Green Party Response to Lib Dem changes to the B&NES Council Constitution

Since 2002 residents and councillors have made statements by setting out the subject matter with Democratic Services, but they have not always had to supply a full written text. I myself as a Councillor have over the years contacted Democratic Services and given the subject of my statement and nothing further. 

But no longer and it appears to me that the reason is very much about this Lib Dem administration wanting to take control over what is said and how they can mitigate against any statements that appear critical or question their actions.  The absolute need to control all voices of dissent throughout the council’s chambers are now being met with a rewriting of the constitution so that those in power can insure containment or be fully prepared with a PR response. 

This Council has not yet voted on any changes to the constitution.  Yet in the last few weeks many residents have been told that they can only make a statement with a full written transcript two days in advance of any meetings.

I would like to ask the Monitoring Officer, as the Sole Green Party member at B&NES why I was not invited, consulted or given any information about this constitutional working group and the decisions that it has been taking since November 2021?

Has this broken any constitutional rules?

As the sole Green I have not been able to give any views to this working group.  This appears to be an egregious democratic deficit.  I am aware that as a sole Green I do not form a group, but that does not mean that the Leadership of this Authority should necessarily exclude my representation on the changes to the council’s constitution.  The Liberal Democrats were elected on a vision of openness and transparency. If the Monitoring officer were to pronounce that no illegality has taken place, the Leadership at B&NES could easily still have made the decision and choice to be inclusive of all members.        

This is not a fair way to govern and more over appears to be the very opposite of the role of a councillor.  According to the Local Government Administration, “a Councillor’s primary role is to represent their ward and, you need to build strong relationships and encourage local people to make their views known and engage with you and the council.”

Some Councillors are arguing that it is necessary for councillors to be given time to consider statements.  The role of a Councillor is to find the best way to support and advocate for residents. How residents talk to the council should be up to the resident.

These new rules, or the recast understanding of the constitution, harms many residents including the elderly, those with disabilities and medical conditions, young people, those with literacy issues or where English is not their first language. Submitting a full written speech is a much more significant ask for some than others. This Lib Dem Council is purposely penalising many residents for no other reason than they have the power to change the constitution for their own ends. 

For this Council to take forward the proposed report 1.1. B statement  – “writing in advance”, will give a clear signal to many that their voices will not be heard on the terms of Councillors. If you really believe in openness, transparency, in democracy then tonight you should vote against this report’s recommendations.

Please send a clear message to all residents that their statements are welcome in Council, Cabinet and Scrutiny meetings.

Wera Hobhouse MP for Bath and Lib Dem spokesperson for Justice stated at a recent rally in Bath where many residents voiced their concern over the Right to Protest that”

Every generation has to fight for its freedoms and each generation faces different challenges, but a diversity of voices from all sections of our society makes our democracy stronger. Those voices should never be silenced or suppressed.”

The decision to change the rules on statements does appear to be discriminatory.

It is against the law to discriminate 

As a previous Lib Dem I am aware that all Lib Dem Councillors will have been whipped and told how to vote today. And that the consequences for not obeying their party rules are significant.  I would urge every Lib Dem Councillor  to think carefully on their decision today. Are they here for their party or their residents?

In the Constitution Part 2 Article 1 it states:

The purpose of the constitution is to:

Create a powerful and effective means of holding decision makers to public account”

An open letter to Will Godfrey for the Reinstatement of Democratic Access to our Council has now been signed by over 130 residents.  Many have left comments.

Some of the comments are as follows:

  • It gives the council time to think up a response without the writer having the same right to reply to whatever new twist the council wants to put on their arguments. Not fair debate.
  • This is a threat to local democracy. Not everyone has the literary skills to write letters and this act excludes people who are better at speaking than writing. I really don’t feel that this is necessary or progressive.
  • Democracy in the UK is already crumbling, this rule brings about more breakdown of our democracy. It also discriminates against those with disabilities.
  • It removes a democratic right from those who are less literate, have English as a second language or are, at all, intimidated by this sort of effort of composition. It is not necessary and unfair.
  • Democracy is about fully engaging the public and not putting up any barriers to a process that people find intimidating at the best of times.
  • There are no valid reasons for these proposed changes. They will just make it harder and in some cases impossible for members of the local community to have their say about things they feel passionate about, thus undermining democracy. People  need more inclusivity, not less, in order to feel respect towards our councillors and cabinet members and the decisions they make on our behalf.
  • It is very important that we can communicate with our council without being tied up in red tape which will make it more difficult for us to exercise our democratic rights.
  • I agree that this rule will make access difficult for people with disabilities and without a digital presence. From experience, many people prefer to speak from notes, and would be challenged by having to create a full written statement.
  • I recognize the need for Councillors to hear from the full range of people they are elected to represent, including; those with learning disabilities, those for whom English is a second language, and those for whom time is restricted and they want to speak from the heart.
  • Democracy relies on ease of access. Not everyone is able to plan and write ahead of a meeting. All voices need to be heard.
  • Speaking at council meetings was key to the Save Bath Library campaign,it was also a fairly stressful experience and that was without needing to submit a speech in advance. Any tension to
  • I am opposed to this erosion of democracy.               
  • This latest move appears to  be unnecessarily authoritarian.  It will discourage many from engaging with the Council and is undemocratic. Please return to the former arrangement.  
  • This new amendment is a barrier to many marginalised groups. It must be overturned
  • To provide the full written statement offers no flexibility.
  • Democracy is the core of civilization so a vital part of a modern, fair government
  • This ruling will make it harder for various, often disadvantaged, sections of the community (listed in the letter) to comment on Council proposals, whilst favouring those who are well educated, computer literate and confident in the English language, and is therefore discriminatory.  
  • I see this as a very negative step,and a potential obstruction to community participation in the decision making process
  • Only the most eloquent and time rich will be able to participate in council meetings.

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