Removal of democratic rights led to walk out at West Berks Council meeting

Liberal Democrat Councillors at West Berks Council walked out of the Full Council meeting on Tuesday 2nd March 2021 when their democratic right to speak was removed by the Conservative administration.

With a full agenda for probably the most important Council meeting of the year, to approve the Council’s capital and revenue budgets for the forthcoming year, a plan was drawn up by the group leaders in advance of the Full Council meeting on 02/03/21 to allow all Councillors time to speak and for budget amendments to be debated. However, even though Councillors kept within the agreed time limits when speaking, at around 10pm, Conservative back-benchers moved a closure motion to withdraw the right of Councillors to speak on the Liberal Democrat budget amendments.

These costed amendments would have been funded from the Council’s projected budget underspend of almost £4m and would have benefited residents across West Berkshire, but were rejected by the Conservative Leader, even though she agreed some were worthy of implementation. These amendments can be seen here.

Throughout the meeting Conservative Councillors took up valuable debating time by continually raising Points of Order, many of which were rejected as spurious by the Monitoring Officer. If the Councillors had shown respect to other members when speaking much time would have been saved. So by 10pm it became clear the Chairman’s efforts to keep to a realistic schedule had been unsuccessful, and despite requests from Opposition members to amend the agreed speaking times, the Conservative Leader decided to close debate immediately and move on to the next item. The result of this meant that only two out of six Shadow portfolio holders got to speak to their amendments, with the Leader of the Opposition having to forego his speaking rights, even though the Conservative Leader and Finance spokesman were given the right to speak on our amendments.

Removing the opportunity for Councillors to bring forward and debate amendments is totally undemocratic, we therefore felt we had no other option in how we could protest at speaking rights being removed that Liberal Democrat Councillors left the meeting. Sadly this highlights the lack of democracy that now exists within Conservative-controlled West Berkshire.

Fundamentally, several factors contributed to the failure of this meeting:

  • An overfull agenda
  • Having to spend time to debate the undemocratic way in which motions have been handled by the Conservative administration
  • Frequent Points of Order being accepted by the Chairman
  • The inflexibility of the Council’s Constitution requiring meetings to be completed by 10:30pm
  • Poor planning by the administration by holding the budget meeting too close to the deadline for which the budget had to be approved meant neither an adjournment or a deferment were possible

These are all matters under the control of the administration, but they did nothing to prevent the failure of the meeting, and unless steps are taken urgently, the same situation is likely to arise again.

After last year’s budget meeting in March 2020, a request was made to the Leader to change the Constitution to allow individual amendments to be taken, for the Chairman to be given discretion to extend the meeting to consider items especially at busy budget meetings and for all Motions to Council to be debated at Council, not spirited away only to return a year later with a negative outcome. However, a year on nothing has changed, so this year’s meeting was doomed to failure with democracy in West Berkshire being the victim.

The full recording of the meeting on Youtube can be seen here.

The point at which the closure motion is called by the Chairman is at 03:24:17 here

Cllr Jeff Brooks, Liberal Democrat Deputy Group Leader’s response at 03:30:23 here

Cllr Lee Dillon, Liberal Democrat Group Leader’s response at 03:36:15 here

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