Accusations fly in row over councillors’ ‘question time’ at Barnsley town hall
Council bosses in Barnsley have been accused of ‘stifling debate’ over plans to limit the amount of time councillors can be questioned to 30 minutes.
But council leader Sir Steve Houghton, who is proposing changes to standing orders around members’ questions, insists the update is a response to criticism that the existing system did not allow for adequate answers to be provided in all cases.
Councillors have the opportunity to ask questions of senior colleagues with responsibility for the authority’s services at the start of full council meetings, which are held regularly, but the system has had very limited use in recent years.
That changed when Lib Dem Coun Hannah Kitching was elected to represent the Penistone West ward last year and she has presented many questions since then.
Following the local elections earlier this month, she now has three Lib Dem colleagues on the council, alongside increased numbers from other opposition groups.
As a result, Sir Steve has tabled a motion that the council restricts time for questions and answers in meetings to 30 minutes, with any exceeding that timescale answered in writing.
The one-day grace period to allow for answers to be compiled would also been increased to six, a measure which takes account of the fact the council’s workforce has been halved through austerity, leaving few officers to work at compiling information for answers.
Coun Kitching is now planning to suggest an amendment when Sir Steve’s motion, which his seconded by his deputy Coun Jim Andrews BEM, is discussed next week, which would pave the way for members of the public to ask their own questions, if accepted.
She said the change would ‘stifle debate and scrutiny’.
“If written questions are not answered within 30 minutes, answers will be given in writing. That is the part of the motion I find unacceptable,” she said.
“That is not because we have a desire to spend more than 30 minutes on questions, but to put a time limit on that opportunity for transparency is completely unacceptable.
“That is the council trying to shut down discussion.”
Public questions were a normal part of business for most councils and the Lib Dems would be happy to discuss the best way to introduce the system in Barnsley, she said: “It is a commitment to engagement and listening, an acknowledgement that we are there to serve the public.
However, Sir Steve said the new policy was an answer to criticisms levelled previously by Coun Kitching that the existing system did not produce the depth of information expected in answers to some questions.
He said: “We have changed it because Coun Kitching wanted it changing. She complained the system wasn’t delivering the answers to questions that she wanted and we have tried to make sure that is possible.
“The council has reduced its staff by 50 per cent so we don’t have officers with time to provide answers to lots of questions in a short time.
“We are making sure there is sufficient notice to these questions, so we can provide verbal or written answers.
“It has been done to make sure when questions are asked, it is done in an orderly fashion and we can answer them.
“They are guaranteed a written answer, so there is no question about transparency. It is a more transparent system.”
The 30-minute limit on questions was far more time than had ever been needed in practise, but was introduced to ensure all council business at meetings could be addressed, he said.
“It helps us to manage business, it helps officers to manage business and helps make sure other business is not left behind. We did it because she wanted it,” he said.
Former Penistone Town Councillor Wayne Chadburn has researched levels of questions at full council meetings and according to his calculations, in three years between mid-2015 and the middle of last year, only five were raised, with none of those from the official opposition Conservative group at the time.