News / Politics

Fury over changes to public questions at Bristol City Council meeting

By adam postans, Wednesday Nov 13, 2019

Anger erupted at a council meeting as people claimed they were gagged from asking questions because of the election.

Bristol lord mayor Jos Clark faced a barrage of criticism and shouting from the public gallery after announcing the normal rules would be changed because of guidelines governing what can and cannot be said by local government officials and members during a general election campaign.

Clark stressed the public were still allowed to submit written questions, receiving a reply in writing within 10 days. A council spokesman said this system was only in place to “stay within the requirements” of the pre-election period.

But people vented their fury during full council’s public forum at City Hall on Tuesday, November 12, with several calling out from the public gallery. One told the lord mayor, who was acting on officers’ advice: “It’s a disgrace. You should resign.”

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One man, who identified himself as Kevin, shouted: “You’re denying members of the public their democratic right to ask questions and to hold you accountable.

“There are no reasons locally or nationally for not allowing questions, and there is no precedent to this.”

He said he had read the Local Government Association (LGA) guidance over publicity during the general election period, which is sent to all local councils, but it included nothing to justify a ban on the usual verbal responses from members or residents’ supplementary questions.

His views were shared by several other people in the public gallery who murmured their discontent throughout public forum.

Clark had announced: “For this meeting there is a revised procedure for public forum questions.”

She said standing orders were being suspended because “no verbal response will be provided” by councillors to the residents’ questions.

“However, written responses to questions will be provided within ten working days of the meeting,” she said.

“I have spoken to officers before the meeting started and I believe the responses will come back to members of the public quicker than the 10 working days.”

Struggling to finish her statement as she was heckled, Clark said: “On this occasion no supplementary questions will be permitted.

“This is due to the notification of the general election, as council is now subject to parliamentary pre-election protocol.”

She then told the most vocal person in the public gallery: “I believe we have written three emails to you, we have explained the position, so can I please ask you to sit down,” a request she made numerous times without success.

“It’s not going to get you anywhere, I’m afraid. I have stated clearly the procedure for today,” Clark told him.

Lord mayor Jos Clark faced criticism from the public gallery

Although residents who submitted public questions prior to the meeting were denied the chance to speak or ask a supplementary question, those who had submitted public statements were allowed one minute to address councillors, a decision that sparked confusion and more anger in the public gallery.

After the meeting, a Bristol City Council spokesperson said: “A small change to the public forum element of yesterday’s full council was made to stay within the requirements of the pre-election period ahead of December’s general election.

“Anyone who submitted a question ahead of full council will have an answer in writing as opposed to the verbal answer normally provided at the monthly meeting.

“The lord mayor made this decision and communicated it to the leaders and whips of all parties and those who had submitted a question ahead of yesterday’s meeting.”

The LGA’s guidance about purdah — the pre-election rules outlining what local authorities can say and do in relation to controversial or major policy announcements — can be found here: www.local.gov.uk/sites/default/files/documents/9.131%20Purdah%20guidance%20update_08.pdf

Adam Postans is a local democracy reporter for Bristol

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