Barnet Council criticised over cuts to public questions at meetings

Hendon Town Hall. Picture: Matt Brown/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Hendon Town Hall. Picture: Matt Brown/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0) - Credit: Archant

Barnet Council is under fire over new plans to limit the number of questions and comments the public can make at meetings.

It says this is necessary because too many questions come from a small number of people "with a political agenda" and it costs too much to deal with.

But the Barnet residents who ask many of the questions argue their contributions are invaluable, and have even been acknowledged as such by the council.

One, Barbara Jacobson. told this newspaper: said: "The truth is someone like John Dix provides them with essential information, often that officers and committee members are unaware of.

"What they are doing is restricting our comments. It's not just criticism - it's things they have been genuinely unaware of."

After councillors rejected the idea of limiting each indivdual to just one question, the approved changes could instead see only one question per agenda item allowed, and comments and questions merged.

There are currently no limits on the number of questions.

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At the meeting, in answer to a question by another of the frequent public speakers Theresa Musgrove, Barnet revealed it spends £850,000 a year on communications while in the report proposing the changes, the council said it cost £42,000 a year to manage the current system.

The Labour opposition is also against the changes, and cited a number of cancelled committee meetings as evidence of a supposed democratic shortfall.

Cllr Kathy Levine (Lab, Brunswick Park) said: "This latest move to stop public questions just looks like another attempt to shut the public up.

"The council's performance data is now being reported to each of the main themed committees, but many of these are being cancelled and there is increasingly less time to properly scrutinise the council."

Barnet Council has defended the new policy - which will be debated at a full council meeting on July 30.

The Tory chair of the constitution and general purpose committee Cllr Melvin Cohen said: "We are currently in a situation whereby a small number of residents, some of whom have a political agenda, are costing the council an estimated tens of thousands of pounds."

A Barnet Council spokesperson said: "We have always welcomed questions and scrutiny on council decision-making. It is only right that residents can speak to council members about matters of local importance.

"We need to ensure this approach is open to the entire community and is used proportionately."