Hundreds say ‘NO’ to rule change

Lambridge ward councillor Joanna Wright is leading an online social media campaign asking Bath and North East Somerset Council to drop their proposed ‘full written speech or nothing’ rule change.

It’s the one that will say you will have to submit a written speech – days in advance of being allowed to address council, cabinet or scrutiny panel meetings. A final decision will be made at a full council meeting on July 21st.

Cllr Wright says:

“Over 300 residents have been joined by the leader of the Labour group, deputy leader of the Conservative group, and the council’s only Green councillor, signing an open letter asking for Bath & NE Somerset Council to reverse its plan to insist people must submit full written speeches if they want to speak at a Council, Cabinet, or any scrutiny panel meeting.

They’re worried the council is putting up new barriers to ordinary people – and some groups in particular – that will prevent them being heard by their elected representatives. They hope the council will back down over its proposals which insist that you can’t speak unless you send in a full written speech in advance

Their letter says the council’s proposed rule “acts as a barrier to political and community participation for many ordinary people,” and asks councillors to “consider the needs of residents of all ages and abilities as a matter of urgency, and reverse this.”

The open letter is still open for people to add their names:

They are especially worried that some residents may find the council’s demands for an advance written speech even more of a challenge than most: the elderly, people with some disabilities or medical conditions, young people, people whose first language isn’t English and anyone who isn’t confident about their written English.”

Cllr Wright continues:

The authors include environmental sustainability campaigner and social entrepreneur Vipul Patel, and Gill Kirk, a speechwriter, playwright and library campaigner who also wrote an open letter to councillors and the Chronicle in March about these proposals. Many other concerned residents, such as former Conservative councillor Bob Goodman, have also raised the issue on social media. 

“Speeches to the council are of course about making your case in a clear and persuasive way. You only have three minutes to do that, you can’t speak for longer, and you don’t have a right of reply after you’ve spoken,” Gill Kirk said. “People deserve to be respected and manage their speech-making in the way that works for them. Lots of people like to prepare some bullet points as a guide, then speak from the heart. Once that’s over, they can polish the text and send it in. Why is this no longer good enough for the council, when it’s worked reasonably well for years?”

The letter says, “You’re asking for a GCSE-standard piece of work as an ‘entrance exam’ to be allowed to tell the council their views,” says the letter, and adds,  “rates of functional illiteracy (1 in 6, or 16.4%) suggest that over 30,000 friends and neighbours are more likely than most to avoid having to submit a written three-minute speech.”

The issue was discussed passionately at the Council AGM on May 12th (covered by the Chronicle). Liberal Democrat proponents of the plan to change the speaking rules said: 

  • “It is an enabler of not less, but better, democracy” Winston Duguid, Widcombe & Lyncombe
  • “People are getting a bit confused” – Manda Rigby, Bathwick
  • “I do think a little bit of politics is playing here” – Rob Appleyard, Lambridge
  • “It’s perfectly reasonable” – Duncan Hounsell, Saltford
  • “This is clearly not a debate about democracy and freedom of speech; this is a set of individuals trying to score political points” – Kevin Guy (Leader), Bathavon North

Here’s how Deputy Leader, Cllr Richard Samuel summed things up at that May 12th meeting. [youtube:

On the other side of the debate, says Cllr Wright, “most letter signatories added comments with their names. Here are just a few of the messages they wanted to send to BathNES’s controlling Liberal Democrat group, who – with the majority of council seats – are in charge of the final decision when the Council votes next month:  

  • The Council’s Labour Group Leader, Robin Moss: “We need to encourage more people to talk to the council, not put them off”
  • Former Conservative councillor (now Police & Crime Commissioner) Mark Shelford: “Fair enough to ask for the title of the talk but not for the contents as this could be seen as censorship.”  
  • Diversity campaigner B In Bath: “By bringing in these new requirements, the Council are making it significantly more difficult for the public to access them and bring matters to the Council, prioritising the Council’s comfort and ease over the public”
  • Cllr Joanna Wright (Green): “The council works for the public and should therefore operate in a way that hears that voice.”  
  • Councillor Karen Warrington (Deputy Leader, Con Group): “Upholding democracy. Not allowing this Council to obstruct democracy & interpret Rules for their own political advantage & because they don’t want to be challenged.”
  • Resident Sharon Gillings, “I’ve spoken at council and it is daunting. Another barrier is appalling- make engaging in democracy easy.”
  • Former Liberal Democrat councillor Lisa Brett: “I recognise the need for Councillors to hear from the full range of people they are elected to represent, including those with learning disabilities, for whom English is a second language, for whom time is restricted and they want to speak from the heart.” 
  • Resident Rachel Willis: “Over 30000 people in B&NES are functionally illiterate. Many more are too busy to find time to attend council meetings, let alone provide a full statement ahead of time. This will stop people from being able to exercise their democratic right to hold the council to account.”
  • Former Green councillor, Lin Paterson: “One of the planks in the election of the current council majority was ‘transparency’ and ‘listening to the public’. This betrayal of those values would have a chilling effect on democratic participation, eventually leading to mistrust, fuelling resentment of the council.”
  • Resident Laura James: “This new amendment is a barrier to many marginalised groups. It must be overturned.”
  • Resident Michelle Creed: “their job is to listen, solve problems, represent us.” 
  • Resident Jonathan Ford: “Why are you making it difficult for people to have a voice?” 
  • Resident Peter Andrews: “Any erosion of our rights address our elected representatives in the council chamber is to be deplored and reversed.
  • Save Bath Libraries campaigner Dionne Pemberton: “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 citizens to speak before elected officials should be removed, not added. A free and open democratic process is vital. Do the right thing please.” 
  • Theatre Bath’s Luke John Emmett: “Access to the council is a right not a privilege.” 
  • Author Mary English: “I have had to submit written speeches more than once to Bath NES council. Each time I do it, it takes DAYS, even though I’m a professional author. What happens to those that don’t have those skills? 
  • Former Liberal Democrat councillor David Dixon – “It’s important that people can turn up and speak from the heart rather than script their speech completely. […] I don’t believe that having a speech scrutinised before being given in public is democratic at all.”

Cllr Wright says a constitution working group is continuing to look at the issue and meets again at the beginning of July before reporting to the full Council meeting on July 21st when a final vote on the plan will be taken.

I approached the Leader of the Council, Cllr Kevin Guy, for comment and he responded:

“The rules have not been changed and the Chairs of all committees & boards have the full discretion, as always, to allow any member (of the public) to talk ‘off the cuff’ about items on said agendas.

Anyone can come and address full council, or the other committees, and get as much help as they individually need to prepare speeches from experienced council staff.

I strongly encourage people to do so and enjoy taking part in local democracy. In fact members of the public, when they address full council, often make far more sense than the opposition councillors.”