Pompey Lib Dems’ Petition Problem

A frequent theme of my blogposts is the incompetence and fear of accountability shown by Portsmouth’s ruling Lib Dems, the hallmark of their civic government.  Regular readers will not need me to list the defects again, new readers can get the back catalogue by clicking on the “Portsmouth City Council” category at the top of the page.

At the last full meeting, Cllr Mike Hancock (who, bizarrely, still sits as a Lib Dem on the council though he has resigned the Westminster whip) and Cllr Vernon-Jackson both called for an end to the current system of presenting petitions to the full council meeting.  They have taken things forward, and now there is a proposal to modify the system.

At present, petitions can be presented to a full meeting of the city council with a threshold of 1000 signatures to trigger a debate.  Under the revised proposal, the right to petition full council for a debate would be just about vanish.

At the last full council meeting, three petitions were presented.  One appealing against the cuts to Sure Start, one on the issue of public loo provision generally, and one specifically on the same subject covering Victoria Park.  Anyone presenting a petition gets six minutes to introduce their petition, and then a debate follows among the councillors to agree a response to the petition.

It’s this direct exposure to the views of citizens (and the publicity the occasion generates) that seems to have got the Lib Dems rattled.  Nikki Coles gave a very moving but thorough demolition of the council’s cuts to Sure Start; Cllr Luke Stubbs highlighted the ways in which the Lib Dems have ignored their officials’ advice in making loo closures; and Mark Lewis reminded everyone what a mess has resulted from the old Victoria Baths site remaining empty, since there has never been a replacement of the public loos attached to them.  The debates that followed these were fierce and accompanied by vociferous criticism of council policy by Conservative and Labour councillors.

The papers detailing the proposed changes call for them to be made “in the light of experience” at the last council meeting to ensure a “more effective way for the Council to conduct its business”.  As I’ve explained above, the “experience” was merely something uncomfortable for the administration, it was not in any sense something which obstructed the conduct of council business.  If anything it was a valuable public exhibition of democracy in action; I don’t see how the new procedure would make the council more “effective”.  It would be a lot more convenient for the administration; but it does nothing at all to promote effective democratic processes.

The essence of the Lib Dem complaint about the process is that under the cabinet model of governance adopted by PCC, decisions are taken away from full council by cabinet members.  They argue that therefore petitions should in future be directed at that level, and the right to debate the issues at full council following a petition should vanish.  It is true that power mostly lies in the hands of cabinet members (all Lib Dems) and that the full council itself can do not much more than censure a decision after it has already been confirmed.  But it is also true that there is already nothing to stop cabinet members considering petitions before they take their decision.

A reason people may be anxious to petition the full council is that there seems to be a fundamental problem with individual cabinet members not listening to the consultations that take place before they take their decision.  Earlier instalments of this blog have provided examples, and it is clearly something that the wider public have concerns about.  The answer every time from Lib Dem councillors is “we know best”, and experience keeps challenging their complacency.  A survey has just been initiated by PCC on proposed changes to Osborne Rd, and those already inflicted on Palmerston Rd.  Everybody, including Cllr Vernon-Jackson, admits that the pedestrianisation of Palmerston Rd’s southern end is a mess.  The Local Government Ombudsman has been called in to examine the process.  And yet the survey put out now offers no option along the lines of “reopen the road and put it back how it was”.  The administration has got its head buried in the sand.  This is the sort of arrogant and irresponsible attitude that makes it all the more important that we fight for whatever means we have of holding the administration to account.

The proposal on petitions will increase the threshold for petitions presented in the wake of a decision to 5000 in a population in Portsmouth of about 200,000, or 2.5%.  The equivalent for petitions to trigger a debate in the House of Commons is 100,000 – only about 0.15% of the UK population.  It will be interesting to see how the Lib Dems justify this new higher threshold, and their explanation of how they arrived at a figure of 5,000.  The matter will be discussed at a meeting of the Governance Committee on June 27th, and again at the full council meeting on July 9th and I will report on developments then and in the meantime.

This proposed change is a panicky, illiberal, undemocratic attempt on the part of Portsmouth Lib Dems to run away from the consequences of their decisions in recent times.  We have had no elections to the city council this year, and have to put up with this rubbish until May 2014.  It is wholly unacceptable that the Lib Dems are now seeking to stifle debate or being held to account in the forum which most people understand best – full public meetings of the city council.

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