Questions from councillors have proved to be one of the most effective ways of extracting information from PCC’s ruling elite.
So effective indeed, that when they were in power, the IPPG were constantly on the lookout for ways of curtailing members’ rights to ask questions.
I recall IPPG ex-councillor and deputy leader Rob Lewis once proposing that questions should be filtered so that only those considered important made their way on to the agenda.
As the filtering was to have been the province of the ruling group, that proved to be a bridge too far for even its more illiberal members and the idea was quietly dropped.
In order to strengthen this line of accountability the latest revision of the constitution introduced the right for the public to submit questions to full council.
As a member of the working group set up back in 2014 to rewrite the constitution, I was actively involved in drawing up the rules for these public questions.
Clearly, as it couldn’t be open to all, the right had to be restricted in some way and the chosen criteria were that only those persons who qualified to stand as candidates in local elections would be allowed to ask questions.
There was also an issue around personation so the following provision was included:
4.9.8 Members of the public must attend personally and identify themselves to the Head of Legal and Democratic Services prior to the commencement of the meeting and if they do not do so then the question will not be put at the meeting.
David Edwards identified a problem with this rule in that it might lead to loss of wages for any working person having to attend a council meeting commencing at 10.00 am, so he put in the following question to the July meeting of council:
In order to ask a question at a Council meeting I have to be present at the meeting. As a retired, anorak-wearing member of the awkward squad I can do so. However, if I was a working, single parent I would not be able to participate so fully in the democratic process.
Does the Leader agree that the current rules for asking questions at council disadvantage working people and, if so, ask the relevant Scrutiny Committee to see how this democratic deficit can be narrowed?
The minutes record that the Leader, no doubt reading from a brief provided by council officers, pointed out that:
“…the public were required only to confirm their identity prior to the meeting, which could be done at any time prior to 10 am “
“…the question must be put in ten days prior [to the meeting] thereby the person could, when handing the question in, identify themselves at that moment in time.”
That didn’t accord with David Edwards’ understanding of the rules and, following the meting he emailed the Leader referring him to the guidance notes on the council’s website:
“You must attend the meeting in person and identify yourself to the Head of Legal services or her representative prior to the meeting”
“We will need to see evidence of identity on the day of the meeting”.
He also referred to the email he received from the council confirming receipt of his question which said:
“Please ensure that you are present at the meeting and make yourself known prior to the meeting to one of my team”.
In addition, he referred to the chairman’s practice of asking questioners in the public gallery to identify themselves before their question was read out.
Dissatisfied with the Leader’s response to these points, David Edwards decided to seek clarification by submitting a further question to the October council meeting.
Indeed, he submitted two further questions – the maximum number allowed at any one meeting:
Question 1. Currently, Pembrokeshire only recycles plastic if it is bottle shaped and in Classes PET 1 or HDPE 2. What plans, and in what time-scale, does the council have to increase the number of classes of plastic that we can recycle, so doing away with the need to put plastic in the black bag for collection?
Question 2. In answer to my question at the July Council meeting the Leader, relying on a brief provided by the Legal Department and confirmed by the Monitoring Officer, informed the meeting that as Questioners did not have to attend the meeting or produce identification on the day, but could do so when submitting their question, no one was at any disadvantage.
Will he now confirm that the information he was given by the Legal Department and the Monitoring Officer was wrong and that the Council website and the Committee Clerk’s confirmatory email to Questioners stating “You must attend the meeting and bring identification with you” is correct.
Therefore, will he revisit the question and in future when receiving advice from the Legal Department and/or the Monitoring Officer seek a second opinion? I believe that a Mr Goudie QC offers Pembrokeshire County Council favourable rates.
As will be seen, David Edwards hadn’t reckoned with the razor-sharp minds of the council’s legal eagles:
Dear Mr Edwards,
I have been advised that your questions have exceeded the maximum of two permitted questions.
In regards to Q1, there are two questions concerning plans and separately time scales.
Turning to Q2, there are 4 questions – confirm the advice was wrong, that the webpage/ officer was right; revisit question and seek second opinion.
I therefore write to you to seek your view on whether you wish to resubmit a maximum of 2 questions otherwise the Head of Legal and Democratic Services has advised that she is minded just to take Q1.
To get round these roadblocks, Mr Edwards resubmitted his questions with “plans” omitted from Q1, and Q2 rewritten to conclude: “Clearly the information given by the legal department and confirmed by the monitoring officer was a load of old cobblers and should be ignored” and “Would he consider that, in future, when provided with a brief from either of these two unreliable sources he should seek a second opinion?
Back came the news that the Chairman had accepted Q1, but had rejected Q2 on the new grounds that: “it failed to pass the test in Procedure Rule 4.9.2(d) Section 3 Part 2 of the constitution.”
For those interested in these arcane matters, Procedure Rule 4.9.2 is designed to prevent the same question being repeated in any six-month period.
David Edwards disputed that this was the same question:
“My question in July was about the requirement of questioners to attend the meeting. My question this time is about the incompetence of the Legal Department in providing the Leader with an incorrect briefing note.”
But the chairman, Cllr Aden Brinn, was standing firm.
Mr Edwards was told: “He [chairman, Cllr Brinn] considers that the question is substantially the same as a question which was submitted at the last council, and he advises that he is not minded to put before council offensive comments about chief officers.”
I suppose “load of old cobblers” and “unreliable sources” might be considered “offensive” but one of the beauties of living in an open democracy is that citizens are under no obligation to be nice to public officials and the chairman is treading on dangerous ground if he thinks he can unilaterally impose such a rule.
Think how much better it would have been if the Leader had simply stood up and said: “I thank Mr Edwards for bringing this anomaly to the council’s attention. I will ensure that the matter is put on the agenda for the next meeting of the corporate governance committee with a view to finding a way to address the problem he has identified…”