Overview & Scrutiny Committee
At last week’s meeting of the Overview & Scrutiny Committee, councillors received a report from the Safer Woking Partnership on their Community Safety Plan for the borough. The Community Safety Plan is a strategy drawn up by the police, local authorities and other interested organisations with the aim of identifying priorities for combating crime and disorder over the next three years.
The strategy highlighted four areas where the police will be focusing their attention. The first priority is anti-social behaviour. The second is violent crime and burglary, which includes domestic abuse and child sexual exploitation. The third area is drugs and alcohol abuse, and more will be done to provide awareness sessions and counselling, as well as concentrating on issues around the night time economy. The fourth strand of the strategy relates to a broader goal of reducing re-offending by placing greater attention on the most prolific offenders, as well as providing targeted assistance where necessary.
During the meeting I asked a number of questions, including how the partnership intends to work with the Licensing Committee, which has responsibility for regulating night time entertainment in the borough and can take action against premises found to be contributing to crime and disorder. I also asked whether the focus on child sexual exploitation was driven by the national attention on high profile cases in towns like Bradford and Rotherham, or whether it was the result of intelligence about local activity. Finally I asked about whether there needed to be a focus on other aspects of the strategy such as preventing violent extremism, highlighting that early intervention was often the best way of countering radicalisation before it develops into criminal activity.
I was impressed with the evidence by the representatives from Surrey Police and the Safer Woking Partnership and felt that a lot of thought and consultation had gone into producing the strategy. Residents who want more information about policing in their area, including the latest crime statistics, can find out more information on the Woking Police website.
At the Overview & Scrutiny Committee meeting on Monday, councillors discussed the Sheerwater redevelopment project. This was a poorly organised and bad-tempered meeting which I feel did not do credit to the seriousness of the issues raised about the consultation process, nor did it do anything to reassure those residents who were in attendance and face having their homes compulsory purchased and demolished to make way for the new development.
In my contribution to the debate I set out my position, which is that I dislike the principle of compulsory purchase of people’s homes by local authorities. On the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, it seems most unfair that the state can force a private individual to sell their house, even if they do not wish to do so. Where compulsory purchase Is used on one or two properties to make way for essential infrastructure changes, there is an argument to be made on the balance of proportionality. Where it is proposed to use compulsory purchase on almost 100 properties to benefit a major project on which there is not yet a clear consensus, it is essential that there is full and proper consultation and people are appropriately reimbursed for the disruption to their lives and loss of a property in which they may have invested significant time and resources.
During the meeting I asked what assistance would be given to those who might not be able to afford a replacement home in the borough even after receiving the suggested uplift in the value of their existing property. I also sought a guarantee that anyone who wished to remain in Sheerwater would be able to do so. Given the oft-repeated comments by Sheerwater residents that the consultation thus far has been insufficient, I questioned officers on whether they believed the council was reaching out to the right people, and if they could provide an example of how the engagement process has helped shaped the plans in their current form.
Unfortunately I did not receive answers to my questions. However, I have been told that the details of these issues will be worked out as part of the current consultation exercise and examined in depth by the Sheerwater Oversight Panel. In the meantime, the best way forward is for officers, councillors and residents to work together constructively to find a way forward on all these tricky points. Some of the language that has been used has been emotive and unhelpful, and a calmer and more measured approach from residents will also assist in ensuring their concerns are given proper consideration.
At last night’s meeting of the Overview & Scrutiny Committee I presented a short report on voter fraud in Woking. The background to this was the electoral petition in 2013 which revealed that the former Liberal Democrat councillor Mohammed Bashir won his Maybury & Sheerwater seat thanks to corrupt and fraudulent practices such as registering false voters, forging voters’ signatures and harvesting the votes of residents without their knowledge or consent.
People in Woking were rightly outraged at this blatant manipulation of the democratic process and sought reassurances that such abuse will never be allowed to happen again. The remit of my report was to consider whether the Overview & Scrutiny Committee should hold an inquiry session and examine the steps that the council has taken to safeguard the integrity of elections in the borough. It was also suggested that such a review would be a good opportunity to scrutinise the move towards the new ‘individual registration’ system which came into effect last year and will apply to voters registering for the General Election.
I met with the Chief Executive at the end of last year to discuss the issues raised in the scrutiny topic review. One aspect of our discussion was the timetable for publication of the report of the Elections and Electoral Registration Review Panel, which is independently chaired and produces an annual report into the conduct of the previous year’s elections. The Review Panel will be meeting this month and will submit its report to the next meeting of Full Council. This report will include details on work carried out in the lead up to the Borough and European elections in 2014, including the processes put in place after the electoral petition and court judgement on the conduct of Mr Bashir. As a result of the Overview & Scrutiny Committee’s request, the Review Panel will also examine the work carried out to introduce individual registration and the impact this should have on the conduct of future elections.
On the basis that Full Council will have the opportunity to review and debate the report of the Review Panel, I am satisfied that at this stage there was no need for the Overview & Scrutiny Committee to hold a separate session and call in officers or Executive members for a more formal hearing. However, the committee did take the opportunity to hold a short discussion on issues around voter fraud and electoral manipulation at last night’s meeting, which will help inform a broader debate when the subject comes before Full Council next month.
This week councillors voted to approve an amendment to Woking Borough Council’s constitution which removes the requirement that the Overview & Scrutiny Committee should be chaired by an opposition councillor. The Overview & Scrutiny Committee is responsible for examining the effectiveness of the council’s functions and policies. It acts as a forum for debate and discussion on all aspects of the council’s work. It selects its own topics for review and can ‘call in’ decisions by the Executive for further scrutiny.
Previously the chairman of Overview & Scrutiny was nominated by the opposition party on the council, with a councillor from the ruling party acting as vice-chairman. Under the new arrangements, the chairman and the vice-chairman will be elected to their position by all councillors on the committee, regardless of party affiliation.
This change has been strongly resisted by the Liberal Democrats, who have used emotive and intemperate language to suggest that the council is ‘abolishing scrutiny’ or ‘getting rid of democracy’. One Liberal Democrat councillor even likened the council to the apartheid regime in South Africa, which is not only offensive but trivalises the genuine suffering and abuses that occured under minority rule.
While I understand the Liberal Democrats might feel discomforted at no longer being automatically entitled to nominate the chairman of Overview & Scrutiny, I believe their concerns are misguided and that the time is right for the council to make this change. The original requirement that the chairman should be an opposition councillor was written into the constitution at a time when the council was much more finely balanced and when there was a shared Executive between the two main parties. Over the past few years the Liberal Democrats have lost significant ground, going from a high of 18 councillors in 2006 to 11 at the recent local elections. Meanwhile, the council has become more politically diverse with Labour winning a seat in Maybury & Sheerwater and the election of an independent councillor in Byfleet. It is therefore right that the chairman of Overview & Scrutiny should not be restricted to a shrinking pool of councillors from just one party and a much broader range of talent should be considered for the role.
Unfortunately the Overview & Scrutiny Committee in Woking has not always been as effective as we would like. Most of the committee meetings in recent years have involved councillors receiving reports and questioning outside bodies or organisations over which the council has little control. The committee has not taken forward vital work where the knowledge and expertise of councillors could really make a difference in scrutinising areas such as procurement, our financial strategy or the cost of borrowing. Some Liberal Democrat councillors have in the past used the chairmanship of Overview & Scrutiny in an overly party political manner, including one incident in 2012 where an important agenda item was withheld from Conservative councillors before the meeting to prevent us from being able to contribute to the debate.
The new arrangements which have been adopted are not unique to Woking. Almost every other borough in Surrey allows the chairman of Overview & Scrutiny to be elected from any party. Indeed, many Liberal Democrat councils have constitutions which state that their Overview & Scrutiny Committee can be chaired by a councillor from the ruling party. The London Borough of Sutton is a majority Liberal Democrat council and has a Liberal Democrat chairman of Overview & Scrutiny. It is therefore hard to have sympathy with the claims that this is some form of cynical attempt to freeze out the opposition or rein in proper scrutiny or accountability in the decision making process.
I believe that allowing the chairman of Overview & Scrutiny to be elected by the whole committee will give the person chosen for the position a much stronger mandate to hold the Executive to account and ensure that the interests of residents are strongly represented. I am sure that Cllr Saj Hussain will, as the newly elected chairman of the committee, work well with his Liberal Democrat vice-chairman Cllr Denzil Coulson over the year ahead and demostrate that the opposition’s criticism and hysterical claims that democracy has been undermined will be shown to be groundless.
The Conservatives have won the Maybury & Sheerwater by-election, which was called following the disqualification of sitting Liberal Democrat councillor Mohammed Bashir for electoral fraud at the last local elections in 2012. Rashid Mohammed, the winning candidate, took a clear lead with 1,057 votes, fending off competition from the Labour candidate Stephen Tudhope who received 833 votes. The Liberal Democrat candidate Norman Johns came a poor fourth with 252 votes, a collapse in their previous support and putting them behind UKIP.
The poor showing by the Liberal Democrats was obviously the result of public disgust and outrage at revelations about the corrupt and illegal practices used to win the Maybury & Sheerwater ward in 2012, such as adding false names to the electoral register, falsely registering postal voters and forging the votes and signatures of others without their knowledge or consent. While Rashid Mohammed won a clear, decisive and fair victory last night, credit is also due to the Woking Labour Party, and in particular their previous Maybury & Sheerwater candidate Mohammed Ali, who uncovered the fraud and took a petition to the High Court to have the 2012 result overturned.
Rashid will be an excellent councillor and a strong advocate for his community. At the same time, voters in Woking will expect assurances that with a General Election just eighteen months away, the integrity of the electoral system in the borough is sound. This is an issue that I intend to look at in more detail, and I will be calling for this sorry incident to be examined in more detail by the Overview & Scrutiny Committee in due course.