Shenanigans in Cumbria – when should elected representatives get the blame?

by Stephen Tall on July 29, 2008

There’s an interesting report in yesterday’s Cumbrian News and Star reporting on the seemingly likely break-up of the Conservative / Lib Dem alliance that has run the County Council for the last seven years. This follows the sacking by the Conservative council leader of his Liberal Democrat deputy, Joan Stocker, following a significant audit failure in the Council’s finance department:

It emerged on Friday that millions of pounds of spending had been wrongly categorised in the 2007-8 accounts. Although no cash has gone missing, the errors have ruined any chance the council had of improving its rating as one of the worst-performing local authorities in England.
The council’s leader, Conservative Tim Stoddard, moved quickly today to lay the blame at Mrs Stocker’s door. Councillors received an email saying it was the second year running that errors had been found in the accounts. The statement added: “Throughout this whole period, the deputy leader has had responsibility for the council’s budget and its performance.
“A repeat error of this significance must be addressed. As a consequence, the leader has decided to relieve the deputy leader of all her cabinet responsibilities, including the budget portfolio, with immediate effect. This includes all areas of responsibility included within the deputy leader’s remit.” …
Mrs Stocker told the News & Star today: “I am disappointed. It seems as if I have been made a scapegoat. The council’s performance has improved but the one thing I can’t control has gone wrong. I think ‘scapegoat’ is a fair word.” Mrs Stocker is a councillor for Windermere. She has been leader of the Liberal Democrat group and deputy leader of the council since 2005.

I know no more than is in the newspaper reports, and there is doubtless more to this story than meets the eye – perhaps some of our Cumbrian readers can shed further light and add local colour. But it’s an interesting microcosm of a wider dilemma for politicians: what exactly are they to be held responsible and accountable for?

Most would argue that politicians are there to provide local leadership and set out broad strategy; and that it would be unwise to get too closely involved in the minutiae of council business. This applies more so, perhaps, in local than national politics, as councillors are not expected to be working full-time for the council (compare with cabinet ministers).

In the case above it seems quite unfair for a councillor to be held responsible for an accounting error, especially one which does not directly or materially impact on local residents. But where do we draw the line? If a department, whether in a council or in government, continues to fail to execute its duties when should the elected representative fall on their sword (or if necessary be pushed)?

The only fair criteria seem to me to be along the following lines:
1. Could the elected representative have reasonably been expected to be able to prevent or halt the mistake from occurring?
2. Did s/he take all reasonable actions to correct the error once it was discovered?
3. Did s/he put in place all reasonable measures to ensure the mistake never again occurs?

If the answers to those questions are No / Yes /Yes it seems only fair that they remain in post. But, as with most things, there are shades of grey; and decisions involving individuals, especially in politics, are rarely clear-cut.