A question of how to change

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COUNCILLORS will sit down next week to thrash out plans for Hartlepool Borough Council’s new constitution amid controversy over the way public questions are dealt with.

It comes as Labour councillors Jonathan Brash and Pamela Hargreaves have hit out at proposals to stop members of the public from asking supplementary questions at full council meetings.

As it currently stands, questions have to be submitted seven days in advance and if they are accepted then members of the public can ask their question and follow that up with two supplementary questions.

But the proposals include scrapping the follow-up questions and instead allowing residents the chance to ask two questions on separate topics.

Coun Brash and Hargreaves say it puts “unnecessary” limits on what people can ask and say councillors should be fighting to make it easier, not harder.

Labour councillor Stephen Akers-Belcher, who chairs the constitution committee, said there is a need to be “open and transparent” adding that people will have plenty of opportunities to quiz their representatives.

He said the current system has been “abused” in the past.

In December full council formally passed a resolution to change governance arrangements following the mayoral referendum, which saw the majority of people vote in favour of a return from the mayoral system to the committee system.

Mayor Stuart Drummond’s term of office will officially end at midnight on May 5 ahead of the new system, which will see committees of councillors making decisions.

As a result the proposed new constitution will be discussed by councillors at an extraordinary meeting of the full council next week.

A joint statement by Coun Brash and Hargreaves said: “We do not support the proposed new restrictions in respect of public questions at full council.

“We believe that they place unnecessary limits on the public’s involvement in the decision making process and damages the power and means of the public in holding decision-makers to account.

“The right of the public to question their elected officials is a cornerstone of our democratic system and we should be fighting to make it easier, not more difficult, if we are truly to consider ourselves champions of open government.

Instead of restricting public questions, we propose an evolved and expanded format for public questions at full council.”

They have put forward seven suggestions including retaining supplementary questions, reducing the deadline for submissions, allowing people to ask questions without notice and that all councillors should be able to be questioned, not just chairs of committees.

Coun Akers-Belcher added: “Councillors can be asked questions at a number of forums, ward surgeries or via written correspondence and people will still have the chance to ask questions at full council meetings.

“But we need to be able to conduct the business and sometimes in the past there have been cases where questions have been abused by people.

“People need to be up front and at times some are politically motivated in a sneaky way to catch people out.”

The extraordinary meeting of the full council is due to be held next Wednesday, March 6, at 7pm in the council chamber at the Civic Centre, in Victoria Road.