Democracy in Tory-controlled Wiltshire is only available to the rich and the retired, the council’s Lib-Dem opposition leader Jon Hubbard claimed today (Thursday).
He declared that the unitary authority needs to reform how and when they hold their meetings to make them more accessible to “real people with real jobs”.
The council holds most of its meetings during the day making it hard for people with full time jobs to find the time to fulfil the role. This is why Wiltshire Council is dependant on employers giving councillors time of for civic duties.
The council has passed new rules which would effect make it impossible for an employee of Wiltshire Council to have enough time off to do the job.
“Wiltshire’s democracy is only available to the rich or retired,” protested Councillor Jon Hubbard. “I understand that our own employees are not eligible to stand for the council, but I think it is telling that as an organisation we are not prepared to set an example of what we expect of other organisations.”
“Of course the argument is that in these difficult financial times it is not viable to allow staff so much time off during the day. Well what’s different between Wiltshire Council and all of the other employers in the county.”
“Wiltshire Council needs to reform to allow all members of our society to fully participate in the democratic process.”
Local Liberal Democrats have called on the council to hold more meetings in the evenings, allowing more accessibility of Wiltshire council to the general public.
Councillor Hubbard also attacked the shock move by the council’s Scrutiny Management Committee to effectively strip 39 of Wiltshire’s Councillors from being able to object to bad decisions made by members of the Cabinet.
At present a group of any three of these councillors can “call in” a decision if they have enough evidence to believe the decisions were inappropriate.
After this week not even such evidence will be enough to hold the council to account, as only those councillors on the main Scrutiny Management Committee will be able to call in bad decisions.
“This is the Conservative commitment to democracy in Wiltshire, trying to stifle criticism of bad decision-making,” said Councillor Hubbard.
“Wiltshire Council pays £13,000 per year to councillors, but has removed their power to hold the Cabinet to account for what they are doing. What do they expect these councillors to do now?”
Councillor Hubbard is currently seeking legal opinion on whether the move is lawful.
All the Liberal Democrat councillors asked that their objection to the plan be recorded, including committee chair Trevor Carbin, but the anti-democratic plan was forced through by the Conservative majority.
Marlborough’s former mayor Nicholas Fogg, who is one of the town’s two Wiltshire councillors, told Marlborough News Online: “I have great sympathy with what Jon Hubbard is proposing.”
“Ways should be examined of making the democratic processes more available to more people. In fairness, the current council leader Jane Scott has maintained a commitment to the Planning Committees meeting in the evenings to give more people access. This should be regarded as a precedent rather than a ‘one-off’.”
He added: “I would regard accountability as benefiting most those who are held responsible. Would the current economic crisis have occurred if bankers had been more accountable to shareholders and the public-at-large?”
“Accountability can save people from the worst consequences of their own actions. Every councillor has been given a duty of care over those he/she represents. How can this care be exercised fully if the right to hold decision-makers responsible is denied?”