Calls for public question time session at Wakefield Council meetings

Full council meetings are held almost every month in Wakefield.
Full council meetings are held almost every month in Wakefield.

Members of the public should be allowed to ask questions of senior leaders at Wakefield Council meetings, it's been suggested.

Supporters of the idea say that opening up a forum for people to raise issues with the authority directly would improve accountability and help people become more involved with the democratic process in Wakefield.

County Hall in Wakefield

County Hall in Wakefield

A motion put forward on the matter by newly elected Liberal Democrat councillor Tom Gordon will be discussed at the next full council meeting on June 19.

Although Wakefield Council occasionally holds Cabinet meetings in different parts of the district where the public can ask questions afterwards, there is currently no time set aside for people to do so at full council meetings, which are held at County Hall in the city centre almost every month.

By contrast, several neighbouring authorities allocate time for the public to raise issues at meetings, as do the Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust Board and Wakefield Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG).

Coun Gordon said: "Residents I speak to feel left behind and that Wakefield Council feels remote and isolated to normal people.

Newly elected Liberal Democrat Tom Gordon said public questions would improve transparency at the council.

Newly elected Liberal Democrat Tom Gordon said public questions would improve transparency at the council.

"They feel that many decisions are taken without their voice being heard and that there is a lack of accountability and consultation for the big decisions the authority takes.

"I think it is only fair that we open up the council chamber and make it more transparent, allowing local taxpayers the ability to hold their elected representatives to account all year round rather than just at election time.

"Other local authorities including Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, and Sheffield allow members of the public to ask questions at council meetings - why should Wakefield Council think it should be any different?"

Independent councillor Alex Kear, who represents Airedale and Ferry Fryston, will be seconding the motion at the June 19 meeting.

Coun Alex Kear said he would be supporting the motion.

Coun Alex Kear said he would be supporting the motion.

He said: "I think at the moment the public are so disengaged from politics, it's time we tried to bring people back to it.

"I think we as a council need to be more approachable, and hopefully by seeing this motion carried we can do that.

"We're not talking about extended council meetings by four hours or anything like that, but just by an extra 15 minutes or half an hour."

Different councils vary in their approach to so-called "question time" sessions.

The issue will be discussed at full council, on June 19

The issue will be discussed at full council, on June 19

While in some areas the public forum is restricted to a set number of pre-submitted queries, some councils allow spontaneous questions from the public gallery before a meeting's formal business starts.

Richard Dunbar, a Labour councillor in Bradford, said that the innovation had improved public engagement in his part of West Yorkshire.

He said: "It's something that's been done for quite a few years.

"We've found that it can raise the profile of certain campaigns, and helps members of the public know that their voices are being heard at the highest level.

"It's not the only way that people can make their feelings known, but it certainly widens the scope of democracy.

"I know in Wakefield they stream their council meetings now, and cover it on social media, which I think is a good thing.

Bradford Town Hall, where the council there has held public question time sessions for several years.

Bradford Town Hall, where the council there has held public question time sessions for several years.

"Ultimately it will be a decision for Wakefield Council, but in Bradford's it's certainly added another arm to that democratic process."

Andrew Pinnock, a Lib Dem member on Kirklees Council, said the idea of a public question time was "strong in theory", but added that its effectiveness depends on how well it is implemented by the authority.

Coun Pinnock said: "I'm all for public engagement in council meetings, the problem is that practical terms it doesn't always produce the results you hope it will.

"The problem with questions, whether it be from members of the public or from opposition councillors, is that it can restrict debate.

"It is a mixed blessing really.

"As an authority, ruling groups have to be aware that they're going to get awkward questions, and so it depends how open and transparent they're willing to be."

In Calderdale, elected members can be quizzed by their constituents at full council meetings, as well as at Cabinet, Health and Wellbeing Board and the local Flood Recovery and Resilience Board.

Calderdale council leader Tim Swift said: "In line with our agreed procedures, members of the public and councillors can ask questions on anything that the Council is responsible for, or which affects the borough. We provide written responses to questioners within seven working days after the meeting, as well as publishing them on our website for openness and transparency.

“We introduced question time to encourage greater engagement with local democracy.

"We want more people to get involved with the council and have their say on issues that affect them all year round – not just at election time."

Councillor Andrew Pinnock said the idea's success would depend on how the local authority put it into practice.

Councillor Andrew Pinnock said the idea's success would depend on how the local authority put it into practice.

Calderdale Council leader Tim Swift said public questions had improved engagement with the council.

Calderdale Council leader Tim Swift said public questions had improved engagement with the council.