On 13th December I will be asked: what price do I put on opening up democracy.
It is easy to say that council meetings are open to members of the public, but the public, by and large, does not attend them. Not only do they miss comments about mafia members and the lacking of care towards members of society who do certain things, all of which whilst serious in their own way are usually demonstrations of the eccentricity of the speaker, but they also miss debates about matters that are important to them.
Let’s take an example. Capital punishment in the House of Commons – do I want to sit through the entire 3-day debate? No I don’t. Do I want to hear what my MP has to say at 3:26pm on day 2? Yes I do. I don’t know what time he will speak, so do I sit there for 3-days and listen to the entire debate just to hear him? Of course I don’t. I just don’t bother going. Is that open government?
Still I don’t need to now, because I can go to democracy live on the BBC website to watch him, I can watch the BBC parliamentary channel (also known to have dented pharmaceutical companies’ profits for certain types of sleep inducing drugs), or I can read Hansard.
Fortunately, the people of Southend have not entrusted their local councillors to make decisions on whether to re-introduce capital punishment. But they have trusted us to make decisions about how and where to educate their children, where to allow a local hospice to be sited and how to spend their hard earned money they give to us as council tax. Why should everyone therefore not be allowed to see and hear what we say?
Do I want to come and sit through a 3-4hr Development Control committee meeting (the one that decides planning applications) just so I can hear about the ones in Blenheim Park?
I want working people, single mothers, those on holiday, or those who just aren’t fussed enough to come to 4hr long council meetings (that is what you elect me for after all!) but want to hear what was said about something important to them, to be able to take an active part in how Southend is run.
Recording what happens in the council chamber will allow for a permanent record to be kept and the promises and pledges made by your councillors to be checked. Surely this is worth the money all by itself; give you the chance to watch my poor oratory skills!
I will speak in the debate on the 13th December and ask for colleagues from all side of the chamber to join me in voting to put webcams in the council chamber. I hope they are a success for the trial year and I also hope that as soon as possible we are able to have all of our public meetings broadcast, particularly Cabinet, Development Control and Scrutiny meetings.