A furious row broke out between Labour and the Tories over changes to the council’s constitution that opponents fear will lead to Barnet residents being “gagged”.

Conservative councillors backed new limits to public participation at committee meetings – claiming the changes will allow more people to ask questions – at a full council meeting on Tuesday (July 30).

But Labour councillors attacked the move and claimed the Tories were trying to dodge scrutiny on key issues such as the council’s deals with outsourcing firm Capita.

The changes, which were agreed by the constitution committee in June, mean public questions will be limited to one per person for each agenda item, questions and comments will be combined and only 100 words will be allowed for each enquiry.

In addition, no more than two questions will be allowed per agenda item – even on complex topics such as the budget.

Opponents of the move – including the Barnet bloggers – have warned it will drastically limit the number of questions they are able to ask.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Labour leader Cllr Barry Rawlings attacked the changes as “a further attempt to gag residents” – and was greeted with cheers and applause from a packed public gallery.

Cllr Rawlings said: “What are you afraid of? Residents with an opinion and a desire to hold politicians to account?”

The Labour leader claimed the changes went against “the spirit and intention” of the council’s own constitution.

Barnet’s constitution states that it aims to “support the active involvement of residents in the process of local authority decision-making” and “create a powerful and effective means of holding decision-makers to public account”.

The Labour leader said any changes should support the above aims – and the council should have held a public consultation before going ahead with the amendments.

A furious Cllr Kath McGuirk, Labour councillor for West Finchley, added: “You (the Conservatives) have been opened up to criticism because you made mistakes in the first place.

“You went head on, not listening to any councillors on the Capita contracts, and you are absolutely fed up of being criticised time and time again by members of the public who know better than you.

“Vote against this absolutely outrageous, undemocratic decision.”

But chairman of the constitution and general purposes committee Cllr Melvin Cohen said the outrage over the question limits was a “storm in a teacup”.

He said: “There just is no democratic deficit. Essentially, the proposals will only amend the arrangements for questions and comments at committee meetings.

“Residents will still be able to ask questions at committees, so – no change.

“In essence, the proposals mean that comments will no longer be spoken at the committee but submitted in writing.”

Council leader Cllr Dan Thomas added: “We need a system that gives more time to a greater number of people to ask supplementary questions.

“At the moment, a few political activists are able to abuse our generous system and rob our residents of time.

“It can’t be right that a small number of unelected activists can be sat at committee meetings for up to half an hour to delay elected councillors from getting on with council business.”

The question limits were approved, despite Labour’s opposition, after the majority Conservative group gave them their backing.



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