‘Stage-managed’ council meetings: Labour backbenchers ask party to stop planting questions
Leaked emails show whip telling ruling group that 'boasting' cabinet members are important for Labour's 'positive narrative'
06 September, 2018 — By Richard Osley
LABOUR schemers have been accused of “stage-managing” council meetings meant to be used for grilling cabinet members and scrutinising Town Hall policy.
In an angry email exchange which developed inside the ruling group, backbenchers said the party was “planting” questions for the culture and environment scrutiny committee to give cabinet members a free opportunity to wax on about their achievements. The row stems from a message sent by Labour chief whip Councillor Lazzaro Pietragnoli last week in which he urged colleagues to turn up to a meeting at the Crowndale Centre on Tuesday and ask regeneration chief Danny Beales questions from a suggested list of subjects.
In one email, he said: “I know it can be extremely boring to sit at a meeting and listen to a cabinet member boasting about how good she/he has done… but it helps to create a positive narrative about the Labour administration and the unity of our group.” He had referenced the possibility of journalists reporting the meeting and it being broadcast on Camden’s website.
The session was meant to be a “grilling” by the cross-party committee on challenging subjects, although the number of questions asked is restricted by a one-hour time limit. In a stinging response, committee chairman Awale Olad emailed all Labour members with a warning that Cllr Pietragnoli’s suggested questions and a whip system risked “suffocating debate”.
Cllr Olad, who has been in his post for eight years, said: “I just do not want to spend time asking cabinet members: ‘Well, we’ve read the report on how great you are, we’ve seen the performance report on how fantastic you’re doing, but I’ve not heard you tell us how super and amazing you really are’.”.
He added that it was time to remove the “facade”. “It suffocates debate, not that we have much debate given that we also have an opposition with rigor mortis,” he said.
Labour councillor Sue Vincent, who sits on the committee, meanwhile told Cllr Pietragnoli and the rest of the group: “My heart sank when I read your initial email setting out the stage-managed, planted questions”. She warned that “a stage-managed scrutiny process will ultimately make our voters lose faith if we don’t raise problems”.
Several other councillors have privately indicated they are uncomfortable with any form of planting, a practice which once plagued the monthly all-member meeting as councillors teed up easy questions for cabinet members. The suggestions of stage management, masked as open debate, cut across council leader Georgia Gould’s pledge to reform the way the Town Hall ticks.
Other Labour councillors say the issue has led to an overreaction and that there have always been attempts to get more people involved in the scrutiny committee’s work. It has been said in its defence that the practice is commonplace in every council in the country, regardless of political control.
Cllr Pietragnoli said he would continue his pre-meeting emails and told colleagues: “My email was not Save Private Danny but grill him.” In another message, he said: “I don’t really see where the problem is if we then use a bit of stage-management in order to support our colleagues who are in charge of enforcing group decisions in cabinet.”
At the actual meeting, an unusually high number of Labour councillors who are not committee members were present, although only one, former mayor Abdul Quadir, asked one of the suggested questions on Cllr Pietragnoli’s list. Some insiders said others would have been wary of using a “scripted” question after seeing Cllr Olad’s angry intervention.
During the meeting, committee member Councillor Rishi Madlani complained of the lack of “forensic debate”, adding: “We need to rethink how this is working because actually committee members prep and prepare with the papers, including on holiday, and then are given no time because there are about five Johnny-come-latelys who do not normally attend culture and environment.”
Conservative group leader Councillor Oliver Cooper claimed the row “exposes Labour’s so-called ‘reform’ of council meetings as the undemocratic sham that it is”.
He added: “When Labour ended questioning of cabinet members in full council, they insisted cabinet members would be openly questioned in committee, but this charade proves that was never their intent. “The only people that need sham council meetings are cabinet members with something to hide. Councillors aren’t robots or lobby fodder – they’re meant to hold the administration to account regardless of their party.”