Can democracy be done with speed and still be democratic?
Accusations of a 'democratic deficit' at Lancashire County Council have been rejected by the ruling Conservative group, as new rules were brought in governing the length of some debates in the chamber.
A working group set up to examine the authority's constitution recommended that motions - items which can be placed on the agenda at full council meetings by any member - should be discussed for no longer than 20 minutes each. It was also proposed that the total time allowed for motions be restricted to 80 minutes.
WATCH >>> This is the moment councillors went toe-to-toe over parking chargesNo other business on the agenda will be affected by the time limits.
But the plans - which followed a six-month trial which had limited motions to 30 minutes - were condemned by opposition parties.
“We need time to debate properly,” Labour County Cllr Lizzi Collinge told a meeting of the full council. “We take decisions on really important things and you cannot debate them in 20 minutes.
“Sometimes we might want to get home for our tea - but tough,” she added.
Labour called for a peer review of County Hall’s political governance, which would see representatives from other authorities invited to assess all aspects of the council’s democratic process. But the suggestion was voted down in favour of the county council gathering its own evidence about how other authorities operate - and seeing if any lessons could be learned.
Meanwhile, Conservative chief whip David O’Toole defended the performance of the council’s scrutiny committees, after these also came in for criticism for purportedly truncating discussions and preventing a line of questioning from being developed.
The cross-party groups - whose membership reflects the political make-up of the authority - probe particular subject areas and can examine witnesses both from within the council and external organisations.
County Cllr O’Toole suggested that committee members should be “concise” and “stop repeating themselves and boring everybody else”.
He added: “There hasn’t been a single request for a task group during my chairmanship [of the internal scrutiny committee] that has been refused - and yet [the opposition] continually find fault with a system that works perfectly well.”
A rule change made earlier in the year was revisited when Liberal Democrat members proposed that all councillors once again be permitted to speak at cabinet meetings. Currently, only cabinet members and the leader and deputy leader of the main opposition can participate in the monthly discussion.
“At some point, you will not be in control,” Lib Dem County Cllr John Potter told the Tory side of the chamber. “And you will hate these rules just as much as we do now - it’s a short-sighted and selfish way to operate, which leaves constituents at risk.”
However, council leader Geoff Driver said Liberal Democrat group leader David Whipp was partly responsible for the restrictions.
“We changed [the rules] because Cllr Whipp and one or two others were using the opportunity of cabinet, not to support or enhance the people they represent, but to enhance their own reputation.
“Twice today he has admitted that he knew petitions couldn’t be handed in at cabinet and yet he turned up at the last meeting and disrupted it by waving a petition about,” County Cllr Driver said.
County Cllr Whipp said it was "the norm" in most other councils for petitions to be permitted.
Amendments to reinstate speaking rights at cabinet to all members and allow the presenting of petitions by members of the public were both rejected.
Division defined the usually more jovial final debate of the year, with the current council leader clashing with his predecessor.
Geoff Driver said the most important governance change he had initiated was to prevent cabinet members making decisions in secret - like the “thousands” made “behind closed doors” by the previous Labour administration.
But the Labour former leader of the authority accused County Cllr Driver of “lying” about her party’s time in power and said all decisions were published for both councillors and the public.
“The way decisions were taken by my administration was exactly the same as by the Conservatives in the previous four years,” County Cllr Mein said.