Row over efforts to improve democracy in South Tyneside

Council chiefs have been criticised for postponing a decision on proposed rule changes aiming to improve local democracy in South Tyneside.

Tuesday, 2nd March 2021, 5:49 pm
Updated Wednesday, 3rd March 2021, 8:04 am
South Tyneside Council.

At a meeting of South Tyneside Council, opposition councillors tabled several motions requesting changes to the constitution, which sets out rules and procedures for running the local authority.

The changes aimed to make it easier for councillors to bring motions to full borough council meetings for debate and to make voting more transparent.

The first motion included a requirement for two councillors to sign a motion on notice to bring it to full council, as opposed to the council’s current requirement of five councillors.

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The second motion included a recorded vote being taken at the request of one councillor at the meeting, as opposed to at least six councillors.

And the third aimed to allow digital signatures when a councillor wishes to give notice of a motion by way of email.

The motions were debated at a full meeting of borough council on February 25, which was held via videolink and broadcast on YouTube.

However, the council’s Labour group proposed referring the motions to the council’s Constitution Committee Working Group (CCWG), which is currently carrying out a major review of the constitution.

Councillor Joan Atkinson, deputy leader of the council and chair of the working group, said it was recognised that the constitution in its current form needed updating.

She added that the referred motions would feed into the review process along with other comments, with “the ambition of delivering a fit for purpose robust constitution to [the] annual council [meeting] in May [2021].”

But the position drew criticism from several opposition councillors, who questioned why the motions couldn’t be agreed at the February meeting.

Green Party councillor, David Francis, said all elected councillors should have “a reasonable opportunity to be heard and to help shape the debate at full council level.”

He referenced similar motions which were tabled and defeated by votes in the past and said there was no need to “kick [the issue] into the long grass.”

Leader of the opposition and independent councillor, John Robertson, asked why decisions couldn’t be taken at the meeting, adding “why waffle and why delay?”

Independent councillor Glenn Thompson said digital signatures should be introduced, especially in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, Labour councillor Angela Hamilton said deferring the ‘digital signatures’ motion would have accessibility implications – as she is currently in a Covid-19 ‘shielding category.’

She told the meeting that failing to support the motion would “not only deny my voice, but the voice of every single person who has ever voted for me and every single person that I represent.”

Proposals to refer the three motions to the Constitution Committee were approved in separate majority votes.

Councillors heard that the CCWG is actively meeting fortnightly, but is likely to ramp up in future.

An updated version of South Tyneside Council’s constitution is set to be revealed later this year once the review is completed.

Previous suggested changes included clearer rules on what information is available to elected councillors and members of the public and more ‘plain English’ to help the public understand council procedures.

Councillor Tracey Dixon, leader of the council, stressed that she wanted to work collectively with councillors, with businesses and for residents and that a full review of the constitution was under way.

She added the current constitution is being “scrutinised with fine toothcomb” and that there was independent representation on the committee considering the changes.

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