These days, we frequently come across the expression "public participation in local government". Most certainly, it chimes well with the Coalition Government’s published thoughts about localism. But what does it actually mean? You could say, for instance, that the residents of Norfolk are entitled to participate in local government once every four years by voting in the County Council elections, or even by standing – though without the endorsement of one of the main political parties, success is highly unlikely. Independent members of Norfolk County Council have always been rarer than proverbial hens’ teeth. No. It must mean something more. Even the definition of "participate" in the Concise Oxford Dictionary hints at an ongoing involvement.
Possibly the starting point, in the case of Norfolk County Council, is its constitution, a rather grand description of the rules by which it is required as a matter of law to operate. The constitution does refer to "participation" by local residents, but only to the extent of asking questions at meetings of the Cabinet and certain other committees. Clearly, it is the Cabinet that is all-important in every sense of the term so let us concentrate on Cabinet public question time. Now, that which follows will probably sound tedious but it is necessary for me to explain what the rules say.
At present, the constitution limits questions to two substantive ones, or one substantive one and a supplementary. Notice has to be given of substantive questions, and provided that notice is received before the agenda is published, the questions are actually set out on the agenda for all to see. The questioner is then permitted to read out his questions at the Cabinet meeting, and the Chairman or one of the Cabinet members reads out replies. If the questioner is absent, the constitution requires that the answers to his questions are still read out, and written answers must also be sent to him. The questions and answers are then both minuted and included in the Cabinet reports to the meeting of the full Council. There is an overall time limit of fifteen minutes allowed for public questions.
Now frequently, the answers – which are obviously prepared by officers – are evasive and unhelpful and the constitution does not allow any debate on them. However, it is the publicity that the current procedure allows residents to achieve, in respect of issues that concern them, that is the predominant factor. In this way, such issues inevitably come to the attention of the many members of the Council who do not bother to attend Cabinet meetings, but who might nevertheless still feel a degree of sympathy. The media also has advance notice of the issues, and is more likely to report on them. In fact, over the past twelve months or so, Cabinet public question time at Norfolk County Council has become a very entertaining and lively affair, frequently to the embarrassment of the Cabinet. It has even resulted in complaints against at least two Cabinet members who have been disinclined to play the game.
That, dear readers, is all about to change. The Cabinet has grown tired of all of this. A working group has concluded that Cabinet public question time "could become very hard to manage". It takes up "a considerable amount of time" and "the process should be streamlined". Possibly there should be a "maximum number of questions" as well as an overall time limit. This is what is now likely to be put before the full Council shortly for approval.
In future, no questions will appear on Cabinet agendas. Subject to the existing notice requirements being met, written answers to substantive questions will be handed out at the start of Cabinet meetings. A questioner will only be allowed to read out the one supplementary that he is permitted when he has chosen to give notice of only one substantive question. The answer to the supplementary will be read out, but no questions and answers will be minuted, or included in the Cabinet reports to the full Council.
There will therefore be many questions and answers that will never come to the attention of the majority of Council members, let alone the media. In other words, Cabinet public question time will be emasculated, just to spare the Cabinet its present discomfort. So much for "participation in local government".
Why cannot Norfolk County Council, in the interests of democracy, transparency and accountability, introduce a new and separate forum at which residents can, without unreasonable time constraints, raise with the Cabinet on notice issues of general concern with the guarantee of debate on those issues with Cabinet members? This surely would come closer to the concept of public participation.
John Martin, Norfolk