CHANGES to Caerphilly Council’s constitution which were branded an “attack on democracy” have been approved.
Following the decision at a full council meeting on Thursday May 11, Plaid Cymru and Independent councillors walked out of the council’s chamber in protest.
Caerphilly County Borough Council’s constitution sets out how the local authority operates and makes decisions. This will now be changed to reflect last night’s decision, which includes a reduction in scrutiny committees and a limit on questions that can be asked at full council meetings.
Opposition councillors have fiercely criticised the changes, but council leader Sean Morgan has defended them and said they aim to ensure the democratic process becomes more “efficient, inclusive and productive”.
Fierce debate which ended with a walkout
At the meeting, Plaid Cymru councillor Donna Cushing accused the Labour-run council of becoming a “dictatorship”.
The amount of scrutiny committees will now be reduced from five to three, which means the amount of scrutiny positions will drop from 80 to 54.
The new committees will be called: education and social services scrutiny, housing and environment scrutiny, and corporate and regeneration scrutiny.
Leader of the Plaid Cymru group, Cllr Lindsay Whittle, criticised the grouping of social services and education because this is where 75% of the council’s budget is spent, arguing it should have more scrutiny.
Cllr Whittle has previously said he is “incandescent” with rage at the “attempts to silence” the opposition.
Cllr Whittle, who represents Penyrheol, said: “The proposal to cut the number of scrutiny committees will mean some Plaid Cymru councillors, Independent members and even Labour councillors will not sit on any scrutiny committee.
“Surely, one of the key roles of all councillors is to scrutinise the policies and plans of the majority group – that is going to be a lot more difficult if these proposals are pushed through.”
Other changes include a restriction on the amount of questions asked by councillors at meetings, only one notice of motion can be discussed per meeting, and only supported motions can be passed to full council or cabinet.
Plaid Cymru councillor and current chair of the education scrutiny committee, Cllr Teresa Parry, said: “I can’t believe that this is even being suggested. To limit questions is horrendous, this is what scrutiny is isn’t it?”
Leader of the independent group, Cllr Kevin Etheridge, said: “I believe this report limits democracy and limits debate.”
He added: “Please withdraw the report, let it go to scrutiny committee, set up a working party and bring the report back in September.”
Deputy leader of the Plaid Cymru group, Cllr Charlotte Bishop, said: “I thought we were here to represent the people that voted for us. I thought primarily our job was to voice their voices. Surely that’s scrutiny, surely that’s asking questions.”
Independent councillor for Blackwood, Nigel Dix, said: “I don’t know why the Labour party are so scared of questions and scrutiny.”
The changes also state that councillors can only deal with issues within the wards they represent and residents seeking help must put their request in letter form.
Cllr Dix said: “This is directed at independents who take on issues from other wards. Labour need to speak to their constituents as to why they don’t feel they can come to them.
“They should raise the profile of their own councillors in those wards. We should all be working together for good services.
“I have no problem with someone from Blackwood going to another councillor for help as long as they’re being supported.”
Council leader’s response
Cllr Sean Morgan said the proposals were supported by the “intention” to bring an all-member scrutiny meeting together on a quarterly basis.
Cllr Morgan, who represents Nelson, has previously said: “With increased membership on scrutiny committees, and by using the all member scrutiny which we have successfully trialled over the past couple of years, this will provide increased member input on the broader issues and overarching policies that govern the running of the council.
“After Audit Wales recently questioned the effectiveness of scrutiny and expressed the view that they would like to see fewer items scrutinised, but in more depth, I believe these changes will satisfy Audit Wales and lead to a more open, transparent and robust examination of the council’s functions.”
Cllr Morgan also confirmed that any questions that aren’t answered in meetings will be answered in writing. It is unclear if the responses will be made public or sent privately to councillors.
Was the proposal constitutional?
Before the proposal was approved, Plaid Cymru councillor Gary Enright questioned whether the report was constitutional, due to the author of the report.
The constitution states the monitoring officer should be the author of a report which proposes to change the constitution, but in this case the author was Richard Edmunds, director of education and corporate services.
Monitoring officer Robert Tranter said: “In my view the report is totally correct procedurally.”
Cllr Enright, who represents Llanbradach, said: “It’s unconstitutional, there will be consequences.”
Mr Tranter said: “The important part is that you as 69 members will have a say.”
Independent councillor for Risca, Bob Owen said: “How will it be what we want based on the consultees being all officers and the leader of the Labour group.”
He added: “I don’t see this as us working together.”
Scrutiny meetings will continue to take place every six weeks and the amount of members sitting on the committees will be increased from 16 to 18.
Currently there are 44 Labour, 18 Plaid Cymru, and six independent elected members sitting on the council – the scrutiny committees’ memberships are made-up in proportion to this.
The report, which was presented to members, states: “The political balance for a scrutiny committee of 18 based on current arrangements would provide 12 seats for Labour, five for Plaid Cymru, and one for the Independents group.”