Ruling North Northants Tories branded dictators in furious council chamber row over meeting start times

Members of the public and councillors from all parties spoke up against the proposals start full council meetings in the afternoons

Thursday, 30th September 2021, 6:21 pm
Cllr Simon Rielly blasts his fellow councillors.

A decision to change the start time of North Northamptonshire full council meetings has been branded the 'death of democracy' by an opposition councillor.

A heated debate in the Corby Cube last night (Wednesday, September 29) followed a proposal to change the constitution to move the start time of full council meetings from 7pm to 2pm.

During the fiery discussions, members of the public and councillors argued that it would preclude people with jobs or caring responsibilities from attending.

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The scene in the tense Cube theatre at last night's meeting

Presenting the proposal, cllrLora Lawman said that the Democracy and Standards Committee had discussed the change and considered the impact it would have on different people but said that the impact of late meetings on council staff also had to be considered.

Public speaker Frankie O'Dowd said that she would like meetings to be held in the evenings because it would amount to unfair treatment on the basis of protected characteristics if they were held during the day.

She said by attempting to restrict meetings to 2pm she believed that people on the school run, which were primarily women, would not be able to attend. She said that daytime meetings would also exclude students and young people who were at school.

A second speaker said: "Council meetings are public events. The public have the right to see how their council operates.

"They have a right to ask questions of the council. Most people are at work between the hours of eight and six. Public participation is a fundamental right in local government. Moving meetings will exclude or deter many from attending. (Being able to attend) will help give them an understanding or how their council operates and give the public confidence in the council's decision making. "

A written comment from member of the public Liane Robinson said: "I am a mother of two secondary school aged children. I work full time, as does my husband. I am Mrs Average.

"If this meeting were to be moved to 2pm in the future I will not be able to attend. Most people that work have to apply for annual leave in advance. Working people will not be able to attend. A lot of single parents need to be able to collect their children from school at 3pm. Single parents will not be able to attend.

"Moving the meeting would cut out a large section of the public, leaving only room for the contribution of those more privileged, those with good support systems and those in control of their working week."

Independent councillor Jim Hakewill, part of the Green Alliance, proposed a late notice motion that would see a task and finish group set up to scrutinise the decision and to look at its wider impact.

Members from across the entire chamber argued against changing the start time.

Green councillor Emily Fedorowycz said: "This is why we need scrutiny."

Labour member Cllr John McGhee said: "We are not learning lessons. We are going down the road of people that they think know all the answers. We should be going through scrutiny. That's real democracy. We are going down the dictatorship road.

"This is not a democracy, it's a dictatorship. Local Government shouldn't be full of people who want to go to bed early and get up early. We don't want to lose the young people we fought to hard to bring through as councillors."

A vote was taken on Cllr Hakewill's motion to send the decision to the authority's scruntiny panel, with 25 councillors voting for, 36 voting against and six abstentions.

Further debate, this time on the original motion to move the meetings to 2pm, then took place, with a furious Cllr Simon Rielly asking why members were debating this when 'people are outside queuing for fuel'.

Labour leader Cllr Jean Addison said that she would not be able to attend 2pm meetings because of childcare responsibilities, telling members: "You're old, stale and grey."

Conservative councillor Scott Brown said that starting meetings at 2pm would exclude 150,000 people in the area who work.

Labour member Alison Dalziel said that she had become a councillor looking forward to what she could achieve. "My career as a councillor is coming to an abrupt halt because I can't attend meetings. We were looking forward to coming here to represent local people. That's all been taken away from us.

"Taking paid time off is completely unrealistic. My working days are busy from dawn till dusk."

Other members were in favour of the changes.

Cllr Lora Lawman said: "We had a healthy debate about it at democracy and standards and 2pm seems to be the right time. We have got to have sufficient time for healthy debate."

Conservative councillor Andy Mercer said that keeping the meetings at 7pm could potentially breach the equality act because 'old people are asleep by then.'

And his fellow councillor Wendy Brackenbury said that there was never going to be a time that would suit everybody.

A vote was then taken with 35 councillors in favour of moving the meetings, 26 against and five abstentions. The decision means the next three full council meetings will now take place at 2pm, on a trial basis.

Following the meeting, Cllr John McGhee said: "You've witnessed the death of democracy tonight."

The decision has since been criticised by members from neighbouring West Northamptonshire Council. Speaking on social media, Conservative Cllr James Hill said: "What about members of working public? They are not compensated to attend or speak at council meetings & will now have to miss work if they want to. We also often had children & teenagers address NBC- they won’t be able to either. Really shocked to see this change tbh."

And Cllr Mark Jones, Wellingborough Town Councillor for Croyland Ward, said: "Very disappointed in our sister council and the leadership of Jason Smithers and Helen Howell. This means people working cannot stand for election as a councillor. Do we want a council that is representative of the community or just retired people?"