The first meeting of a panel set up to look into problems with home to school transport is to take place behind closed doors this afternoon (Wednesday 18 December).
The Conservatives criticised the move, saying: “The investigation into the council’s failures is to be held in secret.
Conservative councillor Lee Wares is a member of the panel. He said: “Not only have Labour dragged their heels in setting this scrutiny panel up, they have resisted every step of the way to hold this first meeting in public.
“They categorically do not want anybody to know the subjects they want to suppress or for the public to see how they want to try to bind the hands of councillors by stamping ‘confidential’ on everything.
“Even in preparing for this scrutiny panel, Labour have refused to answer simple questions, forcing us to use ‘freedom of information’ requests.
“The level of contempt and desire to avoid public scrutiny is astounding.
“There are clearly lots of skeletons in the cupboard, some of which we have now discovered in papers recently released to us.”
He said that Brighton and Hove City Council voted unanimously to set up an urgent cross-party policy panel on Thursday 24 October at a meeting of the full council at Hove Town Hall.
The panel was set up to “investigate the catastrophic failure of Labour’s new home to school transport service for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).”
But, he said, having taken eight weeks to set up this urgent panel, the first meeting has taken almost two months to take place and will be held behind closed doors as councillors debate and decide in secret what will or will not be scrutinised.
The council described the meeting as an “informal scoping session” when the panel would, among other things, appoint a chair and arrange future meeting dates.
The secret procedure contrasts with the start of each municipal year when every committee agrees its “scope” in public and appoints its chair and the calendar of meetings is approved by the full council in public.
The Campaign for Freedom of Information has previously criticised councils for giving committees and sub-committees alternative names – such as panels – to try to keep out taxpayers and the wider public.
It has also criticised the now common practice of holding pre-meetings, where the real debate and questioning often takes place in secret, before the meeting in public takes place, as this was contrary to the spirit of the Local Government Act.
Former council leader Mary Mears, a fellow member of the policy panel, said: “We are grateful to colleagues in the Green group who have lobbied with us to have this ‘scoping’ meeting in public.
“We even offered a compromise for just stakeholders to come and observe on a non-participatory basis.
“Unfortunately, Labour are not even interested in that.
“We recently heard their new scheme designed to deliver just £20,000 of savings in the first year will result in a massive £850,000 overspend.
“This isn’t just a blip or minor accounting error. This is wholesale mismanagement of public finances.
“We have heard Labour say sorry so many times but incompetence on this level is not washed away with an apology.
“Somebody somewhere needs to be fully accountable. As the saying goes, heads must roll.”
The council said: “The first informal session for members of the policy panel is on Wednesday 18 December. It is a scoping session which sets up future meetings.
“The discussion will cover basics such as nominating a chair and arranging future dates.
“One of the initial discussions will be about whether to hold later meetings in public. We often hold pre-meetings of this type in-house.
“The details of meetings open to the public are available on the main committee calendar.”
The meeting is due to start at Hove Town Hall at 2pm.
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