Is Croydon Council’s question time now more transparent and open?

By - Wednesday 16th November, 2016

Have recent reforms improved debate, or made it more difficult to question officials?

I came close to being thrown out of the public gallery during a meeting of Croydon Council on Monday 17th October, for protesting about the way in which a question I had submitted was dealt with under the new rules. Our mayor, Wayne Trakas-Lawlor, told me this the following week.

I won’t bore you with the details.

As we sat in the public gallery waiting for questions from members of the public to start, my fellow Citizen writer Robert Ward and I were perplexed by the fact that there was no printed sheet with the answer for each questioner who was present. An officer explained that it was part of the council’s move to being ‘paperless’.

Under the guise of more transparency and openness. I find the new procedures are resulting in the opposite. The text of the questions posed and answers provided at each meeting are not going to be publicly available until they are included in the minutes published for the following council meeting. In this instance, that means Monday 5th December.

How the council takes public questions has now changed significantly

Following my discussion with the mayor, I submitted an email expressing my concerns about this and received a long explanation from a council officer. In it, the officer explained that the way the council takes public questions has changed significantly since a revised constitution was agreed by councillors in May 2016.

The email began: ‘The previous system required residents to submit their questions in writing well in advance. They could attend the meeting only to ask supplementary questions. As part of the revisions to the constitution, councillors from both sides of the chamber wanted to make it easier for a greater number of residents to participate in asking questions of the leader and cabinet’.

The new system for public questions extends the questioning period to half an hour at every ordinary council meeting. Any resident can attend the meeting and ask a question without having to submit it in writing in advance. If a resident wishes to ask a question but cannot attend the meeting, they can submit a question by email until noon on the preceding Friday and the mayor will put the question on their behalf.

Questions are now asked in person and without notice

Under the new arrangements, the mayor will allow supplementary questions if time permits, but will aim to take as questions from as many residents as possible and on as wide a range of issues as possible within the thirty minutes available. As questions are now being asked in person and without notice, the council has also moved away from the old system of pre-preparing and printing written answers.

Under the new system, questions and answers will be recorded as follows: those who question in person at the meeting will have their question and answer recorded both in the minutes of the meeting and on the council webcast recording; questions read out by the mayor on behalf of residents are recorded likewise in both the minutes and on the webcast, and questions submitted by email which the mayor does not have time to read out will receive a written answer within three weeks. These answers will be emailed to the questioner and published on the council website.

Both questions and answers must be posted on the council website within forty-eight hours

It will take time for people wanting to submit questions in the future to become familiar with the new rules. The mayor needs to discuss with the leaders of both political parties whether questioners present should be given their question and answer in print when they arrive. It needs to be made clear that the questions and answers should be posted on the website within forty-eight hours of the end of the council meeting. Councillor Tim Pollard, the Conservative opposition leader, has taken up the unsatisfactory nature of the new procedures with the council’s chief executive, and some changes will be discussed with the mayor and the council leader.

The main change I wish to see is that the text of questions and answers should be posted on the website within forty-eight hours of the end of the council meeting.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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  • Jonny Rose

    Hi Sean,

    Thanks for writing about this – I would never have known otherwise! I hope this will lead to greater participation/attendance by the public, now that they know there is more opportunity to be heard and responded to.

    This is a great development. It could be improved further by more frequent council meetings so as to give Croydon’s citizens even more opportunity and time to question councillors/local officers.

    • Jonny Rose

      Addendum: “I came close to being thrown out of the public gallery” – you’re my hero, Sean. :)

  • Andy Hylton

    I witnessed the showdown and Sean was on fire. I was also threatened with eviction, although mine was more down to bare-faced tenacity. I asked my submitted question, but decided to ask a further supplementary question. I challenged Cllr Godfrey about his statement in the Croydon Advertiser that the ceiling of the Fairfield Halls had been ‘taken down’, when they are clearly still up. (just look into the windows any evening.) I continued to talk as our Mayor banged his gavel and blustered that I must be quiet. He was not amused and chastised me like a naughty school boy, dding that it ‘wasn’t funny’. I wasn’t laughing. I never received my answer from Tim. I did warm to Mr Mayor a little bit after that comment though.

    As Councillor Newman once told me about the Council meetings ‘It isn’t real-life’. Let’s face it, there’s more slapstick comedy and amateur dramatics in Croydon Council Chambers than there has ever been in 54 years of the Fairfield Halls.