The debate over debates at County Hall

Are county council debates too long?
Are county council debates too long?

A fresh row has broken out about speaking rights during debates at Lancashire County Council.

Opposition members accused the ruling Conservative group of gagging councillors and trying to stifle debate.

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But a leading Tory said proposed changes to the authority’s constitution were designed to improve the democratic process during meetings at County Hall.

A working group was set up late year to overhaul how notices of motion – items which can be placed on the agenda at full council meetings by any member – are discussed.

Initial proposals to introduce time limits on the debates sparked anger from opposition parties – and the final version of the constitutional revamp was also criticised.

“The reason that county council meetings are becoming something of a marathon is because the democratic process and the ability of people to debate openly and honestly about the issues of the day, has been closed down in every other forum,” Labour’s Steve Holgate said.

“This is another series of recommendations to close that process down still farther.”

Last year, opposition members – apart from the leader and deputy leader of the second-largest group – were told that they could no longer speak at cabinet meetings.

Under the new proposals, notices of motion will not be permitted if they are deemed “vague and ambiguous” or if they “merely express an opinion and do not require the council to adopt a course of action”.

But the main point of contention came over the length of time allowed for debate.

Each motion will now have to move to a vote after half an hour of discussion, while contributions from individual speakers will be limited to three minutes. However, the proposer of a motion will be allowed five minutes to present it.

Chair of the working group, County Cllr David O’Toole, said he had responded to concerns about earlier proposals for tighter timeframes for the debates.

“It appears a number of people on the other side can’t say what they need to say in 25 minutes let alone five minutes.

“Five minutes should be sufficient time to get the point across – and that appears to be a problem for some people, so maybe they need to go and have some training on that.

“The proposals are there to improve the workings of the council, but more importantly to improve democracy,” County Cllr O’Toole said.

But Liberal Democrat David Howarth said the process to come up with the new arrangements was flawed – and claimed the new rules amounted to “a gagging order”.

“This [was] not a genuine working group – if it was, it would be made up of backbenchers who put forward constructive proposals.

“It was not – it’s chaired by the whip of the Conservative group and it has Conservative cabinet members in it. This is not a working group proposal to improve the constitution, this is a gagging order to stop the opposition and the public.”