Council Minutes - 22 February 2015

Present:  Vicky Seddon (Chair), Alan Debenham, Mary Southcott, Finola Kelly, Peter Hirst, Avtar Singh, Andrew Blick, Jack Maizels, James Grindrod, Danny Zinkus Sutton, Phil Davis, Phil Starr, Stephen Carter

Apologies for lateness: Stephen Carter

In Attendance: Alexandra Runswick (Director), John Franglen (Minutes), Emily Randall


Vicky Seddon greeted everyone and wished them happy new year


Council minutes for approval:

Vicky Seddon raised a query relating to page 2, item 4, constituencies for council elections. Avariety of proposals were discussed and voted on, the portion referring to “A paper proposing how” - how to do it is believed to be what that meant. The minutes were approved as an accurate record


Management board minutes

Circulated for information, no issues raised.


AGM Minutes

Draft minutes circulated for information. Mary Southcott noted she was marked as not present, but was there, the minutes will be corrected.


Matters Arising

There were no matters arising not already on the agenda.



AR reminded Council that the AGM had delegated the power to appoint new auditors to them this year and informed Council that staff were currently interviewing firms of accountants. A recommendation will be put to the next Council meeting.

AR spoke to the draft budget that had been circulated. She explained that it was just the core costs and definite income, and that it hasn’t been fully worked through, or its assumptions interrogated. The draft budget showed a £50,000 deficit, but doesn’t include any of the grants that are being applied for, or other income, but does show that as we stand we’re currently quite dependent on grant income.

A question was raised on the grant from People Can, and on whether we’ll end with a surplus or a deficit. Alex said it was unclear,  particularly given we’re not sure what we'll be getting from Votematch, but she thought we'd break even.


Directors Report

AR reported that the office move is scheduled for 21st of March. UD will be moving in with the Hansard Society. Future council & MB meetings would be in their meeting room there, possibly the AGM but that will have to be considered in more detail closer to the time.

Website issues — the organisation’s websites were hacked using the Heartbleed vulnerability, and used by online bots. They’ve been patched up as best we can, but for a full fix we need to move it to a new server, Emily is investigating the possibilities for what we need from our website, and how to keep it secure; the problem came in part from the organisaton no longer having a staff member who has the skills needed to keep it secure.


Campaigning work

Constitutional Convention — Following on from the public facing work started last Autumn, including the joint petition with the Electoral Reform society, this has become more of a lobbying campaign. 

We have been working with a Devolution All Party Parliamentary Group, who are a cross party group of Lords interested in decentralisation and reform, who're pushing this quite hard, they're seeking a joint statement in all the parties manifestos.

Work is going on with the individual parties, as there needs to be a cross-party agreement on this. Civil society groups that don’t usually comment on things are getting interested and involved, one of the big questions is how much should civil society be involved in a constitutional Convention. Unlock Democracy’s position is that the convention should be the public and MPs; Civil Society groups should give evidence but not be formal members..

Magna Carta — AR reminded Council that Frances Foley had run a session at the AGM on this area of work. Frances has been setting up meetings across the country; first big one is in Lincoln on Monday 23rd Feb.  We were also involved in the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee survey on what people would want in a new Magna Carta and written constitution, running an outreach to our supporters, 2000 responded, and it was submitted as evidence. The Magna Carta quiz is on our website, Alex encouraged people to take it and share it.

The work involves building links with other organisations, supporting people in having conversations. Being part of the Magna Carta 800 means us getting involved with lots of organisations we’re not usually in conversation with, so there are lots of positive things.

Vicky spoke on the planned meeting in Sheffield. There’ll be a busy few months with events around the country — in Lincoln, Leicester, London, two in Manchester, Swansea, Liverpool, Cambridge, Sheffield, Edinburgh, then it comes back to Parliament fortie-up. There’s the potential for more meetings as we’re in conversation with ERS Wales and others, and people can contact Frances to suggest other possibilities.

Lobbying Campaign — Alex reported that there was positive news from Scotland on lobbying.  Neil Findlay MSP’s private member’s bill campaign resulted in their Committee on Standards taking it up, we gave evidence and did public engagement on it, ERS Scotland were also involved. The Standards Committee published its report a week ago; it’s very positive and calls for a comprehensive register. The Scottish Government has committed itself to legislating, but we will have to wait to see if this is taken forward.

Lobbying Act Westminster. On Part 1, The lobbying registrar has been appointed. She comes from a regulatory background and has indicated that she sees her role as implementing the legislation rather than analysing or it or pushing for more powers. Guidance on the register has started to be published but it is still not clear who'll be on the register, how it'll work, be funded, etc.

On Part 2, this will also be discussed more in the strategy section. Government is required to appoint someone to do a formal review, but the Terms of Reference for that were'How well have we understood the rules' not whether the rules are right.

Lord Harries commission on civil society & democratic engagement is doing an enquiry looking at what the effect on organisations has beenwho's registered, what the effect of the act is. They are looking for specific examples of work that charities and campaigns would have done but for the Act as well as evidence of the more general chilling effect.

Lobbying Act Update - As of September 19th, we’re in the regulated period for the lobbying act. As agreed at the last meeting UD isn’t currently registering as a 3rd party with the Electoral Commission, though we need to keep that under review. The factors are spending levels, audience and purpose. Of the campaigns we’re running, Vote Match is over the threshold but doesn’t meet the purpose test as we’re not editorialising, not telling people how to vote. Election Leaflets is under the spending threshold. We still have to spend a lot of time assessing if things we’re doing are regulated activity,  so it is still an administrative burden on the organisation.

The Electoral Commission has published guidance on social media around the act. Staff social media accounts, particular senior staff, can be considered part of organisational spending – something Alex says is considered part of UD spending. On Alex's account, it's clear that comments are personal views unless it's retweeted by UD's account. Guidance for staff on social media is currently being discussed.

Vote Match – 1.2 million users in 2010. Aiming for 3-5 million for the 2015 General elections. Website redesigned to be more youth-friendly and mobile-first.

Questions were raised on how it ties in withother UD projects. It ends with links to the UD page, political party pages, and Democratic Audit’s ‘Democracy Dashboard’. Needs to be clear that you’re moving to other site before messages like “Your vote doesn’t count”, as we don’t want Vote Match to come under the Lobbying act.

Questions also raised on whether UD should be putting so much time and effort into Vote Match, as whilst voter education & engagement is good, there are many projects to work on. Response that we’ve set up the Vote Match Advisory Board to help run it, people with specific skills and contacts for making the most of it. The previous tech badly needed updating, and Vote Match is bringing in funds through donations, crowdfunder, and funding from organisations like 38 Degrees. Also we are offering ‘white label’ version to websites like the Guardian, where they pay and put their own branding on it.

Noted that Vote Match is the project that can get us the highest public visibility, and that some of that visibility will become email subscribers and members, getting new young members, and contacts with other organisations.

Election Leaflets project - site redesigned to be more mobile friendly and easier to use, done by Democracy Club for free. Focus will be on the short campaign, but leaflets can be uploaded now. Will show how the campaign is focused in the marginal seats, though was noted that it’s a self-selecting sample.

Under the Influence: We’ve been funded by JRRT to do work on Lobbying & Party Funding. A website has been built, called ‘Under the Influence’ bringing together data sets that have been published separately and badly — ministers meetings, registers of interests, lobbying register, etc. UD is the only organisation looking at lobbying and party funding as two sides of the same coin, this brings the data together to tell the whole story. Greenpeace gave £3,000 to help fund it as they had been looking at doing the same thing.

Basic website has been built. We are concentrating on making it sustainable, something that can be updated regularly, the data scraped and put in. Lots of media stories that could come from it, if people are interested. Relationships are being built. AR interviewed by Dispatches on it (going out March 19th).

Local Works – Andrew Wainright Trust has funded us working with Town & Parish Councils to develop their proposals for the SCA.


Rodell Properties

Grays Inn Road – The top portion is going to become 3 flats which will be sold, hoping to make a proft of a million pounds.

The Building Regs have beenapproved, and the conversion is being drawn up. Contractor who was doing a report on the wiring & suchlike has been sacked for not getting in on time, the architects will be doing that for same price. We’re close to going out to tender with building, and it should hopefully be 3 flats in the summer.

Rodell needs to organise finance for the conversionSimon Howard has been talking to brokers. Rodell is a good company to lend to as it has high assets and no debts. Questions were raised on the amount being borrowed; there was not an exact figure to hand, but it’s in the hundreds of thousands rather than the tens or lower. It would be a facility for covering the process, and making sure building bills didn’t stop Rodell supporting UD, to be drawn on when its needed.

Cynthia Street - the school had offered to buy it at slightly above the market rate, but ended up not having the finances in place. Then the buildings value went up, so that sale is not happening. Two tenants there were paying £15/sq ft, when the value for the area is £45/sq/ft;  the ones that were sitting tenants we have bought out of that tenancy, the others had their lease expiring, so both of those areas will be refurbished and then rented at the appropriate rate. Costs for the buying out and refurbishment will be made back over 18 months, after which there will be an expected increase in income of £90,000 a year.

A question was raised on what to do with the million pounds raised from sale of Gray’s Inn Road flats: whether to buy other commercial space in London to rent out, or somewhere for UD to be based. At the momentplaces are selling very fast in London, so it’s not worth looking for places now when the flats aren’t sold. Have looked at social housing in Taunton. Within ethical constraints, Rodell is looking for the best return on the money; renewable energy schemes have been looked at, but the return is lower.

In answer to a question on Unlock Democracy basing itself at Cynthia Street, it was explained that it was more space than we need, and the per-square-foot rent is lower at the Hansard Society than we’d get for Cynthia Street.

Danny Zinkus noted that the Cynthia Street situation meant that our financial resources would be increasing over the next few years, which was good.

Vicky gave thanks to Phil Starr for the time and energy put into this; Council agreed.


Strategy Session

There was a wide ranging discussion on areas Unlock Democracy could campaign on; on the  need to be focused and concentrate on areas we add something distinctive, and where there aren’t already organisations saying the same thing. Before the General Election, we’re concentrating on voter education and engagement, after it we’ll be focusing on the flaws with the system.

Extended debate on the balance between the need to be opportunistic around current events versus need to have a clear narrative on what we’re working towards.

AR noted that whilst lots of really important issues had been raised, there were no decisions, no sense for the staff on what we should be focus on, or what our message is. This means that Council leaves a lot to the staff team. There was a suggestion we establish a strategy working group, to take things forwards, and make some decisions.

After further discussion, it was agreed to form a strategy working group to directly assist Alex with constructing the strategy, looking at the skills and resources of the organisation, look at possibilities like a visioning event, and so forth. Additionally, an online forum would be set up to allow Council to discuss and reach decisions on organisational priorities. These discussions will have clear deadlines for when each must be decided by.

Two primary areas to work on are the constitutional convention and decentralisation. Discussion on those, on what UD’s red lines for a convention would be — e.g. meaningful public participation is essential, and what’s needed to achieve change —some  people will be against involving politicians, but without their involvement, the results won’t have buy-in from the parties, and nothing ends up happening.

There was extended discussion on different aspects, and on tying decentralisation into the constitutional convention. Alex asked those who’re involved in these debates elsewhere to feed back to UD about it, so that we can pass on the conversations that are going on, show it’s something that matters to people, is being discussed down the pub, etc.


Any Other Business:

Finola noted she was present at the AGM, this will be added to those minutes.

Next meeting June 27th.