Bosses delay decision on ‘question time’ plans which could let the public grill South Tyneside chiefs

Proposals for a ‘public question time’ at full meetings of South Tyneside Council have taken a step forward.
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Opposition councillors in South Tyneside have called for a 30-minute slot at full council meetings where members of the public can grill council chiefs.

This includes pre-submitted questions being asked to the council leader, deputy leader and cabinet members at the key meetings, with members of the public receiving verbal responses.

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The council’s current constitution dictates questions must be submitted in writing “as there will be no opportunity to ask the question in person.”

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Public questions are also printed on the council agenda and a written response is provided after the meeting within seven days – although a verbal response can be given at council meetings in urgent cases.

Councillor Glenn Thompson, leader of the South Tyneside Independents Group, formally requested the public question time, claiming it could help increase interest and engagement in local democracy.

“Very simply, not enough people take an interest in local government, how processes work, what the council is doing and why and if it’s what they want us to do,” he said.

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“We need to improve this situation in every reasonable practical way that we can, we need to show that we are an actively open, transparent and accountable authority.

“Presently we see a voter turnout of barely over a third, we see the public gallery at council meetings often close to empty.

“Something is wrong and this motion today will, in a small way, address this by showing the public that they can be heard and more importantly, they are replied to at the same time they offer a question.”

Under the proposals, members of the public would advise the council’s chief executive of the nature of their question in writing at least ten working days prior to a full council meeting.

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Cllr David Francis, leader of the council’s Green Party group, said a verbal response would be able to be prepared in this context.

He added the proposals in the motion already been enacted at a number of other local authorities and “does seem to encourage those greater levels of public engagement with local democracy”.

Labour’s Angela Hamilton also suggested South Tyneside Council’s previous failure to bring in a public question time had left it “out of step with normal practice”.

However, her Labour colleague, Ann Best, insisted the council had a “proud history of being at the forefront, not behind the curve, when it comes to democratic engagement”.

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Cllr Ernest Gibson, cabinet member for area management and community safety, added the council’s active Community Area Forums already allowed members of the public to ask bosses “difficult questions”.

During the meeting, it was suggested the proposals should be sent to the council’s Constitution Committee for consideration.

The request was proposed by council leader Tracey Dixon, who said it would be “sensible” to refer the matter for more in-depth discussion.

Cllr Thompson questioned why the “very simple motion” could not be dealt with at Monday’s (February 28) meeting, rather than being delayed.

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But despite protests from some councillors, the proposal to refer the motion to the Constitution Committee was approved in a majority vote, with 34 votes in favour and eight votes against.

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