Leaders of North Yorkshire’s new unitary council that is set to be launched on April 1 have dismissed suggestions they are “trying to curtail democracy” by limiting the number of questions elected councillors can publicly pose to the ruling group’s executive members.
As a meeting of Conservative-run North Yorkshire County Council’s executive saw proposals for the unitary North Yorkshire Council’s constitution pushed forward for consideration at a full council meeting next month, concerns were raised over democracy at the authority’s quarterly full council meetings, the only time where all 90 councillors can air issues together.
The meeting was told a clause of the constitution meant a restriction on the volume of questions the authority’s ten executive members could face.
The authority’s opposition leader, Councillor Bryn Griffiths, questioned the rationale behind the proposal that “a maximum of five minutes will be permitted for questions to each executive member”.
The Liberal Democrat leader said the move was “effectively a guillotine from members of the council to executive members of the council”.
Corporate services executive member Councillor David Chance replied that the original constitution had stated members’ questions would be limited to those on the written reports of executive members to full council.
He added: “The questions have become lengthened…”
Coun Chance said there had been “a suggestion from another quarter” that the Tory administration introduced a one-hour guillotine for members’ questions, but that the proposal had been dismissed as the council’s leading group did not believe that was sufficient.
He added: “So we settled on five minutes per question with the chair having discretion to extend that if he felt that was needed. ”
The council’s deputy leader, Councillor Gareth Dadd, said during discussions over the proposed change to full meetings of the council “on the face of it it seemed as though we were trying to curtail democracy and not hold executive members to account”.
He said the rule had been proposed to protect the integrity of the purpose of full council meetings and give members’ greater opportunities to raise issues with executive members.
Coun Dadd said: “For me the purpose of full council is yes, to allow members of the authority to hold those in positions of responsibility to account, but the primary purpose of full council is to set policy and debate policy.
“After reflection… we have written a means into the constition by which members can raise their concerns and hold accountable members to account with written questions that will be published on a website to enable the public to see responses to concerns raised by councillors.
Coun Dadd said during discussions with a cross-party group of councillors the five-minute limit had received a broad base of support, when considered alongside the move to publish any questions raised by members.
After the meeting, Independent group leader Councillor Stuart Parsons said even with the proposal to publish members’ questions, the move was set to stifle debate, perpetuating a situation where 10executive members had “inordinate powers” and the remaining 80 elected councillors could “go swing”.
He said: “I think there will be quite a fight when we get to full council because putting that guillotine in effectively means what’s the point of being on North Yorkshire Council because everybody will not have the opportunity to question people on their remits.
“If they carry on controlling or attempting to control scrutiny in the way they are there’s nothing that opposition members can actually do.”