Westminster council shuts out members of the public with informal meetings

WESTMINSTER council has been accused of shutting out members of the public after not holding a cabinet meeting of its senior representatives in public since June.

The council’s 10-person cabinet has held informal meetings on a monthly basis throughout this time but agendas and papers are not available to the public and press are banned from attending.

The last public meeting took place on June 28.

After the summer recess a meeting wasn’t planned until October 18, which has now been cancelled, so the next one is not scheduled until December 13.

Leader of Westminster Labour, Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg, says councillors should have to face the public in order to be held to account.

“My main concern is that not only do these meetings take place in secret but the cabinet meetings have also been cancelled,” he said.

“Together those two matters are extremely worrying.

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“In the absence of formal cabinet meetings the suspicion is that decisions are taking place behind closed doors rather than in the glare of the public and press.

“If there were to be informal meetings prior to a public cabinet meeting then that might be acceptable but the fact is that the only meetings that are taking place are secret meetings.”

An online petition asking Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to mount an enquiry into the lack of meetings has attracted 36 signatures after being set up on Friday.

The fears come just a month after Conservative backbenchers at City Hall revealed plans to set up an independent committee amid a general feeling that the major players in the council were failing to consult enough on major decisions.

The email unveiling the proposals, which was sent by Councillor Christabel Flight, read: “This would provide a forum for “backbench” councillors (i.e. anyone who is not in the cabinet) to discuss Westminster council policy issues; would be a conduit for any material “concerns” to be taken up with appropriate cabinet colleagues and could discuss wider political issues.”

At the time one Tory insider, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “There is a view that we need to scrutinise things more, especially when you’ve got some tough decisions to make.”

The council has moved to quash fears surrounding the lack of public meetings by pointing out that much of the time was taken up by a summer recess.

Westminster Council Leader, Councillor Colin Barrow, said: “Cabinet members and senior officers are bound to meet and discuss policy matters informally.

“No decisions on council policy are taken, or can be taken, at these meetings.

“Decisions are only ever made in private if they are commercially sensitive.

“Cabinet members take decisions on reports which are open and available on the council’s websites, and to the various committees and sub-committees we have throughout the year.

“The council has around 20 committee and sub-committee meetings a month which are open to both the public and press.”