Riots: The council which doesn’t trust councillors to discuss the riots sensibly, so holds a meeting in secret instead

Birmingham City Council
I predict a riot: Birmingham City Council doesn't trust councillors to debate the riots sensibly

Update: A couple of hours after posting this blog, the council backed down and decided to hold the meeting in public. I’m not saying that’ s because of this blog (I’ll leave claiming credit for things which can’t be proven to the Tories!) but that’s the chronology. 

This time last week, it was shaping up just to be another normal week in Birmingham.

Seven days later and the city – along with Manchester, Liverpool, Salford and London – is edging back to normality.

Given everything that’s happened, it’s probably not a surprise to hear that Birmingham City Council councillors have been recalled – all 120 of them – for an emergency meeting to discuss the riots. It takes place today.

Putting aside the fact that if parliament could pull back its 650 MPs at two days notice for a special sitting last Thursday, it shouldn’t take a council until the following week to do the same, it’s right that councillors get to speak out on the riots.

After all, they are supposed to be the people on the ground, the people with the contacts, the people who can help restore calm and help communities go forward. I saw similar when I covered the aftermath of the Burnley riots in 2001, where councillors played an important role in knocking rumours on the head.

But what’s particularly worrying at Birmingham is the fact this meeting won’t be open to the public. It’ll be held in secret. And the reason for doing so is even more worrying:

According to the Birmingham Mail:

In a bid to stop party political grandstanding, the Council’s Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour leaders have decided that the meeting will be held behind closed doors.

Council Deputy leader Paul Tilsley (Lib Dem, Sheldon) said: “We took the joint decision that we will have a more honest and constructive meeting if it was held in private.”

Senior Lib Dem councillor Martin Mullaney added on Twitter:

http://twitter.com/#!/mullaney3/status/102113565632233472

In other words, Birmingham City Council doesn’t trust its councillors to behave in the face of a truly serious issue.
If 650 MPs can manage to pull off a debate on the riots without resorting to party politics throughout, why can’t 120 councillors in Birmingham?
Not all councillors agree with the move: Labour councillor James McKay tweeted:

http://twitter.com/#!/jrmckay/status/101947824463298560

If Birmingham councillors really can’t be trusted to debate the riots in public without resorting to party politics, the problem surely isn’t the presence of the public, it’s the quality of the councillors.

7 thoughts on “Riots: The council which doesn’t trust councillors to discuss the riots sensibly, so holds a meeting in secret instead

  1. This is an unfair blog.

    The meeting was set-up for Councillors to be briefed by the Chief Constable on the issues surrounding the recent riots in Birmingham. It also gave an opportunity for Councillors to raised issues that they would rather not raise in a public forum – this could include the sensitive issues about community tensions, or even gang related information.

    Councillors up and down the country have private briefing sessions, so that sensitive issues like this can be discussed.

    1. It’s not unfair. It’s a true reflection of the reason given for holding it behind closed doors: because you couldn’t trust your councillors not to score political points. I’m sure councillors up and down the country do have private briefing sessions but that doesn’t make it right.

      1. There were two reasons for a private session. (1) so the police could inform us of sensitive issues which they would not raise in a public forum – this is common practice in all Councils (2) it would allow Councillors to be more open about what was happening in their communities.

        In the end we did open up the meeting to the public and look at what happened: the police could not fully brief us and there was no open discussion from Cllrs about community tensions.

        Our objective should now be to prevent another riot happening in the next 12months. The private session would have been the first step towards that, in which we could have discussed how we can reduce community tensions and also gang related crime. In the end we had a public session that achieved nothing.

  2. I’ve covered councils where there have been very serious community tensions, yet they managed to have full, frank, open discussions in public. Why can’t councillors in Birmingham? Why can’t you discuss your objectives for the next 12 months in public? If you don’t mind me saying, you seem to saying the council is their to govern, rather than serve, the community.

    1. “you seem to saying the council is their to govern, rather than serve, the community.” – actually both is true.

      As a politician you stand for election on a manifesto. If you win, you try to implement that manifesto. After four years, the electorate get another chance to decide if they are happy with your past performance and new manifesto. So yes, as a Councillor, you are there to run the Council. Equally, you are there to respond to issues raised by your electors.

      In running the Council, all Councillors need opportunities to have non-public meetings. Yes, we still have public meetings, but non-public meetings have a usefulness, that public meetings can’t.

      So for example, if we are dealing with a specific Council employee issue, then you can not discuss that issue in a public forum. If you are meeting the police, and discussing issues with named individuals, again you can’t have that discussion in a public forum. And so….

  3. Mullaney’s response is so predictable. There was no clear criteria given for any secrecy. Confidentiality is easy – give coded names. Again MPs can debate the issues in public – Birmingham Council cannot pathetic

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