Sparks fly in marathon Cherwell District Council meeting as constitution is changed

A motion to change Cherwell District Council constitution's caused outrage this past Monday as councillors jibed back and forth for almost five hours, attacking the Motion and the process.

Wednesday, 18th December 2019, 2:08 pm
Updated Wednesday, 18th December 2019, 2:09 pm
Bodicote House
Bodicote House

An attempt to rush through a series of none scrutinised amendments to the Cherwell District Council constitution by the ruling Conservative Group descended into chaotic scenes at the Full Council meeting on Monday, December 16.

The motion was brought to the chamber by Conservative Cllr Tony Illott, who said: "This is basically about the constitution that needs updating and bringing into line with other councils to make life easier, especially the ones we will work with very closely.

"The system we use at the moment is generally thought to be cumbersome and by passing this we will add clarity to the whole system."

Labour leader Cllr Sean Woodcock

Specifically the changes included limiting Council Motions to just 250 words and the removal of Motions that are classed as ‘vexatious’ or ‘frivolous’ as decided by the Chair of the Council.

Given the gravity of the motion to change the constitution and the fact that the meeting had already passed the three hour mark, Lib Dem leader Katherine Tyson asked if the Motion could be heard at the next meeting so a full discussion could take place. She also asked that the amendments be passed through a scrutiny committee; she was denied both requests.

Lib Dem Cllr Conrad Copeland was next to speak as he tried to introduce amendments to the Motion, an attempt during which the tone of the following discourse was set.

Cllr Copeland said "I assume we are discussing these one at a time? The first amendment effectively removes the words 'vexatious and frivolous' partly because 'frivolous' is a legally obscure term.

"What does it mean? Who's judgement is that? I'm incredibly concerned with the way this is worded right now, that it will open up the council's officers to accusations of bias because there is no specific recourse for what constitutes vexatious or frivolous.

He added: "There is no stipulation that the ruling be given to the council in writing. My amendment is essentially to protect council officers from accusations of bias or impropriety."

What followed was an extraordinary dialogue between Cllr Copeland, Cllr Hughes, chair of the meeting and CDC officer Nick Graham over whether each amendment Cllr Copeland wanted to put forward could be discussed individually. He could not.

Animosity increased as it was also first decided that the amendments could not be voted on individually either, with Cllr Copeland saying: "Why are we even discussing the constitution if you can just do what you like? Why have a constitution? I am taking this process seriously."

That ruling was eventually overturned.

Cllr Copeland's other amendments included increasing the suggested 250 word limit to 650 and to allow amendments to Motions up to council meetings. Only one other Oxfordshire district council has a 250 word limit on Motions.

After the meeting the Cllr said: “I presented the amendments in good faith. I had assumed that this was a genuine effort to actually engage in constitutional reform even though this has never been put through a committee.

"Instead, it appears to have been an exercise in stifling debate - both on the changes proposed and Motions to Council in the future. These Conservative proposals have run roughshod over democracy and hinder Councillors in their efforts to have the concerns of their residents heard.”

Opposition councillors were deeply against both the constitutional changes and the nature by which they had reached the full council meeting without going through any kind of scrutiny procedure.

Councillor Sean Woodcock, leader of the opposition and leader of the Labour group said: "It was as farcical as it was sinister. A report on constitutional amendments aimed at limiting councillor freedom to ask questions or propose Motions; stifling democracy.

"This report was itself riddled with mistakes that the ruling group had not noticed, probably because they didn't even read the report properly.

"They were unable to answer basic questions on what these changes meant. But they were not prepared to make any amendments to them out of pig-headedness. It's poor."

The report detailed changes including two separate paragraphs numbered ‘3.3’ and an incomplete sentence that simply read: ‘Adding to the Constitution would’.

Councillor Cassi Perry added: “It is the suggestion that Motions considered ‘vexatious’ or ‘frivolous’ will be discounted that worries me most. Over the 17 months I have been an elected

member, nearly every Motion brought by the Labour Group has been met with disdain and ridicule by the Tory majority.

"They dismiss as ‘tokenistic’, ‘meaningless’ and ‘grandstanding’ any attempt to raise issues we are concerned about. I fear these amendments will be used to prevent important Motions and scrutiny being heard.”

Green Party Councillor Ian Middleton's view was: “As we have seen on numerous occasions, this is the reality of democracy in Cherwell, where the dominant follow-my-leader Tories vote en-bloc on everything, regardless of the interests of the people they represent.”

Following the huge Conservative gain in parliamentary seats during last week's general election some councillors posited that this was the genesis of the opposing councillors ire.

Conservative leader of CDC, Barry Wood said: "Cherwell has simply aligned it's debating rules with those used at the County Council which has had no complaints about them as far as I know.

"It's possible that opposition Councillors are a bit sore about the general election result and so are scraping the barrel for things to complain about."

Katherine Tyson, Lib Dem leader, however, saw things differently, saying: “The constitution should be above political point scoring and should only be amended in such a way, with the best interests of our citizens and democratic best practices in mind. Instead democratic values were thrown out the window for political expediency and disregard for political debate.

"The blatant disregard for democracy cannot stand. The Conservative leadership of Cherwell Council should be ashamed of themselves. The people of Cherwell deserve better.”

Despite the heated exchange the motion to change the constitution passed.