The new council leader has backed down on plans to prevent members of the public asking oral questions at full council meetings. He had proposed that members of the public would be allowed to ask questions in writing only, without the option of asking a supplementary question arising from the answer.
Last week, I published a plan by Shropshire Council’s new leader to ban the public from asking questions at council meetings. There is some dispute within the council as to whether the committee paper I cited is confidential. I got instructions to withdraw the post. That censorship made headlines.
Many councillors I have spoken to think the paperwork I published is not secret in any way. Senior officers insist it is and have called me in for a meeting next week. I have rather felt I’ve been put on the naughty step.
Whatever the status of the paper, my view was that it was in the public interest for the plan to be known. Anything that attacks democracy and limits the ability of members of the public to make their voice heard must be opposed from the first moment. I do not believe for one minute that the proposed ban would have been rescinded so quickly, or at all, if I had not spoken out.
Fortunately, the council’s Political Structures Monitoring Group has decided reject the leader’s proposal in favour of more sensible arrangements. The group’s recommendation made last Wednesday will go to full council next Thursday. The council paper is not yet published but the media have been briefed, so I am sure I can speak out about it.
The revised plans will retain public questions at the beginning of the committee meeting. A written question will be submitted and a written response will be tabled as before. The questioner then has the option of asking a supplementary question. This must be related to the original question and no more than three minutes must be taken up in asking the question. That’s about right. It helps to spend a couple of minutes setting the context before asking a specific question.
The councillor replying to the question will be given the customary five minutes to speak. This long enough in my view. No one should speak for ten minutes in council unless special circumstances arise.
This was an unfortunate episode for the new leader. The public questions procedure could have been tightened up by the Speaker without any recourse new regulations and all the fuss that has been caused by this episode.
When Keith Barrow ran the council, there was a preference to keep as much as possible out of the public gaze. That habit seems to be continuing under Malcolm Pate. Secret portfolio holder sessions are still being held to make vital decisions. And this attempt to ban public speaking at council was ill judged.
If Shropshire Council is to achieve its ambitions of delivering far more services through local communities, it needs to open out. It needs to think public first and secret second.