May 16, 2022 5.00 pm

‘You’re denying people democracy’: Freedom of speech accusations at Lincolnshire council

Constitution changes will limit accountability opponents say

Leaders at South Kesteven District Council have been accused of denying people democracy and making it more difficult to hold the authority to account as bosses look to make new changes to its constitution.

The authority’s Constitution Committee on Tuesday looked to “tidy up” its policy and make it more consistent.

However, Independent Councillor Ashley Baxter said the changes would create greater powers to shut down comments and questions, delay debates and command questions to be submitted several days in advance.

He told members: “This hasn’t made it easier for people to access council meetings, in fact the opposite.

“We are saying that instead of being able to turn up to a committee and ask a question we are demanding that people basically send notice in advance of what their questions are.”

He quoted an article from Private Eye about a similar change elsewhere in the country which said they would “give slow-witted councillors time to come up with answers to tricky questions”. 

He also criticised a move to allowing non-member intervention in meetings to be at the discretion of the chairman only, rather than the committee as a whole.

SKDC’s Constitution Committee on May 16. | Image: Daniel Jaines

This was highlighted by input from Independent Councillor Philip Knowles who was allowed to back Councillor Baxter despite not sitting on the Constitution Committee.

He said the changes would make it “more difficult than ever” for the public to express their views.

“People should have an outright opportunity as often as possible to express their views and not have to work their way through a difficulty in the constitution to do that.

“If people feel that they wish to attend a council meeting or any meetings for which they are allowed to attend.

“They should be allowed to do so. It’s not a matter of politics but a matter of democracy.”

Councillor Baxter was able to get an amendment through which reduced the notice time from three days to one for most committees – bringing them in line with planning. However, he voted against the changes overall and abstained from others.

The council has previously denied it is hiding the results of the review into how its decisions are scrutinised, despite having not published them in more than nine months.

Conservative Councillor Linda Wootten, who presented the document said a lot of hard work had gone into the review and that it had been “quite productive”.

Bosses felt that workshops held during the review had been “helpful and constructive”.

Assistant director of governance and deputy monitoring officer Graham Watts said current procedure rules had been “dotted around quite a lot” and “quite hard to follow”.

He said the work reduced duplication and contradictions across the board of committees and was “certainly not to restrict involvement from the public or from councillors at the authority”.

“By cutting out the inconsistency, there are going to be things that have to change to enable that consistency,” he said.

He said requiring advance notice would ensure that questions could be answered and would “help to manage any vexatious or potentially abusive contributions”.

Discretion for non-committee member speaking, he said, would have to be equal, indicating councillors could not pick and choose certain commenters.

Councillor Wootten assured the committee: “There’s no way that we do not want to be open and transparent.

“That isn’t the name of the game, we’re not trying to change the goalposts at all.”

She said the authority hoped to release the scrutiny report fairly soon.

“You have seen it is being worked on. We have had a lack of staff and we just can’t do everything at once at the moment, but I think it will be a good piece of work when we get to it.”

Graham Watts later confirmed it would be another two months bringing it to 11 months total since the report was first received.

Councillors approved the recommendations with Councillor Baxter’s amendment.

They will now go to full council on May 26 for final approval.