Is a Parish Council obliged to respond to Public questions during the Council meeting?

+1 vote

During a recent Public Questions at our Parish Council meeting the Public was informed that the Council had decided at their last meeting that we would not receive an answer to any question posed to them during the current meeting; the answer would be provided at the next meeting, which in this case is two months away.  Is this allowed, or even legal?  

asked by (230 points)

4 Answers

+2 votes

It's certainly legal, but it often feels uncomfortable to me.  The NALC model standing orders, which many parish councils use, includes the following paragraphs on the matter:-

3(e) Members of the public may make representations, answer questions and give evidence at a meeting which they are entitled to attend in respect of the business on the agenda.

3(f) The period of time designated for public participation at a meeting in accordance with standing order 3(e) shall not exceed ten minutes unless directed by the chairman of the meeting.

3(g) Subject to standing order 3(f), a member of the public shall not speak for more than five minutes.

3(h) In accordance with standing order 3(e), a question shall not require a response at the meeting nor start a debate on the question.  The chairman of the meeting may direct that a written or oral response be given.

There may, of course, be good reason not to respond.  It is possible that nobody knows the answer to the question.  Further research may be required.  There may be no simple answer and insufficient time to enter into a lengthy debate on the matter.  The Transparency Code requires councils to provide at least three clear days notice of matters to be discussed at a meeting, so for many issues, the correct protocol would be to add the item to the next agenda.

Having said all of that, in my experience, the matters raised may be relatively straightforward in nature and capable of being answered by the Chairman or Clerk, either at the meeting or by e-mail the following day, thereby fostering positive relationships between the council and members of the community.

Incidentally, I presume that the minutes of their previous meeting included a reference to the decision and explained why the decision had been made?

answered by (4.4k points)
+2 votes
In  addition to the reply given (for which I agree) it is a very odd situation for Council (Councillors) to be acting in this way. Our Council often is asked qiestions and if possible, comment is given at the time, answers are provided as soon as possible.  Written qustions may fall within the terms of the Freedom of Information act if that is appropriate.

Most odd behaviour but probably they are not alone.
answered by (2.5k points)
+2 votes
DaveTheClerk and JohnCWorth have already given good answers. I'd simply like to add that it is disappointing that NALC is not providing leadership in this area.  For most town and parish councils, there is no need for standing orders to be so prescriptive or restrictive. The chair has more or less absolute power over the conduct of the meeting, and councils are increasingly being more flexible about allowing contributions from the public. Provided it is clear that this is subject to the chair, it is usually a constructive move that helps citizen engagement and democratic legitimacy, goals that every council should embrace. Information about public participation could be provided as guidelines in less officious language. Feel free to amend standing orders (apart from those that are statutory requirements) to conform to the council's ambitions.
answered by (26.8k points)
I couldn't agree more.  Too many Parish Councils still operate as secret societies, striving to deny public access.  I'm aware of a neighbouring Parish Council that routinely excludes press, public and even their District and County Councillors from discussions relating to finance or planning applications.  As a chairman myself, I ensure that we go beyond the Transparency Code requirements regarding public access.  It's public money.  Why wouldn't we involve the public in our deliberations?
+1 vote
I agree with all that's been said and believe it is a sad indication of the times we live in. It is impossible to say whether this is due to a lack of confidence or knowledge by the committee. Certainly in the society we all live, the blame and finger pointing culture is all too prevalent! and believe that a portion, if not all, councillors are far more guarded in making open comment and statements about policy etc......The fear that it will be used at some later point would certainly direct one to use caution.

I think that as long as it was explained to the meeting and reasonable time frames are put in place there shouldn't be a problem! It wouldn't be acceptable to wait 2 months for a reply, but certainly 7-10 days isn't unacceptable and you would be more likely to get a fuller, more informed answer than a councillor thinking on their feet!
answered by (280 points)

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