Article kindly submitted by a site reader. Name and address withheld at authors request.
“For too long those in power made decisions behind closed doors, released information behind a veil of jargon and denied people the power to hold them to account. This coalition is driving a wrecking ball through that culture – and it’s called transparency.” – [David Cameron – September 2010]
Last Saturday (24th September 2011), information was ‘leaked’ by a member of the (pilot) Whitby Harbour Board to a local campaigner; apparently, a ‘behind closed doors’ meeting of the Board had been called for today, Thursday 29th September – time and location undisclosed.
On Monday 26th September, our local campaigner emailed another (elected) member of the Board and asked outright if it was true that a closed meeting was to take place. The response made clear that it was, and that the meeting had been called “in order to clarify issues (some of which you told me last week) so the whole of the board know exactly what is going on”.
Meanwhile, another local campaigner, having received the ‘leak’ from another source, emailed SBC, innocently asking when the next Whitby Harbour Board meeting would take place. The prompt reply stated that the next meeting was on “Monday 3rd October at 2:00pm at Sneaton Castle”. This is the scheduled quarterly meeting of the Whitby Harbour Board.
On Tuesday 27th September, a Whitby Town (Parish) Councillor emailed the Whitby Town Clerk, confirming that WHB Chair Cllr Mike Cockerill had indeed alluded to a meeting called for Thursday 29th October.
Somebody was being less than truthful. But why?
So on Wednesday morning, our local campaigner sent a series of emails to SBC’s Head of Legal & Support Services, Ian Anderson, seeking clarification of these differing versions of when and where the WHB would next meet.
Mr Anderson’s responses make interesting reading:
[11:32am] – “I am somewhat confused by your email. The meeting of the Whitby Harbour Board is on 3 October at 2pm. The papers and details are on the web-site. There is no formal meeting of the Whitby harbour Board prior to 2pm on 3 October”.
Hmmm. “There is no ‘formal’ meeting”. Keep your eye on that word ‘formal’.
Our local campaigner tried again, making it explicitly clear that it was not the ‘formal’ meeting that was in question, but the secret ones. But Mr Anderson was conceding nothing:
[11:52am] – “There is no secrecy. I have advised you when the formal meeting is”.
Hmmm. That ‘formal’ meeting trick again. But why not answer the question? Undaunted, our campaigner tried yet again, being even more explicit. Mr Anderson found a new line of escape:
[01:59pm] – “The Whitby Harbour Board are not meeting tomorrow or on Monday as a committee”.
“As a committee”, eh? This is confusing. Does he mean that the scheduled meeting at 2:00pm on Monday at Sneaton Castle has been cancelled? Surely not.
He means, more likely (though he avoids stating it explicitly), that the meetings this Thursday and earlier on Monday are (conveniently) not to be regarded as ‘official’ Committee meetings.
Why would he do that?
Is it because the Local Government Act 1972 – backed up by the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings Act 1960) – prohibits the convening of Council or Committee Meetings ‘behind closed doors’; the press and public may only be excluded for individual Agenda Items relating to staff rights under the Data Protection Act 1998, or commercially sensitive matters, such as tender submissions.
So on Wednesday evening, our intrepid local campaigner emailed directly to WHB Chair Cllr Mike Cockerill on his private email address (willingly given by Mike to our local campaigner – who has been illegally prohibited by SBC from contacting Councillors or Officers and had his emails blocked – in breach of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000), asking for a frank disclosure of what was really happening. Mike’s reply also makes interesting reading:
[07:07pm] – “The gathering tomorrow is NOT a decision taking meeting, it is an opportunity for me to brief WHB members and to receive comments and ask questions on various matters relating to the Harbour. There is no gathering on Monday morning, it is over lunchtime”.
Hmmm. Not a “decision taking meeting”, eh? But the Local Government Act does not permit the exclusion of press and public just as long as the meeting is ‘not a decision taking meeting’. It states clearly that press and public MUST be allowed to attend ALL meetings.
The two stated reasons for the meetings:
1) “in order to clarify issues (some of which you told me last week) so the whole of the board know exactly what is going on”.
2) “it is an opportunity for me to brief WHB members and to receive comments and ask questions on various matters relating to the Harbour”
do not fall into the two categories of exemption of press and public, as specified by law.
Still. At least it has been established that two closed meetings are going ahead, irrespective of what the law has to say about it.
But there is a hidden irony here. Back in April 2010, our local campaigner had occasion to email Whitby Town (Parish) Council Clerk Mrs Pam Dobson, lodging a complaint against the Clerk’s refusal to comply with the law and answer a number of requests for information under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and various other serious breaches of statute. He copied in Mike Cockerill, who at that time was best known for having himself been the subject of a complaint to the SBC Standards Committee, in respect of his attempts to forewarn Whitby Town (Parish) Council regarding their intention to appoint Mrs Dobson as Clerk, despite her appalling record of gross misconduct at her former position as Clerk to Marlborough Town Council. Mike seemed like one of the good guys.
Cllr Cockerill responded with the following words:
“Pleased to see youn[sic] continue to enjoy yourself attempting to get WTC to abide by the law. Keep up the good work. Cheers – Mike”.
With the benefit of hindsight, these words look a tad hypocritical, don’t they? Back then, Mike clearly thought that WTC should abide by the law. But times have changed. Mike has moved up in the world. He is now Chair of the very important Whitby Harbour Board.
Now we are left to ponder just what it is that MUST, even at the cost of breaking the law, be kept from the press and the public at these ‘behind closed doors’ meetings.
Could it have something to do with the fact that the WHB has committed 40% of its sorely inadequate budget to providing new pontoons for the leisure-craft community (well-represented on the Board), when there is little the matter with the existing facilities.
Perhaps the Board fears that the press and public will believe that the money should have been better spent on maintaining the footbridges to the Extensions?
And the lesson from all this?
Beware of bull.
And don’t feed the moose.