OPPOSITION groups at Cumberland Council are claiming a lack of democracy at the local authority after the ruling Labour group voted en bloc to appoint their members as the chairmen of all of the various committees.

The decision was taken at the annual meeting of the full council at the Civic Centre in Carlisle on Wednesday (May 15) and the committee positions included the various scrutiny and overview committees.

Opposition groups objected to this as they felt it was undemocratic and, at least if the scrutiny committees were headed by members from their number, they would prove more effective in holding the authority to account.

In addition, during the meeting, councillor Robert Betton stood up to highlight the fact that, at the previous meeting of the full council, the Labour group had voted against extending the session beyond the three-hour time limit which meant that a number of submitted questions went unasked.

News and Star: Cllr Robert BettonCllr Robert Betton (Image: Newsquest)

He felt that this was also undemocratic because, while the questions would receive written responses from portfolio holders, they were not included in the minutes and residents were unaware of the answers.

Cllr Betton, who leads the Independent group, was told repeatedly to stop talking at the meeting, as it was not the appropriate time, by the newly elected chairman of the council, councillor Andrew Semple (Cockermouth South, Labour).

He said he felt it went against the council's constitution and added: "It's not respectful to anybody. It's just their rules."

Cllr Betton said that he had known a time when opposition groups had been appointed to chair the council's scrutiny committees. He said: "It's reflective of both parties because it doesn't matter who is in power they will always hog the places."

News and Star:  Councillor Tim Pickstone Councillor Tim Pickstone (Image: Newsquest)

Councillor Tim Pickstone, the Lib Dems group leader, said: "Whenever one single party is in control of a local council, it is so important that we have strong challenge and scrutiny coming from all councillors.

"That’s why the move from Labour councillors to take 100 percent of scrutiny committee chairs for themselves is such a backward move.

"The vast majority of local councils in Britain follow best practice and ensure all parties lead scrutiny committees. It’s vital we do that to help make sure things don’t go wrong – like councils going bankrupt or children’s care being compromised.

"Labour, by grabbing all the scrutiny chairs for their own members have created a ‘one party state’ for Cumberland. Residents deserve much better."

Cllr Pickstone said that it was vital that the council provided time at every meeting for councillors, of all parties, to ask questions and hold cabinet members to account.

He added: "At the last meeting we got less than 10 minutes before Labour councillors voted to close the meeting down.

"We only have about six full council meetings a year, surely time can be found at all of them for councillors to ask questions on behalf of their residents."

Councillor Helen Davison, the Green Party group leader, said: "I was very saddened that the Labour party chose to take the chairs of all the committees for themselves this year, especially in the scrutiny committees, where they previously had chairs from other parties.

"Although allowed, it is not a good look from a democracy point of view. Scrutiny is the opportunity for those of us in opposition to dig deeper into the running of council services and the ruling party’s policies and decision making.

"I think key to a council’s culture of openness and transparency is to fully engage us as opposition in that process.

"Given scrutiny is meant to be apolitical giving the chairs in those committees entirely to their own members, along with their decision to cut the opportunity for us to ask questions in public of the executive committee members in the last council meeting, suggests they would prefer to keep a lid on any questions or criticisms from us.

"It is another indication of the frustrating impact that power has on those who gain it and that our political system allows."

News and Star: Residents are being failed on every measureResidents are being failed on every measure (Image: Newsquest)

Councillor Mike Johnson, the leader of the opposition and the Conservative Group, said: "When I was the Conservative leader of Allerdale Borough Council, there were two Labour chairs of the scrutiny committee.

"Last week’s decision by the Labour executive to run away from any scrutiny at all shows the weak and feeble leadership for what it really is.

"Council meetings cut short, no mechanisms for holding the council to account and their complete inability to answer simple questions on their own portfolios, show the contempt they have for residents across Cumberland and for democracy.

"Residents are being failed on every measure, every day – and Labour councillors will do anything to avoid it being highlighted."

News and Star: Council leader Mark FryerCouncil leader Mark Fryer (Image: Newsquest)

Responding to the criticism council leader, councillor Mark Fryer (St Johns and Great Clifton, Labour), said: "We have a limit of three hours in our constitution for full council meetings, this is based on the time required to conduct business in the former district council meetings.

"We are a year in now and we are still evolving how we conduct business, this time limit might be something that is looked at by our constitution working group moving forwards."

He said that the answers were not published in the minutes because they were not a part of the meeting and added: "We commit to providing responses to all member questions, even those that weren’t asked during the meeting – but we can’t start including in formal minutes things that didn’t happen during the formal meeting.

"We take important decisions in these meetings and the minutes are an important part of that legal process, so need to record the actual meeting."

Cllr Fryer agreed the scrutiny committees were there to scrutinise the work of the executive but added: "It isn’t a requirement that the chair positions be taken by opposition members.

"The only requirement is that the seats are allocated on a politically proportionate basis, so the politics is already built in and the custom and practise of how to allocate chair roles varies across councils.

"This doesn’t affect the opposition's ability to scrutinise, they still hold the seats they are entitled to.

"My final comment would be that we are within 12 months of a general election, a competitive event that will always impact the behaviour of political groups.

"The next Cumberland Council AGM will be in April or May 2025, hopefully the dust will have long settled on the election and the national political picture will be much more settled, whatever the colour.

"This will be the time to reassess our political relationships on the council, when everyone is better able to remember that they’re on this council to serve the people of Cumberland and not the election hopes of their respective national party."