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.
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).
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….”
- 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.”