THREE Labour-controlled councils who have defied Assembly Government advice to let opposition councillors chair some of their committees will face fresh pressure in the new year to end their "one-party tyrannies".
Local Government Minister Sue Essex has signalled that she expects them to mend their ways and conform to her guidance by next May, when all 22 unitary authorities are due to hold their annual meetings.
After last June's elections, the ruling Labour groups at Caerphilly, Newport and Torfaen all insisted on monopolising committee chairmanships. In Caerphilly, the monopoly was maintained even when a vacancy occurred. Instead of appointing a Plaid Cymru councillor with five years Cabinet experience, the post went to a Labour backbencher.
Kevin Etheridge, who leads the independent group on Caerphilly Council, wrote to Mrs Essex asking her to intervene.
He said, "The ruling Labour group is acting like a one-party tyranny. When I wrote to Sue Essex I asked her how she expected members of my group to feel part of the scrutiny process when one party holds every chairmanship and vice chairmanship. It really is like the bad old days of Valleys councils when everyone who wasn't Labour was excluded. Until the Labour Assembly Government cracks down on its own councils like Caerphilly, it will be accused of tolerating tyranny."
In her reply to Mr Etheridge, Ms Essex confirms that the Welsh Assembly Government supports the principle of political balance among chairs of overview and scrutiny committees, and adds, "This will be reflected in revised statutory guidance on political structures which we will issue for consultation in the new year."
The minister concluded, "I am aware that my (earlier) statement of support for political balance was made after local authorities had made their appointments to overview and scrutiny committees. County and county borough councils will have the opportunity to reconsider appointments at their AGMs next year."
A week before Christmas, Mrs Essex told Assembly Tory leader Nick Bourne in a written reply, "The report published by the Local Government and Public Services Committee in the summer of 2004, The Operation of New Political Management Structures in Local Government, recommended, among other things, that chairs of overview and scrutiny committees should be allocated in proportion to the political make-up of the council.
"The report also proposed a strengthening of the statutory guidance and, if necessary, an approach to the UK Government to introduce legislation in relation to this.
"Local authorities are obliged to reflect political balance in the composition of their scrutiny committees (unless the council as a whole has, unanimously, agreed not to do so). There is, however, no legislative requirement for the allocation of chairs of overview and scrutiny committees to reflect a council's political balance. The statutory guidance - guidance for county and county borough councils in Wales on executive arrangements - encourages councils with majority control to consider allocating committee chairs to members of other party groups.
"I gave my support to the committee's recommendation on political balance in your written statement to the Assembly on July 13, 2004. I also wrote to council leaders informing them of the committee's view, endorsed by the Assembly Government."
If the three councils refuse to back down, it is likely that Mrs Essex will lobby Westminster for a change in the law which would force them to comply with her guidance.