Labour and opposition councillors in spat over budget group meeting attendance

Members of the budget task group met with portfolio holders on three separate dates in January, however, only Labour councillors attended the sessions
Members of the budget task group met with portfolio holders on three separate dates in January, however, only Labour councillors attended the sessions

Labour councillors have criticised opposition parties for failing to attend a series of sessions set up to scrutinise St Helens Council’s budget.

Back in September, the overview and scrutiny commission agreed to establish a cross-party scrutiny task group to review the council’s budget for 2020-21.

The task group’s remit was to assess the budget setting process to ensure it has been robust.

Members of the task group met with portfolio holders on three separate dates in January, however, only Labour councillors attended the sessions.

This week, during a meeting of the overview and scrutiny commission, several Labour councillors rounded on the opposition.

Labour’s Andy Bowden, chairman of the commission, said leaders chose to “ignore” the requests to join the task group.

“I am sure the process would have benefited from their involvement, but it was not to be,” Coun Bowden said.

Elected members from the Lib Dems, The Independents and the Greens were present at the meeting but chose not to respond.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service has since learned that only two places on the panel were offered between the council’s four opposition parties.

“Usually, requests to take part in a task group are made broadly to all members however given the nature of this group and the requirement to have two opposition members from different groups we’re requesting that the opposition group leaders agree on who will take the places and that nominees be put forward,” the email sent to opposition leaders said.

During the meeting, Labour councillor Seve Gomez-Aspron accused the opposition of shirking their responsibility as elected members, despite taking the members’ allowance.

Coun Gomez-Aspron said: “If you’re not going to bother to turn up to scrutinise the budget that you moan about the council setting, what is the point in you being here?

“It’s fundamental to your constitutional role as a councillor. Aside to all the in the ward stuff, which is important, but this is fundamental governance and when you’re elected you accept that responsibility.

“The same way you take the money to come to the meetings to do the job. Or you take the money to not come to the meetings, not do the job, but still take the money.

“It’s a question that we need to address and the public need to be aware that if Labour councillors hadn’t turned up to that budget scrutiny setting group, there would have been no scrutiny of the budget and it would have been not held to account.”

Speaking after the meeting, Independents leader James Tasker said the current system for allocating seats on scrutiny task groups is not “adequate”.

He revealed The Independents, which is the joint biggest opposition group on the council with the Lib Dems, held their own budget scrutiny session and provided feedback to Labour.

Coun Tasker said: “The current system of allocating seats on such an important issue as budget scrutiny isn’t adequate to allow for all political groups to engage.

“It stifles discussion and debate and ensures that Labour can do what they wish with the budget that affects every ward, without fear of challenge.”

The Lib Dems were approached for comment.

St Helens Conservatives leader Allan Jones is a member of the overview and scrutiny commission but was unable to attend Monday’s meeting and sent his apologies.

Speaking afterwards, Coun Jones said it is not always possible for the three Tory councillors to attend every meeting due to work and other commitments.

He said Labour are in “no position” to criticise other parties for not attending meetings, adding that the party needs to “get their own house in order”.

“In the past scrutiny meetings have been cancelled as not enough Labour councillors turned up,” Coun Jones said.

“So before they start to criticise others they should get their own house in order.”

The report presented to the overview and scrutiny commission said the task group is satisfied the process for setting the council budget for 2020-21 has been “robust and thorough”.

It said the overview and scrutiny commission and its various scrutiny panels will examine the budget and its planned implementation to understand the implications for services and residents and hold portfolio holders to account through the scrutiny work programmes.