Barnet Council questions row: Councillors clash over motion ‘gagging residents’
PUBLISHED: 18:01 01 August 2019 | UPDATED: 18:09 01 August 2019
Barnet councillors were at loggerheads over changes to the council’s constitution that opponents fear will lead to Barnet residents being “gagged”.
Conservative councillors backed new limits to public participation at committee meetings - claiming the changes will allow more people to ask questions - at a full council meeting on Tuesday July 30. But Labour councillors attacked the move and claimed the Tories were trying to dodge scrutiny on key issues such as the council's deals with outsourcing firm Capita. The changes, which were agreed by the constitution committee in June, mean public questions will be limited to one per person for each agenda item, questions and comments will be combined and only 100 words will be allowed for each enquiry. In addition, no more than two questions will be allowed per agenda item - even on complex topics such as the budget. Labour leader Cllr Barry Rawlings (Coppetts) attacked the changes as "a further attempt to gag residents" - and was greeted with cheers and applause from a packed public gallery. Cllr Rawlings said: "What are you afraid of? Residents with an opinion and a desire to hold politicians to account?" But chairman of the constitution and general purposes committee Cllr Melvin Cohen (Con, Golders Green) called the outrage a "storm in a teacup". He said: "There just is no democratic deficit. Essentially, the proposals will only amend the arrangements for questions and comments at committee meetings. "Residents will still be able to ask questions at committees, so - no change. Council leader Cllr Dan Thomas (Con, Finchley Church End) added: "We need a system that gives more time to a greater number of people to ask supplementary questions. "At the moment, a few political activists are able to abuse our generous system and rob our residents of time."The question limits were approved, despite Labour's opposition, after the majority Conservative group voted in favour.
At the meeting councillors also clashed over a motion declaring a climate emergency. Cllr Dean Cohen (Con, Golders Green) who leads the town hall's environment committee amended a motion from his Labour shadow Cllr Alan Schneiderman (Lab, Woodhouse) to remove a point comitting the council to setting up a climate change action group that would include local schools, employers and environmental groups to help make the borough carbon neutral by 2030.
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Cllr Cohen added wording stressing that Barnet was already pursuing climate-friendly policies and the amended motion was passed with Conservative support.