Kirklees Council’s ruling Labour group has been accused of “civic authoritarianism” after it voted down a move by opposition groups aimed at preventing councillors from being “gagged” in meetings.
It follows two bruising and chaotic episodes in Huddersfield Town Hall during February when debate was cut short by Labour members.
It prompted leaders of the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Green Party and Independents to call for a review of council procedure rules in an attempt to improve the process.
Their motion asked that members be given “a reasonable chance to speak” in key debates around “whole of council decisions”.
But after the Labour group voted en-masse to support an amended version – which deleted the entire opposition motion and referenced “more meaningful and open debate” at meetings – it was slammed for failing to take democracy seriously.
Council Leader Clr Shabir Pandor pledged: “I have got no intention of undermining democracy in this council chamber. It means a lot to me.
“Please do not assume what’s in my heart and what’s in my head.”
In proposing the motion Liberal Democrat group leader Clr John Lawson (Cleckheaton) said a swift overhaul of procedure rules “will go a long way to showing the public that this council is committed to making its democratic processes as robust as possible.”
He added: “The public needs to know that democracy in Kirklees, especially now, is as rigorous as it can be.”
He was backed by Clr Andrew Cooper (Green, Newsome) who urged the council chamber to “just pass this and move on”.
In response Clr Pandor (Batley West) said: “I want to look at the totality of the thing.
“I give you my personal undertaking that this motion that you put forward will be taken into full consideration.”
He added that opening up debate meant not looking at things “in isolation”. And he admitted that the council was not engaging properly with residents.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m talking to myself. This is an opportunity to look at the complete shooting match around our democracy and how it’s delivered.”
Clr Pandor came in for sharp criticism from the Conservatives’ Clr David Hall, who questioned if he was actually in control of his group and whether the amendment had been “foisted” on him.
“Theses are important issues by statute and we want an assurance that we can speak. Instead what we have is an attempt to push it into the long grass.”
Clr Cooper commented: “You’ve made a mistake. You should have drawn a line under this.”
Clr Lawson described it as “a smothering motion. It’s designed to lose this very simple ask, to bury it. It compounds the mistake that was made during the extraordinary council meeting [on February 27]. It makes it worse. You are in a hole and you are digging fast.
“I’m deeply saddened. I don’t know where we go from here. I’m almost lost for words. You will reap what you sow. You have made this bed, start to lie on it.”
Speaking after the meeting Clr Cooper said the Labour group’s response “smacks of civic authoritarianism”.
He added: “It’s worrying because they are confirming that they did not make a mistake last time and that that is genuinely their approach as to how they address views that are different from theirs.
“That shows a lack of respect for opposing views and democratically elected members from other groups.”
Clr Lawson said: “The motion was written to be politically neutral and was not politically-driven.
“It’s going to take a lot of work to be able to work together again.”