Labour-run council accused of ducking scrutiny and making ‘a sham of democracy’
Nicholas Thomas, local democracy reporter
Opposition councillors have accused a Labour-run local authority of ducking scrutiny in meetings and making “a sham of democracy”.
Elected representatives from the Conservatives, Lib Dems, Green Party and two independent groups have accused Newport City Council of stifling debate, “clock-eating” or “filibustering” to the detriment of constituents.
Their stinging criticism follows changes to the way councillors are allowed to ask questions of the leader during monthly meetings.
Recent changes to council meetings mean there are “no more than 15 minutes” allocated for questions to the leader and the subsequent answers – and no supplementary questions are asked.
Amid angry scenes in the council chamber this month – the first time the new format was used – opposition leader Matthew Evans complained there was not enough time for proper scrutiny.
“This can’t continue,” he told the presiding officer. “We sacrificed our supplementary questions on the basis more people would have an opportunity to ask questions.
“This has been an absolute farce – we can’t have loaded Labour questions.”
In that meeting, leader Jane Mudd spent around seven minutes answering three questions from opposition councillors, and then nearly six minutes responding to a Labour councillor’s question about the Cardiff Capital Region.
Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS), Cllr Evans said: “When I was leader I could be on my feet for up to an hour and a half. When Labour got back in again they decided to streamline it to a 15-minute allocation to the leader of the council.”
On the recent meeting, he said: “Last week my question wasn’t particularly long, we had I think two more questions. It goes to Labour to ask a question – a loaded question with a particularly long answer.
“It’s causing a lot of anger among the opposition.”
Allan Morris, an independent from Lliswerry, said the new format “makes a sham of democracy”.
“Even the labour backbenchers have no idea of the ability of their cabinet members – what they see them doing is reading an answer,” he told the LDRS. “They’ve never seen them in action. It’s totally and absolutely wrong.
“To call Newport the city of democracy is an insult.”
Carmel Townsend, the council’s only Lib Dem representative, said the changed format for leader questions “was almost forced upon the ‘opposition’ parties”.
She called the leader questions in the most recent council meeting a “charade that passes for democracy”.
“The leader’s long-winded response to a planted question by Councillor Bright was clearly designed to delay proceedings so that other opposition people couldn’t have their turn,” Cllr Townsend said, adding: “There is huge dissatisfaction with all of us not in the Labour lovey club, and we are wondering how to improve a dire situation.
“The result is that we can’t represent people in our wards, while Labour members can virtue signal on everything from education, to recycling to how wonderful the city is, while it is actually falling apart.”
Kevin Whitehead, an independent from Bettws, said the 15-minute allocation was “farcical”.
“My own view is that questions to the Leader should run for thirty minutes which would exclude Labour clock-eating questions, which are clearly pre-agreed off-camera, so to speak.
“This would present the Lib Dems and the Green Party an opportunity to take part in the democratic process, as is their right.”
Green Party councillor Lauren James told the LDRS “the council gives Gwent Police twice as long as the leader to answer questions.
She said councillors “from all sides of the chamber should get a fair chance to ensure their residents’ voices are heard”.
“While there are other methods of asking questions, they’re no substitute for making a direct ask in the chamber and a fifteen minute slot is easy to filibuster,” Cllr James said. “If the Labour-run administration is serious about listening to residents then they really should look at this again.”
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