Fears councillors are ‘not being held accountable’ after decision to stop public speaking at meetings

The decision not to allow members of the public to speak at council meetings has sparked fear that councillors would not be “held accountable”.
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The first full meeting of Wigan Council was a feisty encounter as opposition councillors poked at the Labour Party masses in the town hall for refusing to allow public members to speak.

Members of the public are permitted to ask questions at some other Greater Manchester council meetings, but in Wigan they need councillors to either speak on their behalf or submit a question through the Ask the Cabinet feature on the website.

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Coun James Paul Watson asked why councillors were against allowing this change to the council constitution. The Independent Network man rubbished the idea that councillors could be open to abuse from the public. He also dismissed additional time and costs as a reason to reject this.

He went on to tell the council chamber that proper vetting of questions is done at other councils, which rules out the possibility of abuse to council members.

“We need to offer this opportunity to the public so that we are all held accountable,” Coun Watson concluded.

Deputy leader Coun Keith Cunliffe pointed out that every councillor is available to be contacted by a member of the public by telephone, email, social media as well as face to face. He highlighted that none of the councillors raising this as an issue in the chamber attended the Constitution Working Group.

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Every political group was invited to attend the Constitution Working Group on April 18 which concluded members of the public should not be allowed to speak at council meetings. According to Coun Cunliffe, barbs from the Independent and Conservative members from across the chamber were brought up as “political mischief”.

“I think this is a fantastic opportunity for members of the public to come here and ask questions,” Independent Coun Bob Brierley stated. “We represent the people and they should come in here and ask questions, it shouldn’t be an issue.

“I think we should take the opportunity to invite one person to come in and ask a question as a lucky dip (people picked from a hat to speak). I think it would be democratic and a fantastic opportunity for the so-called ‘best council in Britain’.”

Responding to this objection from his opposition parties, council leader David Molyneux outlined the job of an elected member is to represent the communities they serve.

“I’ve heard speeches from three different groups, all of whom were given the report, the opportunity to comment and to attend the meeting but they didn’t,” Coun Molyneux proclaimed to the chamber. “They’ve come here today to make a point to the press that they’re hard done by.

“Three leaders got copies of that report. What I’m saying is that they all got it two weeks before the meeting and not one comment was made, so don’t come now preaching that you didn’t know.”