Bexley Council doesn’t like being questioned, or perhaps I should say doesn’t like
being forced to give answers, especially in public.
Over the years I have seen many attempts to dodge public questions at Council meetings, one simple dodge is to only allow 15 minutes every three months for Bexley’s 200,000 plus adult residents and then simply short change them by accidentally on purpose misreading the clock. Not so easy now that everything is recorded but as yet that hasn’t completely stopped the practice.
Perhaps the most fail safe question dodging technique is to ask a random member of a local Conservative Association to put forward a fake question along the lines of “Bexley Council is wonderful. Does the Leader agree it is wonderful and can she give me some examples of its wonderfulness”. I’ve seen a good number of those over the years.
Another technique is the filibuster. Council Leader Teresa O’Neill is quite adept at carrying on for the full fifteen minutes without always answering the question or alternatively answering questions which weren’t asked.
Web casting may have put paid to blatant filibustering.
A fairly recent innovation is to make the questioner read out his question in full. It used to be taken as read from the printed Agenda, but not any more. Every little helps when it comes to restricting question time.
It’s not very sophisticated but one technique is to simply refuse to answer the question. Maybe not often used because it makes the relevant Cabinet Member look like he has something to hide. I’ve not seen it used since Mick Barnbrook asked Councillor Philip Read about the appointment of a former Bexley Director of Child Care to author a Serious Case Review into the death of Rhys Lawrie. The three year old was murdered in a Baby Peter style case of neglect right under Bexley Council’s nose. Plenty to hide there.
Philip Read refused to answer the question on the grounds that Mick Barnbrook was a BNP member at a time when it was rather more popular party than it is now. Does it even exist any more?
Far more sophisticated was the Teresa O’Neill inspired rule that said residents who asked questions would have their name and address published on the Council’s website. This had the potential to partially disenfranchise young adults living at home with parents or abused spouses living in safe houses.
Teresa O’Neill didn’t care but fortunately the Information Commissioner did and Bexley decided to drop the practice just before the ICO jumped on them.
I heard Teresa O’Neill argue in Council that she only published the addresses with the agreement of the questioner. Everyone who asked a question knew the rules and therefore by implication was agreeing to them when submitting a question she said. Clutching at straws I think they call it.
Last week Bexley Conservatives came up with a new question dodging technique which may be useful only in exceptional circumstances. It is to hold a debate before listening to questions pertinent to that debate. They are nothing if not inventive as cheats and confidence tricksters have to be.
The first question was about the Council’s pension fund investment policies as it related to fossil fuels. It was answered by Pension Committee Chairman Councillor John Waters who when he stands up is a very long way from the desk microphone and whose voice is not as fulsome as his height. It’s too much of a strain to decipher what was captured by my recorder and I’m not sufficiently interested to check to see if the webcast is clearer. I think Councillor Waters defended fossil fuel investments as still being a good thing and said the Council pays for expert advice. I hope he is right because I’ve not looked at what my Royal Dutch Shell shares might be worth for a very long time.
What everyone was really waiting for were the questions relating to Old Farm Park. Malcolm Wright of the Save Campaign was planning to ask if it was to have its status changed before the end of this year from being an Urban Open Space to something providing a little more protection such as Metropolitan Open Land, however before doing so he asked the Mayor, presumably because the deciding cart had been put before the questioning horse, if he could stray from his original form of words. She refused permission fearful perhaps of what she might be letting herself in for.
Cabinet Member Linda Bailey said she could not offer that guarantee because another public consultation must be held and that was not planned until 2017 with any possibility of changing status impossible until 2019.
Mr. Wright’s original supplementary question had been successfully invalidated by the changed order of events so he asked instead. “Could the Council confirm it will allow or permit local residents to have authority on the future regeneration of the remaining park, planting of trees and things like that, as opposed to something being imposed on us by Council?” Cabinet Member Linda Bailey did not hesitate, “Yes, definitely”.
Ms. Becci McManus had a similar question and queried the dimensions of the SINC (Site of Importance for Nature Conservation). Councillor Bailey said it would extend 12 metres from the railway fence.
The supplementary question had been partially outdated by the changed Agenda sequence but was about the park being designated an Asset of Community Value under the Localism Act and as such subject to a six week moratorium during the planning process. Councillor Bailey expected those safeguards to be applied.