Putting down written questions for council is a relatively badly understood accountability mechanism in our council. The activity is normally one undertaken by opposition councillors trying to work out what the administration is doing. It is pretty unusual for councillors from the party in power to ask written questions, it might look like washing dirty laundry in public and in any case you can just ask your colleagues on the cabinet.
At every council we have seven oral questions from councillors, three from the two main parties and one from the LibDems. These get answered by the Leader or cabinet member as appropriate. Notice needs to be given but councillors can ask follow up or supplementary questions without notice and so can one other councillor. There is a bit of a dance around oral questions with the party in power using them to highlight issues and make announcements and the opposition parties trying to probe problems and ask tricky supplementaries that put the cabinet on the spot.
It is not well known but residents and local business people can also ask oral questions in person at council meetings to both the Leader and cabinet members. You need to give two days notice but you get to speak for up to 3 minutes and ask a follow up question which can be for clarification or a curved ball as you please. No notice needs to be given of the supplementary. You can’t be vexatious or ask something that has been asked by someone else recently. You can’t ask about specific planning or licensing issues either. The public are allowed up to five questions per meeting but I don’t recall any such questions since I was elected in May 2006. If you want to have a go contact the clerk of the council meeting, Paul Jeffries, see here.
On the council meeting web page they also publish the answers to written questions. These are typically attempts of opposition councillors to probe the inner workings of the council. It is like a game of battleships – you lob the questions over and try to score a hit. The officers won’t lie to you but they may wriggle around an awkward question if it is not well drafted.
This table show who asked what questions since the start of 2008. The LibDems, only 3 members in the last council and now swelled in numbers to 5, manage to keep up a constant harassing fire of questions. In the last council when the Tories were in power they only asked 2 questions in two and a half years as you might expect. In the last three meetings, in opposition, the number has jumped up to 94. Unfortunately this is another area where Labour are very poor performers. As well as being poor attenders at meetings the Labour councillors typically haven’t got the wit to ask questions. In two and a half years of opposition they only asked 29 questions, one quarter of what the 3 LibDems asked. Lazy and unengaged.
I will be doing a few postings arising out of our questioning campaign over the next few days.