Councillors condemn leader questions ‘farce’ at meetings
Nicholas Thomas, local democracy reporter
Opposition councillors have raised fresh concerns they do not have enough opportunities to question the local authority’s leader in meetings.
The recently-adopted 15-minute format for leader questions in Newport was branded a “farce” and “shambolic” when councillors met last week (Tuesday 23 January ).
The opposition has accused Labour of using “loaded” questions and drawn-out answers to eat into that strict time limit.
Labour councillors have defended the new format, arguing it had been approved by a cross-party committee.
Matthew Evans, the leader of the Conservative group, complained about leader questions at last week’s full council meeting.
Addressing council leader Jane Mudd, he said “not a single [opposition] backbencher has had the opportunity to ask you a question” under the new format.
This was “because of the time it takes for you to read the answer to the first loaded question from a Labour councillor”, he alleged.
Cllr Evans said he would not ask a question at that meeting “to give others a chance”.
His “statement” was followed by a budget question from Allan Morris, representing the Lliswerry ward’s independent group – which Cllr Mudd answered after other Labour members sought clarification of the original question’s details.
Labour councillor Pat Drewett then asked about the Newport city events calendar.
That Labour question, and the leader’s answer, took up slightly more than six minutes of the allocated time.
Then, when Conservative councillor Ray Mogford was about to ask the next question, presiding member Paul Cockeram announced: “I’ve just been told the time is up.”
This led to laughter in the chamber, followed by groans as Cllr Cockeram suggested Cllr Mogford, unable to ask his question, should “put it in writing”.
“The time is up – it’s 15 minutes, I didn’t make this decision,” Cllr Cockeram told the meeting.
When Cllr Evans said it would be “up to your discretion”, the presiding officer replied: “My discretion is Cllr Mogford should sit down, because it’s over.”
Cllr Cockeram told the Conservatives it’s “not my problem” two questions were asked in the 15 minutes, adding: “Your leader could have asked a question. He didn’t, he said a statement.”
“That statement was right – that was exactly what happened”, was the reply from the opposition benches.
Another councillor could be heard calling the situation a “farce”.
“This was voted on at democratic services – and that’s cross-party,” Labour councillor Debbie Harvey told the council chamber.
Following the meeting, local Conservative campaigner Michael Enea condemned the “shambolic scenes” and called for reform.
“One seriously has to ask… is this what democracy has been reduced to in the council chamber?” he said, describing the format as “painfully embarrassing to watch.”
Newport City Council did not respond to a new request for comment, but previously told the Local Democracy Reporting Service the new leader questions format was “considered thoroughly by members of the cross-party democratic services committee, and their recommendation was put before the council by the current chair [and] … carried by a majority vote”.
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