Saturday, 12 March 2011

Trust no one, part 1,678

The Scotsman's coverage of the controversy surrounding City of Edinburgh Council's involvement in the financial rescue of The Gathering continues this morning, with Unison reported to be unhappy that CEC's leader and deputy have implied that officials lied about what was said at a crucial meeting. It's claimed this breaches a code of conduct which prevents criticism of council staff and that this was done in the knowledge that officers have no right of reply.

Irrespective of the facts of the Edinburgh case, this raises an interesting issue, because it underlines how officials can be unaccountable for their actions. My own impression of many facets of local government is that councillors very often act merely to rubber-stamp what's desired by officials, and since councillors are subsequently prevented from criticising officials then clearly this underlines that it's in effect officialdom that run things, with the councillor function conferring merely a facade of scrutiny and accountability.

Of course, while there are many very able and honest people both employed by and elected to local authorities, this doesn't mean that they're necessarily competent in the subject matter they're responsible for. And there's surely little doubt that there's an element of dishonesty among officials corresponding to that prevalent within the political class, not to mention that in wider society.

Thus while even if politicians are widely and justifiably mistrusted, it hardly bears repeating that our imperfect democracy never really holds them properly to account. And while bureaucrats are perhaps afforded more public trust, in reality this is no doubt often misplaced, and the principle expounded in the current CEC imbroglio perhaps underlines their even greater lack of accountability.

Indeed, the lack of interest demonstrated by Edinburgh councillor Eric Barry in the debate on The Gathering and other important matters - he claims to have spent three hours doing a sudoku puzzle - perhaps ably illustrates what a charade the whole concept of local accountability can be.

Which in turn merely adds insult to injury as regards the recent proposal to substantially increase councillor salaries, with the likes of the two CEC senior councillors under intense scrutiny regarding The Gathering proposed to receive a salary of up to £63,000.

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