Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Open Government

Yesterday evening the Leader and Deputy Leader of Reading Borough Council's Coalition administration in Reading tabled the following motion. I drafted the motion. It reads:
"In line with the Coalition Agreement agreed by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Groups in May 2010, this Council is committed to conducting its business with greater openness and transparency to increase public confidence in the activities of the Council.
This Council is also committed to ensuring every penny of Council Tax payers money is spent wisely and for the benefit of residents.
This Council rejects those policies and practices adopted by the previous Labour administration which sought to spend Council Taxpayers money furthering narrow political interests.
This Council therefore pledges in line with the principles of open, good government to:
  • Publish invoices relating to payments over £500 on its website every quarter
  • Publish details of the salaries of senior staff on its website
  • Adopt clear and transparent policies for commissioning (so residents have a clear understanding what services are commissioned and why)"
This motion was agreed by Liberal Democrat and Conservative councillors.

All Labour councillors voted against it.Below is the speech I wrote in support of the motion.

Given the late hour it was tabled I was only able to give part of it:-
"The roots of this motion lie in reinforcing and revivifying the following key values of local democracy
  • Transparency
  • Accountability
  • Governing in the public interest
As councillors we should seek to govern by these principles or risk losing the trust of those who put us here.
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant” - so said Louis Brandeis in 1913.

“Restoring transparency is not only the surest way to achieve results, but also to earn back trust in government” –

“Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing” – so said Obama

As the Leader of the Council has observed it is not our own money, this Council is spending,

It is the public’s money.

Yet for years, many of the activities of this Council including its expenditure have remained a mystery to local people.

Information, and by extension power, has rested in too few hands.

You don’t have to look very far to find examples of this –

  • Remember when scrutiny panels were chaired by administration councillors?
  •  Remember when grant funding decisions were made by the Lead Councillor in consultation with officers?
This happened under the previous, Labour administration of the Council.

I believe strongly that the public have a right to know what we are spending their hard-earned taxes on and to use that information to challenge us.

If we want local people to trust us then we must trust them with the information.

This is particularly important in an era when there is likely to be less money around and more competition for public funds.

Under the watch of the last Labour government public perception of parliamentarians slumped to an all time low.

The widespread belief that MPs were “in it for themselves” was hugely damaging to public confidence in our democracy both nationally and locally.

Closer to home there have been examples recently of spending by the previous administration of this Council which would have.

The Coalition Administration of this Council has sought from the word go to inject Council business with a greater openness and transparency – as our coalition agreement stated.

We in this administration have sought to shine a light on spending, processes and decisions which for years have been kept hidden.

- Take for example my colleague Cllr Willis’s thorough investigation of what went on in Shinfield Road.

- Or the uncovering of millions of pounds worth of secret spending on consultants by the previous Labour administration of this Council, uncovered by my colleague Cllr Epps in recent days.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the way we have reformed the grant funding process.

3 years ago I jointly tabled a motion with Cllr Townend on this very subject.

We were roundly attacked for it by Labour councillors keen to defend the status quo.

We are opening up the process to new groups and giving everyone a fair chance of bidding for funding.

This is decidedly pro-public interest and anti-vested interest.

I hope all councillors can back this motion and work together to restore trust in our politics."

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