Monday, 25 May 2009

Who's for a spell in the naughty chair? Public question time, Cabinet meeting, 8 June

Back in December a few unsuspecting Barnet residents decided to avail themselves of the facility to put public questions (about the 'Future Shape' programme) to council leader Mike Freer at a Cabinet meeting. While 30 minutes is set aside for this at each meeting, it turns out that it is never needed.

First we squabbled with Democratic Services about what was the proper deadline for submitting questions, but once it was agreed that we had met the deadline, we turned up for an answer to our questions.

I had thought that we might be lucky if our questions were heard at all, as we had submitted very late on. I expected there to be a great long list of questions, with ours at the end. But, in fact, ours were the only questions and apparently it is extremely rare (as in, never happens) for questions to be put. I wonder whether that is because no one realises they can do it...

Or is it because a few unsuspecting individuals have tried and found it a chastening experience? We certainly did, not so much as to be deterred from doing it again, but it wasn't a barrel of laughs.

First you are called forward to a chair (my friend called it 'the naughty chair'); then Mike Freer (or the relevant Cabinet member) reads out the answer to your question. The question is not read out, it is printed on a piece of paper which any audience member might or might not connect with the answer they have just heard. Unless you have good shorthand skills or a recording device it is very hard to have any record of what the answer to your question was; although Freer has it written down in front of him, you can't have a copy of this for your own records. The questions and answers don't appear in the minutes, although they very easily could.

If you keep your nerve, and can think fast enough, and can work out how to use the microphone (not everyone is familiar with these devices), you can ask a supplementary question following on from what Freer has just told you. Then you get up, shuffle away from the chair and it's the next victim's turn. It's quite... er... humiliating. On one level this is to be expected. These were, after all, hostile questions - this is politics, we are political enemies (if that is not too strong a word). On another level, it is totally unacceptable. Provision exists to ask questions, but the way it is carried out, on the rare occasions it happens, negates any democratic content it might have.

And, by the way, I don't know how they would accommodate someone in a wheelchair in the tight space that leads to the naughty chair.

But don't be put off! The deadline for public questions to the Cabinet of 8 June that will take the decision on whether or not to cut the budgets for sheltered housing wardens and the Welfare Rights Unit (remember - they don't have to make these cuts!) is this Wednesday 27 May, at 10am. Email questions to If you want more advice, email me at or David Seabrooke!

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