• Asking for young campaigners to speak at February budget meeting was an “ambush”

    25th April 2014 | News | Claire
  • At yesterday’s procedures committee meeting, Cllr John Clatworthy, told me that I was wrong to ask for the young campaigners to speak at February’s budget meeting in the way that I did, because I was aware of the rules.

    The procedures committee was discussing a proposal from me to relax the rules on allowing members of the public to speak at meetings, which currently are stringent and require several days notice for submitting a written question at cabinet and council.

    The four scrutiny committees don’t have a formal public speaking agenda item, requests are allowed (or not) at the chairman’s discretion.

    Cllr Clatworthy, who was surprisingly angry with me, seemed to be suggesting I had deliberately encouraged young campaigners to flout the rules, in order to embarrass the council.  He claimed the council was presented with an “ambush.”

    I attempted to intervene because what Cllr Clatworthy was saying was not true, but he cut across me.  “I’m speaking now!” he declared.

    When he had finished, I turned to the officer I had liaised with on the issue in order to clarify that I had checked the procedure so I could pass the information on to the campaigners, which I then did.

    I was subsequently aware that the campaigners were told that they couldn’t address the meeting, I told Cllr Clatworthy, but I disagreed with that decision, so I decided to ask at the meeting itself to ask if they could have their three minutes speaking time.  I did not see this as an ambush, I said, but a way of trying to allow a group of people to have their say, at an important decision-making meeting about the budget. 

    But Cllr Clatworthy continued to insist it was an ambush because the libdem group had immediately supported the proposal to suspend standing orders.

    Of course, the youth campaigners didn’t get their say, because the conservative group voted down the proposal to allow them to speak.

    February’s controversial budget meeting and a subsequent scrutiny committee meeting where a member of the public’s request to speak about the proposed closure of a children’s home had been refused, were referred to several times during yesterday’s meeting.

    A way forward might be that cabinet, council and scrutiny committee meetings allowed 15 minutes at the start of their meetings, where members of the public could speak or ask questions about items relating to the agenda. Individual contributions should be limited to three minutes, I suggested.

    Anyone whose question could not be answered could be provided with a written answer, that was published on the website, I proposed.

    Libdem, Cllr Nick Way, supported this approach and said that not allowing youth campaigners to speak in February backfired. He added that allowing public speaking can take “the heat out of situations.” At a youth consultation meeting, the young people had made “very good points.”

    It also received qualified support from the two labour group members, Cllrs Richard Westlake and Jill Owen, who were concerned that such a system may be abused, because of what had happened in the past.

    However, Cllr Owen suggested a pilot to test out a new approach.  Cllrs Westlake and Owen were in favour of the public speaking arrangements being looked at again.

    UKIP Cllr Robin Julian, also agreed that the arrangements needed to be looked at again.

    Leader, Cllr John Hart and his deputy, Cllr Clatworthy, stoutly defended the current system of submitting a question (there is no facility for comment) several days in advance of cabinet and council (there are no formal speaking rights at the scrutiny committees).

    Cllr Clatworthy said that there should be “no surprises.”

    Cllr Hart, who thought he would probably end up on this blog for his comments, maintained that the current system was not restrictive, what had happened at the February budget meeting with the young campaigners was the right decision and described Devon County Council as a “business,” which had to have a professional approach to public participation.

    Cllr Hart said that the extraordinary meeting on Wednesday 14 May (called by the libdems and where members of the community will be entitled to address the council about budget cuts) would be a “pilot.” (however, I noted that the usual rules about registering to speak several days ahead will apply).

    Cllr Hart added that the consultations on the budget cuts gave opportunities for residents to have their say.

    Council chairman, Cllr Bernard Hughes, who was also chairing the meeting, said that as councillors we were “intermediaries” and we were there to represent people’s views.  He didn’t support changing the existing system.

    It was agreed that officers would report back to the next procedures committee meeting on public speaking arrangements and how they could be linked into the consultations for budget cuts.

    I am not convinced that there is a will to change anything at all, but I intend to continue challenging the current approach, which I don’t believe is fair, particularly at this time of huge and multiple service cuts.

    The procedures committee was not webcast.