Report of the ‘train-wreck’ County Council debate

On the 19th January, representatives of Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries attended the full County Council meeting to present our now 13,000 signature strong county-wide petition calling for an urgent, independent and transparent review of plans for our library service.

The day got off to a great start with lots of supporters turning out to lobby arriving Councillors on the steps of Shire Hall, and to pose for the assembled media. There are some photos from the lobby here. We were joined by supporters of the Friends of the Earth Campaign against a giant waste incinerator, whose petition was also under debate at the meeting, and one of whose supporters had written a wonderful song combining the aims of the two campaigns.

The meeting began to a full public gallery. The agenda slot dedicated to the two petitions was preceded by a lengthy debate on how the Council should actually deal with the petitions. The monitoring officer stated that legally, there could not be a vote on petitions, as this would fall outside the bounds of the Council’s own constitution and could indicate a decision had already been made by Councillors on issues still under debate. As such, there could be a debate on each petition, but no vote.

Liberal Democrat, Labour, Green and Independent Councillors were unhappy with this, stating that a debate was insufficient to reflect Council opinion back to the members of the public who had taken the trouble to collect signatures and present the petitions. They asked for at least an informal vote to measure Council opinion. This discussion went on for some time, and eventually the meeting was adjourned so that the Council Leader, the leader of the opposition, and the leader of the third group could discuss this privately with the monitoring officer.

They returned some 45 minutes later. A motion was proposed stating that, while there could not legally be a vote on the petitions, they should be considered as ‘a relevant contribution to the ongoing decision-making process’, taking the following into account:

 1. The terms and size of the petition

2. The submission made by the person introducing the petition

3. The contribution to the debate made by Members of the Council

The opposition proposed an amendment calling for a suspension of normal procedures and a vote, but this was defeated by a vote in the chamber (all Conservative Councillors voted against, everyone else voted for). The motion was therefore passed without the amendment. It was also agreed that a representative of each petition would also be invited to address the Cabinet meeting on the 2nd Februrary.

Unfortunately the length of this discussion (along with the adjournment) meant that many FoGL supporters had to leave the public gallery to get back to work before we even reached the petition itself! It’s a shame that these issues were only finalised on the day of the debate itself, when the petition scheme has been in place since June, and the Council have known for some weeks to expect a petition of 5,000+ signatures from us!

The shambolic nature of this part of the meeting has been covered extensively in the press. Council Leader Mark Hawthorne has branded the meeting a ‘train-wreck’, and has been busy trying to get political mileage out of the situation by blaming everyone but himself, while opposition Councillors express their dissatisfaction with the whole ‘farcical’ process!

Finally, we reached the moment everyone in the public gallery had been waiting for (for a very long time!) The Friends of the Earth petition was presented first and debated for 30 minutes. Then it was our turn.

I presented our arguments as clearly as I could (full text here). I was struck by the rudeness of some Conservative Councillors, who chatted, sniggered, rolled their eyes and moved around the Chamber to confer with colleagues during our statement. They clearly had no intention of listening to what I had to say, and I was disappointed that as a member of the public, a guest in the Chamber , and representative of some 13,000 petition signatories, I was not treated with a little more courtesy and respect.

Councillor Noble’s statement in reply thanked the ‘Friends’ for their hard work, before defending the plans for the library service. It was implied that opponents of these plans were putting around misleading information, which was frightening vulnerable people. For instance, the mobile libraries we are reassured, are to replaced with the virtual library, and a catalogue service for those who cannot access the internet. Other alternatives to current service provisions were mentioned. Had we had any right of reply within this debate, we would have pointed out that Friends of Gloucestershire libraries have always only disseminated as much information as the County Council has provided. Perhaps the fault lies with GCC’s lack of transparency and detail of alternatives? When we have sought clarity we have been told we are seeking an “inappropriate level of detail”. Perhaps someone at GCC will point us in the direction of these workable alternatives? The familiar statement that ‘no libraries need to close’ was repeated. It is interesting to note, that no defence was made of the lack of consideration of social impacts. ‘We are listening to the consultation feedback we are receiving’ was another refrain.

The debate was then opened to the full Council. Liberal Democrat, Labour and Green Councillors raised some excellent points, mainly focusing on the lack of social impact consideration and the obvious shortcomings of the consultation and decision-making process. Councillor Hilton (Lib Dem opposition leader) raised the point that the Council is apparently putting £1.2million extra into reserves this year, and pointed out that this could go some way towards retaining a much more fit-for-purpose library service then what we will be left with under current proposals.

Councillor Hawthorne then spoke at length in defence of the plans, again stating that the Council had no choice, and had to cut either the libraries or services for vulnerable people. He seemed to have missed the part of my statement where I challenged this point (maybe it was when he was busy conferring with his colleagues).

He stated that the libraries are being defended by eloquent individuals, and implied that we are a ‘vocal minority’. This seems rather hypocritical given that the original consultation exercise by which the Council put such store in their decision-making, was answered by less than half the numbers who have signed the petition. Perhaps he has less problem in listening to ‘a vocal minority’ when it suits his aims?

He implied that he would rather meet the needs of vulnerable people who have no voice and cannot speak eloquently in public meetings – like the hundreds of elderly people, children, low income people and carers across the county who have been shocked and upset when informed by FoGL supporters about the extent of cuts planned for the libraries, and who have signed the petition, and written us letters and emails in their droves as they feel so utterly detached, excluded and frustrated by the Council’s own ‘consultation process’ perhaps?

It was interesting to note that three additional petitions were presented to Councillor Noble by other Councillors on behalf of their constituents. All three petitions were concerned with residents’ anger at the loss or reduction of their library service, and two were actually presented by fellow Conservative County Councillors. Yet during the debate, neither of these Councillors spoke against or raised any concerns about these plans. In fact, they joined their colleagues in clapping and ‘hear hear’-ing loudly at Councillor Hawthorne’s defence of the plans. Apparently for these Councillors, party political loyalty takes precedent over representing the concerns of their electorate. I wonder how people in their constituencies feel about this?

Following Councillor Hawthorne’s statement the debate concluded, and we left the Chamber to give our impression of events to the assembled media outside. As we said to them, while were disappointed not to have had a vote, the petition has done its job of getting this issue, and the views of almost 13,000 people onto a full Council agenda and, through the public record of the meeting, and the media coverage, into the wider public arena.

Councillors Hawthorne and Noble claim ‘we are listening’. Whether they will listen, remains to be seen.

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8 Responses to Report of the ‘train-wreck’ County Council debate

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Report of the ‘train-wreck’ County Council debate | Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries -- Topsy.com

  2. Demelza says:

    We’ve received the following ‘tongue-in-cheek’ report of the media coverage of the pre-debate lobby (and specifically our singing!) from Churchdown-based supporter Martin:

    “It is not everyday that a choir which has its first practice at 9:20 on a cold and frosty morning has its efforts broadcast on national TV not just once, but twice in the same programme before the day is out. Their spirited rendition of a specially written Battle Hymn, composed by Friends of the Earth supporters to combine the aims of the two campaigns, was considered sufficiently evocative to form the lead-in to the second half of the prime-time BBC News broadcasts that evening, as well as heading the section on the national impact of library cuts.

    Though they only have a limited repertoire at present the choir is looking for venues around Gloucestershire at which they can continue to wow audiences dedicated to saving Gloucestershire’s libraries from demolition contractors Hawthorne and Noble at county hall”.

    Thanks Martin!

  3. Mission ImPETITIONable

    Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries
    delivered a 10,600 strong petition to a full Council Meeting of Gloucestershire County Council yesterday (Wednesday, 19th January), as campaigners against the council’s plans for an Incinerator also handed in a petition of over 5000 signatures. Conservative councillors
    responded rudely to these enormous petitions – the first of their kind, refusing to vote on them. Thus they were able to protect their party line from fracture, and some of their local councillors were spared having to choose between their electorate and their party masters. On top of this, conservative councillors dragged out pointless procedural matters regarding the vote that never came for over 3 hours, with the result that many interested members of the public were forced to leave. Worse, councillors behaved like disobedient school children when Demelza Jones gave an excellent speech outlining the decimation of the library service that may follow the council’s proposals, choosing to chat amongst themselves and wander around the council chamber, rather than listen. Farcical is too kind a word for our County Council.

    See more from our paper (including report on the UNISON document) here: https://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2011/01/472471.html

  4. demelzajade says:

    The following letter appeared in ‘The Citizen’ newspaper, from a FoGL supporter who was in the public gallery:

    NO VOTE WAS INSULT TO LIBRARY CUTS PROTESTERS

    As I have been involved in collecting signatures for the petition to defend the library service from GCC’s drastic cuts, I thought it would be interesting to go to the council debate on January 19, and see democracy in action. What I saw appalled me. The meeting was a disorganised fiasco as councillors argued about how to proceed with the debate, whether or not they would be able to vote, eventually leaving the chamber for an hour for a secret meeting and finally returning.

    A debate did, in the end, happen but a vote was not allowed. Surely a vote is the normal result of a debate?The matter will now be decided by a much smaller group of people in Cabinet.

    This was not democracy but an insult to the dedicated, and hard working Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries and the many thousands of people who signed their petition. Shame on you Gloucestershire County Council.

    Maureen Embrey, Nailsworth

  5. demelzajade says:

    Another letter from someone who was in the public gallery:

    Behaviour – good or bad – has consequences. This is the basic code of conduct teachers attempt to instil in pupils to create an effective learning environment and promote a model of behaviour to hopefully develop civilised, respectful and polite citizens for the world beyond the classroom. Repeated breach of this code results ultmitately in exclusion from the lesson.

    The appalling behaviour of Conservative Councillors at the Jan 19th County Council Meeting, who chatted, sniggered, rolled their eyes and moved around the Chamber to confer with colleagues while an FoGL campaigner, a guest in the Chamber delivered her speech representing the opinions of 13,000 petition signatories would have, in any Behaviour for Learning school, resulted in the exclusion of the troublemakers from the room. Clearly Councillors didn’t want to be reminded that the ‘eloquent minority’ as they laughably call opponents to the libary cuts – or as they are euphemistically named – a flexible library service – (straight out of the Yes Minister Phrase Book) represent a significantly greater number than the mere 0.86% of Gloucestershire’s residents on which GCC’s library cuts, some of the most severe in the country, were based.

    How can our children be expected to behave well when allegedly responsible adults behave so badly? Indeed if Business Studies pupils presented such an idea to save money backed by such poor research their project would undoubtedly fail or be given a very low grade. If Library campaigers are eloquent, perhaps it is because they’ve taken advantage of all the educational benefits public libraries provide. Clearly an educated population is more difficult to rule than an uneducated one. Attempts to close many of our libraries or cut their opening hours has and will continue to be vigourously opposed not by a minority but by a loud, articulate, educated majority.

    As award-winning comedian and in the eyes of our GCC no doubt an ‘eloquent troublemaker’ wrote recently:

    “It seems it is money versus books – it doesn’t take long to read a ten pound note and once you’ve enjoyed looking at Charles Darwin’s face, the rest is pretty boring…. Libraries are for everyone. Excessive bonuses and Cayman Island tax havens are not.”

    The real bullies, the troublemakers at GCC who are clearly unable to sit still and listen, really listen, when someone articulate and educated has taken the time to speak for 5 minutes on behalf of the petitioners, should go back to school and learn some manners. There are, I’m pleased to say, plenty of well-behaved pupils in our schools, who I’m sure would take great pleasure in teaching them. Failure to behave well, will indeed have consequences, not least at the ballot box.

    Moira Govan

  6. Martuin Middlebrook says:

    I am not against the County Council making cuts. It must be obvious that public expenditure MUST be cut in the public services.
    What I would like to know, however, is the answer to this question:
    In the cuts to be made to the county’s Library Service, how many posts in the administrative part of the service will be cut in comparison to the full-time equivalents cut from the front-line (ie the actual workers in the libraries)?
    I hope someone can provide the answer tgo this question.
    As for the behaviour of the Conservative councillors at the Council Meeting, do not be suprised. I know the system. Real decisions are not made in public at Council Meetings. The ‘ruling party’ has a private meeting beforehand, usually without the precence of council officers, and takes a vote on the matter in hand. Votes are cast ‘for’ or ‘against’ anything important likely to be dicussed at the Council Meeting. The majority vote then is accepted as the ‘Party Line’ for which all members of any political group must vote at the Council Meeting where the public is present.
    Anyone breaking ranks on the Party Line risks at least losing some of the perks available to the ruling party or even withdrawl of the party whip and thus official support at the next election.
    The introduction of party politics into local government has resulted in disaster for true representation of the public. Don’t just blame the Conservatives; all three major parties now play the same game.
    I have seen it working from the inside. I was a founder member of the new Lincolnshire County Council when local government was reorganised in the 1970s.
    There were many Independents and no party had overall control. Then the Conservatives gradually increased their numbers, finally persuading four Independents to become Conservatives by threatening them with loss of Committee Chairmanships etc. From that day onwards, either the Conservatives or a Labour Liberal Coalition controlled the Council and the few remaining Independents ceased to have any influence. The system became coutrywide practice. Democratic it was not and democratic it is still not.
    If you are going to use a Petition do it at election time and extract a firm promise from a candidate. Let that decision become widely known and then you might achieve something. The Conservative ruling group had already made up its mind before the meeting you attended!
    I have no objection to these views being published.

    Martin Middlebrook, Twyning.

    • Thank you for your comment Martin. Unfortunately we had no control as to when the cuts were announced. we are aware that GCC have made their minds up but we really had no choice regarding when to submit the petition, by the time the next election comes around it will be too late for libraries – it will not be too late for the officers responsible to lose their posts however.

  7. Pingback: What Next? | Friends of Minchinhampton Library

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