This article was first published on The Croydon Citizen on 16/11/2016
Is Croydon Council’s question time now more transparent and open?
I came close to being thrown out of the public gallery during a question time at Croydon Council on Monday 17th October, for protesting about the way in which a question I had submitted was dealt with under the new rules. Our mayor, Wayne Trakas-Lawlor, told me this the following week.
I won’t bore you with the details.
As we sat in the public gallery waiting for questions from members of the public to start, my fellow Citizen writer Robert Ward and I were perplexed by the fact that there was no printed sheet with the answer for each questioner who was present. An officer explained that it was part of the council’s move to being ‘paperless’.
Under the guise of more transparency and openness. I find the new procedures are resulting in the opposite. The text of the questions posed and answers provided at each meeting are not going to be publicly available until they are included in the minutes published for the following council meeting. In this instance, that means Monday 5th December.
Following my discussion with the mayor, I submitted an email expressing my concerns about this and received a long explanation from a council officer. In it, the officer explained that the way the council takes public questions has changed significantly since a revised constitution was agreed by councillors in May 2016.
The email began: ‘The previous system required residents to submit their questions in writing well in advance. They could attend the meeting only to ask supplementary questions. As part of the revisions to the constitution, councillors from both sides of the chamber wanted to make it easier for a greater number of residents to participate in asking questions of the leader and cabinet’.
The new system for public questions extends the questioning period to half an hour at every ordinary council meeting. Any resident can attend the meeting and ask a question without having to submit it in writing in advance. If a resident wishes to ask a question but cannot attend the meeting, they can submit a question by email until noon on the preceding Friday and the mayor will put the question on their behalf.
Under the new arrangements, the mayor will allow supplementary questions if time permits, but will aim to take as questions from as many residents as possible and on as wide a range of issues as possible within the thirty minutes available. As questions are now being asked in person and without notice, the council has also moved away from the old system of pre-preparing and printing written answers.
Under the new system, questions and answers will be recorded as follows: those who question in person at the meeting will have their question and answer recorded both in the minutes of the meeting and on the council webcast recording; questions read out by the mayor on behalf of residents are recorded likewise in both the minutes and on the webcast, and questions submitted by email which the mayor does not have time to read out will receive a written answer within three weeks. These answers will be emailed to the questioner and published on the council website.
It will take time for people wanting to submit questions in the future to become familiar with the new rules. The mayor needs to discuss with the leaders of both political parties whether questioners present should be given their question and answer in print when they arrive. It needs to be made clear that the questions and answers should be posted on the website within forty-eight hours of the end of the council meeting. Councillor Tim Pollard, the Conservative opposition leader, has taken up the unsatisfactory nature of the new procedures with the council’s chief executive, and some changes will be discussed with the mayor and the council leader.
The main change I wish to see is that the text of questions and answers should be posted on the website within forty-eight hours of the end of the council meeting.