Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Pickles wants to see council budget votes recorded

Local government minister Eric Pickles has today announced plans to require councils to record how each councillor votes when council tax and budget issues are being decided. He says he wants councils to be more like parliament in this regard.

I've got no problem with this idea. I think councils should be as transparent as possible and councillors should always be accountable for the decisions they take in the name of the public.

The only thing I would say is that the process of recording how each councillor votes takes time and thought should be had before a decision to automatically roll it out to every single vote taken.

At present, Cornwall Council's normal way of taking a vote is by show of hands. If it is clear which way the decision has gone then this is announced and no count taken. If it is close (in the opinion of the chair) then there will be a count and the numbers announced. However, councillors can also demand a decision is taken by named vote and this will take place if more than a third support the demand. It is also possible to take a secret ballot. In my experience this last option is only ever done when choosing chairs of committees. In theory, it might also be tried for other votes - something I would find troubling. In reality, named votes are already held for contentious political issues and the budget is usually one such. Each vote takes about ten minutes as the monitoring officer reads out each councillor's name and they respond with their vote. There is then a period to add up the results and this is announced and recorded in the minutes.

The only reason why I would not want to see this rolled out to every vote is that there are usually between ten and twenty votes in a full council meeting. If a named vote had to be held each time, it would add around two hours to every meeting. If such a requirement were made then I'm guessing Cornwall would have to invest in some form of electronic voting machines - at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds. Do-able, but not necessarily the best use of limited monies.

So it's fine if Pickles wants to require named votes on budget and council tax issues, but he should think twice before going further.

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