Councillors clash as formal questions were 'cancelled' for key meeting while talks are being held

Concerns were raised at a key meeting of Sunderland City Council this week after all formal questions from councillors were “cancelled.”

Friday, 25th June 2021, 7:13 pm
Sunderland Civic Centre.

Earlier in March 2021, the local authority approved an update to its constitution including procedure rules setting out how council meetings operate.

This covered full council meetings, which normally see all 75 members gather to make decisions on policy and to hold debates on local issues.

Following concerns over the length of council meetings, with some taking so long they had to be held over two days in separate sessions, a three-hour timeframe was approved for a single session of full council.

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In addition, there was a change to members’ questions which normally take place over a set time window at the meetings.

The approach intended to reduce the number of questions at full council meetings, with councillors asked to approach council officers and/or cabinet members outside meetings to try and get responses to their questions.

At the local authority’s most recent full council meeting on Wednesday (June 23) councillor Harry Trueman, the Mayor of Sunderland, confirmed there were “no written questions from members of council being considered.”

Councillor Niall Hodson, leader of the Liberal Democrat group, moved a point of order to raise concerns about the move.

However, Cllr Hodson was told by the Mayor that he, along with all other councillors, had already received an email with “the facts of why it has been decided.”

The Mayor added there would be a discussion outside the meeting on the issue to “either put this right or bring it back into some other form.”

Cllr Niall Hodson responded: “I would like on record my strongest objections and those of my group to the action that has gone in place here.”

At other points in the meeting, opposition councillors said that the rejection of formal members’ questions at full council limited public scrutiny of local authority leaders.

Meanwhile, Conservative councillor Dominic Mcdonough added the move “pushed democracy and accountability behind closed doors.”

But councillor Graeme Miller, leader of Sunderland City Council stressed that the changes to questions had affected all political parties, including the ruling Labour group.

He also confirmed that a meeting would be arranged with all political group leaders to find a solution going forward.

Cllr Miller told the meeting: “As leader of the council I have been in contact with the opposition leaders, as has the chief executive, to get a way through this.

“We will be having a meeting of the leaders of all groups probably early in July – unfortunately we couldn’t get it in before this full council – to resolve this so that this does not happen again.

“Because we do need questions from councillors as well as from the public, nobody is denying that.

“Labour had all its questions cancelled as well, so it’s not just opposition parties that had their questions withdrawn, it was everyone.”

Cllr Miller added: “What we’re talking about here is working to get the council running in the best possible way so that democracy is clearly seen to be done properly.

“I’m hoping that we can come together after this meeting and find a way forward so that we can get questions to council from councillors done properly in a sensible manner.”

He added: “Because in the past, we were getting 35 plus questions to council from councillors of which we were getting through 15 in a council meeting and 20 of them were getting a written response from officers.

“That [getting a written response] is exactly what has happened this time.”

Changes to council procedure rules were originally approved at a full council meeting on March 24, 2021 with a majority vote.

According to official minutes from the meeting, proposals from Lib Dems and Conservatives to refer the matter back to cabinet for “further consideration and amendment to iron out issues” was defeated by a vote.

The planned meeting with leaders of Sunderland City Council’s political groups will aim find a solution that balances the desire of councillors to highlight questions with the three-hour time limit for full council meetings.

It is expected to take place in coming weeks.