By Tony Earnshaw
Local Democracy Reporter
OPPOSITION groups on Kirklees Council have come together to avoid being ‘gagged’ by the majority Labour-led council at future meetings.
Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Green Party and Independents tabled a joint motion calling on the council to assess its own council procedure rules so as to give all councillors a chance to speak in debates.
It follows an uproarious exchange in the council chamber at Huddersfield Town Hall on February 27 during a heated debate on the controversial Local Plan.
With more than an hour of the ‘extraordinary’ meeting of the authority’s full council still to run, Labour’s Coun Gulfam Asif asked for the matter to move to the vote.
After much confusion and objection from opposition benches, the vote was taken.
It led some furious members to claim they had been effectively gagged.
Speaking after the meeting, Conservative leader David Hall described events as “the most appalling abuse of power I have seen on this council in 15 years”.
Lib Dem leader John Lawson said the decision to close down debate would “shatter public confidence in our decision-making process”.
They have been joined by Green leader Coun Andrew Cooper and Independent leader Coun Charles Greaves in setting out a call for changes to meeting rules.
The motion, which will be heard at next Wednesday’s (March 20) meeting of the Council, calls for the Corporate Governance and Audit Committee to consider how council procedure rules can be changed to give all councillors an opportunity to speak, particularly at key council debates such as budget and council tax setting, as well as at other meetings requiring statutory decisions.
The committee has responsibility for the council’s non-executive general functions, such as risk management, audit, accounts and constitutional framework. Its remit includes reviewing the council’s policies and practices.
Coun Hall (Con, Liversedge and Gomersal) said: “Labour’s contempt for a fair process is also showing contempt for the residents of Kirklees.
“Our residents have elected us to speak on their behalf and in silencing us the Labour party are denying their right to be heard. It is a total abuse of power.”
Coun Lawson (Lib Dem, Cleckheaton) said that the motion would ensure greater accountability at council meetings and that any changes to council procedures would support the role of the Mayor in chairing the meetings.
He said: “I was concerned that the decision to cut short the council debate recently could really undermine the public’s confidence in the decision-making process.
“A number of councillors were not given the opportunity to speak at one of the most important council meetings in our political careers.
“It meant that councillors from eight wards did not get a chance to speak and represent their constituents.
“We really need to ensure that all councillors are given the opportunity to speak. We want to ensure that all councillors, and, in turn, all wards and communities, have a voice if they choose to use it.
“This would give the public more trust in the way the council works and ensure we have a robust local democracy.” Coun Cooper (Green, Newsome) said: “The Local Plan is one of the most controversial and important decisions that the council has had to make.
“Closing down debate on this important issue when council meetings are guillotined at 9pm anyway was not a smart move by Labour and showed a lack of respect for contrary views.
“Of course, Labour has a majority on the council at present so is able to win crucial votes in council.
“This was not a crucial vote; it was simply them having to listen to contrary views that they didn’t agree with.
“That’s what democracy is like a lot of the time.”
Coun Asif (Lab, Dewsbury South) said he asked to move to a vote because he became “irritated” that the debate was “going round in circles”, with opposition councillors “attacking” the Labour group.
He added that standing orders allowing members to move to a vote can be altered.
“Standing orders say that you can vote to finish the debate,” he added.
“They are there to be used by anyone.
“If they don’t like it, they can change it.”