It might come as a surprise, but Medway Council meetings are fairly lively affairs compared to some councils. A turnout of 50 people in the public gallery is hardly unheard of (though few last to the end!), public questions will often overrun their allotted time, and it’s not unusual for the council to receive heckling, jeering, or other forms of protest. It’s those last couple of points that are most relevant here, as the council has decided it’s had enough of those pesky members of the public who want to ask questions.
I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to get an answer out of your local councillor, but it can be a pretty trying exercise. Granted, if you want them to come and cut the ribbon at your fete, they’ll be there double quick, but if you actually have questions, things get tricky. Email or tweet them and you’ll likely get no response. Attend one of their occasional ‘surgeries’ and you’ll almost certainly get a non-committed, evasive, if polite, response to your concerns. One of the few ways to publicly make a point to a councillor is at one of the six public meetings of Medway Council that take place each year.
As it stands, any resident of Medway can submit a question to the council, and as long as it’s somewhat relevant to the authority, a response has to be given. Any person can submit multiple questions (though those with one take priority over a second etc.), and a substitute can ask the question at the meeting if you can’t attend due to work or ill-health or the such. Most importantly, after asking your question and getting a response, you’re allowed a ‘short, supplementary question’. While the first question can have a carefully prepared answer, the councillor will not know what the supplementary question will contain, so it’s the one time they won’t always be speaking in the boring shared voice of the council.
All of which means the administration has had more than enough of this kind of challenging behaviour.
This recommendation will be put to the council this Wednesday, following absolutely no consultation whatsoever. It’s vague, it’s heavy handed, and it’s a borderline affront to democracy. You can read the full report on the changes here.
There is certainly a place for limited reform of public questions. The rule limiting answers to three minutes is sensible, if only for the sake of Cllr Chitty’s incredible ability to go on and on and on and on in response to questions. There’s even a case to be made for limiting each member of the public to one question. The council is often faced with large numbers of questions covering the same topic worded in different ways, and so a compromise could be found there.
Where it all falls apart is the removing of the supplementary question. As mentioned earlier, this has been a long-standing method of asking a councillor a proper question, and it’s removal is deeply worrying for the way that Medway Council would like to conduct business. Removing substitutes has no real practical purpose at all other than to limit the number of questions that can be asked. More concerning is vague rule of limiting any ‘organisation’ one question per meeting. In three years of attending these meetings, I’ve never seen a question come from an organisation, only members of the public. Unless the council is going to get into the very dangerous business of defining questions from members of political parties as such.
One legitimate complaint that some have with public questions is that opposition parties have their members submit questions that challenge the council to make a political point. All parties do this to a certain extent (with the exception of UKIP who were never that organised) – Labour are masters of the craft, the Lib Dems manage a few questions at every meeting, and even the Tories do so when they need an easy political point or to raise awareness of potential future councillors. It’s a bit of a crap way to do things, but it does still raise legitimate political issues, and is often the only route a smaller party will have to gain any attention for their issues. From the text set out in the report above, it wouldn’t be entirely impossible for the administration to deem swathes of questions as being from a single political organisation, and thus rejecting them en masse. There’s no suggestion that this is the council’s intent, but the fact it can’t be ruled out from the document demonstrates how sloppily this idea has been put together.
The reaction from the Medway Twitterati has been fierce, with members of Labour, UKIP, the Lib Dems, and ordinary members of the public lining up to condemn the move.
So at the first full council meeting after the election we see the start of the erosion of democracy and complete disregard for residents
— Vince Maple (@vincemaple) August 4, 2015
Who is here to serve whom? Pretty low tactics to curb public participation. We should extend engagement with citizens not curtail it.
— Tris Osborne (@cllrtrisosborne) August 4, 2015
— Sue Groves MBE (@SUEG46) August 4, 2015
There’s little doubt that these limits to public democratic discourse will be adopted by the council – the ruling Tories hold a substantial majority which allows them full control over all scrutiny and decision-making, and there’s little incentive to face public questions when the average person takes little notice of these things. But an important part of the democratic process is being chipped away, and if they get away with this part unnoticed, who knows what will be the next thing to go?