Censorship rules at Croydon Council

By - Thursday 11th February, 2016

Conservative councillor Mario Creatura is not happy about new amendments to the council’s rules about petitions

On Monday 25th January 2016, a decision was taken by Croydon Council to limit democratic scrutiny, to restrict the views of the people and to limit the voices of elected representatives. Did you notice?

If you were one of the vast majority of residents to not watch the council meeting last week (and frankly, who could blame you?) then based on the press coverage you would be forgiven for thinking that the only material subject discussed was the ‘Save Shirley’ campaign. You’d be wrong.

Back in May 2015, Croydon’s Labour administration lowered the number of signatures required for a public petition to be debated in the council to 1,000. Whilst a great move for democratic accountability, they hadn’t thought through how this would work in practice.

On the face of it these are nothing more than a set of arcane and dull changes

A fortnight ago, Labour proposed constitutional amendments to give a structure for these debates. You can read them on the council’s website. Far from encouraging scrutiny, they imposed a set of sneaky procedural changes that will undoubtedly stifle the voice of the people, strengthen the council’s censoring hand, and frustrate democratic decency.

For most normal folk, on the face of it these are nothing more than a set of arcane and dull changes. But like most constitutional tinkering, these will have a wide-ranging and limiting impact on free speech in Croydon.

So, what changes have been made?

Amendment 3.21.23 mandates that only one public petition can be debated at a time at a council meeting. Croydon only has five council meetings a year where debates are allowed to take place, this change effectively means that it’s only worth having five public petitions each year. What if Croydon residents get more than 1,000 signatures on six, seven, or eight different issues? Monday evening was a case in point. Just days after the residents in Shirley presented their petition with over 4,000 signatures; worried ‘save Fairfield Halls from closure’ supporters submitted their petition with another 4,000 names. On Monday we debated Shirley, but we were forbidden from debating the future of Fairfield Halls. Does that seem fair to you? The next council meeting where we will be allowed to debate a public petition will be in April, not long before council closes the Halls on 30th June. Does that seem fair to the thousands who signed the petition?

Now, no motion for debate on the same matter as a public petition should be considered within six months of a petition being discussed

The censorship doesn’t stop there. The changes dictate that only the first valid petition submitted can be debated. So one with 12,000 signatures, like the Green Waste petition, could be ignored in favour of one with 1,001 signatures that could be snuck in first. If you were a ruling administration not wanting to have your decision embarrassed, couldn’t you feasibly get 1,001 supporters to sign a speedy, but innocuous, petition to debate instead of a politically damaging one?

Amendment 3.3 ensures that no motion for debate on the same matter as a public petition should be considered within six months of a petition being discussed. What happens if there’s a major event or issue that pops up the day after we debate it? Six months, half a year, where a subject is blocked from debate because (ironically) the public think it so important that it warrants a debate. What happens if we debate the Westfield/Hammerson scheme one day, then two months later something happens with that scheme that we want to discuss again? We ignore it for another four months? Democratic representatives of Croydon have been censored, our voices muted by this administration’s constitutional tinkering.

Alteration 3.21.8 says that no vote will be taken on a petition debate. Far from being open and transparent, this is both confusing and opaque for residents watching, curious about what might happen to their jobs, their homes and their town. Why are Labour so against us voting and visually demonstrating whether we agree or not with our residents? Make it non-binding to the administration, but allow concerned locals to see who agrees with the debate motion and who does not. What are our Labour councillors afraid of?

Photo author’s own.

At a recent meeting, councillor Tim Pollard, the Leader of the Conservatives on the council, asked that Croydon’s elected representatives have a debate and then vote on these proposed amendments. After a lot of toing and froing, citing clause this and point of order that, the Mayor of Croydon decided not to allow a debate. The decision was made in less than 15 minutes. I’m still not sure why, and I was in the room. I’d strongly urge you to read Tim’s account of the meeting.

Debating constitutional rules may not be the sexiest of subjects, but it’s vitally important to free speech. These amendments are yet another example of this administration not being ‘open and transparent’ as they claim, but deliberately ‘closed and secretive’.

You can watch the less than 15 minutes where Croydon Council moved a step towards censorship in full on the council’s website – be warned the video, will be taken down in a few weeks.

2.1 of Labour’s constitutional amendments says ‘In relation to public petitions an amendment is proposed in furtherance of the council’s Openness and Transparency agenda’ – after reading this, I’ll let you decide whether their actions match their rhetoric.

Mario Creatura

Mario Creatura

Mario is a lifelong Croydon resident. He works for Heineken as their Public Affairs Manager. He has previously worked in Parliament as a researcher for Gavin Barwell, MP for Croydon Central. Mario has been a Conservative Councillor for Coulsdon West on Croydon Council since May 2014.

More Posts - Website - Twitter - LinkedIn

  • Peter Staveley

    UKIP believes there should be public referendums and direct democracy. Therefore, I fully support the article’s main point which is that there is not enough consideration for receiving petitions at Council Meetings.

    Having again watched the ‘debate’ on the changes to the constitution it is clear that the Mayor (as the Chairman of the meeting) decided that she would not have a debate on the constitution. Presumably she thought that the debate had already happened in the committee in spite of Councillor Bashford stating that the committee ‘debate’ was an email asking for comments with less that 48 hours allowed for submission of any comments.

    I suspect that the Mayor was under pressure to get on with the main petition, i.e. building on green space/MOL in Shirley which is proposed in the Local Plan. Whilst I can understand the need to move to that item quickly, it is important to get the foundations of debate clear before having any actual debate.

    The basic problem was that too little time was given (or there were too many items on the agenda). That in turn is the result of the full council either meeting too infrequently or the Cabinet not delegating debates to committees. The later point is, of course, one of the problems of the Cabinet system (i.e. too much responsibility/power given to too few people) which is why UKIP advocates the return to the Committee system.

    On the subject of the Shirley petition, I was extremely heartened that evening to see so many people present for one issue. It shows that local people care about their area and shows that more democracy needs to return to Croydon Town Hall.

    Peter Staveley
    UKIP GLA Candidate for Croydon and Sutton

  • http://www.croydontransitiontown.org.uk Andrew Kennedy

    A threat to democracy. The rise of internet based on-line petitions such as those at Change.org have apparently made the Council feel threatened and as The Croydon Citizen explains has resulted in a threat to democracy. Effectively no more than 5 petitions will be debated by the Council per year and to their shame no vote will be allowed effectively rendering them ineffectual. This situation needs to be resolved. The Council cannot forever live within it’s own bubble. At the very least a vote by councillors should be allowed and taken due notice of and at best the Council embrace the internet and the opportunity it presents for new and energetic democracy.

    • Mario Creatura

      Perhaps we should start a petition about it?

      • Anne Giles


      • Peter Staveley

        I would sign such a petition. We need proper democracy at Croydon Council.

  • David White

    As Mario rather glosses over, the current Labour administration at Croydon Council lowered the number of signatories required for a petition to be debated from 10,000 (as it had been under the Tories) to 1,000. So that’s an extension of democracy which far outweighs any of the points which Mario is now complaining about.

    However I do wonder whether debating petitions in the way it’s done at the moment serves any really useful purpose. If a petition seeks to overturn a decision made by the Council it stands precious little chance of success. The party system will almost inevitably lead to the majority party opposing the petition and it will get nowhere. The petitioners go away disappointed and the majority party will often feel aggrieved because it has sustained bad publicity.

    I seldom agree with Peter Staveley but he’s right in saying the old Committee system was far superior to the Cabinet system. Not only does the latter place too much power in too few hands it also renders Council Meetings almost pointless, as decisions have already been made by the Leader and Cabinet.

    Under the Committee system petitions used to be referred to the relevant committee. There was then a report by officers which could be debated in committee and if necessary voted upon. Important cases could be referred to full Council where again there could be a debate and vote.

    Sometimes we go backwards and I think that was the case with Tony Blair’s “reforms” which led to Croydon and many other Councils adopting the “Strong Leader and Cabinet” model.