Who’s filibustering who?

IN the new council chamber at the Crowndale Centre, countdown screens have been erected in a bid to stop councillors waffling on. The seconds tick down until the display turns red and then it’s supposed to be time to sit down. On debut on Monday evening, there was little indication that anybody is going to take any notice of them. At one point, mayor Jenny Headlam-Wells could be heard telling finance chief Richard Olszewski that she was trying to use the room’s new technology to cut him off, as she fumbled for the right button to kill his mic.

The issue of time is a sensitive as this week we returned once again to having a meeting where no meaningful vote on a motion took place. We didn’t get to see how the new buttons will allow for electronic voting, because councillors ran out of time. a bid by the Tories to secure a review of the Community Investment Programme was run out, as was the pre-billed attempt by the Liberal Democrats’ to get to a vote on supporting a people’s vote on the final Brexit deal.

The Lib Dems held a demo outside the door of the meeting on the way in – lacking a megaphone, it has to be said – and five or so members sat it out hopefully in the public gallery. Enough people had been briefing privately suggesting throughout Monday that they didn’t councillors would reach the motions to know this was always likely to be a frustrate ting trip.

There were inevitably claims of filibustering, although Labour councillors accused of tactical droning could say that at ten to 10.00pm Lib Dem leader Flick Rea was on her feet talking about freedom passes and then just before 10pm came, there had been no call for standing orders to be extended.

This was a bit of a surprise: usually the opposition groups do this knowing that the ruling Labour group councillors will never vote for another 30 minutes in session, but they can at least accuse them of running away from the debate when they do so.

The thing to remember, however, is that when Camden wants to get to the motions, it does. If there is cross party consensus or the ruling party wants to make a point, then there is nearly always, magically, time. But still bunged at the end of the agenda, as if voting on a council direction or policy is the last thing they should be there for, the stage-managed (is that the vogue word?) reality is that if there are enough people in the room who do not want them to be heard, they will not be heard.

For all leader Georgia Gould’s reforms of the full council meeting, Camden has not put meaningful motions higher up the agenda. The new themed debates do not carry a vote with them either, which risks them becoming a series of presentations rather than a more robust tool.

You can’t really blame the Lib Dems for being suspicious, then; they had better luck in Haringey last night in forcing their people’s campaign in front of councillors. In Camden, on Monday, it may not simply be Labour’s position Brexit, referendums and remaining which caused some subtle time management, however. The Conservatives, with some leavers on board, would not have fancied it, and had already criticised the idea of the motion as discussing foreign policy in a local forum. There will have been one or two Labour councillors, meanwhile, who may not have fancied the CIP motion that was a due on first being heard either.

Behind the scenes, loyalty to the programme is ever so slightly thinner among some of the leftier Labour backbenchers and the Tories sense this, and now have their own criticisms. Green Party councillor Sian Berry once seemed like she the only member publicly questioning the value of the project, now in its eighth year. Now, the Tories are saying things like ‘it’s failed miserably’.

The large majority of Labour councillors still see it as the best way to invest in housing and schools, and regeneration chief Councillor Danny Beales is comfortable taking questions on it. But it’s not necessarily something everybody in the party wants to take a vote on, in public; the leadership being keen for its smooth continuation, while less enthused comrades are looking to keep their powder dry for now,


1 Comment on Who’s filibustering who?

  1. If I was a journalist of the CNJ – no worries, Richard, I am not applying for Billy’s position! :-) – rather than buying into the “if they want they can” argument, I would look at the facts.

    A fact is that in the last 10 council meetings (since Georgia has been elected leader) we only managed to reach the motions 3 times: once we approved the first one (a cross party motion on recognising misogyny as hate crime), once we managed to discuss two motions and only once we managed to discuss all three motions.

    A second fact is that we only reached the motion when there were no deputations and few substantial items in the agenda.

    A third fact is that, though we all love motions (and it is a real shame that we didn’t get the opportunity to discuss the motions on Brexit), the main purpose of the Council meeting is to deal with the formal decisions that the Council has to make (scrutinising the exec, reports form Cabinet Members and other Committees).

    A fourth fact is that the Council meeting on the 8yh of October had a full agenda, with one deputation with more than 900 signatures, one quite interesting debate on social cohesion with 7 external speakers, several reports on quite substantive issues (like the boundary review, Hampstead Neighbourhood Plan, and the joint committee on mental health with Islington).
    We knew since the beginning that it would have been nearly impossible to reach the motions – according to the time schedule prepared by officers for the Mayor, the last item before the motion (the loneliness report from Cllr Callaghan) was expected to start at 9.50.

    When I realised, on the night, that we were perfectly within that timescale, I approached the Borough solicitor and asked his opinion on a change in the agenda to bring the motion forward (which would result in not discussing social isolation) – he strongly advised against this, as the report is the update on the debate of the previous council themed debate and it is a way of scrutinising what the Cabinet Member has done to respond to the issues raised during that debate. in a nutshell, that report is to avoid that the themed debate would become an empty series of presentations, as you envisage!

    The only available option (as you suggest) was to waive standing orders and have an additional 30 minutes to discuss motions – this is something that the Council does extremely rarely and only to complete an item that has been already started (so it would have been quite an unusual request to make, but I was prepared to support that request).
    Unfortunately the Lib Dems, always quick in accusing others of wasting time, wasted that opportunity and di not ask for additional time to discuss the motions.
    I prevent your objection here: why didn’t Labour ask for waiving standing orders?
    Well, our own motion was the third one, so even with additional time, we would not reach it. It was for the Tories and Lib Dems to activate that procedure if they really wanted to debate their motions.

    It is a real pity that we did not reached the motions. I also appreciated there were a few people that were mobilised to attend the Council for the Lib Dem motion, and I am really sorry that they di not have the opportunity to listen to the debate (and also to the arguments that the Labour Group would have put forward to support our amendment to their motion), but, as I show above, this is not the result of filibustering by the Labour Group.
    We are always happy to discuss Brexit: we also had -a year ago- a special meeting of the Council on the topic, with external speakers (that was the first time we allowed a public debate in the Chamber during a formal meeting!).
    So I am sure -especially as the deadline approaches and the failure of the Tory Government becomes more evident -we will have other opportunities in the future.

    A final point: we have recently reorganised the way the council works, we have introduced more public debate, more interaction with local residents and community groups, we have removed (or put at the end) the parts of the meeting that were more obsolete and less useful: that is in my opinion a very positive result, something that has greatly improved our way of working and our way of involving people in the decision making process.
    In that process motions came down in the agenda (they used to be at the end of the meeting after the 2 minutes slot where councillors can freely speak about issues in their ward and were rarely debated). We need however to balance many different issues and I don’t really think we should give priority to the motions against other parts of the meeting like formal decisions, opportunities for external speakers, petitions from the public, scrutiny of the decision making process….

    With the exception of the Brexit motion this time (and possibly the IHRA definition two years ago), I reckon that even a regular attendant to Council meetings, and a careful reader of the agenda, like yourself, would hardly remember the topics of the motions that have been submitted in the past!


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