Most councils operate a Cabinet system. The councillors who are Cabinet members have long briefing meeting with council officers in private to discuss what decisions to take. Then the formal Cabinet meetings are in public. These offer a chance for the public and opposition councillors to challenge proposals, or raise points of detail, before final decisions are taken.
Some parts of these meetings are held in private when there are items of commercial sensitivity being discussed – for instance awarding contracts. The usual form here is that the press and public are excluded for these items, but that opposition councillors are able to attend.
However at Cumbria County Council, now Labour led, the Conservative opposition councillors have been excluded from an item concerning a new council headquarters.
Cllr James Airey, the leader of the opposition, said:
“To exclude democratically elected members from a meeting of cabinet is disgraceful; in all my time as a councillor I have never known this to happen.
“It is quite clear that following the local elections we have moved into a new era of secrecy and mistrust.”
“Just what has the council leader Cllr Stewart Young got to hide? Have the costs for his new ivory tower on Botchergate spiralled beyond the huge £10m already proposed? Or is something more sinister going on?
“I can assure the people of Cumbria that members of the opposition will continue to ask the questions that need to be asked.”
The Government has issued guidance on the public being able to attend Council meetings. Opposition councillors are constrained by a code of conduct. That constrains them over use of confidential information. Given that constraint, they should be allowed to remain even for those items where the press and public are excluded. Given the high handed behaviour in Cumbria, the guidance should be changed to make this clear.