THE BLOG

Rotherham Abuse: We Should Give the People of Rotherham a Voice

02/03/2015 11:35 GMT | Updated 29/04/2015 10:59 BST

The tragedy of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham and the failure of its public authorities to intervene undoubtedly requires strong and swift action. But the introduction of five commissioners to run the affairs of the council until 2019 denies the citizens of Rotherham their voice in addressing the failures of local public leadership.

Few will question the Secretary of State's intervention into the affairs of a council that has so palpably failed to protect - let alone to lead - the local population of Rotherham, but details of the measures introduced yesterday must give rise to deeper questions about the role of local democracy within our nation state.

In short, the council and its executive are stripped of all of their functions and these are placed in the hands of 5 hand-picked commissioners. This includes the hiring and firing of all staff at the council, all planning, licensing and commissioning powers, everything relating to finance and local taxation, fees and charges - everything.

Their decisions will not be accountable to the council executive and any of the council committees whose statutory role in these matters has been removed - as has any process of recall. It will be for the Commissioners themselves to decide whether or not they engage with the public, elected members, or for that matter, Rotherham's members of parliament.

It is proposed that there will be all-out elections in 2016 after which a Leader and at least two Executive Members - one with responsibility for children's services - must be chosen. But there is no timetable for any powers to be handed back to elected representatives and the return of powers will only be permitted on the recommendation of the Commissioners and the agreement of the Secretary of State.

So where does this leave the local democratic rights of the people of Rotherham for the next four years? The right to vote in 2016 will no doubt allow citizens rightfully to exercise their wrath against those local politicians and parties who have plainly let them down so badly, but unless and until some executive functions are restored to the elected representatives then the exercise will have little meaning as the Commissioners will continue to run the show.

We learn too that the commissioners - only one of whom is Rotherham-based - will receive significant remuneration, well above the rates of pay of existing officers, and above anything that until now the Secretary of State has deemed appropriate for council staff. Indeed, according to departmental guidance, the £160,000 salary of the 'Managing Director Commissioner' should really be put to a vote of the full council. That right has also been removed.

This ruling by the Secretary of State has denied the people of Rotherham their own efficacy in exacting regime change and put meaningful democratic rights effectively on hold until 2019.

While short-term administrators are certainly necessary in this terrible situation, the length and nature of this imposition flouts any commitment to the European Charter on Local Self-Government and - coming on the same day as a derisory response to a serious Select Committee report on fiscal devolution - it betrays again central government's contempt for local democratic process and its lack of trust in local citizenship.

We can only hope that the five Commissioners exercise greater wisdom.