How Greenwich Council is breaking its own constitution and why it matters

By | April 17, 2019

I have to confess that as someone who has taught A level Government and Politics for the last decade I have become passionate about bodies like Greenwich Council sticking to the rules about how it should behave.  From my point of view, Greenwich Council’s constitution is a promise to the residents of the Borough about how the Council should behave and if these rules are broken, it means that the people in charge cannot be trusted to do anything other then further their own interests on any given issue.

Having been on the Council for 16 years now, I can honestly say that since the election of the new Leader last May, this administration has shown no regard for the rules which govern how they should behave and has regularly put its own needs above those of residents or other Councillors.  As I know few people will ever want to watch Council meetings (or probably read this blog) I just wanted to lay out what Greenwich Council has been up to.

In my opinion, the Council has behaved unconstitutionally on the issue of Councillors’ pay.  The Council has done this not once, but twice during the course of this year at two separate Council meetings.

October 2018 – Increasing pay for three Labour Councillors

Having got through only the July Council meeting without changing the Constitution, in October the Labour Councillors decided to raise the pay for their Group Whip and add in two more paid posts amounting to an extra £15,000 in tax-payers money to these individuals.  To me this was clearly unconstitutional as the Constitution for the Royal Borough of Greenwich states:

“That subject to there being no significant changes in the political management arrangements the Allowances in the Scheme be updated annually in line with the local government pay settlement, as recommended by the London Councils’ Independent Remuneration Panel.” (Part 6,Section 10)

Similarly, as the report was presented by the Director of Communities and Environment then it was also unconstitutional as the Constitution states:

“Full Council may change this Constitution, but only after considering a proposal by the monitoring officer.” (15.02, a)

I also have some questions about whether these changes do actually fit in with the remuneration scheme outlined by the London Councils’ Independent Remuneration Panel but leaving those aside, the report was clearly unconstitutional in the way it was presented and as there was no need significant change in the political management meaning the allowances needed to be changed.  Once again, this appeared to be a change made purely at the whim of the Council’s leadership rather than in accordance with the rules by which we should be behaving – it also meant Labour Councillors voting to give themselves more money, which has to be a questionable decision politically in itself.

March 2019 – Presenting the report on Members’ Allowances after the deadline

So having managed to make it through a few meetings without changing the Constitution, the Labour Council then decided to delay the publication of the report on Members’ Allowances until after the deadline for it to be published (the Wednesday before the Council meeting, as mentioned above).  Once again this is quite clearly unconstitutional as the Constitution states:

“At least five clear days (excluding Sundays and Public Holidays) before a meeting of the Council, the Chief Executive will send notice of the time and place of the meeting, and an agenda, to every Member of the Council.” (A1.13)

Now it is worth noting that this does not mention working days, so I think midnight on Wednesday is probably the correct deadline here, but in fact the item on Members’ Allowances was not published until after 10am on Friday – giving Councillors less than two hours to put in questions on it.  This is clearly unacceptable, all the more so as apparently the report had been written at the start of the week and the Leader of the Council had been discussing it with people.  In my opinion, the Constitution is clear that the Chief Executive should have circulated the report when the rest of the agenda was published but for reasons unknown it was not.

Given I could not see the report, I did ask where it was on the Thursday night (and you can see this question with the answer on the Council’s website).  To be fair to the Council’s Monitoring Officer, he did not try to claim that this was a constitutional report, although he did argue it was legally correct (and I am sure he is right about this).

Once again, this failure to conform to the rules laid down in the Constitution has damaged the reputation of this Council.  It is perfectly possible to agree rises in Members’ Allowances and in the past, as Leader of the Opposition, I worked with the Leader of the Council to do this, however, the way this was done makes eveyone think these are yet more politicians with their snouts in the trough.  It is an appalling shame.

June 2018 – Stopping Councillors from asking questions

So these are two examples of clearly unconstitutional behaviour from the Labour Councillors, however, it is worth bearing in mind that at the very first Council meeting after the elections, the new Council leadership chose to limit the ability of Councillors to ask questions at Full Council.  This isn’t unconstitutional (as it is done specifically to change the Constitution) but was designed to limit the power of Opposition Councillors (who ask almost all of the questions) and meant that we had to submit questions on any issue on the Wednesday a week before the meeting and on items on the agenda by the Friday before the Council meeting.  This sounds unimportant, but actually means Councillors can’t really ask questions on agenda items at all, as the agenda is only published on the Wednesday and most of us used to read it over the weekend and then decide if questions on items on the agenda needed to be asked at that point.

To give a point of comparison here, when I was Leader and a similar change was discussed, it was raised with me well in advance and we reached a compromise as it was suggested that Officers really struggled to get the answers to us in the original timescales (which were basically all within 2 days).  In this case I asked Officers behind the scenes whether this remained a problem and was told that the change had nothing to do with them – it was being led by politicians.  What is worse, the report to Council suggested that there had been ‘consultation’ on this with the political groups, but all that had happened is that they had mentioned it, the Conservative Group had objected and it was then imposed on us regardless.

So just to be clear, the very first action of the new Labour Council appears to have been to make a decision to limit the power of other Councillors to hold the Leader and the rest of the Cabinet to account.  It was done in a rush (they didn’t even get the numbering on the report right), without any meaningful consultation and reduced the power of Councillors to speak up for residents in the days immediately prior to a Council meeting.

Some final thoughts

So in 3 out of 7 Full Council meetings this year, the new Labour Council has chosen to change the Constitution and I would argue on at least two of those occasions it did it in a way which was completely unconstitutional.  The fact that these changes were to limit the ability of others to hold the Cabinet to account and to raise pay for their own party makes the situation so much worse.  Ignoring the Constitution means that the Labour Council is placing their and their party’s interest above those of good governance – it is deeply worrying as it suggests that it does not have the best interests of this Borough at heart.

Initially published on Cllr Spencer Drury’s Your Councillor website 17th April 2019

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About Spencer Drury

Spencer was one of the three Councillors for Eltham North Ward between 2002 and 2022. He lost his Council seat in the May 2022 elections and now occasionally contributes to debates on local issues.

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