The Governance of the WMCA – where’s the democracy and public participation?

The West Midlands Combined Authority was officially launched at its AGM on 10 June. It confirmed the lack of democracy and public participation that BATC has criticised before:

  • The CA Board – a white men’s club holds the power
  • The exclusion of workers and their unions, the users of services, and local communities
  • The WMCA Overview and Scrutiny Committee isn’t capable of holding the CA to account
  • Public Consultation, but no dialogue and debate

Much of the agenda was taken up with the Governance proposals in the first 100 or so pages of the 305 page document pack (The rest of the 305 page pack comprises documents that I commented on in my BATC article ‘New WMCA documents and new consultation – why is Birmingham Council keeping it secret?’, 28 May. The pack is at https://westmidlandscombinedauthority.org.uk/committee-papers/west-midlands-combined-authority-board-june-10th/)

The WMCA Board – a white men’s club holds the power

The WMCA Board consists of two councillors from each of the 7 Constituent Members of the CA. Birmingham’s members are John Clancy and Ian Ward. They each have a substitute: Brett O’Reilly and Stewart Stacey respectively.

The first thing that strikes you is that they are all male and white. I am sure if they were asked they would say that of course there are many capable female and minority ethnic councillors in the Birmingham Labour group but these four, who happen to be white and male, were thought to be the best choice. But the problem arises when all the other CA councils – and the 3 LEPs – make the same sort of choice- and they have. All 20 Members of the Board named so far (Sandwell’s haven’t been announced yet) are male and the large majority, if not all, are white.

This is how individual political choices combine to become systemic gender and ethnic discrimination, creating a leadership of the CA which, far from reflecting the diversity of the population of the West Midlands, accurately reflects and reproduces the patterns of gender and racial inequality that disfigure our society.

The exclusion of workers and their unions, the users of services, and local communities

BATC has frequently commented on the lack of democratic participation in the WMCA. Now we can see who are the members of the various CA bodies, and it dramatically confirms how workers and their unions, the users of services, and local communities are excluded from any direct participation in decision-making.

Let’s take some of the key CA bodies. First, the Strategic Economic Plan (SEP) Board (it begins on p48 of the pack). These are its members:

  1. One Leader of a Constituent Council from each Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) area
  2. Chairs of the 3 LEPs within the Combined Authority Area (one of whom will chair the Board)
  3. One Leader of a Non-Constituent Council within the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP areas
  4. One Leader of a Non-Constituent Council within the Birmingham and Solihull LEP area

One of its functions is to “Ensure that appropriate consultation and engagement is taking place with:

  • individual LEPs and councils
  • Government Ministers and Departments
  • key stakeholders including the business community, neighbouring LEPs and MPs.”

No place for representatives of unions, users and communities on the Board, or engagement with them as ‘key stakeholders’.

The Strategic Economic Plan (SEP) Board is supported by the Productivity and Skills Commission (p85). Is that any more inclusive? No: it comprises just “Eight Commissioners … appointed from the private sector across a number of our priority industries, educational sectors and bodies.” And it will “Be led by Business Leaders “.

The Productivity and Skills Commission is itself supported by the Productivity Working Group (p79). Is that any more inclusive than the Strategic Economic Plan (SEP) Board and the Productivity and Skills Commission? Again the answer is no: its Members are

  • Chief Executive of the Combined Authority
  • Chief Executive of Metropolitan Borough Council
  • 3 Local Enterprise Partnership representatives (LEPs)
  • District representative

What about the Advisers?

  • Black Country Consortium Chief Executive
  • Skills and Education representative
  • Land Commission representative
  • Economic Development expert
  • Economic Data and Dynamic Economic Impact Model Representative
  • Public Service Reform representative

So in short the three key committees of the WMCA whose role is economic development have not a single place for representatives either of the workers who actually create economic wealth or of the local communities which are supposed to benefit from it.

Let us look at another key body, the Public Service Reform Board (p53):

The role of the Board is to ensure the successful delivery of a Public Service Reform programme. The Board will be responsible for investment, decision making, strategy and risk for Public Service Reform in the West Midlands.

Its Members are

  • Councillors
  • Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) representatives
  • Public Sector Partners

The phrase “Public Sector Partners” occurs several times in the documents, but there is no explanation of who they might be, and whether they might include those who actually work providing public services, and their unions, or those who are the users of public services.

However, an examination of some of the CA’s Public Service committees provides no evidence of wider participation. Take for example the Public Service Reform – Health and Wellbeing and Mental Health Working Group (p73). Its function is “To develop a Combined Authority wide approach to Health and Wellbeing”. You would think that the knowledge and experiences of workers in this area, and the users of their services, would play a vital, an indispensable, part in policy-making. But look at the extensive list of Working Group members – no place for them at all:

  • Combined Authority Board Members (Constituent & Non-Constituent)
  • LEP Chairs (Non-Constituent Members)

And as invited by the Combined Authority Board:

  • Representative from NHS England
  • STP System Leaders
  • Representative from NHS Improvement
  • Representative from Public Health England
  • Experts by Experience
  • West Midlands Police
  • West Midlands Fire Service
  • Chair of the Mental Health Commission Steering Group
  • Mental Health Provider
  • Mental Health Commissioner
  • Department of Work & Pensions

Exactly the same policy of exclusion applies to the other CA bodies such as the Health and Wellbeing Board (p51), the Public Service Reform – Skills and Employment, Troubled Individuals and Criminal Justice Working Group (p71) and the Mental Health Commission (p83).

The WMCA Overview and Scrutiny Committee isn’t capable of holding the CA to account

 The short answer is it will be completely incapable, as it is currently constituted, and this is why. The CA is an immensely powerful body – within the constraints of government policy, which pulls the strings. It covers a huge range of policy areas and has numerous committees which meet quite frequently. The CA Board itself will meet another 19 times between now and next June. Many of the various committees have large numbers of members and can call on numerous advisers.

To keep track of all this and to muster the expertise to critically examine it and challenge where needed is a huge task. What resources does the Scrutiny Committee have to do so? It consists of one member of each of the 7 Constituent Councils, one member of each Non-Constituent Council, and one LEP member – a total of 13 people. (The Birmingham Member is Cllr Claire Spencer, with Zafar Iqbal as substitute. See p28 for full list.)

And how often will this Scrutiny Committee meet? Just 4 times a year, for 2 hours each time (p11)! The document does refer to “Scrutiny Review Groups will meet as necessary, to complete the business” (p58), but there is no explanation of what these might be.

We have referred before to the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee report Devolution: the next five years and beyond, published in February this year. It makes a sustained critique of the lack of democracy in the Combined Authorities policy. This is what it says about Scrutiny:

 “…the overview and scrutiny requirements in the Bill are an initial framework to be used as a basis for more robust provisions […]. These should be developed […] as a result of deliberate efforts to hold active discussions at local level, with residents involved in designing new and more open methods of scrutiny.”

This is urgently needed in the WMCA in order to create a powerful and participative Scrutiny process. The Constitution of the WMCA does in fact allow for steps in this direction. (https://westmidlandscombinedauthority.org.uk/media/1171/ca-draft-constitution-24-5-16.pdf )

First, the CA can set up more than one Scrutiny committee, and the committees can set up sub-committees and working groups:

3.1 The Combined Authority shall appoint one or more overview and scrutiny committees.

3.2 An overview and scrutiny committee may appoint one or more sub-committee and arrange for the discharge of any of its functions by any such sub-committee.

10.1 An overview and scrutiny committee may appoint a working group to contribute to and inform the scrutiny process.

Second, each local authority can have more than one Scrutiny member:

4.1 The Combined Authority shall appoint at least one member of each of the Constituent Authorities and the Non-Constituent Authorities to any overview and scrutiny committee

And thirdly and most importantly, Scrutiny committees can have co-opted members:

5.1 …. An overview and scrutiny committee can make recommendations to the Combined Authority on the appointment of co-opted members. Any co-opted member appointed by the Combined Authority can attend and speak at meetings but cannot vote.

The WMCA should move rapidly to adopt these measures including opening Scrutiny up to public participation by co-opting representatives from unions and user and community organisations.   (That would also help redress the largely male-dominated and white composition of the Members of the WMCA.) It is just a question of political will.

 Public Consultation, but no dialogue and debate

 The WMCA has to hold a public consultation about the functions of the CA and the Mayor. These are summarised in the document Implementing the Devolution Agreement – Provision for Mayoral West Midlands Combined Authority (from p115 of the pack onwards). The period of consultation is 8 weeks and it starts on 27 June! How many people are aware of this?

There are no plans for public meetings where there can be collective dialogue and debate. “6.7 The consultation will be conducted primarily through digital channels with consultation feedback gathered via the WMCA website.” However, “6.4 … A number of organisations will also be contacted directly to invite them to make a response to the consultation.”  What organisations are these that are given privileged status? Do they include trade unions and community organisations, and if not why not?

Richard Hatcher

24 June

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