Unison and the Green Party candidate for Mayor say Democratise the WMCA


Birmingham Against the Cuts has repeatedly made the case for the democratisation of the WMCA. Now Unison has published its manifesto calling for an elected Assembly and seats for union reps on the Board. And James Burn, the Green Party candidate for Mayor, has made a series of proposals about Scrutiny that echo what BATC has been arguing for.

Birmingham Against the Cuts, in a series of posts beginning in July 2015, has called for an elected assembly. We have called for the various CA bodies, from the Board downwards, to be opened up to representatives of unions, users of services, and local communities. We have urged the Overview and Scrutiny arrangements to be strengthened and opened up to public participation.

But there has been no response from any of the councillors involved in the WMCA, nor from the Labour Party in the West Midlands. Labour’s candidate for WMCA mayor, Sion Simon, has not said a word about the issue of democratisation, including on his campaign website. In July he published a 9-point manifesto, apparently only for internal Labour Party use, but it is silent on the lack of democracy in the CA. (It was at http://www.sion-simon.com/manifesto but seems now to have disappeared.)

Unison’s manifesto calls for an elected Assembly and union reps on the CA Board

 On 15 December a powerful boost was given to the campaign for democratising the WMCA when Unison published its manifesto for the West Midlands Mayor election, comprising 20 policy ‘asks’ for the candidates (http://www.birminghampost.co.uk/news/regional-affairs/call-universal-basic-income-trail-12322024). Ravi Subramanian, Regional Secretary, said “UNISON are asking all mayoral candidates to publicly state which of our 20 asks they will carry out if elected.”

Unison’s manifesto contains 4 points on Accountability, Engagement and Scrutiny:

1.All items in this manifesto should be developed jointly with the full engagement of all key stakeholders including trade unions. Many in the community are sceptical about the WMCA and see it as another layer of undemocratic bureaucracy, distant from the people that it will claim to serve. Involving key stakeholders at the earliest opportunity can help to address public concerns about a “democratic deficit.”

2.Three non-voting trade union seats on WMCA and seats on the key working groups, including public sector reform. Trade unions are the largest voluntary organisations in the UK. The Midlands TUC can assist to ensure that all trade unions can make member issues known.

3.Develop a system to allow maximum public scrutiny of WMCA decisions. Opponents of combined authorities focus on distant unaccountable bureaucrats. Systems to promote open access and engagement with the decision making process will give public confidence in the new institution

4.Consider the development of a proper democratically elected assembly for WMCA. The WMCA will need to gain legitimacy longer term and as further powers are devolved work must be undertaken to ensure that decision making is done by the directly elected representatives of the people served.

These are reforms which BATC has long argued for. It is particularly significant that a major trade union is now calling for a democratically elected West Midlands Assembly for the Combined Authority. As we have said many times, if it is right for London (not to mention Wales) why isn’t it right for the West Midlands? We have also advocated Unison’s demand for three places for trade union representatives on the CA Board, the key strategic body of the WMCA where policy is made, providing parity with the three employers’ representatives, the chairs of the LEPs.  The Constitution of the WMCA explicitly permits the co-option of delegates onto the Board: “4.5 The Combined Authority may co-opt additional non-voting representatives to attend its meetings as it considers necessary.” (Constitution of the West Midlands Combined Authority 2016, p3).

Also vital are places for union representatives on the key working groups, including public sector reform.  On a number of working groups there are already places allocated to trade union representatives and they need to be taken up. But there are other bodies such as the Productivity and Skills Commission where they have no places allocated but where the WMCA Constitution permits co-option: “At any time the Commission may recommend to the Combined Authority the appointment of additional members with specific areas of expertise to support particular elements of its work.” (West Midlands Combined Authority (2016) Productivity and Skills Commission Draft Terms of Reference, p209).

Will Sion Simon and Labour now endorse Unison’s plans to democratise the WMCA?

Sion Simon’s manifesto published in July 2015 states that he is supported by Unison (as well as Unite and GMB). Will he now support and publicly promote Unison’s proposals? He also states he has the support of the Labour leaders of Sandwell, Walsall, Dudley, Birmingham and Coventry councils. Will they too give their public support to Unison’s manifesto?

James Burn, Green Party candidate for Mayor, says Scrutiny must be opened up

In December the Green Party candidate for Mayor, Cllr James Burn, opposition leader of Solihull Council, posted plans on his website (http://www.jamesburn.org/) for radically opening up and strengthening Scrutiny which echo many of the positions that BATC has been arguing for. He points out the lack of democracy:

In general, the WMCA is seen as a bit of a mystery by many. “Devolution deals” are struck behind closed doors with government and announced to the press before opposition politicians get to know what’s in them. Politicians have voted to impose a mayor on people who voted against having one not so long ago. And the mayor and authority will both be able to put new taxes on people without their permission or a mandate to do so. It’s a bizarre and undemocratic situation.

He condemns the current scrutiny arrangements of the WMCA:

The problem rests with the arrangements for scrutiny, which are indeed arrangements many corrupt governments would be proud of (and have little or nothing to do with those sitting on the board who shouldn’t be blamed for them).

Indeed, these arrangements also put the scrutiny committee in a very difficult position. On the one hand they are the champions of keeping the WMCA honest, being the public’s voice and criticising the WMCA when it’s necessary.

On the other hand, the same political groups that have gone out on a limb to set up the WMCA, and need to make sure it has a good image, are the groups that are choosing the reps that sit on scrutiny. If any scrutiny rep causes too many problems, in the real world of politics in certain councils, the chances of them being sent back to the WMCA scrutiny committee the next year is probably not very high.

Contrast this with London’s system. The 25 people who sit on the London Assembly have far more power and are directly elected by the public. They are free to say what they like and only answer to the public. They represent a range of voices, and they work full-time to make sure the London Assembly works for Londoners.

And he makes some proposals for improving Scrutiny, including:

  • …firstly, include more voices. You have powers to set up sub-committees and to co-opt. Use them. Increase the size of the committee. Make it more politically representative.

  • The unions, voluntary groups, community reps and to a degree SMEs feel shut out of the WMCA. Include them too.

  • Meet more often, particularly making use of sub-committees to do so.

  • Set up your own website. If you can create a dynamic, critical and inclusive scrutiny system, tell people about it. Talk to the press more about what you’re doing.

  • Work for changes to how scrutiny reps are selected by their councils. This could also enable them to be more critical.

Opening up the Scrutiny Committee to co-opted representatives from unions, community and user bodies is exactly what is permitted in the WM Constitution: “5.1 The appointment of co-opted members is a matter reserved to the Combined Authority. 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.” (Constitution of the West Midlands Combined Authority 2016, p21).

Burn claims that “Andy Street agrees that arrangements to involve more voices aren’t sufficient (and has announced a new policy as a result), and Beverley Nielsen has also said that she’s not satisfied with the arrangements.” He doesn’t mention whether Sion Simon agrees. But he does say that Cllr Claire Spencer, the Birmingham City Council representative on the Scrutiny Committee, has responded to him. “She’s the first person ever from the WMCA to actually invite dialogue about this subject, which is a great thing. She writes, ‘’scrutiny arrangements are still in flux, still being shaped…I am all ears, in as much as he can think of ways to strengthen it…’.”

Burn will set up a Public Forum

Listing his priorities (http://www.jamesburn.org/priorities.html) James Burn goes further:

Most people tell me that they don’t know the Authority exists. If they do know about it they feel they have no say in it at all. And they’d be right – they have no directly elected representatives to talk to about it.

Worse still, the Authority is in no way representative of the people it has been set up to serve. The 7 constituent leaders are all middle-aged white men, and at the last meeting there are minutes for, of all the members attending there was only one woman and one member of the BME communities present. The Authority simply has to be more reflective of the people of the West Midlands. We can do so much better than this.

So, if elected, I will set up a public forum with councillor representatives for each area along with voluntary, community, small business and union reps to hold the mayor and Authority to account, to feed in views of ordinary people, to scrutinise and to make policy suggestions. All meetings will be webcast, with minutes available online.

This proposal for a public forum is very much in line with what BATC has been calling for. Burns adds an even more radical proposal which echoes BATC’s proposal for a People’s Plan for the WMCA:

The public will be given control over the mayoral budget and as the Authority or mayor’s powers increase, so will the level of scrutiny.

He ends by throwing down a challenge: “Other mayoral candidates can also offer to cede power and listen to others, as I am offering to do.”

Will Labour now support Burn’s plans to democratise the WMCA?

We very much welcome these statements by the Green Party candidate for Mayor and call on the other candidates – Sion Simon, Andy Street and Beverley Nielsen, the Liberal Democrat – to state their support now for these democratic reforms and their commitment to press for them to be implemented, and to carry them out if elected. We also call on Cllr Claire Spencer to add her support for them and to campaign for the Scrutiny Committee she sits on to be opened up as Burn suggests.

(We note that James Burn seems to be excluded from the panels at some public meetings about the Mayor election where all the other three candidates are invited. He wasn’t invited to join the panel at the public meeting on 12 December at the Library of Birmingham with the other three candidates to discuss the recent Resolution Foundation report Midlands engine trouble: The challenges facing the West Midlands Combined Authority, which identifies the region as the worst for employment in Britain. Nor is he on the panel of the forthcoming meeting on Birmingham: Innovation and Intervention – Igniting the Midlands Engine organised by DevoConnect, a consultancy company, on 2 March at Birmingham University, although the other three candidates are. Is he being shut out because his ideas are regarded as too radical by the organisations with the power to organise meetings such as these?)

Why we need to democratise the WMCA

 It is a basic democratic right for citizens of the West Midlands to decide the WMCA policies that will shape their lives, on jobs, housing, transport, further education and the rest. But it is vitally necessary to put pressure on the CA, from inside as well as outside, to change its direction of policy from one that is driven by private sector profit to one that aims to meet the needs of all our citizens. It is no accident that the WMCA’s Strategic Economic Plan makes no mention in its 57 pages of the huge problems of inequality – of geography, of income and living standards, of social class, gender and ethnicity – across the West Midlands.

Take for example housing. The Unison manifesto calls on the “WMCA to encourage all constituent and non-constituent councils to embark upon a programme of building new, green council houses. The region is in desperate need of new, affordable, green social housing.” As it says, “Housing is a social need and should not be left to the vagaries of a lightly regulated market that works primarily in the interests of those with capital who seek profitable outcomes.” (See the full manifesto on the BATC website, 23 December.) We need public pressure inside the CA through an Assembly or Forum, and representatives of unions, users of services and community organisations on decision-making bodies, to not only hold the CA to account but to reshape its policies for the future.

Richard Hatcher

29 December 2016





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