answer.

What arrogant rubbish. It's not about the money - it's about whether a Councillor can do their duty of representing their electors. Self-evidently, you can't do that from a different hemisphere of the planet. The danger of the Blears plan is that it would legitimise such behaviour.

For backbenchers like me, it is accepted that our role is part-time, so balancing work commitments can be an issue. In particular, it is frustrating when Council events or meetings are scheduled in the daytime or early evening, which makes it difficult or impossible for those with full-time jobs to attend. But most meetings are held in the evenings, which also helps members of the public who want to attend.

As Danny Thorpe's example has illustrated, the only firm attendance requirement is that a Councillor who fails to attend meetings for six months is disqualified. Beyond that, it is down to Councillors' own conscience (and the pressure of their Whips) how many meetings they attend. Some are dilligent and never miss a single one, whilst others rarely show their faces. Most are somewhere in between.

That is as it should be. Of course there are times when you have to stay late at work or have family commitments. And representing your ward doesn't begin and end at the Town Hall - many members will often prioritise a residents' meeting or community function over a routine committee at the Town Hall. It is a balancing act, but however you manage it, at some point you have to represent the views of your community within the Council, and that means meetings. I have personally made it a rule that whatever other meetings I may miss (and I'm certainly not perfect), I prioritise the monthly Full Council meetings, and have not missed a single one since I was elected in 2005.

Of course it would be easier if I could stay at home or vote from the pub, but that is not what I was elected to do. I was elected to speak up for my constituents, and give them a voice in the Council Chamber. If that duty becomes too much, the only honourable thing to do is to resign. That is what Cllr. Thorpe should have done (despite Chris Roberts instructing him not to). Inconvenient or not, decisions are made by those who show up.


J J said...

Councillor Thorpe should have done the honourable thing and resigned.

You know that and the residents of Shooters Hill Ward know that.
Unfortunately, Mr Thorpe and Mr Roberts refuse to acknowledge that fact.

And as Mr Thorpe's still not back and still hasn't resigned, how much longer are the residents going to be one vote short on the council.

(Silly me, I forgot, the residents don't count. We are only there to put a cross in the box and then be forgotten until the next election)

Anonymous said...

It also raises the question as to whether Cllr Thorpe will return to the UK, or just have his flight paid for again, to attend March's meeting avoiding a by election again.

Unbiased buttocks said...

Last week's Bexley Times reported that Danny is shortly to return to Greenwich. A Labour source was quoted as saying that he has finished his "tour" and will resume his full duties.

Isn't life grand?