This article was originally posted on The Croydon Citizen on 11/02/2016
Censorship rules at Croydon Council
On Monday 25th January 2016, a decision was taken by Croydon Council to limit democratic scrutiny, to restrict the views of the people and to limit the voices of elected representatives. Did you notice?
If you were one of the vast majority of residents to not watch the council meeting last week (and frankly, who could blame you?) then based on the press coverage you would be forgiven for thinking that the only material subject discussed was the ‘Save Shirley’ campaign. You’d be wrong.
Back in May 2015, Croydon’s Labour administration lowered the number of signatures required for a public petition to be debated in the council to 1,000. Whilst a great move for democratic accountability, they hadn’t thought through how this would work in practice.
A fortnight ago, Labour proposed constitutional amendments to give a structure for these debates. You can read them on the council’s website. Far from encouraging scrutiny, they imposed a set of sneaky procedural changes that will undoubtedly stifle the voice of the people, strengthen the council’s censoring hand, and frustrate democratic decency.
For most normal folk, on the face of it these are nothing more than a set of arcane and dull changes. But like most constitutional tinkering, these will have a wide-ranging and limiting impact on free speech in Croydon.
So, what changes have been made?
Amendment 3.21.23 mandates that only one public petition can be debated at a time at a council meeting. Croydon only has five council meetings a year where debates are allowed to take place, this change effectively means that it’s only worth having five public petitions each year. What if Croydon residents get more than 1,000 signatures on six, seven, or eight different issues? Monday evening was a case in point. Just days after the residents in Shirley presented their petition with over 4,000 signatures; worried ‘save Fairfield Halls from closure’ supporters submitted their petition with another 4,000 names. On Monday we debated Shirley, but we were forbidden from debating the future of Fairfield Halls. Does that seem fair to you? The next council meeting where we will be allowed to debate a public petition will be in April, not long before council closes the Halls on 30th June. Does that seem fair to the thousands who signed the petition?
The censorship doesn’t stop there. The changes dictate that only the first valid petition submitted can be debated. So one with 12,000 signatures, like the Green Waste petition, could be ignored in favour of one with 1,001 signatures that could be snuck in first. If you were a ruling administration not wanting to have your decision embarrassed, couldn’t you feasibly get 1,001 supporters to sign a speedy, but innocuous, petition to debate instead of a politically damaging one?
Amendment 3.3 ensures that no motion for debate on the same matter as a public petition should be considered within six months of a petition being discussed. What happens if there’s a major event or issue that pops up the day after we debate it? Six months, half a year, where a subject is blocked from debate because (ironically) the public think it so important that it warrants a debate. What happens if we debate the Westfield/Hammerson scheme one day, then two months later something happens with that scheme that we want to discuss again? We ignore it for another four months? Democratic representatives of Croydon have been censored, our voices muted by this administration’s constitutional tinkering.
Alteration 3.21.8 says that no vote will be taken on a petition debate. Far from being open and transparent, this is both confusing and opaque for residents watching, curious about what might happen to their jobs, their homes and their town. Why are Labour so against us voting and visually demonstrating whether we agree or not with our residents? Make it non-binding to the administration, but allow concerned locals to see who agrees with the debate motion and who does not. What are our Labour councillors afraid of?
At a recent meeting, councillor Tim Pollard, the Leader of the Conservatives on the council, asked that Croydon’s elected representatives have a debate and then vote on these proposed amendments. After a lot of toing and froing, citing clause this and point of order that, the Mayor of Croydon decided not to allow a debate. The decision was made in less than 15 minutes. I’m still not sure why, and I was in the room. I’d strongly urge you to read Tim’s account of the meeting.
Debating constitutional rules may not be the sexiest of subjects, but it’s vitally important to free speech. These amendments are yet another example of this administration not being ‘open and transparent’ as they claim, but deliberately ‘closed and secretive’.
You can watch the less than 15 minutes where Croydon Council moved a step towards censorship in full on the council’s website – be warned the video, will be taken down in a few weeks.
2.1 of Labour’s constitutional amendments says ‘In relation to public petitions an amendment is proposed in furtherance of the council’s Openness and Transparency agenda’ – after reading this, I’ll let you decide whether their actions match their rhetoric.