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.

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Why is Derby mentioned in the title? Of course the one set of people you don’t mention in your article are the ones most responsible. The well paid Officers. They are never held to account no matter how badly things go wrong and are almost unsackable. No opposition group ever wants to blame poor officers because there is no political mileage in it. Administration groups tend not to want to blame poor officers either through having gone native or wanting to simply deny things are that bad.

They know they will never be held to account and its the councillors that will take the blame in public.

by David Morton on July 29, 2008 at 2:31 pm. Reply #

The principle of ministerial accountability in central government is the same. If Civil Servants or Local Government Officers mess up, it is the minister/cabinet member who gets the blame. However, it is perfectly clear that no individual (politician, officer or whatever) can ever know all that is going on in a large Council Department or Ministry. Even if a minister has only been in post for a few months, the cry goes up why didn’t he/she do something about the:
– poor drainage system at the Government Laboratory,
– poor computer system being developed (NHS, ID Card, CSA etc etc),
– useless helicopters.

The simple fact is no one in the world is that good, and no one has the courage/ability/support to sack a failing officer (I have seen them get ill health retirement though). Hence the usual situation is that they cover up for each other until something goes massively wrong and it all hits the fan.

In this case, one scenario would be a political disagreement has triggered the Conservative leader’s action based on a view that this would be most favourable for the Tory party possibly in the short or medium term. Another scenario would be that the Conservative Leader and the Lib Dem Deputy had discussed this problem in the past and the Lib Dem had agreed to sort it and failed. The former could be considered political manoeuvring, the latter a matter of principle. It is up to each individual to chose which they believe to be most likely.

by David Evans on July 29, 2008 at 11:25 pm. Reply #

Can the leader of the council actually remove someone from the Cabinet in the way alleged?

by Hywel Morgan on July 30, 2008 at 12:19 am. Reply #

Hywel – no, he can’t remove her from the cabinet, or as deputy leader – but he can strip her of her portfolio.

by Stephen Tall on July 30, 2008 at 9:11 am. Reply #

I’m involved, and would dearly like to see views……….and precedents elsewhere.

At this moment in time talks between the two groups are ongoing. Our group has a very firm line, and if people want an update later, then I’m sure we can oblige.

by Ian Stewart on July 30, 2008 at 9:30 am. Reply #

I believe the rules changed this year because of the recent local government act – now the leader appoints the cabinet, not the full council. Therefore he can now.

by Mark Wright on August 5, 2008 at 9:44 am. Reply #

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