New move to block questions by councillors
The potential loss of the opportunity to get a formal question onto the agenda of a full council meeting removes a key democratic check, some councillors say, by allowing questions to be avoided or answers to be delayed.
The current standing orders allow councillors, at any ordinary meeting of the full council, to ‘put a question to the Chair of the meeting or to the Chair of any standing or special committee or to the Chief Executive concerning any relevant or competent matter provided that the member shall have given notice of the question in writing, duly signed, to the Chief Executive not later than noon on the fourteenth calendar day before the date of the meeting.’
Such questions and the answer given are then included in the papers for the full council meeting. A supplementary question for clarification is allowed at the meeting. All questions and answers are included in the minute of the meeting.
The facility for formal questions by councillors thus allows any councillor to get a matter onto the agenda for a full council meeting, to put a question to a committee chair or the chief executive in public and get the question and answer, and any supplementary question and answer, included in the public record of the meeting. It is therefore an important democratic safeguard. Recent uses of the entitlement to ask formal questions include probing the Council’s school closures policy and the dismal performance of the Council’s audit committee.
The proposed changes to the standing orders impose a requirement on a councillor wanting to ask a formal question to demonstrate that ‘all reasonable steps to have the question answered through available normal channels have been taken’. The right to a supplementary question for clarification is proposed to be removed.
The move to make it more difficult to table formal questions at full council meetings follows similar restrictions introduced two years ago relating to notices of motion.
If the proposed changes to the rules for asking questions are approved by the Council, the practical effect is likely to be that questions are blocked or delayed. Opposition councillors would not be able to get items of concern onto the agenda for full council meetings. Instead of a question and answer being aired in public, councillors could be obliged to ask questions ‘behind the scenes’.
Commenting, Cllr Martin Ford said: “The move to restrict councillors’ right to ask formal questions at full council is just the latest erosion of public accountability at Aberdeenshire Council. If the proposed rule changes go ahead, the Council’s chief executive will be able to block or delay unwelcome questions at full council by deciding the question could have been put by another means or at a different time or place.
“The proposed rule change removes another democratic safeguard from Aberdeenshire Council’s governance procedures. A formal question at full council is public and has to be answered in time for the council meeting. The question and answer are recorded in the minutes for all to see. None of these guarantees necessarily applies to a question asked by letter or e-mail.
“A council committee chair should be prepared to answer questions from other councillors in public. The blocking of opportunities to hold leading councillors to account has been a hallmark of the current Aberdeenshire administration. Their whole approach to government has been illiberal and undemocratic.
“I hope the culture in Aberdeenshire Council will change after May’s election to one where decisions are taken openly, information is shared, and scrutiny and challenge are welcomed.”
At the Procedures Committee on 23 February 2012, Cllr Ford’s colleague in the Democratic Independent group of councillors, Cllr Paul Johnston, argued against the proposed changes to the rules for asking formal questions.
Cllr Johnston said: “At every turn, I and my Democratic Independent colleagues have opposed the reduction in scrutiny and openness in Aberdeenshire Council.”