Lincolnshire County Council has ‘silenced’ the public with petition rule change

Debate in the chamber at Lincolnshire County Council. Photo supplied. EMN-140227-124053001
Debate in the chamber at Lincolnshire County Council. Photo supplied. EMN-140227-124053001

Lincolnshire County Council has been accused of “silencing” the public after changing the rules on discussing petitions.

Previously, any petition with 3,500 signatures would automatically trigger a 15-minute full council debate.

But now a spokesman will be allowed five minutes to speak about the petition at a full council meeting, with no requirement for councillors to discuss what is said.

The council said the constitution was changed because “the public could be misled into believing that a debate would allow a decision to be made at that council meeting.”

But Coun Helen Powell (Lincs Independents) said the best way for people to raise awareness of important issues was through a debate.

“Taking away their right to speak out through a petition in an act of silencing the very people we should be representing,” she said.

In the past two years petitions have triggered five full council debates. Two, in September 2013, were about proposed cuts to library services.

More than 8,000 people signed one of those petitions, which called for the council to rethink its plans to close Deepings Library. Among those to sign were Deepings MP John Hayes (Con) and even council leader Martin Hill (Con), although Coun Hill later said he would not have signed the document had he known its full wording.

A petition calling for pedestrian crossings along the A15 in Thurlby and Northorpe attracted more than 7,000 signatures and triggered a debate in September this year. The petition was set up after Bourne Academy pupils Molly Williams and Willow James were hit by a minibus in January. The council agreed to fund a crossing in Northorpe but not in Thurlby.

Coun Hill put forward the motion to change the rules regarding debates on petitions at a meeting on December 19. That followed an 18-month review of the constitution by a cross-party committee.

Coun Hill said: “What the council has done is give a spokesperson for a petition of any size an opportunity to speak to the full council meeting for up to five minutes if they wish.

“They can also have it referred to a scrutiny committee where a comprehensive discussion could be had.”