Scrutiny committee doesn’t ask if disclosure could be in the public interest

A meeting of a committee with a very long name: Sustainable Growth and Environment Capital Scrutiny Committee held on Wednesday 13th June, 2012  at 7.00 pm Bourges Viersen Room, Town Hall. may turn out to be the last committee able to interrogate or discuss Peterborough City Council’s plans to build an incinerator, a so-called “Energy from Waste (EfW) plant” before an executive decision is taken by the deputy leader in consultation with the Waste 2020 Project Board (whose recommendations and minutes I believe are not published – please put a link in a comment if you find them!).  If this committee does not “call-in” the decision the council is expected to proceed with incineration plans which still can’t be examined by the public.

Documents showing council’s current thinking and a brief history of its proposal for an EfW plant has  been circulated to councillors.  These documents reveal that fears which have often been expressed about the city’s recycling (how it does it and how much it does) and even bigger worries about incineration replacing recycling could well be justified.

The EfW plant was discussed at ITEM 5.   Waste 2020 Programme- Energy from Waste Facility And Other Associated Works and Services   Part of the discussion was to be “exempt”.  The agenda item reads as follows, although the highlighting is mine:

“In accordance with Standing Orders, Members are asked to determine whether the update report to be tabled at the meeting relating to agenda item 5. Waste 2020 Programme – Energy From Waste Facility which contains exempt appendices containing information relating to the financial or business affairs of a particular person (including the authority holding that information), as defined by Paragraph 3 of Schedule 12A of Part 1 of the Local Government Act 1972, should be exempt and the press and public excluded from the meeting when these appendices are discussed or whether the public interest in disclosing this information outweighs the public interest in maintaining the exemption.”

I asked from the public seating area that members be given the opportunity to vote on excluding members of the public because the chair seemed to be telling us to leave at the outset of ITEM 5 and without any vote.  They were then allowed to vote.  The chair also had to be persuaded by council officers that part of ITEM 5 could be discussed in public and that the exclusion could follow discussion of that part rather than apply to the whole item.

However no discussion took place in this committee on the relative merits of the “public interest in disclosing” as opposed to the “public interest in maintaining the exemption” and it was not clear to me that members of the committee understood that standing orders provided them with an opportunity to debate the relative pros and cons of sharing the information with the public.  The chair of the committee refused to let me raise this.

The public interest in disclosing is overwhelming in my view.  I believe that this committee was led by its chair into a breach of its own standing orders by not having any debate about where the balance of public interest lay: whether it was better for the city to have disclosure or not.  Members of the committee were simply not asked to contribute their thoughts on the subject or debate it before they were asked to vote.

For some members of the newly formed opposition (Independent/Labour) this was their first time sitting on this committee.  I don’t know how they felt but I was in a state of mild shock by the time we were thrown out.

Peterborough City Council’s call-in procedure

requires two members of a scrutiny committee to complete a form explaining the reasons for a call-in (eg failure to follow due process).  The affected committee (the one within whose remit the decision takes place) then has to meet within 10 days to uphold the call-in or recommend action.

Other councils’ procedures:  Hackney   Hertsmere  Laudably, Thurrock Council provides for both its elected Members and the public to call-in these decisions prior to implementation.

Peterborough has “suspended” its own call-in procedure on four occasions in 2005

Peterborough’s call-in procedure as described in 2008