The recommendations, originally agreed after several long discussions at the standards committee, were presented to tonight’s cabinet, with one recommendation subtly changed.
If approved by full council, the change will mean that any member of the public wishing to ask a question or make a point about an issue not on the agenda of any committee meeting, will have to give their question in writing two days in advance.
The standards committee agreed proposals referenced giving questions in writing in advance but qualified the proposal with “where possible”, which allowed flexibility.
Unfortunately, at tonight’s cabinet, many of the senior conservatives attempted to promote this obvious restriction instead, as a move that would benefit the public.
Several suggested that residents would get a better service and answers to their questions and it would avoid committee chairman not knowing the answers.
But others were more honest and revealed that it was actually more about avoiding chairmen being taken by surprise and faced with a question that caught them out.
Here’s what happened:
A senior officer presented the paper, briefly and alluded to the changed recommendation, saying it was as a result of conversations after the last standards committee meeting.
Then Cllr Ray Bloxham gave his view. He said the altered recommendation related to questions being asked “off the cuff” at meetings and that it was much better to have a valid or detailed answer at the meeting. He insisted that it wasn’t about trying to restrict public speaking, in fact the opposite was true.
I then set out my concerns re how the standards committee had discussed the issue three times and all were agreed on the recommendations… and now at the last minute they were proposed to be overturned. I said that this had implications for democracy at EDDC and asked how could it be justified. I said the change was a restriction and could not be described otherwise.
I asked who had put the proposals forward. A senior officer replied that it was her. I asked whether the proposals were an officer only decision. The reply was that officers had discussed the issue at their senior management team meeting and it was also discussed at the cabinet briefing….(a behind closed doors meeting of senior councillors and officers).
Another senior officer said that he supported the approach and it would mean that residents would have proper answers to their questions.
Cllr David Cox said that the process of “trying to trip people up” needed to end.
Cllr Bloxham tried another tack. He said that the recommendation had already been debated at standards committee and the principle of submitting questions in advance was already supported by the standards committee.
This was a misleading remark because the standards committee recommendation contained the flexibility so that residents had the choice of whether to submit questions in advance.
Cllr Roger Giles said he would be “pretty peed off” if he were the standards committee chairman. He asked what was the point of the standards committee debating the proposals, if the cabinet overturned them.
He said that he thought councillors and officers should be able to handle unexpected questions and said it was “quite wrong” that this had happened.
Cllr Ian Thomas said he thought a “mountain was being made of a mole hill” and that there was “nothing particularly devious” about the change, as it was very similar to what the standards committee had agreed.
Cllr Douglas Hull pointed out that the standards committee had debated the issue for a long time and had come to a conclusion. He said it wasn’t up to officers to “meddle” with the report.
Cllr Tom Wright agreed with the revised recommendation. He said he would want to “guard against people who put in questions without any interest in the answer.”
Cllr Diviani said that as one of the recipients of a left field question, he would prefer to give a proper answer.
Cllr Godbeer (chair of standards committee), said that there had been a “full, honest and fine debate” on the subject. He confirmed that there had been an “absolute consensus” on the way forward and that there was agreement that there should not be any restriction on the ability for members of the public to have their say, the issue was how to manage it.
How to “field a googly” was part of that he added, and how to avoid providing a “facile or glib answer.” Cllr Godbeer confirmed that he had taken part of the discussions that followed the last standards committee meeting.
He added that in the interests of probity he thought that the report should not be presented in this way, but in the form of an amendment by a councillor.
Cllr Moulding said that they were only recommendations and would have to be agreed by full council.
Cllr Ray Bloxham continued his attempt to convince people that proposals were all virtually agreed by standards committee anyway. “I don’t understand the hoohah,” he added.
Finally, a senior officer said that the cabinet recommendation would have to go back to the standards committee before it went to full council.
The cabinet then voted in favour of the proposals.