I’m aware that my posts can be a bit long, and there’s a fair bit to say on this meeting, so I’ll split it into three posts. This one, followed by part two on a couple of cuts, and part three on the town centre economy.
I’ll start with my part in the meeting.
At Cabinet, the public are allowed to ask a question. The rules are pretty strict – you can only ask one question, and basically you get a written answer which is read out at the meeting and there’s no opportunity to come back. There were two questions this time (I’ve not seen any before). The first was about how the Cabinet membership was chosen, and whether any Cabinet votes had been split (ie: had any dissenting votes) since the Conservatives took control. The answer to this was, that Cabinet positions were chosen ‘on merit’ and that they’d held no recorded votes, so there was no occasion on which a dissenting vote had been noted since the Conservatives took control and held all of the seats on Cabinet.
My question came next, and it’s a long one:
In seeking to obtain information from Rugby Borough Council at its meetings, I have found some considerable difficulty.
Firstly, it seems that Standing Order 9 is not applied at the moment for ordinary Full Council Meetings, so the most appropriate forum for direct public questions is the Cabinet.
Secondly, members of the public and ‘organisations’ are restricted to asking only a single question in only one part, and apparently unable to ask a verbal supplementary question in case of need for clarification etc.
Thirdly, unlike the Full Council, Cabinet meets at 5:30pm and is not convenient for people who work normal hours or are based outside the town of Rugby.
Fourthly, the website is confusing in that there were errors and contradictions in how to ask a question (which may now be fixed) and the full rules are not explained at the page where questions are submitted, and so it took some time to get through to the right area and in the correct format.
Fifthly, questions have to be submitted several days in advance (in practice for Monday meetings) and so topical or last-minute questions cannot be given.
Sixthly, at the last Full Council meeting, written responses to Members’ questions under Standing Order 10 were not made available to the public in the order papers, but were not explicitly embargoed, limiting the availability of information to hand to the public at the time of the meeting.
Seventhly, the problems above did not apply at all to the Borough in which I previously lived or, as far as I am aware, in many other district-level authorities, and so it would seem that Rugby is out of step with current practice and the process is confusing even for those who are used to asking questions elsewhere.
Can I ask whether the Cabinet member responsible feels that these problems are in any way likely to be conducive to encouraging open public participation at Rugby Borough Council meetings and what plans, if any, there are to further improve participatory democracy at the authority?
The reply was as follows (with my commentary in brackets)
Mr Richards is correct that, at present, Council has not introduced public questions at its meetings. The public can however ask questions at Cabinet meetings as Mr Richards has pointed out. Members of the public are restricted to one question each so that as many people as possible have the chance to ask questions during the 15 minutes question time.
[Well, yeah, I know that I can ask a question at Cabinet, because I was doing it. But I notice that question time took about 5 minutes to complete, and that was with a particularly long (sorry!) question and answer. The whole public portion of the meeting took less than an hour. So there doesn’t appear to be a problem with time]
Cabinet and all Council committees meet at 5.30pm. The start time tries to achieve a balance between a time which is convenient for working councillors and members of the public and allowing enough time to complete the business of the meeting. So many people work shifts and non standard days, as well as commuting considerable distances that it would be difficult to arrange meetings at a convenient time for everyone.
[I can see that there’s a balance to be struck, but again, I note that the meeting was over (for the public anyway) by 6.30pm. I’ve been t a few Council meetings, and they are usually fairly short. So I don’t buy the idea that there’s a pressure to get business done. Perhaps if there were were more meaningful debate it may be different, but there’s not that much going on. While some people work shifts, you can’t legislate for that. But that people have to commute would, I’d have thought, suggested that a later start might be appropriate than an early one. For people who work the classic 9-to-5, that leaves half an hour to get from work to the Town Hall, which isn’t feasible for everyone.]
I am sorry that Mr Richards had difficulty in navigating his way round the Council’s website in order to ask his question. Democratic Services staff will check the relevant pages to ensure that it is as simple as possible to submit a question. Although our Standing Orders say that questions for Cabinet must be submitted 8 days before the meeting, in practice our web pages only ask for the question by the Friday before the Cabinet meeting. This in my view does allow for topical questions to be submitted.
[Well, I won’t go into the details, but there were several little issues to get over on the website, such as an incorrect email address, which differed from the text, and the link to the submission form not working. Hopefully some techies are bashing the code to fix it. On notice, I note that the Council are willing to loosen Standing Orders on that, but not on other aspects. Secondly, even a few days’ notice may be too long – if someone had wanted to ask a question about the recent weather, based on something that happened on Friday afternoon, they’d have had to miss out – besides, having to provide the full text up front may mean that the answer can be prepared, but it also means that new information can’t be included. I’d not mind if the honest response was “We can’t answer this in full now, but will get back to you in writing or after the meeting…”]
Standing Order 10 of the Council’s Constitution does not require written answers to questions of councillors to be circulated to members of the public attending the meeting. However, I am happy that for all future meetings of the Council, copies of questions will be made available to the public at the meeting.
[This was the original question I was wanting to get answered, but due to the hassle I ended up adding bits over time. I’ll see what happens next time around then. At the last Full Council meeting, detailed questions were asked by a Lib Dem councillor, and the response was quite long, but of course us members of the public couldn’t see it, and it was of interest (to me at least – it concerned taxpayers’ money).]
I note what Mr Richards says about his experience of trying to ask questions at Cabinet and I’m sorry that it compares unfavourably with his experience elsewhere. It is always helpful to receive feedback in this way. I can assure Mr Richards that the Constitution Review Working Party, which has just been set up, will be asked to consider how we can encourage public participation at Council and Cabinet meetings, and his comments will be taken into account.
[So, no commitments to make any changes, but I suppose I’ll have to wait and see what the CRWP comes up with and then whether Cabinet favours it, and then whether Full Council accepts it – which may have to be at an AGM which happens after the May elections]
Now, it just so happens that at this evening’s meeting, there was a report from the Planning Committee, with a recommendation to “to recommend to Council that the introduction of public speaking at Planning Committee be implemented as soon as possible with full costings being submitted as part of the 2010/2011 budget process”.
I was interested to note that Cabinet decided to delay doing anything on this, on the basis that the Council Chamber isn’t suitable (even though I could apparently have asked my question without needing a change to the Chamber). So my hopes that they will want to open things up are not particularly high.