To receive questions from members of the public who may wish to ask a general question of the Mayor, Cabinet Member or the Chairman of a Committee in accordance with Council Procedure Rule 12.
(1) Mr. L. Harron asked did the Leader of the Council agree that online communications with members of the public about what resources have been specifically allocated to help victims and survivors of Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) have been dire and would he ensure that all relevant information was published online, say within two weeks?
The Leader confirmed he was aware of Mr. Harron’s ongoing concerns and his championing of this cause and was not sure he agreed that the information on the website was dire. There was a page on the Council’s website which detailed the resources available including post abuse support and how to report concerns about any child at risk of CSE with contact details for the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub, Rotherham Abuse Counselling Service, the Sexual Assault Referral Centre and Barnado’s. The web pages did identify useful information for people seeking support and activity in the Borough. This did not include financial resources allocated by the Council if specific details should be added the Leader was happy to take a representation on this. He had also asked the Communications Team to ensure this page was easily accessible from the Council’s home page on the website.
In his supplementary question Mr. Harron referred to the statement made by the Leader in public a few weeks ago about the failure of the bid. For people like Mr. Harron actively campaigning information was required to see what help could be given to assist with getting more resources.
He described how three years on the 16th December he had met with Paul Lakin, former Leader, and had offered then to give two days of his own voluntary activity for three months to improve the Council’s communications. Ian Thomas was in the meeting at the time and indicated there were thousands who wanted to help. He asked if Ian Thomas could write a report showing how he had utilised people and the time offered to him in his first few weeks in Rotherham.
The Leader was happy to speak to Mr. Thomas about what information could be made available on the Council’s website about what the Council had done in relation to child sexual exploitation as Rotherham clearly had a strong story to tell. Whether this should involve information about the use of volunteers it was difficult to decide, but the Leader would reflect on this in the weeks to come.
(2) From Mr. P. Thirlwall asked when was Appendix 8, Schedule 1, of the Council’s Constitution amended to include the Leader of the Opposition and could he have a copy of the correspondence from UKIP stating that Councillor Cowles was their present Leader?
The Leader enlightened Members on the previous question about the payment of a Special Responsibility Allowance to Councillor Cowles, Leader of the Opposition, and where that had been detailed. A response was provided in writing detailing how at the Annual Council Meeting in May, 2017 a report was tabled identifying Councillor Cowles as the Leader of the Opposition, thus providing a record. In further investigation, however, it became apparent that an error in the part of the Constitution listing office holders and the amount of Special Responsibility Allowance they were entitled to had been made and the detail on the Leader of the Opposition was not included. On the advice on the Monitoring Officer the Statement was updated on Friday, 20th October, 2017.
In a supplementary question Mr. Thirlwall apologised to the Council if he had given the impression he was gullible in the response given. The report referred to made no reference to the payment of expenses to Councillor Cowles, but was about the distribution of political balance and seats on committees etc. and which also indicated there were no financial or procurement implications of the decision. The report also referred to the background papers as the Council’s Constitution which was why Mr. Thirlwall had looked and found Councillor Cowles not listed. He expressed his concern about the revision of the Constitution in October, however, this could not be changed without coming back to full Council. He was sure this had not been done and asked that monies already paid to Councillor Cowles be recovered until such time as changes to the Constitution had been agreed properly.
The Leader explained he had acted on the advice of the Monitoring Officer which allowed for these kind of minor corrections to be agreed between Council Meetings. Should Mr. Thirlwall have any further concerns over this matter he was asked to pick these up with the Monitoring Officer as everything had been undertaken legally.
(3) Mr. D. Smith asked could he be toldwhy it should take a year for a simple complaint against a Parish or Town Councillor to be dealt with by the Standards and Ethics Committee.
Councillor McNeely confirmed the length of time taken to bring a complaint about the conduct of a town or parish councillor to a conclusion would depend upon the circumstances which could include:-
· The complexity of the complaint and whether it links to other complaints or counter-allegations.
· The time it takes to obtain the views of the councillor being complained about and the complainant’s response to those views.
· The time it takes to explore the options for an informal resolution of the complaint.
· If the complaint could not be resolved informally, the time it takes to arrange a hearing convenient to all the parties and to the panel which would hear the complaint and make a final decision
However, a complaint should not take a year to conclude unless there were exceptional circumstances and at its last meeting Council approved a new procedure for handling complaints about councillors with timescales and a presumption that a matter would progress to the next stage of the process if a party had not provided a timely response or would not engage with the process.
In a supplementary question Mr. Smith provided two scenarios where he had tried to contact officers regarding a particular issue and due to the lack of consideration to emails this was eventually resolved after thirteen months. Another complaint took twelve months for a recommendation that the person the subject of the complaint should apologise for his conduct.
The Mayor advised that should Mr. Smith have any concerns over operational matters then he should refer these to the Chief Executive for investigation.
Councillor McNeely confirmed complaints were to be dealt with more effectively, but suggested that should one of the scenarios referred to above be in relation to a racist term used by a Dinnington Town Councillor the process included arranging a meeting with the councillor to see if the matter could be resolved informally, in line with the views of the Independent Person. There were some difficulties in arranging that meeting and when it did take place it was not possible to resolve the matter informally and it had to proceed to a formal hearing.
If there were any other details required then Councillor McNeely was happy to respond in writing.
Mr. Smith wished to place on record that he had not referred to specific details in relation to his questions.
(4) Mr. R. Beecher reported that last year both representatives attended a FBU branch meeting at his invite, where both representatives held ‘No More Fire Cuts’ posters alongside firefighters. So, why four months later did they not rescind the Fire Authority decision to proceed with the removal of the second fire appliance at night time from Rotherham Fire Station?
Councillor Atkin confirmed both he and Councillor Buckley had attended a FBU branch meeting and offered support against the Fire Service cuts. However, since 2010, South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service had suffered significant cuts to its Government funding, which have reduced its operating budget by around 25%. Throughout this period, the Fire Authority and service managers have repeatedly stated their commitment to provide the best possible service to the people of South Yorkshire within the resources available to it. Whilst a slightly more optimistic medium term financial position meant the Service believed it no longer has to implement some planned changes to its frontline services (at least for the duration of the current Integrated Risk Management Plan), there was no opportunity to reverse changes which have already been made as a result of previously published plans. There also remained considerable uncertainty about the Service’s funding position beyond April, 2020.
In a supplementary question Mr. Beecher referred to the Fire Authority having a projected underspend of £1.3 million for this financial year which when banked would give the Chief Fire Officer £24.3 million in his pot. The removal of the second appliance saved approximately £200,000 per year. The public of Rotherham had an increase in Council Tax of just short of 2% and this had given an additional £410,000 for the Fire Authority yet still had a 50% reduction in fire cover at night. Fire Authority Members had successfully lobbied in Doncaster and Sheffield and had managed to reverse the effect of similar cuts. Why had Rotherham’s taxpayers been disproportionately affected and not given the same fire cover.
Mr. Beecher, therefore, asked all Members of the Council to engage with their Fire Authority Members here and the other 10 Members throughout South Yorkshire to lobby with the Chief Fire Officer and other FBU Officials in order to release the funds necessary to reinstate Rotherham’s second fire appliance at night and give constituents the fire cover they deserved and ultimately paying for.
Councillor Atkin responded by outlining how the current IRMP was a living document and on realising the Fire Authority had got a bit more money than it thought reversed the proposed cuts at Doncaster and Sheffield, but there was not enough to go back to a second appliance in Rotherham.
It was true the Fire Authority did have live reserves, but there were plans for the future with a new fire station in Barnsley and new fire appliances. At the moment the FBU were seeking a judicial review over the management of crews at some fire stations, but should this review be successful this would cost the Fire Authority £1.6 million which could result in cuts elsewhere.