Praying for decorum in our politics

Budget-setting at Peterborough City Council's meeting last week was a tense affair, in spite of the Reverend George Rogers' prayers for the council's meeting to proceed with dignity and respect, writes Steve Lane, Werrington First Independent Councillor.

Saturday, 17th March 2018, 4:00 pm
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In his role as the Mayor’s Chaplain he beseeched all members to “play nicely with each other”.

The four-and-a-half-hour meeting had a full agenda, of which the most crucial item was the setting of next year’s budget, including amendments that were debated first.

Initially, these were presented with eloquence and sincerity, but in the subsequent debate the mood was lost when things descended into often verbal hostility amongst warring party members.

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With heated disagreements breaking out, the presiding Mayor, Cllr John Fox, was often spoken over by constant interruptions to his directions.

Thankfully, with leadership, appropriate protocol and a firmness that is typical of the man, order was gradually restored.

Without going into details as to the rights or wrongs of each point raised, and to say that all were valid and pertinent issues to raise, I just want to comment on how much I felt the evening really did not put elected members in a favourable light for those watching live on social media.

To me, there seemed to be a constant theme throughout, and that was to gain one-upmanship over each party’s opposing strength.

Viewers must have been getting increasingly tired of all the mudslinging and rhetoric being trotted out, as one or two comments likened it to being back in the school classroom.

I remained stoical throughout, frustrated in the midst of this pandemonium, and became increasingly annoyed to think that everyone’s points of argument should really have been ironed out before this stage.

I say this because the process for setting the council budget started months earlier when senior staff considered the spending pressures and all known future requirements.

These were presented, and discussed at monthly meetings of our cross-party budget working group, when all members had an opportunity to make suggestions or amendments at any stage.

After receiving the Government’s grant figures in December, the council’s budget plans were refined in the new year before presentation to this annual budget meeting.

So, for the budget to receive amendments that could have been previously discussed and avoided, and for it all to take such an inordinate length of time to debate, along with the unfortunate glitch we experienced with the electronic voting system when some did not know how to use it properly, there was very little time left to vote on the remainder of the agenda. I am saddened to report that this left us bringing a disservice to democracy.

Due to the constitutional requirement of a time-limited schedule, once the substantive budget proposal had been voted on, nearly four hours into the meeting, there was hardly any time left to debate the remaining business.

I know the council chamber is a place for robust, political debate, and is at the heart of local democracy, but this level of barracking and talking over one another will only damage the council’s reputation.

With the council adopting to stream its proceedings live, in today’s world of social networking is it wise to resort to old-style political challenge, and to be seen to react to every criticism?

Can we not rise above that portrayal, take it on the chin, just agree to disagree and then move on? The public deserve better than what was seen last week. Yes, political groups will always have a differing point of view, and it is good for each of those to be contested. Admittedly, these episodes will often be repeated, but can I pray for a more suitable level of decorum? And when the battle is won, please let’s be friends by Saturday.