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Agenda and minutes

Venue: Committee rooms C, D & E - Merton Civic Centre, London Road, Morden SM4 5DX

No. Item


Apologies for absence


Apologies were received from Councillor Peter McCabe (substituted by Councillor Ben Butler). Apologies were also received from co-opted members Emma Lemon and Colin Powell.


Declarations of pecuniary interest


There were no declarations of pecuniary interest.


Minutes of the previous meeting pdf icon PDF 69 KB


The minutes of the meeting held on 13 November 2019 were agreed as an accurate record.


Demographic profile of councillors and senior officers pdf icon PDF 92 KB


The Chair explained that the report had been produced in response to a topic suggestion received from the Muslim Women of Merton who had expressed concerns about the lack of representation of Muslim women in local politics and senior leadership at the council. He reminded the Commission that members had agreed to expand the scope to include the wider BAME group and other protected characteristics.


The Chair invited Dr Emma Wiley to speak on behalf of the Muslim Women of Merton. Dr Wiley said that the Muslim Women of Merton was a voluntary organisation, established in 2015 in order to give Muslim women a voice and a “seat at the table”. Dr Wiley said that more needed to be done to create inclusive political environments that would enable people from all backgrounds to get involved and to feel able to speak freely. She welcomed the election of Merton’s first female Muslim councillor in May 2018 but drew the Commission’s attention to the Citizens UK report “Missing Muslims”, published in 2017, which reported an under involvement of Muslim people in public life, due largely to a combination of discrimination and lack of awareness.


Dr Wiley welcomed the Commission’s report as a good start to addressing the issues, despite the gaps in the data. She reminded members that the council’s equality strategy includes an objective to “encourage recruitment from all sections of the community, actively promote staff development and career progression opportunities and embed equalities across the organisation”. She challenged the council to address and action the under-representation identified by the data, to produce such data more frequently and to work with community groups to improve engagement in public life.


The Cabinet Member for Women and Equalities, Councillor Laxmi Attawar, thanked the Muslim Women of Merton for raising the issue and said that she welcomed the opportunity to look at this more closely. She expressed disappointment with the low response from councillors, resulting in data from just 39 of the 60, and said that in future this data would be collected immediately following local elections. She highlighted the under-representation of women and BAME staff in senior roles at the council, drew attention to the importance of training and mentoring in addition to recruitment action and undertook to review the situation on a regular basis.


In discussion, members of the Commission commented that the political parties had a larger role than the council in encouraging a more diverse group of candidates to come forward. Dr Wiley suggested that a diversity shadowing scheme, to include young people, would help them to get a more diverse range of people involved in council meetings.


Members welcomed the suggestion that demographic profile data should be collected as part of the induction process for new councillors and that this should include an explanation as to why this information is required. Dr Wiley added that the General Medical Council and the British Medical Association had found a lower response rate for information on sexuality, disability and faith due to  ...  view the full minutes text for item 4.


Call in - the feasibility and costs of a council tax voluntary scheme pdf icon PDF 64 KB

Additional documents:


The Chair reminded all present that the purpose of the call-in was to determine whether Cabinet’s decision on 11 November 2019 was flawed in relation to the council’s principles of decision making. 


The Chair invited Councillor Anthony Fairclough to speak as a signatory to the call-in request. Councillor Fairclough said that he believed that Cabinet’s decision had been flawed in relation to two of the principles of decision making – D “a presumption in favour of openness” and F “ consideration and evaluation of alternatives”.


Councillor Fairclough said that the Cabinet report was light on evidence and should have included some of the information that was set out in the officer response to the call-in as this would have been available at the time and would have been of assistance to Cabinet in making its decision. He said that Cabinet had only spent 4 minutes discussing the report and had not considered alternatives such as writing to residents to see if they would be willing to contribute. Although the Council motion referred just to Band H, he would expect Cabinet to have included consideration of expanding beyond Band H when making its decision. He called on Cabinet to be bold and innovative in taking action on Council’s motion.


Councillor Fairclough posed three questions to the Head of Revenues and Benefits, David Keppler:


·         What briefing was given to officers prior to the November cabinet meeting?

·         When was the bulk of the cabinet report written?

·         Did David Keppler consider providing additional information from the Westminster workshop and was this discussed with the Cabinet Member?


In response to a question, Councillor Fairclough said that the content of the officer response (particularly the slides from the Westminster workshop and information from Kensington and Chelsea) indicated that this information was available prior to the meeting of Cabinet and this gave the impression that Cabinet had already made a decision on the issue.


The Chair invited David Keppler to set out the timeline. David Keppler said that the slides from the Westminster workshop had not been available prior to the Cabinet meeting and that all of the information in Appendix C had been collected subsequently in response to the call-in request. He and the Head of Democracy Services, Julia Regan, had followed up with authorities who had been present at the workshop and had indicated that they were considering a voluntary contribution scheme. The Director of Corporate Services, Caroline Holland, said that only Westminster had fully implemented the scheme, Kensington and Chelsea had still not put a scheme in place and were therefore not included in the report to Cabinet.


Councillor Fairclough said that the minutes of Council indicate that there may have been some pre-determination as the Cabinet Member stated that a voluntary donation scheme should not be used to fund important or strategic services. A member of the Commission replied that the minutes of the subsequent Cabinet meeting show that the Cabinet Member had an open mind on the issue as he thanked the  ...  view the full minutes text for item 5.


Impact of Universal Credit on Merton Residents pdf icon PDF 105 KB

Additional documents:


The report was introduced by the Head of Revenues and Benefits, David Keppler. He highlighted the various rule changes, in particular the shift of support with applications from the council to the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB); the role of the council in relation the provision of discretionary housing payments; the data within the main body of the report and the information from CAB in the appendix.


David Keppler provided additional information in response to questions:


·         council officers have continued to assist with initial claims where appropriate but the majority are handled by CAB as per the government contract

·         it is not clear whether the increased use of the Trussell Trust foodbank is directly correlated to the increased number of claimants who have been moved to Universal Credit.

·         the council still provides some crisis payments as well as an annual; donation of £10k to the Trussell Trust

·         Universal Credit and Housing Benefit are payable to people in employment who are on a low income as well as to those who are unemployed

·         The increase in the number claimants transferred to CAB would be expected to result in an increased number of referrals to CAB for assistance with an initial claim, it is not clear whether this is a disproportionate increase

·         There is flexibility to agree payment arrangements for debts incurred for overpayment and debt for council tax. The claimant should make contact to discuss this at an early stage.


David Keppler explained that the calculation of Universal Credit is computed monthly for each claimant, which has an impact on the calculation of council tax support. The Revenues and Benefits team therefore have to rebill for council tax each time there is a change in the council tax support claimant’s Universal Credit payment, which causes additional work for the team and is not easy for the claimant either. In response to a question about how this position could be ameliorated, David Keppler said that the council could review the administration of the council tax support scheme – this is a matter for Council and requires a lengthy consultation process so would not be a quick fix.


In response to a question, David Keppler undertook to find out the current level of the Housing Benefit cap. ACTION: Head of Revenues and Benefits.


Members expressed interest in inviting the CAB and Trussell Trust to a future meeting to provide information on their services and to hear from service users too if possible to do this in a discreet and appropriate way. ACTION: Head of Democracy Services to add this to the 2020/21 work programme.




Work programme pdf icon PDF 108 KB


The work programme was agreed with the following changes:


·         Access to services through the council’s website – deferred from 18 March to meeting in September 2020

·         Road safety around schools action plan update – deferred from 2 April to September/November 2020