Procedural rule used to stop debate: The council’s reasons questioned

Regular contributor, Retired Hack, sets out the events that took place in the lead-up to, and following, the attempt by Cllr Abraham to silence debate over highways PFI and the asphalt planning application at the last full council meeting.

County Hall:

It’s a long and detailed article, but we feel, very much worth sharing with readers concerned about democracy at the Isle of Wight council. Our thanks to Retired Hack. In his own words. Ed


The full extent of the ruling IW Council Conservative Group’s sleight of hand in silencing opposition views at the last Full Council meeting is today spelled out with the release of emails between independent councillor Jonathan Bacon and the Council’s legal department.

In a bizarre interpretation of the Council’s rules of debate, Monitoring Officer Davina Fiore “advised” the council chairman, Conservative Susan Scoccia, that she could end debate on a motion by another independent councillor, Chris Welsford, after just one speech by Cllr Welsford and a dismissive response by Council leader David Pugh.

The motion centred on the relationship between the highways Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contract agreed by the Council last year, and plans for an asphalt plant on the Medina, near Cowes, which has caused enormous controversy, most of it centred on health and safety issues.

IWC Environmental health’s serious concerns hidden
The Independents’ central claim is that, when the Council’s Cabinet discussed the PFI contract in May 2012, members were not told that the Council’s own environmental health department had expressed serious concerns regarding the asphalt plant, and was recommending that planning permission be refused.

Breach of the Council’s constitution claimed
They say the new asphalt plant is required if the PFI contract is to be delivered successfully, and that the Cabinet decision to go ahead with PFI was therefore in breach of the Council’s constitution on four grounds, including a failure to take “relevant matters” into account, and a failure to take and consider “proper advice” before making a decision. Eurovia Roadstone, a subsidiary of PFI contractor Vinci Concessions, has described the proposed Asphalt Plant as “strategically important”.

It was this constitutional argument which was to have formed the basis of a debate listed for Full Council on 17th January. The Independents, however, had not bargained on the swift intervention of Conservative councillor Barry Abraham, and his equally swift backing by Miss Fiore and Cllr Scoccia.

No sooner had Cllr Welsford moved his motion than Cllr Abraham – relieved by Cllr Pugh of his Cabinet responsibilities last September and not considered to be one of the Council’s great debaters – leapt to his feet and moved “next business”.

How “Next business” is supposed to work
“Next business” is, of course, a perfectly normal procedural motion, and will be familiar to anyone who’s been involved in public life. It’s designed to prevent debate from going on too long on matters which most people don’t feel the need to vote on. Since Cllr Welsford’s motion had merely asked members to “note” various matters, a shortened debate might not, on the face of it, have presented too much of a problem.

The relevant procedural rule, Rule 11(b), reads: “If a motion to proceed to next business, or that the question now be put, is seconded and the Chairman thinks the item has been sufficiently discussed, he or she will give the mover of the original motion a right of reply and then put the procedural motion to the vote.”

But what happens if there’s been no debate?
What is not specified is what happens if the chairman thinks the item has not been sufficiently discussed. One might think that it hardly needs to be spelled out; that the chairman would allow the discussion to go on until she deemed it sufficient, and then give the mover the right of reply and go to a vote on “next business”.

Not this time. Advised by Miss Fiore, chairman Scoccia decided that the rule meant that if there hadn’t been sufficient debate, there would be no more debate – just as there wouldn’t have been if there had been sufficient debate.

In fact there would be even less debate than if there’d already been sufficient debate, because there would also be no right of reply – just a vote straight away on “next business”. And that’s exactly what happened, with Cllr Bacon prevented from seconding the motion as Cllr Abraham enjoyed his moment with lots of Conservative Members’ hands in the air.

A tool to stop uncomfortable public debates
The effect of such an interpretation, of course, would be to prevent any debate at the IWC on any matter which the ruling group doesn’t want debated, subject only to the discretion of the chair, who is a member of the ruling group. Perhaps this is a trick which we can expect to see used more often in the run up to the election in May.

After the meeting Cllr Bacon became involved in an exchange of emails, first with a colleague of Miss Fiore in the legal department, and then with the Monitoring Officer herself. Several things became clear as a result.

  1. Miss Fiore accepts that she discussed “a couple of days” before the meeting, in a “chairman’s briefing”, the prospect of the procedural motion being put early in the debate. Such meetings are apparently routine practice, into which nothing sinister should be read.

    It does, however, mean that both Miss Fiore and Cllr Scoccia knew (from an unidentified source) what was likely to happen; they had time to discuss the constitutional implications; time, specifically, to discuss what interpretation would be placed on Rule 11(b).

  2. In a concession which hardly sits comfortably with her account of the chairman’s briefing, Miss Fiore wrote to Cllr Bacon on 23rd January: “As you will know, when thinking on your feet and giving procedural advice on what is happening, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and I am sure I could have improved on what I said.”

    This is not quite the mea culpa which it might at first appear. Later the same day she writes: “Procedure Rule 11 (b) says if the chair thinks the item has been sufficiently discussed she will give a right of reply and then put the procedural motion to the vote. As I understand it she did not think the item had been sufficiently discussed and so moved straight to the vote on the procedural matter….”

  3. Then, taking cover behind Cllr Scoccia, she adds: “Procedure Rule 25 is also relevant here which says ‘The ruling of the Chairman as to the construction or application of any of these Procedure Rules, or as to any proceedings of the Council, shall not be challenged at any meeting of the Council’, so unless you are going to judicially review the Council (which would not be in the public interest, and I believe would be unsuccessful) I can’t think of a way you could challenge this anyway.”

[Paragraph suspended awaiting examination - Ed]

Scoccia: Motion can be returned to the agenda
Cllr Bacon subsequently received a further response from Cllr Scoccia saying: “I have now had a chance to discuss all of this with Davina, and, as the motion wasn’t actually rejected, you could put it back on a future agenda if you believe this would have any value.

“I think the biggest concern was the forthcoming planning application for the asphalt plant and any pre-judgement or comments expressed by members of the Regulatory Committee, but once a decision has been made on the planning application, this will no longer be an issue.

“Of course, I am sure we will all be fully occupied in our debates at our next Full Council meeting on 27th February with the Budget, so I would hope that you would not consider this as being an appropriate time to bring this motion back then.”

Bacon: Rules would be amended if ruling group removed from power
Cllr Bacon said: “There are important matters that need to be discussed so, as suggested by the Chairman, it is only appropriate that that happens at a future date. It does no credit to the current ruling group or the Council that important issues should be blocked from being discussed, particularly when this is achieved by twisting the Council’s rules of debate to achieve an obviously unintended result.

“Plainly when the current ruling Group is removed from power, rules like these need to be amended or removed from the Constitution to prevent their future anti-democratic misuse.”

Image: Simon Haytack under CC BY 2.0

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Wednesday, 6th February, 2013 11:47am

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Filed under: Island-wide, Isle of Wight Council, Isle of Wight News, Law & Order, PFI, Top story

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15 Comments

  1. prewitt parrot's comment is rated +22 Vote +1 Vote -1

    6.Feb.2013 12:32pm

    Coming to Private Eye soon (again)

    Reply
  2. Billy Builder's comment is rated +4 Vote +1 Vote -1

    6.Feb.2013 12:38pm

    Private Eyes coming can be none to soon !

    Reply
  3. cynic's comment is rated +9 Vote +1 Vote -1

    6.Feb.2013 12:39pm

    Presumably the Independent could use some “constitutional judo” by proposing and seconding a “Next Business” motion on each and every proposal by the ruling group in the future.

    Of course, the bloc vote of the ruling group means the “Next Business” motion would be rejected each time- but it would no doubt cause some disruption and would be embarrassing to have it recorded in the Minutes. Not only that but it would expose (and recorded in the Minutes) any tendency of the Chair to favour the ruling group. :-))

    Reply
  4. wightywight's comment is rated +15 Vote +1 Vote -1

    6.Feb.2013 1:21pm

    Whoa……
    You need to read carefully what the Chairman, Cllr Scoccia has written…
    It has immense worries…

    “I think the biggest concern was the forthcoming planning application for the asphalt plant and any pre-judgement or comments expressed by members of the Regulatory Committee, but once a decision has been made on the planning application, this will no longer be an issue”

    See that! Not only does she dismiss the concerns, she misses the whole point of the concerns and then dismisses those concerns as no longer an issue when (read if) resolved.
    The concern is that when the PFI was voted on the relevant information that as known at the time was withheld from those voting. That information included a recommendation to refuse the Planning application for the Asphalt plant – the plant that some members of the ruling group claim is irrelevant to the PFI contract!
    Now, she claims that once the planning application is dealt with for the asphalt plant the concern “will no longer be an issue”!
    So….vote on the PFI without all the pertinent information to hand, then agree (or reject) the planning application for the asphalt plant and then say the issue is of no concern!
    The issue, my dear, is the PFI….. the one voted on without the information that an asphalt needed to carry out the contract had already been recommended NOT to be allowed to be built…! and that will be of “no concern”….? No concern to whom…? It most certainly concerns the members of the Council that voted during the PFI motion.

    You just have to be joking…..

    And to add further water on troubled oils, seems to want to exert pressure on not bringing the matter to the next Council meeting…. leaving just March Full Council meeting before the election, before these people leave office and leave this Island with the PFI intact.

    The intervention of the Legal Officers suggests there is a legal position to pursue here…
    If the rules of the constitution were broken (in the first place by withholding the known relevant data) and then subsequently by preventing the subsequent debate by Cllr Bacon.. where does that leave the contractual position with the PFI…. maybe Cllr Bacon can advise us!!
    If the constitution was broken and a subsequent contract entered into by the administration that broke the constitution (for the PFI) can that contract be held to be a legal one in substance…?
    Either way, this administration is clinging on to the very last by it’s somewhat dubious methods…

    WW

    Reply
    • prewitt parrot's comment is rated +4 Vote +1 Vote -1

      6.Feb.2013 1:41pm

      I propose a “Next Business” motion on this comment, seconder please so we can sweep it under the increasingly bulging carpet.

      Reply
      • James Luke's comment is rated +11 Vote +1 Vote -1

        6.Feb.2013 2:43pm

        Can we assume that the next motion is the outlawing of OnTheWight, IW Radio and any other media not under the control of the “beloved leader”?

        Reply
        • retiredhack's comment is rated +10 Vote +1 Vote -1

          6.Feb.2013 2:51pm

          Many a true word spoken in jest.

          Reply
        • tryme's comment is rated +3 Vote +1 Vote -1

          6.Feb.2013 8:23pm

          Funnily enough, I have been wondering whether there might be a burglary of OTW premises (or a computer hack), on behalf of IWC, under the pretext that they feared contributors were obtaining illegally leaked info, were making defamatory remarks etc, & I was wondering how safely our info is stored… Just checking precautions, I’m sure there has been careful thought about this!

          Reply
  5. Mike's comment not rated yet. Add your vote Vote +1 Vote -1

    6.Feb.2013 8:39pm

    All of those who oppose our wonderful county council are pinko lefties.Shame on you.

    Reply
    • Mike's comment is rated +5 Vote +1 Vote -1

      6.Feb.2013 8:42pm

      I am of course being sarcastic but it seems any opposition to this moronic council and indeed the unelected government is met with vitorol.

      Reply
  6. Mark L francis's comment is rated +1 Vote +1 Vote -1

    7.Feb.2013 9:24am

    Yes more vitorol! I am very pro-vitorol.
    And any other cream eclair based products.

    Reply
    • big's comment not rated yet. Add your vote Vote +1 Vote -1

      7.Feb.2013 8:26pm

      Reading this for no reason at all I am reminded of the law firm invented by Groucho Marx Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel

      Reply
  7. willieswildworld's comment is rated +1 Vote +1 Vote -1

    7.Feb.2013 10:42pm

    Have you ever met any of these tory councillors?
    im sure if you have you’d relise what a bunch of arrogant [part of comment removed by moderator] they are , they cant stand anyone who has a different opinion , as has been said before they paint you as a pinko … deeply offensive lets prey the electorate gets off its backside and kicks these idiots out
    ruined schools
    ruined social services
    pfi disaster yet to hit us
    who knows what else there hiding

    Reply
  8. cynic's comment not rated yet. Add your vote Vote +1 Vote -1

    8.Feb.2013 3:28pm

    Another “stooge question” reported in the latest Full Council Minutes viz:?
    “(Cllr Dave Stewart)
    The PFI contract and the benefits that it was now shown to be bringing to all areas. It was a credit to the way the contract was being managed. The Leader agreed.”

    As the PFI contract does not start until 1st April 2013 (a symbolic date some might observe!)- could somebody please tell me what are the actual benefits it already “is bringing to all areas”?

    Reply
  9. cynic's comment not rated yet. Add your vote Vote +1 Vote -1

    8.Feb.2013 8:46pm

    One also notes that the official Minutes do not identify the proposer and seconder of the successful debate-gagging “Next Business” motion.

    Reply

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