Last Thursday’s Full Council meeting was an astonishing affair. I tweeted as much as I could of it (to howls of displeasure from the Tory side!) but my daughter’s 4th birthday party over the weekend has prevented me from blogging it until now.
The main issues of controversy were: questions to councillors, the handling of the report into councillor allowances, the approval of the sustainable communities strategy and finally proposals for transforming meetings of full council.
No debate on councillor allowances
Right at the beginning of the meeting, as we had been told in briefings beforehand, the Conservatives — fully supported by Labour — moved a procedural motion to defer the report of the Independent Remuneration Panel (IRP). The IRP are there to decide the allowances (ie salaries) of councillors in an independent way so we’re not deciding our own paycheques. The IRP had long said they were going to do a fundamental review for this year’s report. While in my view they could have been more radical in the changes they proposed, still the Tory/Labour coalition weren’t happy about it. They claimed a lack of consultation despite the report being discussed by the group leaders and governance committee in the proceeding weeks.
Essentially the panel chose to support backbench councillors with a 1% increase in their allowance, plus slightly more flexible childcare support. To stay cost neutral overall, and to come in line with national guidelines, they recommended cutting additional allowances for the deputy chairs of committees. With a few exceptions this is entirely justified as deputy chairs have little in the way of real extra duties. Apart from one LibDem and one Green – ALL the deputy positions are held by Labour and Tory councillors. So they get more money for few extra responsibilities hence they can spend more time on politics instead of other paying work. In other words it’s rather convenient and supports the Tory/Labour old guard.
Rather than debate this issue before an election, they chose to defer this report. As a result the existing allowances for all these deputy chairs will carry on, against the advice of the panel. Furthermore they wanted a vote to defer without any debate because it’s not really a comfortable issue for them to discuss, especially ahead of an election where expenses and fat cat politicians are a hot topic.
To add insult to injury they deferred the report without using any procedure provided for in the council’s constitution. I pushed and pushed for an explanation for how, procedurally they could do this without a debate. Eventually I was told ‘common law powers’ allowed the Mayor to do this (let us not forget the Mayor is a Conservative councillor married to a Conservative council cabinet member). I wasn’t convinced but Tories & Labour in their cosy coalition voted the deferment through without debate. I think this was an affront to the independent panel’s members and to taxpayers.
This item starts at 7:30 minutes in the webcast.
Questions to Councillors
I didn’t really get any useful answers to my questions. Cllr Geoffrey Theobald astonishingly refused to answer supplementary questions even from a member of the public as well as myself and other councillors. He took it upon himself to ruling they weren’t relevant to the original question and chose not to answer. The Mayor (apparently one of Theobald’s supporters in the Theobald/Mears rivalry which divides the Tory group) was more than happy to back up his personal rulings.
Cllr Dee Simson, in response to a question I raised about disabled access to taxis, claimed credit for an equalities impact assessment being run on our taxi policies. However I understand this only happened after the local Federation of Disabled People threatened legal action under the Disability Discrimination Act. Overall a disappointing questions session.
On the webcast this starts, with the unanswered public question, at 30:30 minutes.
Splitting the Sustainable Community Strategy
This document was up for adoption by the Full Council meeting. It’s drafted by local strategic partnerships so it’s really the product of joint working between a huge number of groups within the city. Extraordinarily, again with no procedural basis under the constitution, the Tories requested and were granted by the Mayor, a split vote on the document.
They wanted to vote on the Transport chapter separately, because they disagreed with some of the policies in it. This was astonishing for so many reasons: Firstly the report is supposed to be taken as a holistic view of improving the city, splitting chapters missed the point of it. Secondly the Tories had not suggested any intention of doing this at any of the pre-meeting briefings or whips’ meeting. Finally Conservative cabinet member Cllr Geoffrey Theobald chairs the Transport Partnership responsible for creating the transport chapter! So a senior Tory was officially responsible for leading its creation and now they wanted to vote against it!
A number of Greens gave passionate speeches including Cllrs Pete West and Ian Davey. Thankfully, in this case, sense prevailed and all the opposition parties outvoted the Tories. But it was really a most bizarre spectacle for the Tories to reject months of partnership work at the last minute.
This in on the webcast from 1hr 25mins.
Opposing Transformation of Full Council Meetings
The webcast probably tells the story better than I can. This whole set of proposals appalled me. It seemed to be to save Councillors and officers the hassle of having to sit through council meetings where dissent and debate could happen. Tory and Labour councillors, being whipped, know the outcomes beforehand and just want to vote on each report and go home. As they chair all but one of all the other council committee meetings, they feel rather comfortable with the state of affairs. They reckon they can have their say in other meetings.
But Full Council meetings are the only meeting where councillors have an absolute right to speak, elsewhere it’s only with the consent of the Chair. I made this and many other points in my speech. Unfortunately they had started the timer before I actually started speaking – in fact it was at 40 seconds before I was underway. Then, with a tiny bit left to finish the Mayor was quick to cut me off. She then tried to incorrectly refused fellow Green councillors’ request to give me a time extension. Many Members, including the Mayor that evening, are under the misapprehension that you need 14 votes to support an extension, but actually the rule is that if there’s no objection the Council is considered to have consented to the extension. I tried to continue but the Mayor managed to rustle up a Tory to object. Which was appallingly undemocratic given it was a speech opposing reductions in speaking times!
I was eventually silenced, despite much protestation I might add! Another Tory wanted to have a vote on excluding me from the chamber for disobeying the Mayor, but I’m grateful that the Mayor chose not to take them up on that offer. Green Cllr Rachel Fryer spoke well in seconding our amendments to remove the worst of these proposals.
Conservative Cllr Brian Oxley, who I personally get on well with, was the main speaker in favour of the proposals. Despite having spoken several times the Mayor let him go on and on with an extension – further highlighting the imbalance of opportunities for free expression in council meetings. Cllr Oxley claimed that cutting speaking times from 10 and 5 minutes (for proposers & other speakers) to 5 and 3 minutes would allow more councillors to speak. But in most cases only a few councillors wish to speak because they are knowledgeable on the matter. I think it would be far better to let a speaker properly develop their argument rather than belt out a few soundbites. But given another proposal was to limit council meetings to only 4 hours, Cllr Oxley’s eye was on hitting that deadline rather than free speech for all councillors.
Sadly none of the Green amendments were passed, though I’m thankful for the LibDem’s support against the Tory/Labour coalition which forced the ‘streamlining’ of meetings through.
This items starts on the webcast from 2hrs 12:40.
The meeting had to select a single representative to the South Downs National Park Authority. None of the other opposition parties were willing to work with us on this. Furthermore, after having been told speeches would be allowed to promote why each candidate was qualified for the post, the Mayor absolutely would not allow any speeches. This lack of speeches was supported by the other parties, which I think was a great shame. My favourite Cabinet member, Cllr G Theobald, was duly selected as the council’s representative.
All three Notices of Motion proposed that evening were agreed by the council, including two Green ones. The one I proposed on maternity services (but all credit for the motion’s drafting has to go to my seconder Cllr Amy Kennedy and our political assistant Charlie Woodworth) was also supported, though after a bit of debate including attempts by Labour to suggest my working for Netmums prejudiced my involvement with a maternity notion. Pregnancy & birth are discussed on the Times, Mumsnet, the Guardian and hundreds of other media – I really don’t think I could possibly claim a prejudicial interest. If I worked for the NHS or my wife did then yes I would accept such a need to declare an interest – but not for Netmums!
All in all it was a boisterous meeting which once again showed that when it comes to preventing alternative views, Tories & Labour stick together to block us Greens as best they can. But they won’t succeed – trying to gag us only makes us want to fight harder for what we believe in.
UPDATE: I have added timestamps for the webcast so those interested can jump to the correct portion of the video.