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Posted by: John Brace | 19th October 2010

Town Hall drama: Labour’s lost the plot – more playground politics

Town Hall drama: Labour’s lost the plot – more playground politics

                              

Last night’s full council meeting at Wallasey Town Hall certainly had some firsts:-

a) the first time a Labour councillor has refused to answer a question at Public Question Time
b) the first time two journalists have been asked to leave (highly irregular and illegal) from the Council chamber merely for exercising their rights under Wirral Council’s constitution to ask questions (and as a result irking Cllr. Harry Smith).

As I really doubt Cllr. Harry Smith is aware of the law on this I will quote it here (with a little underlining of the relevant points):-

"Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960

1 Admission of public to meetings of local authorities and other bodies.

…….

(4) Where a meeting of a body is required by this Act to be open to the public during the proceedings or any part of them, the following provisions shall apply, that is to say,—

(c) while the meeting is open to the public, the body shall not have power to exclude members of the public from the meeting and duly accredited representatives of newspapers attending for the purpose of reporting the proceedings for those newspapers shall, so far as practicable, be afforded reasonable facilities for taking their report and, unless the meeting is held in premises not belonging to the body or not on the telephone, for telephoning the report at their own expense."

As Cllr. Smith well knows the press table is situated in front of the Labour benches in the Council Chamber. There are no "reasonable facilities" in the public gallery as there’s no large flat surface to write on.

It got so bad that to sum up the words of one member of the public (previously a councillor) in the public gallery "My brain hurts and I’m going home". Cllr. Foulkes gave long speeches about how he believes in scrutiny and democracy. However not it seems in respect of any Labour Party councillors. His own councillors heckled both members of the public during the time they asked questions, Cllr Adrian Jones slandered me (why can Labour never get their facts right?) and behaved like spoilt children who’ve had their toys taken away throwing a temper tantrum merely because a couple of people asked one of their councillors questions.

As if Labour councillors wasn’t bad enough and I am being serious now (surely you can’t be serious I hear you say) a senior officer was even heard making racist remarks about my wife. Officers are supposed to be politically neutral and adhere to the officer’s code of conduct.

I am a person who believes in freedom of speech; but until the Labour Party learns some respect and manners; I will continue to be ashamed that I’m represented in Bidston & St. James ward by three Labour Party councillors.

However, I here is a list of the notices of motion/amendments at last night’s meeting, which can be found on Wirral Council’s website.

Bill Norman was made the new Returning Officer. Jim Wilkie will carry on for the next 9 months as Interim Chief Executive.

P.S. I am getting well used to the fact that a 15 minute adjournment ends up being half an hour; why don’t they just say they need 30 minutes to start with?

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Responses

  1. Mr Brace, I was at Full Council last night and did not witness any members of the press being removed. Following the public questions, you and your wife were asked to leave the chamber and return to the public gallery – is that what you’re referring to? Are you both claiming to be journalists? I am also concerned about your claims of racist remarks from senior officers? I certainly didn’t hear anything untoward. would you like to elaborate?

    • I certainly didn’t hear anything untoward. would you like to elaborate?

      Not without discussing it with my wife first.

  2. In answer to your queries. Yes we’re members of the National Union of Journalists. We weren’t in the public gallery to start with, so why should we return there?

    We did miss part of the meeting as a result.

    From my recollection of events Cllr Smith demanded to the Mayor that we leave the Chamber (and we were ushered out by the Mayor’s assistant). We weren’t given a choice in the matter. As to the comments a senior officer made in relation to Leonora (who is a dual Canadian/British national) due to the noise coming from the Labour benches I doubt it could’ve been heard by someone in the public gallery but it was around the time she was asking a question.

    I could elaborate (as we both heard it); but as it’s not recorded on tape, I strongly suspect that if a complaint was made the person involved would suddenly and ever so conveniently forget it happened even though at least a dozen or so people would’ve been close enough to hear what was going on. The problem with publishing exactly what happened (even online) is there’s little we can do to change what goes on apart from write about it.

    I hope that answers your query.

  3. John,

    I’ve been a journalist for 24 years this month. I’ve represented local newspapers (most recently, until March, as news editor of the Wirral Globe), national newspapers, TV and radio broadcasters and indeed internet news websites.

    As you rightly point out – ” duly accredited representatives of newspapers attending for the purpose of reporting the proceedings for those newspapers shall, so far as practicable, be afforded reasonable facilities for taking their report” – but, aside from your mentioning being members of the NUJ you are not, in any way, “duly accredited representatives of newspapers attending for the purpose of reporting the proceedings for those newspapers”.

    You’re just a blogger (and an openly partisan one at that, too!). Get over it.

    Regards, and on behalf of real journalists everywhere,

    Justin

    • Thank you for that mini-biography Justin. I will elaborate further.

      This month online I have been read by 57,000 people in one online publication I work for and read (in print) not online by ~10,000.

      You’re just a blogger (and an openly partisan one at that, too!). Get over it.

      I don’t mind being partisan (but as you point out at least I’m open about it!)

      Sometimes it requires being partisan in order to change things.

      See above, will happily provide you with proof if you don’t take my word for it.

      P.S. Although you may have been in the field 24 years, I have for over 10. Yes what I’ve written has ended up in national newspapers; you want a few links do you?

      What is according you a “real journalist”?

    • Does a periodical written on paper, delivered free to the door of 10,000 readers on the Wirral every 2 months not count as “a newspaper”?

      You need to also read it in conjunction also with section 7 of the Act, as the definition of newspaper is wider than you think:-

      “Any reference in this section to a newspaper shall apply also to a news agency which systematically carries on the business of selling and supplying reports or information to newspapers, and to any organisation which is systematically engaged in collecting news for sound or television broadcasts”

    • Good luck with the job hunt Justin. As no doubt you are aware; the field of jobs in journalism has shrunk because of the reduction in advertising (that supported print journalism).

      Yes, when I’m writing elsewhere it gets edited; however I’ve seen openly partisan pieces written by many journalist (local and national). Everybody has a bias and sometimes it’s better to write from the heart getting across how you feel.

  4. Which newspaper or periodical do you report on behalf of?

    • The Bidston & St. James Focus would be the one most relevant to the point in hand. Do you get a Focus delivered where you are?

  5. Surely you were in the chamber to begin with as you had requested to ask a question of one of the Members during question time? Asking a question does not entitle you to remain in the chamber during the debate and quite rightly, you were asked to take a seat in the public gallery.

    • However I asked two questions not one. Was I to rush up to the public gallery and back inbetween questions; or perhaps shout my supplementary Elaine-like from the public gallery?

      Following the questions that I and Leonora asked there wasn’t a debate. If I may quote your own words.

      Following the public questions, you and your wife were asked to leave the chamber and return to the public gallery – is that what you’re referring to?

  6. Mr Brace
    Members of the public who wish to ask a question or questions are sat in the chamber from the start as questions from the public are permitted before the Notices of Motions are debated. Once public questions are complete, members of the public are asked to take seats in the public gallery.

    • If you’d been to previous full council meetings you’d find it’s the first time it’s happened.

      Why didn’t the other 3 members of the public (who aren’t councillors – I’m not referring to the Mayor’s assstant) down there leave then? What about the wife of the Mayor? No, Harry specifically targetted it at us. It’s the first time it’s happened and I’ve been to pretty much every full Council meeting in the past 2 years.

      If all the members of the public had gone to the public gallery I wouldn’t have minded so much.

    • Oh, and one more thing we were asked to go to the public gallery at the start of the meeting; somebody didn’t want us to ask the questions at all.

    • There was a debate on a notice of motion from the Labour Group before the public questions (and an adjournment to consider it).

      Are you sure we were at the same meeting?

      • Yes, Mr Brace, we were at the same meeting. It sounds to be you are being a tad pedantic. You attended the meeting as a member of the public, therefore you should be in the public gallery.

        • I came for two reasons, to ask questions and to take notes on what happened for the next Focus. As you can no doubt appreciate, trying to balancing papers on the narrow ledge in the public gallery compared to using a table is far from ideal compared to writing on a desk. It’s also impossible to ask a councillor for a quote as the public are prevented from seeing them after a meeting.

          Whether I should or shouldn’t be in the public gallery is a matter of opinion and in this case personal choice. As you are perhaps unaware the public have in the past sat downstairs rather than upstairs (take for example the call-in over Ridgeway school last year). There’s no rule against it and Cllr Smith is the one being a pedant by pretending to enforce a rule/practice that didn’t exist until he made it up.

          If he didn’t want me sitting behind the Labour members he had only to ask and I would’ve quite happily sat elsewhere and left them to their heckling. However as one of the residents represented by him and as he’s a councillor who doesn’t live in the ward he represents; his role is to represent my views (however much he may dislike them).

          Article 3.1 (a) (b) (i) of Wirral Council’s constitution quite clearly states:-
          “(b) Information – Citizens have the right to:
          (i) attend meetings of the Council, Cabinet and its Committees,
          except where confidential or exempt information is likely to be
          disclosed and the meeting is therefore held in private;”

          Harry sought to deny this right to myself and my wife and he and his Labour councillors also tried to deny my and my wife’s right under the constitution (part (c) below) to participate in public question time by having his Leader tell a Liberal Democrat councillor (in front of us) if it went ahead they would protest (in an effort to persuade us not to). He and his Labour councillors and cronies both tried to drown us both out and there was a racist comment made towards my wife.

          If you think this is the way elected representatives should behave then so be it. However, I expect a higher standard of behaviour from councillors of whatever party. If racism, heckling and spite are the kind of behaviours you condone and you see me as a pedant for pointing this out; then so be it.

          “(c) Participation – Citizens have the right to participate in the Council’s
          question time and contribute to investigations by Overview and Scrutiny
          Committees. Citizens have the right to submit petitions to Councillors or
          officers about matters that are of local concern.”

          The Constitution also states that members of the public can submit petitions directly to officers. By your reckoning that the public should only be in the public gallery except at public question time (as a petition quite clearly isn’t a question); such petitions would have to be submitted by falling from the public gallery onto the heads of Labour councillors.

          The point however is not what is pedantic or within the rules, but what is reasonable. I can take those stairs easily; but I’m sure Harry is well aware my wife walks with a stick. She’s claustrophobic and doesn’t generally take lifts and had recently fallen going up some stairs at the weekend. He chose to make somebody with a stick go up the stairs and chose to boo us as we left.

          Call me a pedant if you like; but attitudes of respect and tolerance rather than prejudice between councillors and members of the public need to prevail.

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