Thurrock Council accused of hiding from scrutiny as Tory councillors are handed top committee positions

Thurrock Council Offices

By Local Democracy Reporter
Steve Shaw

THURROCK’S Conservative administration is facing accusations it is attempting to “mark its own homework” after a surprise reshuffle which saw opposition councillors pulled from crucial committee positions.

Oversight and scrutiny committees were established to preserve democratic oversight of all major decisions taken by the council, allowing members to question, examine, and request changes to legislation before it is implemented.

The chairs of those scrutiny committees are traditionally members of all parties so that the leading party is not scrutinising its own decisions.

However, this is set to change after Thurrock’s Conservative administration undertook a surprise committee reshuffle that replaced almost all opposition chairs with Tory councillors.

Only one of four Labour chairs remain, along with a single member of the Thurrock Independents. The rest are now Conservative.

The shock move came despite the council telling party leaders and the press in April that due to Covid-19, committee chairs would not change until May 2021 when the council is next able to hold an Annual General Meeting.

Thurrock’s Labour leader, Councillor John Kent, said: “Just because you have the power to do something it doesn’t mean you should.

“Council leader, councillor Rob Gledhill used to say this was something he wouldn’t do. He said that being able to make decisions and scrutinise them was ‘effectively checking their own homework. We will not do that’.

“Then, back in April, group leaders on the council agreed that, because of the Covid crisis, there wouldn’t be a council annual general meeting this year so committee chairs wouldn’t change until May 2021.

“It turns out this agreement wasn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

“The truth is they don’t like being held to account and being exposed on issues like their £41m overspend on the A13 widening, their plans to build on our open spaces, cutting of home to school transport for some of our most vulnerable children, the Stanford railway station fiasco, their new £10m Civic Offices or their £1.4bn debt mountain.”

Notably two of the new chairs, Councillors Luke Spillman and Shane Ralph recently switched over to the Conservatives after leaving the Thurrock Independents.

Each councillor appointed as chairs will receive an extra payment of around £6,900 for their time. This will be on top of their usual councillor allowance.

During a Full Council meeting on Wednesday Thurrock’s monitoring officer, who is responsible for checking decisions fit within the constitution, said that the constitution is “silent” over whether the chairs can be changed outside of the annual meeting.

He added: “In the absence of it explicitly saying you can’t, the council is enabled to do so.”

A spokesman for Thurrock Council said: “The proposal to change the chairs of some of the overview and scrutiny committees at Full Council on July 8 was done in line with the council’s constitution as was confirmed by the monitoring officer during the meeting.

“Appointments continue to the following Annual General meeting unless changed in year by Full Council, as happens in the ordinary course of business.”

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