The intent was serious. An Extraordinary Meeting of Somerset County Council called by 5 members of the council, representatives of Green, LibDem, Labour and Independent groups.
The meeting had a strict agenda. To debate a motion put forward by those 5 members. If you didn’t realise how strictly the meeting would have to stick to an agenda, the lengthy (and boy to I mean lengthy) briefing by SCC’s Monitoring Officer laboured the point.
This set the tone for the meeting. 12 minutes in and we were still arguing about the cost of holding the meeting, what was or was not a point of order, who was or was not here, why they were or were not here and, well frankly we were losing the will to live. The Administration and Opposition took it in turns to strive to stoop to the lowest level of trivial point scoring. Was there a point? Would we ever get to it?
15 minutes in and we finally made it to public questions. Only two were allowed and that was presumably because the others failed to stick to the agenda tightly enough.
The public questions done, Cllr Liz Leyshon explained the point of the meeting. It was a relief to know there was one. The thrust of her point, and it was a serious one, was that a financial plan for Somerset County Council had been confidently put forward by the Administration in February. The LibDems understood the necessity of what had to be done and that the Administration were doing best with what they had.
Then the true position suddenly became apparent in August. Now there were overspends, inadequate resources and a problem with reserves. For this reason the opposition had lost confidence in Cabinet and wanted to see more precision in the contingency plans SCC had in place in case they once again they missed their targets leading to a more terminal financial meltdown.
At this point we were in severe danger of having a serious debate. Cllr Chilcott for the Administration responded that financial reporting had been improved, now it was much clearer and written for non-financial people to understand. Two weekly tracking of numbers had been introduced so would give an early warning of anything going wrong. All areas of the budget were being tightly controlled to ensure no further overspends happened.
The Council Leader, David Fothergill, explained that what had gone wrong was the level of demand on children’s services. “They have gone up far beyond what we might have expected…. We are not unique….. He had had a conversation with leader of Sunderland Council who is facing the same issue….”
Dante now intervened and ensured that the meeting began a long slow journey down through the circles of Hell.
It started off innocently enough. Cllr Mike Rigby was hoping for hard figures and felt that instead he had been “hit by a wall of tumble drier fluff. I really would like to know where the contingency numbers will come from and what they are.” Cllr Rigby rather wanted to propose an amendment to the motion being debated. This resulted only in an extended dispute between Monitoring Officer and Councillor over what had or had not been agreed about whether motions could or could not be proposed at the meeting – or not. And if not a motion, then what about an amendment to a motion….
Other Councillors were struggling to keep to the agenda. On two occasions the chair had to stand. Now I’ve not seen this before but it is apparently the ultimate sanction. When the Chair stands, by convention councillors must stop speaking.
If not you drop into a lower circle of Hell.
The Chair is actually quite a formidable Victorian Gent in a sharply ironed suit and serious greying beard. You do not ignore him standing up. You could almost imagine him in a portrait starting down from a wood panelled room.
Two councillors had to be cut off in their prime by the standing Chair.
We dropped two circles further into Hell.
Several others had to be stopped before the ultimate sanction proved necessary.
It was becoming a debate in which nearly every speaker failed to make it to the end of the first sentence. But still they kept trying… The Chair was clear, the Chair was fair, but no-one seemed to be paying him attention.
Light relief was provided when Cllr Chilcott’s microphone stopped working. No-one could hear her. Councillor Chilcott answers questions in a monotone and this may have been a blessing, Whether or not that was a blessing remains a matter of debate. It would have been but as it was not on the agenda, I’m sure the Chair would not have allowed it to be debated.
Just as it looked as if some semblance of order might be restored another councillor intervened to offer Cllr Chilcott advice over how to use a microphone. I would like to report exactly what he said but I couldn’t actually hear him.
Meanwhile the Monitoring Officer and Cllr Rigby were still debating whether a motion could be put or an amendment to a motion or perhaps even an amendment to an amendment to a motion. This was starting to sound like Brexit.
The end product was an agreement that an amendment to the motion could be put as long as the tone was positive. I’m not sure why that matters. It was the opinion of the Monitoring Officer who appears to be using John Bercow as his role model.
Mike Rigby dutifully put his amendment. Up jumped Cllr Mike Lewis to suggest that as the amendment contained the word “not” it was “not” positive.
Then Monitoring Officer and several Councillors got into an argy bargy about whether Councillors who had not been in the room for the whole debate could vote or not on the amendment. Assuming anyone could agree that it was sufficiently positive.
Cllr Leigh Redman sat in front of a copy of the constitution and asked where exactly it was ordered that a Councillor had to be in the meeting for the whole of an item. in order to vote on it. Answer came their none although there was a lot of shuffling and rustling of papers between the Monitoring Officer and Legal Officer. And a further statement that it was the way it was on the parental logic of “because I say so”.
We now entered the lowest circle of Hell.
The childishness was all consuming. Out of the chaos came a named vote. Everyone voted exactly with their party. We moved on.
This was meant to be a serious debate about the serious state of SCC’s finances and the ability of the council to get through a very difficult financial period. I can honestly say I’ve seen more thoughtful comment and intelligent debate at a children’s tea party.
In the face of financial adversity our councillors found it much more fun to throw food at each other than actually address a serious issue.