Executive Member Portfolio Update (Agenda Item 6)
Michael Wassell, Executive Member for Finance and Democratic Services, has been invited to attend the meeting to update Members on key ongoing issues and policies within his portfolio and to answer any questions.
Mr M Wassell, Deputy Leader and Executive Member for Finance and Governance gave Members a presentation on his Portfolio which gave details of the three main areas within the Portfolio; Democratic Services, Legal Services and Finance (copy attached). The key areas of responsibility were noted and an explanation of the ‘day job’ of each service was given.
Democratic Services had the key responsibility of promoting local democracy. That included maintaining the register of electors, dealing with standards of ethical practice of both District and Parish Councillors; maintaining the register of interests of District and Parish Councillors; dealing with complaints and Freedom of Information requests and supporting the Scrutiny Commission and other Committees.
Current projects included the Local Government Boundary Review and preparing for the Norfolk County Council elections to be held in May 2013.
Legal Services was a small team that provided legal advice on a wide range of issues across the Council, in both a re-active and pro-active way. Where specialist advice was required, external solicitors were used.
The Finance Team provided a wide range of services including Accountancy, Treasury Management and Purchase Ledgers. The team managed and safeguarded the Council’s resources and supported Committee reports through the provision of Proforma Bs. Their responsibilities also covered Central Administration, Post Opening and Cashiers Office and stationery procurement, along with preparing the Council’s accounts by 31 December each year.
The Executive Member concluded his presentation by saying that combined with his responsibilities as Deputy Leader he found that his Council duties were a full time role. He relied on his officers and trusted them to assist him in decision making. He was also grateful to his Executive Support Member, Ellen Jolly, for her support.
Members then asked questions about the details provided in the presentation.
With regard to individual registration (which would replace household registration in 2014/15) Mr Bambridge asked how people would be affected.
The Democratic Services Team Leader advised that the initial process would be to match the Electoral Register to DWP records. Anyone on the Register in 2014 would stay on it until after the 2015 elections. After that everyone would have to register individually and provide details of date of birth and National Insurance Number. There was a fear that the change might reduce the number of people on the Register, but to counter that, new ways of registering would be introduced, including on-line and possibly registering by text.
The Vice-Chairman wondered if a separate Finance Portfolio should be created to reduce the workload, but the Executive Member thought that having responsibility for Finance gave him a good insight into all areas of the Council. He pointed out the additional costs of having an extra Portfolio.
The Chairman asked about Freedom of Information requests which had risen exponentially. He wondered what percentage were valid and how many were spurious requests? The figures were not available but would be provided.<1>
With regard to the recent PCC Elections at which there had been a very low turn-out, the Chairman asked if the complexity of the voting system had affected analysis.
The Democratic Services Team Leader thought that the problem stemmed from the lack of information from the Government and the Electoral Commission. Although a booklet should have been delivered to every household, that had not happened and anyway the booklet had not explained the Supplemental Vote system. The majority of calls from the public had been because they didn’t understand the role of the PCC or the Supplemental Vote.
The Council had not been allowed to publicise the candidates. That and the fact that the election had been held in November had added to the general apathy and the low turnout. The Council’s hands had been tied, they had been told how to organise the election but had not been allowed to issue any press releases or other information.
The Executive Member noted that he had attended the count as an Agent and he considered that the large number of spoilt votes had been due to people not understanding the system.
Moving on to the subject of Councillor’s Register of Interests, Mr Joel asked what would happen to those Councillors that did not return their forms. The Executive Member advised that the Council’s role was only to administer the forms and publish them on the website. It was up to individuals to raise complaints about non-compliance.
Mr Bambridge asked about the Parish Precept. He had heard that Parishes were not required to submit their precept until March, was that correct? The Assistant Director of Finance confirmed that legally the Parishes were not required to submit their precept request until March but a letter had been sent out encouraging early submission by the end of January, to enable the setting of Council Tax.
Mr Joel asked about the need for Councillors to get a dispensation to allow them to vote on budget setting matters and the Executive Member advised that the Parish Clerk was the proper officer for dealing with those matters. He agreed that under the new Standards regime, Councillors should not discuss such matters without a dispensation.
The Chairman was concerned that some Parishes might have set their precepts without having granted dispensations to their Councillors. He suggested that Members should engage with their Parishes to encourage compliance with the new regulations.
The Chairman thanked the Executive Member and his Lead Officers for their time.