Mr. Perrin’s blog; A Word in Your Ear.
Direct Democracy or Despotic Democracy?
AT the April, 2017 Thurrock Council Cabinet Meeting the Portfolio Holder for Finance and Legal Services, introduced his report titled “Communication Strategy 2017-20”. Cllr Hebb stated;
“The Council wants to be regarded by its residents, peers and partners as ambitious for Thurrock and focused on meeting current and future aspirations. This requires a shift-change in the way we (the Council) communicate and how we (the Council) engage with the media, residents, partners and staff”.
The part of the report dealing specifically with “Media Liaison” proved to be somewhat contentious and was a cause for concern by UKIP and Labour Councillors. The report stated:-
“The Council will (only) recognise organisations as “media” who are a member of the Independent Press Standards Association (IPSO) or equivalent regulator and comply with the “Editors Code of Practice”. Television and radio broadcasters, such as the BBC, are regulated by “OFCOM”. Any organisation which has membership of such a regulatory framework will be offered a place in the “media area” for the benefit of reporting on Council meetings. Other media organisations and reporters will be welcome to report from the public area. The (Council’s) Communications Team aims to provide an efficient and professional service to the media and treat all outlets fairly (this appears to be at odds with the previous sentence which banishes some media and reporters to the public gallery). Should a media outlet, or one of its journalists, fail to adhere to the regulators code and in particular (in the Council’s opinion) not reflect the Council’s position accurately ensuring a “right of reply”, the Council will not engage and recognise that organisation and/or journalist as “media” for a period of time determined by the Council”.
In other words if we (the Council) do not approve of what you (the media) report, even if it is accurate and fair, you will be considered “persona non grata”. Fortunately the matter has been “Called-In” and referred back for a proper debate by a meeting of Full Council.
Not content with attempts to control the media, Thurrock Council seeks to exercise its “control freakery” to questions from members of the public. Below are the Council’s Constitutional Rules regarding public participation.
Constitution, Chapter 1, Part 2 – Article 3 18 of 300
7 August 2014
PUBLIC PARTICIPATION PROCEDURE
1. When Public Participation will operate
1.1 Members of the public will be able to participate at meetings of:
(a) The Full Council
(b) The Cabinet
(c) Overview and Scrutiny Committees
(d) The Licensing Committee and Licensing Sub-Committee 1;
(e) The Planning Committee2
(f) The Standards and Audit Committee
(g) The General Services Committee
(h) The Corporate Parenting Committee
1.2 Participation at the meetings detailed at 1.1 above can be through either asking questions,
making statements or presenting petitions at a designated part of the meeting.
Constitution, Chapter 1, Part 2 – Article 3 20 of 300
25 February 2014
Procedure for Public Questions at Meetings
1.1 Members of the public can submit a question to the following meetings:
(a) Full Council
(b) Overview & Scrutiny committees
2. Questions to Full Council
2.1 Any resident of the authority’s area may submit a question to Full Council addressed to
(a) the Leader;
(b) a Member of the Cabinet; or
(c) a Chair of any Committee or Sub-Committee
(d) a Member appointed to represent the Council on a Joint Committee
2.2 The question should be delivered in writing to the Monitoring Officer, to be received by
Democratic Services at least six working days prior to a meeting of Council (for example, as
the Council usually meets on a Wednesday, the deadline for receipt of a question will be 5.00
p.m. on the Monday the week before the meeting is due to be held). The question must relate
to a matter which affects the authority or residents of the authority’s area and in relation to
which the authority has powers, and must name the individual to whom it is addressed. A
question must be concise and clearly worded and must not extend into a statement. The
question must relate to a single proposition and may not contain more than one part. No
member of the public may submit more than one question in total for any one meeting of the
2.3 The Monitoring Officer shall copy the question to the person to whom it is addressed and place it on the agenda for the next meeting of Council unless, in his/her opinion:
(a) the request does not comply with the requirements of Rule 2.2 above
(b) the question is defamatory of an individual, offensive, discloses confidential or exempt information, names or clearly identifies an employee of the authority, or otherwise infringes the proper conduct of local government
(c) the question is substantially the same as a question which has been previously been received and answered within the past year, and there has been no significant and relevant change of circumstances since the previous question was answered; or
(d) the question discloses, or the reply is likely to disclose, confidential or exempt information.
For the past ten years I have been asking a question at virtually every meeting of Full Council, it could be said my attendance has been better than some Councillors. It is only over the past year that the Monitoring Officer has seen it his “duty” to monitor questions submitted from members of the Public with such rigour that it is almost impossible to ask a question without his intervention which, in my opinion, is often petty, pedantic and without merit.
If you do not accept the Monitoring Officer’s intervention he/she has the power to arbitrarily reject the question. It could be just coincidence but this rigorous monitoring has only been exercised since the arrival of a new Chief Executive Officer and a change of Administration from Labour to Conservative in May 2016.
The Monitoring Officer may seek to impress us with his dexterity in manipulating question from members of the public, but that should not be his aim, Monitoring Officers should encourage and facilitate questions from members of the Public not place obstacles in the way.