Being merely Muggle-born and never schooled at Hogwarts, telepathic powers have passed me by and I can’t pretend to get messages from Moaning Myrtle. However, I thought M.D. Smith of High Street, Billingshurst possessed such powers as I started to read his letter to the Editor of the WSCT – newspaper dated 10th April, 2014.
M.D. Smith mentions minutes of the last Billingshurst Parish Council meeting, which at the time of my reading his letter, appeared nowhere in the public domain. Not on the parish council website, or on the notice boards and, not delivered by the postman until today – Friday 11th April 2014.
I studied the wording of the letter intently and was disappointed to find Moaning Myrtle wasn’t sending M.D. Smith messages either. If M.D. Smith had been at the Parish Council meeting he would have known the Parish Council did not decline to speak openly for the people that it represents; it voted against an agenda item on the WSCT Free Speech Charter which had been audaciously ‘modified’ by the councillor who introduced it on the agenda.
I write this letter in a personal capacity and not as a councillor; however I stand by my response to the agenda item - I do not believe that political allegiances should have any part in local parish councils.
Residents are able to access the Parish Council website to look at the interests of their parish councillors and can see for themselves who align themselves to which political parties. On looking for myself before the discussion on the ‘modified’ Free Speech Charter, I noted it was 14:1 with 14 aligned to no political party!
Councillors have been aware of the numerous Freedom of Information (FoI) requests which have been sent to the Parish Council in recent months.
However names and addresses were redacted at meetings under the Data Protection Act but, M.D. Smith clearly identifies himself and his concerns in his letter to WSCT.
The FoI requests attributed to him together with the cost incurred by the Parish Council are on the website. Once received each FoI request has been answered, as shown in minutes on the website, often with an invitation for the recipient to attend the relevant committee meeting and to ask their questions.
The minutes show that the council had a FoI request for expenditure on HR consultancy services, terms of reference, the justification for the commitment of expenditure on HR consultancy and a statement of benefits obtained from that expenditure and value provided to the taxpayer. Further minutes explain that details were supplied, with copies of minutes approving the expenditure.
I find it difficult to understand how M.D. Smith is able to declare that the BPC has decided not to pursue its business in an open and transparent way when all its financial dealings are discussed monthly within the Finance and General Purposes Committee chaired by Cllr Rands.
The main function of this committee is the ‘undertaking of all Parish financial matters and other miscellaneous matters, and the efficient and effective administration of the Parish Council’s affairs with specific attention to resource allocation and financial well-being’.
The minutes of these meetings together with the financial transactions appear on the website for all to see and in strategic places around the parish.
Legal, contractual and employment matters are sensitive issues and when discussed, the press and public can be excluded under the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960 s1.
Similarly with Data Protection strict rules must be adhered to as to how personal data is used which is why, as mentioned before, M.D. Smith’s name and address were redacted and the sensitive issues covered by the HR support would not be freely available. The ‘scope of work’, would also be confidential on that basis and would meet deadlines only as procedures were completed.
The Billingshurst Parish Council’s Standing Order 24 (i) says ‘Councillors shall not disclose information given in confidence or which they believe, or ought to be aware is of a confidential nature’. A breach of this may mean the removal of a councillor from a committee or sub-committee by a resolution of the council.
Again – all information freely available to view on the Parish Council website.
In a personal capacity I take issue with M.D. Smith’s claim that ‘councillors are apparently asked to limit what they say in public’. Is that Moaning Myrtle speaking to him again?
It is my understanding that no individual councillor is able to speak for the whole council - that would certainly not be democratic. Personally, I feel the only limit to what I say is in accordance with the Standing Order above and the council’s adopted Code of Conduct which to me is far more appropriate and relevant to parishioners than a local newspaper’s political Free Speech Charter.
The principles of the Code are selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. The WSCT quoted them in the same issue that M.D. Smith’s letter appears.
Special mention should be of ‘integrityi which says that ‘Councillors should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that may influence them in the performance of their official duties’. Again personally, this would also include not placing oneself under any obligation to reveal confidential information.
I have never met M.D. Smith at a council meeting, although I am certain he would be more than welcome to attend. However, like the ‘unpublished’ minutes of the last meeting to which he referred at the beginning of his letter, I do wonder from where his information of ‘lack of evidence of value for money from BPC’ emanates.
Moaning Myrtle again… no…. could it be?
LESLEY WILDING (Mrs)