Council questions under the spotlight

Written questions would ‘stifle’ democracy, says opposition leader.

A SENIOR North Devon Councillor has criticised what he sees as a move to stifle debate in the council chamber.

Shadow leader Des Brailey said a proposal to change part of the constitution giving backbenchers the right to ask questions at full council would be a blow to democracy.

Non-executive members can currently ask the leader of the council, and executive portfolio holders, questions on any aspect of their areas of responsibility during a specially allocated time at meetings.

But if proposals endorsed by the procedures committee are eventually passed, an amendment to a standing order would mean questions need to put in writing and submitted to officers at least 48 hours in advance.

The recommendation was rebuffed at last week’s meeting, Cllr Brailey among the chief objectors.

He said: “I objected strongly to the proposal; I saw it as a clever ploy to try and stifle democracy.

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“Full council is all about debating – it’s part of the constitution. But they want to pre-plan any questions; they don’t want any surprises – they don’t want to be caught out.

“If I submit a written question before the meeting it’s very unlikely that it will be answered by the portfolio holder. It will go to an officer beforehand and their answer will be read out at council.

“This is not what you want; you want portfolio holders to stand on their feet and answer the question.

“Sometimes the leader or the lead member may say I don’t have the answer but I’ll find out and put it in writing and that’s quite acceptable and democratic – that’s part of the process and I fully accept that.

“But I’m in opposition and as part of my remit I need to hold those in administration to account and they were trying to stifle us.

“Democracy should be seen to be open and questions should be asked by backbenchers, certainly during full council meetings.

“The debate needs to be open and transparent for people to see and understand that their council tax is being used wisely.”

In response to Mr Brailey, Council Leader Brian Greenslade said: “There is no proposal to stop councillors asking questions at council, merely a discussion to try and structure question time so that the administration can do a more comprehensive job in replying to members questions. The system suggested is precisely the same as that used by Cllr Brailey’s colleague Cllr Hart at County Hall.”

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