Thursday, 15 October 2015

Public Questions at Council

Undoubtedly the most contentious issue at tonight's ordinary meeting of the full Medway Council – which will be starting half an hour later than usual, because of a special item of business just before – will probably be the elimination of supplementary questions from the public. The published questions will remain, but not the (more often than not) politically-loaded secondary 'supplementary' question.

Here is the agenda for tonight's meeting.

I am not surprised at this action, owing to the ongoing abuses of this facility over the years. There is no legal right to it, and it is something that I have witnessed creating ever more difficulties for getting to and through the proper business of the Council – all that is on the agenda that affects many more, perhaps all in some instances, of the quarter of a million residents of Medway, not just those with a one-issue agenda that they wish to push. Usually there will be a body of Lefty 'rent-a-crowd' in the public gallery, supporting them and heckling and/or booing the responders.

The abuses of the public questions agenda item have always been most evident in the run-up to either the council's own elections or a General Election. This year we had both of those on the same day!

One clue is in how the public questions then become dominated by candidates from opposition parties, mainly Labour but also a fair few from other parties. The first question, which has to be okay-ed by the Chief Executive of the council with legal advice from the Monitoring Officer, is obviously constrained by legal and constitutional restrictions, and is seen by the member who is to respond so an answer can be prepared. The (supposedly brief) supplementary, however, is completely unknown to the responder until it is asked.

Far too many of these have been non-questions, over-long, and party politically dominated, especially in those election run-up periods. There are many other aspects that look very much like an abuse of the facility, and the rest of us in the public gallery have to wait for all this guff to be got out of the way before the meeting reaches the real business of the evening. Why should we have to? Don't we count?

Perhaps public questions should be made the last agenda item...

A little history might be useful here. Some years ago, when I was on the elected Council, I brought to a meeting of the Conservative Group my own misgivings about the supplementary question business, anticipating exactly what has since come to pass. Nearly all those who participated in the ensuing discussion, from all parts of the 33-strong group, defended the supplementaries – some quite robustly. Thus I know with absolute certainly that this isn't a 'Conservative plot to stop proper public scrutiny' (as has been claimed) or anything of the sort.

As always in this life, abuse something too much, too often, and you risk losing it altogether. The current proposals are just a warning shot across the bows, leaving Medway as still one of the better councils in this regard (many other councils have much greater restrictions, such as only one question per meeting and only two per year) though not one of the very 'best', if one thinks along such lines.

When I was campaigning for one thing or another, I applied intelligence rather than 'mob rule' (as one can sometimes witness at Council meetings here) so was able to achieve a number of good outcomes, most of which very few folk realise I even had that big a hand in(!) How much have the 'usual suspects' and their fellow-travellers achieved via their methods? A tiny fraction, between the lot of them!

There is a lesson there for those with enough brain cells to realise it – and to suss out that, it many instances, the real campaigners are being politically manipulated. That too is something I have witnessed a number of times, including Labour candidates and former members among the rent-a-crowd I mentioned above, and I have noticed them starting off the bad behaviour on more than one occasion.

The best results come from respecting structures such as Council meetings – which were agreed by all parties involved, by the way – and not giving those in control any reason to take away anything from the current structure/format. Tonight's expected changes are a case of cause-and-effect, and the cause has been the mounting body of evidence – all captured on audio – that the present rules have become untenable because of the public's (some of them!) long-term and ongoing abuses.

Put the boot on the other foot: what would you do?

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