Losing councillors’ question time ‘undermines democracy’

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Councillors have hit out at the removal of the opportunity for them to ask questions of officials at their area committee – with one branding it ‘an attempt to undermine democracy’.

South Kintyre independent councillor Donald Kelly made the comment at a meeting of Argyll and Bute Council’s Mid-Argyll, Kintyre and the Islands area committee on Wednesday, June 8.

Councillor Douglas Philand (Independent, Mid Argyll) had previously asked why the councillors’ question time had been removed from the agenda, having been a long-standing item for the committee.

Mid-Argyll, Kintyre and the Islands had been the only one of the council’s four area committees to have an item on the agenda for councillors as well as the public to ask questions.

It had been on previous agendas, together with public question time, but the agenda for the committee – having its first meeting since the election – took only public questions, none of which were submitted.

None of the other three area committees has had an item for ‘public and councillor question time’ since at least late 2019, instead taking only questions from the public.

Councillor Philand said that he intended to move a motion during public question time, but was told by clerk Shona Barton that his plan was not competent.

He then said: ‘On May 19, area committees were decided to remain as they were, but councillors’ question time has been removed. It seems we are going against the decision of the full council.’

Ms Barton responded: ‘Agenda setting for meetings is at the discretion of the chair, who has the final say on the agenda for each meeting.

‘I would have to disagree that we are going against the decision of the council. The decision was that area committees were to remain as is in relation to the number of meetings, not what is on the agenda.’

Councillor John McAlpine (Independent, Kintyre and the Islands), the committee’s chair, replied: ‘I know I had correspondence with councillor Philand regarding this, and I agree with Ms Barton.

‘The council did decide that the frequency of area committees would be every three months, but I do not recall ever a discussion whether councillors’ question time would remain.

‘Other area committees work on the basis of public question time, and not councillors’ question time. I have listened and used my own experience and decided that a lot of time can be given up for councillors’ questions.

‘Officers also are not at the meetings at times to give answers, and have to come back at a later date. I have made the decision but if there is a legal challenge I am more than happy to be questioned.’

Councillor Kelly responded: ‘Councillors’ question time has been in place for over 10 years, with many questions asked, and has been a useful tool to get answers back to constituents.

‘I fully appreciate that other area committees never had this facility, but it worked well. It did take time to get answers but I feel strongly that this is an attempt to undermine democracy.

‘We should strengthen area committees rather than take powers away from councillors.’

A public question time has been included in the agenda for the Oban, Lorn and Isles Area Committee, the first to be held by the area’s new clutch of councillors,  which meets online on Wednesday June 15 at 10.30am.