Council to modify written statement plans

Well, here’s a turn-up for the books!

It looks as if the wave of protest, regarding plans for insisting on members of the public submitting written statements in advance of speaking at council meetings, has had an effect.

The Lib Dem ruling group are backing proposals to ‘modernise’ the council’s constitution but the working group looking into this has modified that controversial proposal in a consultation that will be decided upon at the full council meeting on the 21st of July.

Here’s the release that popped up in my emails last night:

‘The working group has looked again at the arrangements for formal statements at meetings. Updated proposals will safeguard the right to speak at meetings of B&NES Council for any member of the public who wishes to do so.

The new wording will clarify that it is “strongly recommended” for speakers at meetings to provide their statements in advance, but this will not be a condition of securing a speaking slot. The rule will apply to Councillors as well as members of the public.

In addition, new safeguards will be included to support Chairs of meetings in managing debates. Speeches which are “defamatory, frivolous or offensive” will not be allowed. Procedures around written questions will also be updated.

At no point was there any suggestion that politicians would have the right to censor speeches, and it should be remembered that as the broadcaster of the meetings via YouTube, the Council would be liable for any defamation claim. Neither was there any suggestion of limiting what could be covered in statements. The previous version of the Constitution reduced the risk of the Council facing legal problems; this new proposal attempts to do the same but by helping the Chair to stop frivolous or defamatory statements.

Cllr Kevin Guy

Councillor Kevin Guy, Leader of B&NES Council, commented:

“We felt it was important that B&NES should have a modern, fit-for-purpose Constitution. It must be clear and easy to understand, whilst including all the safeguards Council needs to work effectively. That’s why we initiated this review. 

“During the working group’s deliberations, it became clear the arrangements around access to public speaking needed to be updated. In May, Councillor Samuel and I both undertook to work with officers and the Constitution Working Group to make sure there was no reduction in access to public speaking.

“We have listened carefully to concerns and we’ve found another way to manage the speaker slot, ensuring rules are followed, whilst minimising the risk of excluding anyone.

“Most people do provide their statements in advance, and this helps officers and Councillors a lot. For example, following along if the acoustics are difficult and compiling the minutes. However, this doesn’t need to be a condition of speaking, so we’ve found a lighter-touch way forwards. This is the right outcome for B&NES residents.

“The discussion over public speaking has also highlighted perceived barriers to participation, that we must remove to ensure Council is as open and transparent as possible. Accordingly, more practical support is being offered to potential speakers and guidance is being improved, with a particular emphasis on the needs of disabled people.

“Members of the public will also be able to table more written questions to meetings, as the limit is being increased from 2 to 3. This will help to further open up the Council to the public.

“I’m pleased the updated proposals were unanimously agreed at the Constitution working group and will come before Council on 21 July.”

Councillor Tim Ball, who was involved in the Constitution Working Group, added:

“A modern, accessible Constitution will be of enormous benefit to B&NES Council, Councillors and members of the public going forwards. The update will be future-proofed with digital compatibility and legibility across screens, as well as the inclusion of hyperlinks and searchable text. In addition, an overview of how the Council operates and a glossary will benefit anyone who isn’t familiar with the working practices of local government.

“This refresh is all part of our approach to modernising and opening up the Council. Over the last three years, the Lib Dem administration has introduced new ways of listening to the public and ensuring that residents are able to have their say. Indeed, ‘giving people a bigger say’ is one of the core policies that underpin our entire B&NES Corporate Strategy.

“Our innovations include investing in webcasting and publishing recordings on YouTube, new online webinars and consultations, and pioneering co-design and Citizen’s Jury processes. We are still keen to enable people to speak by video link at an in-person meeting, as soon as we have the technology in place.

“The Lib Dems are committed to listening to residents and putting them first. This new Constitution will help open the Council up to the public and enhance its efficiency and effectiveness.”

Having read that through, l have a sneaking suspicion that it was the fear of slandering an individual in a passionate, but defamatory speech, from someone unaware of the libel laws that brought about this proposed change in procedure. Especially bearing in mind that everything is now recorded and available on YouTube!