'Threat to democracy' - Opposition fears council's constitution change

Breckland District Council

The changes to Breckland Council's constitution were debated at a Thursday meeting. - Credit: Ian Burt

Changes to a Norfolk council’s constitution have been attacked by opposition members as an attempt to reduce accountability. 

Labour, Green and independent members on Breckland Council all argued at a Thursday meeting that the proposed changes would damage scrutiny, but the authority’s ruling Conservative group said they would “make the business of full council more efficient”. 

One controversial amendment will see the time allocated for questions which haven’t been submitted in advance limited to 30 minutes, while another change would see each councillor in that half-hour period limited to just one question each.

The council’s Labour opposition leader, Terry Jermy, said every session would be “guaranteed to last for 30 minutes” because of “planted questions” from councillors in the ruling group. 

Terry Jermy, Labour leader on Breckland Council

Labour councillor Terry Jermy - Credit: Archant

“Let’s call this what this is, a further attempt to weaken accountability and scrutiny at this council,” said Mr Jermy.

“In a cabinet system, particularly where there’s a large majority for one party, there are already very few checks and balances,” he added.

One of the council’s longest-serving members, independent councillor Keith Gilbert, proposed that one of the changes - which stated that “questions shall be put and answered without discussion” - be scrapped.

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Independent councillor Keith Gilbert - Credit: Ian Burt

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Mr Gilbert said it represented a “threat to the democracy of this council” but his motion to remove the change was defeated. 

Timothy Birt, Green candidate for Watton. Pic: Green Party.

Green councillor Timothy Birt - Credit: Green Party

Green councillor Timothy Birt likewise said the changes to the rules around questions were “simply there to reduce scrutiny”, while independent councillor Roger Atterwill said he would take it as “a badge of pride… that this administration feels that it can’t stand on its record and answer questions in this forum in the way that we do now.”

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Independent councillor Roger Atterwill - Credit: Breckland District Council

But the council’s executive member for governance, Conservative member Ian Sherwood, pushed back on the claims, saying: “The purpose is not about reducing members’ ability to speak or ask questions.

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Conservative councillor Ian Sherwood - Credit: Breckland Council

“It’s about ensuring that all members, across all groups, have an equal chance to ask questions in a fair and timely way.”

He added that the changes had gone through the correct process of being examined by the governance and audit committee.

Conservative member Bill Borrett, who chairs that committee, pointed out that questions not submitted in advance were not allowed at all at Labour-controlled Norwich City Council, and that Liberal Democrat-controlled North Norfolk was also “far more draconian" when it came to questions.

Norfolk County Council's cabinet member for adult social care, Bill Borrett, who is the Conservative

Norfolk County Council's cabinet member for adult social care, Bill Borrett, who is the Conservative member for Upper Wensum. - Credit: Matthew Usher

The changes were approved by majority.