For over a year now I have been lobbying for improvements in the way in which public questions to the Cambridgeshire Police Authority are handled. I have written to the Chief Executive and chair of the authority, spoken at the police authority in person to press the need for improvements to members, and have raised the matter in a meeting with the authority’s Chief Executive. As a direct result of my lobbying (and the fact members of the authority took up my concerns) the February 2010 meeting of the Police Authority is due to consider changing the authority’s standing orders related to public speaking.
Public speaking allows gives anyone who wants to the opportunity to lobby members of the police authority in person. I have attended a number of Cambridgeshire Police Authority meetings, and watch Metropolitan Police Authorities over the web, I have seen the facility used by representatives of ex police officers raising issues about pensions; by protesters drawing attention to the crowd control techniques being used by the police, and I and others have asked questions about police stopping people taking photographs in public places.
There is a proposal for the Cambridgeshire Authority to relax the three working day notice period for public questions. One of the big problems with this period has been the fact that often meeting papers are published less than three working days before the meeting. While the proposed change to the public speaking rules would be a positive change; the report introducing the proposed change fails to mention why it is important consequently there is no consideration of addressing the underlying problem. The routinely late publication of meeting papers continues; a key report on an area of substantial public interest (The Air Support Consortium) for the February 2010 meeting has not yet been published online despite it being, at the time of writing, just one day before the meeting. I am personally furious that Chief Executive, who I and other taxpayers pay over £100,000 a year for her role servicing the committee, hasn’t got a grip of this basic element of her job yet (I wrote to her on this point in February 2009).
Another problem with the report to the February 2010 meeting on altering the public speaking rules is that it shows a lack of appreciation that the reason members of the public want to address the authority is to try and influence their decisions. The purpose isn’t typically an attempt to get an answer from the secretariat to a question; one could do that outside of meetings of the authority.
The changes to the public speaking rules do not address the fact that police authority members are prevented from having any discussion at all about matters raised by members of the public. Members technically, according to restrictive standing orders they have set themselves, can’t even debate if the matter ought be placed on an agenda for a future meeting of the authority (or a sub-committee). I understand that a public question ought not prompt discussion or decisions on matters on which authority members are not properly briefed; but I think that it would be useful if the standing orders were amended to permit:
- Debate, and decision, on how the issue raised ought be taken forward; how the authority ought respond.
- Members of the authority to to ask their own follow-up questions, or express their own views, on the response given to the member of the public.
The latter point is permitted by the Metropolitan Police Authority; and I am baffled as to why the Cambridgeshire apparently does not look to other authorities and copy their good ideas.
Based on my own experience I would also like to suggest that prepared answers to questions are given to questioners as soon as they are available; this would allow questioners time to formulate meaningful follow-up questions and requests for clarification. Even if they were handed copies of prepared responses at the beginning of the meeting that would be preferable to what I experienced. I am concerned that the proposed new rules may restrict members of the public to reading out their pre-submitted question rather than speaking freely while asking the question; the latter some may find easier and I would expect may be more persuasive.
Additionally the opportunity to address the question of if declared candidates in elections are banned from asking questions at the police authority has not been taken. When I attempted to ask a public question, before I was asked to do so, an authority member insisted I was asked if I was planning to stand in the 2008 local elections.
Finally I think the nature of the public speaking rules could be made clearer on agendas, and on the authority website. Following my suggestions there has been some nominal move towards this with a mention of where to find the rules (In section six of the authority’s standing orders).
Cambridgeshire Police are not the worst local body when it comes to public speaking; Cambridgeshire PCT allow public speaking, but only at the end of meetings, after decisions have been made. Often there members of the public attending those with an intent to speak don’t bother when they realise there comments will be too late to make a difference. I’ve realise I’ve been spoilt by Cambridge City Council’s generally excellent, and well used, opportunities for members of the public to address councillors at council meetings; but I’m trying to bring what I’ve seen there to other bodies making the key decisions which affect Cambridge residents.
I would like to see much greater democratic influence over policing, and the NHS in Cambridge; that will take significantly more substantive reforms.