At full meetings of Cambridge City Council there is a section where councillors are able to ask oral questions of the Executive councillors. Questions are submitted in advance and are randomly ordered by officers prior to the meeting. As many questions as it is possible to get through in the half hour allocated are taken. Councillors first ask their question as it is written – by saying, for example, “Number one madam Mayor” then following the reply they are able to take up to two minutes asking a follow up question which is also answered by the Executive councillor.
Executive councillors appear to be given around a day’s notice of the questions and are able to prepare their responses in advance of the meeting. At the full council on the 27th of May 2010 the question draw was won by the new Liberal Democrat councillor for Petersfield Sarah Brown so she got the opportunity to ask the first question. The questions were as follows:
- Cllr Sarah Brown to the Executive Councillor for Arts and Recreation (Cllr Cantrill):
Could the Executive Councillor provide the council with an update on the event that may take place on 5th June instead of the cancelled Strawberry Fair and the status of discussions regarding ensuring that Strawberry Fair is held from 2011 onwards?
- Cllr Nimmo-Smith to the Executive Councillor for Environmental and Waste Services (Cllr Pitt):
What progress is the city making towards reducing the amount of domestic waste that is not recycled but goes to landfill?
- Cllr Dryden to the Leader (Cllr Reid):
Has there been any progress with the investigation of restructuring the administration at the Cherry Hinton Village Centre on how it operates this facility to the benefit of the local community?
- Cllr Herbert to the Leader(Cllr Reid):
What progress has the Council made in its campaign launched at the February Council meeting to oppose cuts in university funding, and what responses have been received including from local MPs?
- Cllr Ward to the Executive Councillor for Community Development and Health (Cllr Cantrill):
What can the council do about aggressive touting for punt hire?
- Cllr Walker to the Leader (Cllr Reid):
What services will you be seeking to protect in response to the Coalition Government’s proposed stringent cuts to the Department for Communities and Local Government?
- Cllr Herbert to the Executive Councillor for Housing (Cllr Smart):
What recommendations will she be bringing forward as the Council’s response to the national Government proposal to reform Housing Revenue Account funding and devolve real powers to the City Council to manage and develop council housing for Cambridge Residents?
All questions were responded to within the time allocated, and there were no questions submitted which the relevant executive councillor didn’t tackle. Each question will shortly be linked to my article reporting, and discussing, the answer.
Many councillors, including surprisingly all but one of the newly elected councillors, had no questions at all they wanted to put to the Executive. That makes me wonder why they bothered getting themselves elected – perhaps they were after the free lunch – which was on offer during a break in the meeting.
Minuting the Q&A at Full Council
Despite the Q&A resulting in the executive councillor’s views on questions of importance to the city and its residents being revealed the section has never been formally minuted. I have been campaigning for the Q&A to be formally recorded and published for some time. The initial response was that the Q&A wasn’t a formal part of the meeting but this rather ludicrous position has now been dropped and I have since obtained assurances both from both council officers and previous Mayors that it will be minuted, however as yet no action has been taken. Opposition councillors are in favour of publication, and have obtained assurances in full council, that minutes will be produced. At the last full council meeting in April 2010 Cllr Howell complained that despite the repeated promises, and in the case of the February 2010 meeting unpublished draft minutes being produced that the section was still not minuted. Officers failed to record either Cllr Howell’s complaint about the minutes or the assurance from the Chief Executive, prompted by his complaint, that officers would start minuting the oral Q&A from July. (I have submitted a FOI request for draft minutes of the Q&A from the February 2010 meeting [Update the Chief Exec is considering if it is in the public interest to release them])
The Mayor, who chairs full council meetings, sometimes – but not always – asks Executive Councillors to provide written answers to oral questions which are not reached during the meeting. Sometimes these direct responses to the councillor asking the question are given, at other times the responses are sent via council officers and circulated more widely. By making a Freedom of Information request I was able to obtain two written answers to Oral Questions Tabled but not Answered at the April 2009 Full Council.
I have suggested that rather than burying the Q&A deep in the minutes of a long council meeting they could be pulled out and made more easily accessible on the council’s website as they are by their nature short, accessible insights into what councillors are doing.