Speech: Opposing proposals to transform council meetings

Presented to the Full Council meeting of Brighton & Hove City Council on 18th March 2010 in relation to Item 68 of the agenda which aimed to dramatically cut the amount of time for councillors to speak and ask questions:

Sat together this evening in this chamber, we 54 councillors represent the over quarter million residents of our wonderful city. They have entrusted in us the great responsibility of the stewardship of the city and its public services. It is a duty we must undertake with humility, dedication and honour.

When seeing the proposals before us to restrict debates, limit member questions and guillotine meetings; one must ask — is the duty of public service too great for some? Are eight meetings of this council a year too many? Are a few long meetings too much to take when debating this city’s wellbeing?

The proposals suggest four hours is the most we should endure in a council meeting. That equates to less than half a second for each resident of this city. Is that really the most we can offer? On this side of the chamber we feel matters should be debated fully and properly.

I believe the sterile, unopposed cabinet system is seeping too far into this Council’s constitution. Despite their very public wailing and gnashing of teeth, Labour and Tory councillors forced through the new cabinet system. Now full council meetings are the only forum in which members have an absolute right to speak. At every other meeting we can only speak with the chair’s permission, leaving full council the last preserve of free debate between members. Yet these proposals, which both Labour and Tories are reportedly happy to wave through, further reduce the opportunity for dissent and debate.

We are not clerks trying to speed up some repetitious process. We are democratically elected representatives. We follow in a long line stretching all the way back to the elected senators of ancient Athens where discourse was a thing of note. I believe we should aspire to greatness in this chamber instead of this appalling streamlining.

Let us examine the report presenting these unwelcome proposals. We must first reject the notion that more motions or more questions are inherently something to be avoided, in my view they reflect a healthy interest in the workings of the council.

I must say the appendices are deeply misleading and unhelpful. They cite no councils with our status of no overall control, nor our diversity of elected parties. For example Westminster City Council is overwhelmingly Conservative, with a few Labour councillors and no other parties. Southampton: Again Conservative majority with two other parties. Same again for West Sussex.

If one looks in appendix 2 at the number of notices of motion per council meeting, it is notable that we seem to be unique in having so many of our scant meetings taken up with special business which blocks such motions, these meetings include the budget and the mayor making. Greens strongly feel that the most sensible way to spread the load would be to have more full council meetings. This is especially vital given they are the only place where we can all debate issues freely.

Cllr Fryer will speak to our amendment 6. We are withdrawing amendment 5 as officer clarification has shown it to be unnecessary. I shall address the remainder now in reverse order.

Given the importance of freedom of expression we oppose the reduction in speaking times and propose an amendment accordingly. We must allow ourselves 10 minutes to develop an argument properly, anything less is only going lead to a poorer quality of debate.

Similarly, capping the number of notices of motion allowed merely acts to limit our freedom of speech. It is impossible to know which issues will arise and sometimes two motions won’t be enough to deal with the matters at hand. Opposition councillors have scant opportunities to formally seek support for issues they consider important, we must defend this avenue hence our amendment on this issue.

On the matter of questions, an issue dear to my heart, the picture is more mixed. I welcome the opportunity for a system of written questions akin to that used in Parliament. However, the proposed oral questions procedure is half baked. Limiting members to only one oral question each, plus a supplementary, will block comprehensive attempts in holding an administration to account.

Members each have their own areas of expertise and ward interests. At certain times, say of industrial action or a heat wave, their knowledge in asking pointed questions is valuable to the whole council and residents in getting to the bottom of an issue.

If the concern is about the time questions take, perhaps the Conservatives would pledge to stop asking pre-arranged questions of each other? This offer has not been forthcoming; so again we propose amendments to the recommendations on member questions.

Finally with regards to automatically closing meetings after 4 hours. As I mentioned, I don’t believe a few long council meetings a year is too much for our residents to ask of us. And of course the meetings continue to have rule 17 to allow a closure motion if absolutely necessary. Automatic closure is unnecessary and undemocratic in our view.

All these items come back to the question of what are we here in this chamber for: Is it for the efficient despatch of business or to properly deliberate matters on behalf of residents? We believe it is the latter and this requires a decent amount of time.

Who of us here tonight hasn’t referred to one of Churchill’s great speeches or bemoaned the increasing focus on soundbite politics? Yet if these proposals go through there will be no time for Churchillian speechifying, all we will have time for will be the soundbites most claim to decry. If these proposals are approved, we will be doing a huge disservice to ourselves and those we are elected to represent.

I urge you to reconsider this matter and support the Green amendments. Thank you.

GREEN GROUP AMENDMENTS

ITEM 68 – Proposals for Transforming Meetings of Full Council

Council Meeting 18th March 2010

Amendment 1.

To remove the automatic closure of council meetings after 4 hours, ensuring matters of importance to the city are fully debated.

DELETE 4.3 and REPLACE with “4.3 Members should note that a meeting can be closed by use of Council Procedure Rule 17.”

Amendment 2.

To remove arbitrary limits from member questions so that issues can be fully explored and administration Councillors can be properly held to account.

DELETE 5.4 (a) and DELETE the final sentence of 5.4 (d) so that it reads:

“5.4 (d) A Member asking a question (but not others) may ask one supplementary. No Member may ask more than one question.”

Amendment 3.

To remove the proposed limit in the number of Notices of Motions that can be submitted, thus keeping freedom of expression for all Councillors.

DELETE 6.2 (i) and (ii) and REPLACE with “6.2 Members should keep in mind the length of Council meetings when submitting Notices of Motion.”

Amendment 4.

To retain existing time limits for speakers at Council meetings to allow proper debate.

REPLACE 8.2 (i) with “8.2 (i) Speaking time limits will remain unchanged at 10 minutes for proposers and 5 minutes for other speakers.”

Amendment 5. [WITHDRAWN]

To require cross-party support for second extensions for speakers so that the administration party cannot keep voting extensions for their speakers.

ADD 8.2 (iii) “Second extensions of speaker time will only be granted with the agreement of the Council including at least one member of another political party or an independent member.”

Amendment 6.

To split the mayor-making from the standard business of the annual Council meeting so that debate can be held on appointments and other business.

ADD a new recommendation 2.2 (iv):

“The annual Council meeting will be held in two parts. The ordinary business including agreement of leadership, committee and external appointments will be held first. After a 15 minute break during which guests can be seated, the Mayor-making will commence.”

Proposed by: Cllr Jason Kitcat

Seconded by: Cllr Rachel Fryer

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s