Controversy of Preferential Interest

Moscow and St. Petersburg have been added to my travel experience over the summer and the Hermitage was stunning, with world artists and all sorts of treasurers vying for attention. Unusually, SAGA travel, (Sex and Games Abroad) got quite a few things wrong and several clients have decided not to travel with them again. Back home, it took days to get to grips with the emails and correspondence and then it was council business as usual with an Audit Committee meeting scheduled for 24th September. The papers were a heavy read although lightened by the exclusion of A & D Waste and Clwyd Theatr Cymru accounts. Flintshire’s external auditors, PricewaterhouseCoopers were unfazed by these omissions. After some heavy mutterings, things are only going to get better as our chief Executive has engaged someone to look carefully at how this waste business is operated. (Long overdue in the opinion of several people I represent!). The next day, accounts were back on the agenda for a Special County Council meeting and passed the vote of acceptance effortlessly. More controversial item on the agenda was Post Office Closures in North Wales debate where, even more controversially, members associated with any post office were barred from even listening to the debate and spent the entire time outside the council chamber! The dreaded “Preferential Interest” code was being strictly applied which normally does not cause a problem as councillors who have some financial interest in a topic under debate do the honourable thing and leave the chamber until the matter is concluded. This time, very valuable information was being imparted by Post Office representatives and I would have been very miffed to have missed the presentations. Antoinette Mackerson, (the prospective Welsh Conservative Assembly candidate for Delyn) joined our group meeting and told us how particularly unfair the closures were in Wales with larger numbers closing than compared with England and so much of Wales very rural and impoverished. The loss of a post office would be a real death knell to many communities already under stress particularly in the Holywell and Gronant areas of the county. She was also concerned that the consultation period had been a cop-out as it should have started officially in March. No way did Westminster want this major issue to clash with Local Government May elections and thus, it was put on hold. It actually started on 26th July and ended on 19th September. Council and community councils were in recess and several councillors had not invited to a consultation meeting. The Tory Group was not amused and those still in the chamber learnt that the government called the shots and haemorrhaging millions a week, the Post Office had no option but to set up the closure scheme as quickly as possible to salvage something for the service. (Some 25000 are for the chop!) Growing alarmed that the “prejudicial interest” rule seemed undemocratic to those councillors outside the chamber, I was allowed to make a ‘point of order’.
‘Can’t there be flexibility’, I queried, “it is unfair that they’re missing this vital debate that involves them.”! ‘How can they represent their constituents?’
A clinical reading of the clause followed.
“The councillors had chosen to debar themselves”! “If they are not even allowed to listen to the debate, surely they should be briefed on what we are being told? I reasoned.
Post Office people mentioned a web site and our chief Executive felt something could be done afterward the event. The Tory Motion to seek to extend the consultation time, supported by the Labour high command was the best we could do. The barred councillors, those who had bothered to stay, (and who could blame them for a waste of an afternoon), took their grievance to the now slightly flustered Senior Lawyer.
“I had expected to be allowed to speak, not barred”, complained one experienced councillor.
I told her I had done my best and surely the system needed some flexibility in unusual circumstances. Seemed not. Perchance, met same councillor in Lidl on Sunday morning. That Post Office meeting was a real mess, I growled. Agreement all round.
“Some good had come out of it.”, said my friend, ” Next time we will be allowed a feed to hear what’s said in the Chamber”.
Only after unpacking the shopping did this curious compromise hit me. If it’s now agreed they can hear the debate, why was it physically necessary for them to exit the chamber?  Somehow logic failed me. They could have sat at the back of the chamber, taken no part and would not have been so compromised by missing an important debate that materially affected the lives of their constituents. I would say this decision is an unfortunate case of “bureaucratic pettiness” but am I being unfair? I shall ask the Constitution Committee to pass judgement as there were no winners during that vital Post Office debate, only losers who will now see their business fall around their ears!

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