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Scrutiny chair threatens recalling Sir Albert over ‘unclear’ answers

Scrutiny chair threatens recalling Sir Albert over ‘unclear’ answers

🕔07.Oct 2015

Just when Sir Albert Bore must have thought his problems couldn’t get any worse, they have.

He’s lost a cabinet member, James McKay, who resigned saying that Sir Albert was no longer up to the job of leading Birmingham city council.

He’s waiting for the latest report to the Government from the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel, which may not make pleasant reading.

And now, the chair of the council’s main scrutiny committee has written alleging that he did not fully answer questions put to him when he addressed the body last month.

In particular, the chair, Waseem Zaffar, is suggesting that Sir Albert was not as forthcoming as he might have been when answering questions about setting up the West Midlands Combined Authority and a devolution deal and is threatening to recall the council leader for a second grilling.

When quizzed by the committee, Sir Albert insisted that shire district councils, including Tory controlled bodies, wouldn’t get a vote on the WMCA board because they would be non-constituent authorities, and he insisted the seven metropolitan authorities including Birmingham couldn’t be out-voted.

But as Cllr Zaffar points out, the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill passing through Parliament will allow the districts to become constituent members of the WMCA and to have a vote. The Chamberlain Files has been highlighting this point regularly as the Bill passes through Parliament.

When the Bill becomes law, people living in the WMCA shire districts could also get a vote in any election for a metro mayor, tipping the political balance and making it more likely that the West Midlands would elect a Tory mayor.

In his letter Cllr Zaffar says:

You were asked about the status of those authorities who could join the Combined Authority which were not unitary, not contiguous with the present Combined Authority boundaries, or not part of combined number of all districts in a joining contiguous county.

In reply to questions you indicated that such entities could not achieve voting rights as constituent authorities and that their electors could not be part of the election of a Metro Mayor.

We were surprised that you limited your comments only to existing legislation – such authorities are likely to be in a radically different position under legislation proceeding through parliament at the moment and expected to pass into law this financial year.

Cllr Zaffar also wants to know why, when questioned, Sir Albert failed to mention the likely timescale of a devolution deal for the West Midlands. A devolution package for South Yorkshire is spread over 30 years, which Cllr Zaffar said would “dilute” any economic benefits.

The letter in full

Dear Sir Albert,

Corporate Resources Overview & Scrutiny Committee

Thank you for attending the Corporate Resources Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting on 8th September 2015.

Since then, I have been approached by members who remain unclear on a number of points you made in response to our questions; in addition, subsequent events have put contexts which were not made clear at the time of the questioning.

I have also yet to hear from you on some questions about which you were unable to answer at the time, but which you assured the committee you would provide answers to following the meeting.

I am therefore seeking immediate clarification on a number of issues.

It may be, depending upon the content of your responses and their timings, that we decide to recall you to the committee itself very soon to further clarify.

Service Birmingham

I asked you for a response to the appearance at the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee of Capita chief executive, at which the then committee chair Margaret Hodge MP drew from him (and the other representatives of the major outsourcing UK businesses) a commitment that their contracts with public bodies should be made public and be transparent. I further asked, therefore, why the Service Birmingham contract with Capita had not been made fully open and public. 

Constituent Authorities

You were asked about the status of those authorities who could join the Combined Authority which were not unitary, not contiguous with the present Combined Authority boundaries, or not part of combined number of all districts in a joining contiguous county.

In reply to questions you indicated that such entities could not achieve voting rights as constituent authorities and that their electors could not be part of the election of a Metro Mayor.

We were surprised that you limited your comments only to existing legislation – such authorities are likely to be in a radically different position under legislation proceeding through parliament at the moment and expected to pass into law this financial year. The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill receives its 2nd reading in the next two weeks having already passed the House of Lords. They are highly likely to become both constituent members and their electors voters in a Metro Mayor election. Telford and Wrekin and Cannock Chase who have recently applied to join must have been aware of their likely enhanced position.

Were you aware of this? And why was this not mentioned in your responses to us? It would have informed our debate and scrutiny judgements.

In any event, we would now like to hear your specific view on this.

The Devolution Deal Timescale

Since you met us, other devolution deals announced seem to involve a very long timescale over which devolved budgets or developed regional spend become available. Sheffield city-region appears to have a 30 year timescale attached. This means that the headline sums apparently available are in reality considerably diluted. Judgements this committee and the council itself are to make about the benefits of a region accepting these deals, and what the regional authorities should offer in return, are now being made in a very different context.

Clearly any global figure attached to these deals is no longer the issue.

Can you let us know immediately over how long likely sums are to be made available and what the likely annual sum released from the treasury will be?

Please could you reply to these requests as soon as possible and be ready to return to the committee in the very near future, should we require it. Many thanks in advance.

Yours truly,

Cllr Waseem Zaffar

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