Last week Democratic Service Officers at B&NES informed all Councillors that any petition, statements or deputation must be submitted in writing two full days before a Council or Cabinet meeting. It would appear that at a Group Leaders Meeting this decision was agreed. However at Full Council on Thursday 24th March 2022, it appears that both the conservative Leader, Cllr Vic Pritchard and Labour Group Leader, Cllr Robin Moss had not agreed with this change to the constitution.
For many years the Council has had in place a line in the constitution which states:
“All items must be submitted in writing (this to include transmission by e mail). Advance notice of the petition, statement or deputation, setting out the subject matter must be lodged with the Council Solicitor no later than 2 clear working days before the meeting at which the submission is to be made.”
For many years this line has been understood that residents or Councillors had to submit in writing a title of their speech and that this could be submitted in full to the Council before or even after their statement was made. That the words could be spoken and did not have to be read verbatim. It would now appear that all petitions, statements or deputation have to be written in full and submitted 2 days before the relevant meeting. No other words can be spoken.
Some Councillors are deeply unhappy about this decision and the way it has been delivered. Questioning the understanding of the constitution and why the present Liberal Democrat led administration have decided to do this. It would appear that this new enactment of the rule could mean in my opinion that many are intimidated from speaking at B&NES democratic meetings.
However according to CEO Will Godfrey the council officers are only applying rules which are agreed by councillors.
An open letter was sent by Gill Kirk to all Councillors on the 24th March 2022 stating:
An open letter to Bath & NE Somerset Council Chief Executive Will Godfrey and all councillors; also for publication to Bath Chronicle.
Statements to Council from the Public
I am writing with concern about this week’s speedy change in interpretation of Council guidelines on what members of the public need to submit before speaking. The new interpretation of the rules insists that anyone wishing to speak at Council must submit the entirety of their speech in advance, rather than the main points they plan to make.
I’m a very well (state) educated communications professional. I’m almost 50 and I’m notoriously chatty. I have spoken in Council, once, on libraries under the last administration, and at work, I coach very senior professionals in public speaking. And I know without a doubt that people from all walks of life find public speaking intimidating. Even me, with all my experience in the field.
Mr Godfrey, Councillors – have you forgotten how daunting even the simple idea of telling the council your point of view can be? When you care passionately about an issue, feel this space isn’t “for the likes of me”, or “I’m no good at this kind of thing,” it’s even more intimidating. As you all know, the vast majority of people won’t do this proactively unless they really have to. You know it’s often only at the doorstep or in a mass public meeting that public voices get heard. (Social media isn’t for everyone, by any stretch of the imagination.)
So without a doubt, this – at best “tightened”, at worst, new – requirement to submit your speech in advance is an extra hurdle and new barrier to democratic participation.
Neither select committees in Parliament nor the courts ask for full advance text when they hear evidence. Yet the set-up, experientially and psychologically for people not used to Council, isn’t so different.
I would have hoped our Council’s Chief Executive and leading councillors would put equity of democratic access at the front of their minds. This forgetful, thoughtless slip -because I hope that is all it is – is disappointing and exclusionary. I very much hope you will reconsider. Of course, this isn’t about party policies, and the Council officers are above that. It’s much more important – it’s about democratic access. I ask you to apply a simple litmus test- will this change increase democratic access? If not, it is wrong.
Yours sincerely, with hope and respect
Gill Kirk, Widcombe, Bath”
I have responded to this letter stating:
“Thank you Gill Kirk for sending in this email.
Over 10 years ago I first spoke for 3 minutes at a Full Council. And with me at the time was my nine year old son who was passionate about getting a skatepark built in the local community. He did not understand the rules and regulations. He knew he had to stand up and speak. That he had to prepare himself and that took time and help from us as his parents. He would have failed to understand that his words would have to be in place two days before for adults to know about what he had to say. We had to help him over many days and the hours before on his words and how best to say things. Fortunately he was an able reader, from an organised household. So many in the community do not have these advantages or struggle with dyslexia or English is not their first language.
Many Cllrs are invariably white and from middle class backgrounds and secure home lives, who have been educated. Many of our residents do not always have the same opportunities that we have. And I guess the way the previous system worked was that it recognised that speaking for 3 minutes to Cllrs was not about “us” the councillors, but about “them” the resident. Being given time and space to be listened as part of the democratic process.
I know my son was terrified by the procedures and rules and he wondered if he had got things right on the night. He was afraid of breaking the rules and I do not think he would have spoken if he had to give his words in writing to the council 2 days before. The skatepark took another 10 years before it was built last spring. It is full of people everyday and has transformed the lives for many in this community.
It would seem that this understanding of how everyday people understand democracy, justice and transparency has now been lost in the council’s drive to obey the constitution to the letter. I believe we are all the poorer for this decision.
As a sole Green I am not officially a group and therefore can have no representation on the presently ongoing working group developing the B&NES constitution.
best wishes Joanna”