CONCERNS over a meeting about sex education which saw police clear the public gallery after hecklers disrupted proceedings have been “over-egged”, claims a councillor. Louise Hughes acknowledged that members of the public had “objected loudly out of sheer frustration”, but said there “certainly wasn’t a riot” at the Gwynedd council meeting in August.
Cllr Hughes was one of five councillors who had called for an emergency meeting on the Relationship and Education Curriculum, the Welsh Government sex education policy for schools. The policy had been criticised by some, with parents threatening to withdraw their children from schools amid a campaign by the Public Child Protection Wales group (PCPW).
The highly charged meeting was disrupted by heckles from the public gallery, police officers were called in, and councillors were held back in the council chamber for “safety reasons” at the end. A meeting this month heard that councillors and staff had felt unsafe during the debate and had experienced “intimidation” afterwards, and additional safety measures have been put in place.
But Cllr Hughes, who represents Arthog a Llangelynnin, said nobody “was ever in any physical risk” at the August meeting.
She said: “There certainly wasn’t a riot in the chamber, but there were people in the public gallery who had objected loudly out of sheer frustration.
“As far as I’m concerned, there was no physical danger to the councillors or to anyone. There was no violence or threats, certainly no need to bring the police in.
“I’ve seen much rowdier meetings when we discussed the closure of our small village schools. If we can’t have robust or opposing debate during council meetings, then what is the point of local democracy?”
Under the council’s new safety measures, it could consider employing a security firm if risk at future meetings was considered high.
There will also be more mental health and personal safety support services for staff and councillors.
Cllr Linda Ann Jones told the meeting of Gwynedd’s Democratic Services Committee this month that she had sought help from the police over comments made online after the August meeting. The meeting also heard Cllr Beca Brown had been subjected to a targeted campaign, and Cllr Stephen Churchman described the August meeting as “most frightening”.
Following the Democratic Services Committee meeting, Cllr Hughes told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that a number of councillors still had “serious qualms” over the Relationship and Education Curriculum.
“We have safeguarding responsibilities as councillors, yet here we are endorsing what I feel is sexualising children far too soon,” she said.
“The innocence of children is something that I personally think is worthwhile protecting. I respect everyone’s right to have their opinion but expect that to be reciprocal.
“I’m continually astonished at the number of people who support freedom of speech until they hear something they don’t like.”
The Welsh Government has said that children will “only learn topics that are appropriate to their age and development” under the policy.
A Cyngor Gwynedd spokesperson said the safety and wellbeing of councillors, staff and the public was its “highest priority”. Referring to the August meeting, the spokesperson said: “Despite several warnings from the chair, the disturbance continued so proceedings were suspended for 15 minutes.
“As a precautionary measure, it was considered appropriate to request the presence of North Wales Police to ensure that the remainder of the meeting could proceed safely and in good order.
“Following this, and in light of national events, the council conducted a safety review for the main council chamber and public meeting rooms to ensure that healthy debate can take place without fear of intimidation or violence. Since this review, a risk assessment is carried out before each individual council meeting and new arrangements have also been put in place.”
Safety measures included lockers to store bags before entering the public gallery, signs to remind people to respect rules, a dividing rope between the gallery and chamber, “managerial guidance” that meetings will be paused during a disturbance, the potential use of a private security firm, extra safety support for councillors and more on the chamber’s design and safety.
The council spokesperson said: “We urge any of our elected members to contact the council or the police if they feel threatened or intimidated in any way, in relation to their work as a councillor.”