The local government association states that one of the key roles residents expect their councillors to fulfil is to “represent their views at council meetings”. So what do you do when you are the leader of a council with an overwhelming majority and a councillor has been elected who starts doing just this – asking pertinent questions in the council chamber? What do you do when you realise that there could now be possibly 7 more of these pesky councillors fulfilling their roles?
Well if you are the leadership of Barnsley MBC you change the standing orders of the council of course to ensure that debate is stifled and accountability and scrutiny is minimised. God forbid a mere councillor would ask some awkward questions in the public forum of the council chamber.
On 23rd May at the first full council meeting of the new session of Barnsley MBC an amendment to standing orders has been tabled, proposed by council leader Sir Steve Houghton and seconded by deputy council leader Jim Andrews. This aims to change the way “Questions from elected members” are asked in full council.
This particular item on the full council agenda gives our councillors a mechanism to raise issues with the leadership of the council of interest to themselves and their constituents – a vital part of scrutiny for our council and an important part of a councillor’s duty. The problem is that until May 2018 this particular item has been rarely used. In a three year period from May 2015 to April 2018 covering 18 full council meetings only 5 questions have been raised at full council. Since May 2018, newly elected Liberal Democrat Councillor Hannah Kitching has asked questions at every council meeting using this method over a wide range of issues. Since May 2018 the level of scrutiny of the leadership of Barnsley council has increased significantly because of the addition of one councillor. Over the four year period from May 2015 to April 2019 the official opposition group, the Conservatives, asked exactly ZERO questions of the leadership of Barnsley council in the full chamber. Only two questions have been raised by councillors from the ruling Labour group over this time and one of those by a councillor I believe was sitting as an independent at the time (Cllr Phil Davies, at that time of Old Town).
The standing orders state that should a member wish to ask a question to the leadership it must be submitted one working day in advance. Once answered, that member can ask a linked supplementary question in the chamber. Importantly there is no time limit to this item on the agenda. To me, seems reasonable and clearly has been working well for a few years because hardly any councillor had been using it until Cllr Kitching arrived on the scene.
Now you would think that scrutiny and accountability would be a good thing in a healthy democracy wouldn’t you? Particularly for a council which is dominated by one party and especially when that party took a serious hit losing 7 of the 20 seats it was defending in the recent local elections and definitely when the council leader proclaims after this debacle that “we are listening”. It appears the leadership of Barnsley council don’t like scrutiny. The amendment proposed by the leadership would change the standing orders of the council so that instead of 1, 6 working days notice is required to be given, it will remove the right of the councillor to ask a linked supplementary question and places a strict 30 minute deadline on this particular agenda item. In other words the listening leadership of Barnsley Council’s answer to an increased level of scrutiny from elected members is to stifle debate and curtail scrutiny. How very democratic!
For far too long Barnsley council chamber has been a rubber stamping charade for an out of touch and arrogant leadership aided and abetted by an incompetent opposition who wouldn’t know the meaning of opposition if it was pointed out to them in the Oxford English Dictionary. As soon as councillors enter the chamber who want to ask serious and awkward questions on behalf of the residents of Barnsley they are shut down either in the chamber or by changing the goal posts. If this is Sir Steve Houghton’s response to losing 7 seats last May and laissez-faire attitude to democracy, how many is he prepared to lose next May?
An interesting addendum to this is that Cllr Kitching and newly elected Lib Dem Cllr Steve Hunt are proposing their own amendment to standing orders. This would actually allow questions from the public to be submitted to the leadership of the council during full council meetings. Be interesting to see if this act of expanding democracy passes the scrutiny of the ruling Labour group?