At the last Full Meeting of Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council, held on 8th September, 2021 the various question time sessions proved a little more controversial than usual, writes Neil Wilby.
Following an article published elsewhere on this website last month (read here), reporting calls by Council Leader, Arooj Shah, for more public engagement and ‘a wider representation of views’, a much higher number of Public Questions than usual were submitted.
Any person registered as living in the Borough, or a journalist active in the area is entitled to ask a question. There is nothing unique to Oldham about that rule, it is applied by almost every other council in the country.
Exercising that right, the author of this article put this question to the Leader and interim chief executive, Harry Catherall. It caused a commotion in the public gallery from a group of discontents, mostly misinformed and whom, quite aptly, term themselves as The Rabble. They include the controversial former United Kingdom Independent Party (UKIP) councillor, Warren Bates, and complain about anything and everything to do with Oldham Council. Especially if they can ride their anti-Labour hobby horse at the same time:
“Why is it the case that certain departments within the Council have serious difficulties in responding to emails or other communications, such as freedom of information requests. Even when there is a lawful requirement to do so?
“Even as a journalist, with not inconsiderable leverage, the effort expended in persuading paid officers to respond appropriately, if at all, is disproportionate and unnecessarily stressful.
“Can, therefore, the Leader of the Council and the interim chief executive, whose presence I very much welcome, assure Madam Mayor and Full Council that all necessary steps will be taken, under the new regime, to ensure that those residents of Oldham, absent of such leverage, are not being disadvantaged by either unanswered emails or unsatisfactory responses.”
In the event, it was answered, somewhat formulaically, by the former Leader, Cllr Jean Stretton, in these terms:
“Many thanks to Mr Wilby for his question.
“We are absolutely committed to responding to questions from members of the public, journalists, and any other interested party in a clear, timely, and transparent way.
“I am sorry if Mr Wilby feels we have fallen short. I can also assure him that we take our commitment to providing fair and accurate information very seriously.
“We will always seek to improve where we can, and provide the best possible services to our communities across Oldham.”
But The Rabble had nothing much to say when the Conservative Group Leader, Cllr Graham Sheldon, during Leaders’ Questions, raised the same issue of paid officers either not answering emails or taking too long to do so. Or when providing replies being too defensive and, often, providing incomplete answers.
Immediately after the meeting, Cllr Sheldon was sent this email:
“Good evening, Cllr Sheldon
“I am a freelance journalist whom, reluctantly, has become a regular reporter of matters concerning Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council.
“As we have not corresponded previously my press accreditation is attached.
“Below, I reproduce the text of the public question that the Mayor asked on my behalf:
[the text of the public question, as set out above, was inserted here]
“This, together with the reply from the Leader, will form the basis of a further article to be published tomorrow, all being well. It is an issue, as you may have discerned, about which I have strong views personally and professionally.
“It would assist greatly if you would consider releasing to me the text of the question you asked the Leader at item 9b on the Agenda. It was, of course, on much the same theme as my own.
“If you wished to add any further comment that would also be welcomed.
“My telephone number is [redacted] if you feel a conversation would assist us both.
It did not, rather surprisingly, receive either an acknowledgement or response. That, of course, is entirely his prerogative but, at a base level, it is discourteous and disrespectful. It also makes a mockery of his own complaint about others not replying to communications from him.
There will, doubtless, be not inconsiderable mirth amongst staff in the Highways and Environmental Health departments, whom he singled out for opprobrium during that Leader’s question, when they read this piece.
Cllr Sheldon has been offered right of reply. But, whether or not he takes up the offer, he really must do better, in future. Treat people not just as you expect to be treated by others, but as an elected representative set high ethical and professional standards, otherwise it brings the Borough, and the Conservative Party regionally and nationally into further disrepute.
UPDATE: Graham Sheldon has now, if belatedly, apologised for his lack of response. He, further, pointed out that the Conservative Group has appointed media representatives, Cllrs Dave Arnott and Luke Lancaster should there be any further queries. Cllr Sheldon does not make clear why either of those colleagues would need to be involved in responding to an email concerning matters specific to him.
Page last updated at 1935hrs on Sunday 19th September, 2021
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