Councillors felt ‘unsafe’ in council chamber during sex education protest
Dale Spridgeon, local democracy reporter
Councillors and staff in Gwynedd said they did not feel safe during a fractious debate on sex education.
The council was discussing the roll out of RSE (Relationships and Sexuality Education) when the meeting was interrupted by hecklers back in August.
Warnings were given as proceedings were halted, police brought in and the public gallery cleared.
Councillors were held back in the Dafydd Orwig chamber for “safety reasons”.
Cyngor Gwynedd has since adapted more robust “practical arrangements” for its Caernarfon chamber, following the interruption to the extraordinary meeting of the council.
The incident was discussed during a meeting of the Democratic Services Committee on Thursday.
During the meeting, councillors also shared experiences of “intimidation”.
It was reported that Councillor Beca Brown was subjected to a targeted campaign after the August meeting.
Another councillor, Linda Ann Jones, told the meeting she has also sought help from the police over comments made online.
Since the May elections of 2022, councillor safety issues were becoming “more apparent in the light of national and council incidents, and to individual councillors”, a report discussed at the meeting said.
Harassment suffered by members could also lead to increased stress.
More training, mental health counselling, and wellbeing support was available for councillors, who increasingly faced “harassment and stress”.
Cllr Jones told the meeting she had faced “a lot of difficulty” after the August meeting.
“I’m not on Facebook, but friends sent me messages about the things that were being said. I felt intimated,” she said.
“I went to the police, they started to track it, but it still carried on.”
Cllr Jones said the police went to the home of the perpetrator, and “I was left alone”.
The matters was also reported to Iwan Evans, the council’s monitoring officer and head of legal services.
Councillor Dewi Owen said he had “suffered similar difficulties a few years ago”, and the community council had “faced issues which put people off becoming councillors”.
“People won’t turn up to meetings, they don’t want to be intimidated. It becomes a concern,” he said.
“You see it on the news, social media, people can use apps against you. On TV yesterday there was a girl threatening men.
“We have concerns as councillors, it can happen to anyone. It is not just a matter for Cyngor Gwynedd but all Wales.”
Introducing the DSC report, which was accepted for information, head of corporate support Ian Jones described how “work pressures and strain of living costs” meant more people sought local councillors’ help.
“Violence and harassment suffered by some members had increased their stress”, and a Safe Leadership course has been adapted.
Risk assessments were “by now undertaken for each multi-location meeting, including the chamber and remote locations”.
Democratic and language services manager Vera Jones said efforts were being made to communicate what support was available to members.
Risks assessments, including matters on the agenda, were also made. Since the August meeting, there was more “collaboration with the health and safety department”.
Catrin Love, assistant head of corporate support, said improved safety steps included the chamber design but “more work on the public gallery was needed”.
Other safety initiatives included the use of lockers for the public to store bags, public gallery posters noting rules, a rope between the gallery and chamber, arrangements to hold a recess during disturbances, briefing chairpersons, and considerations over employing a security firm if the risk level was considered high.
Cllr Cai Larson also called for stronger measures against councillors who breached rules.
Cllr Stephen Churchman described the August meeting as “most frightening” and “unique”.
He said: “We’ve seen physical attacks against politicians and have to take the threat to our safety seriously, we must be mindful it could happen again.”
He called for more than a rope between the council chamber and public gallery.
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