Democracy Has to Be Seen To Be Done
It was Churchill who famously said that democracy was the worst form of government devised by man apart from all the others.
It isn't perfect, can be messy and cumbersome in its workings but it's the best we've got.
One of the fundamental principles on which our democracy is founded is accountability and transparency about decisions made in our name.
In his book "Ends and Means", Aldous Huxley takes 200 pages or so to illustrate two basic truths - that bad means are not justified by good ends and that when an enterprise fails, the roots of that failure can often be traced back to its having started in the wrong manner.
I recall about ten years or so ago when Liverpool City Council first set up scrutiny (then called select) committees, the initial view of senior officers was that such scrutiny related solely to the activities and decision making of elected members and there was no rationale for officers to be held accountable by such bodies. Given that nearly all such decisions were made by members based at least partly if not wholly on the professional advice given by those same officers, this was not a tenable position, not least because they were often exercising considerable delegated powers.
There has been kerfuffle recently about the new scrutiny arrangements of the activities and decision making of elected mayor Joe Anderson. I like to think that, even as a member of a different political party during nearly all the time we have known each other, I know Joe fairly well, not least because he was my opposite number for two years when I held the Council's education portfolio. He knows I have always had considerable respect for him, even when we were fighting like cats and dogs over various issues. Joe also knows my firmly held views against the principle of having an elected mayor and the lack of a local referendum, despite which he still invited me to serve on his recently created education commission.
However, the Mayoral scrutiny arrangements which have been set up look inadequate to me, not least because they are widely perceived as insufficient and as we all know, these days perception in politics is reality. I do wonder if one of the reasons for this may be based on officer advice when devising the new system. After all, acquiring an executive mayor usually results in greater exercise of delegated powers by senior officers who may not welcome a prospectively increased accountability index.
People may also question that Joe remains leader of the Labour Council group (although he is no longer a member of the Council) when it is envisaged that under a Mayoral system a significant part of all Council members role is supposed to relate to scrutinising the Mayor's strategies and especially his decision making. The relevant legislation expects scrutiny of decision making to take place after those decisions have been made, so it is not as if u-turns can be forced on the Mayor. However, effective post-decision scrutiny can often help inform better decision making in future.
It also does not look good that the Mayor apparently appointed the Chairs of all the other scrutiny committees, with those appointments subsequently endorsed by the Labour group. Under the previous administration, scrutiny chair and deputy chair posts were distributed proportionately amongst all political parties and those who were Liberal Democrats were subject to election within the group.
Joe says he has nothing to hide. As it happens, I believe him. My experience of Joe is that what you see is what you get. For his own sake, especially because Labour has such dominance of the Council with 74 out of 90 Councillors, he should give an undertaking that if the current arrangements continue to be publicly perceived as ineffective, he would welcome those arrangements being objectively reviewed and significantly amended after a trial period. We are in the early days of elected mayoralty in Liverpool and there are bound to be wrong turns made. Despite my opposition to having an elected mayor, we are where we are. For the city's sake I have no wish to see to see the mayoralty fail, but I believe the scrutiny system we currently have is in significant danger of becoming increasingly discredited with a consequent effect on the credibility of the elected mayor with the public.
Having a Mayoral public question time is a good idea and hopefully could go some way to improving accountability if the public at large embrace this opportunity. It may well prove not to be enough to allay existing concerns.
Democratic accountability has to be seen to be done. I believe the public would have even greater respect for him if he shows himself to be open to improved, more robust scrutiny mechanisms. Please think again Joe.