Sheffield for Democracy and Sheffield City Council held a public meeting, as part of Local Democracy Week, to discuss the future of Community Assemblies in Sheffield. Over thirty people attended the meeting, which was chaired by Vicky Seddon and had a panel which included Councillor Mahzer Iqbal, who is currently responsible for Community Assemblies, and David Baker, who helped establish them.
We have finished compiled a report of the proceedings of that meeting and a summary of the discussions and suggestions made by members of the public. We would appreciate any comments you may have about the report’s findings.
(You may need to install a PDF viewer such as Adobe Reader to open it.)
This is a brief report on the Steering Group Meeting of Sheffield for Democracy, held at the Old Queen’s head, Sheffield on Sunday 20th May 2012 between 3pm and 5pm.
Lobbying and House of Lords reform
We began our meeting with an update on both Lobbying and House of Lords reform. The group believes that the current proposals on lobbying reform are too feeble. It was noted that House of Lords reform was included in the Queen’s Speech.
Lack of proportionality in local election results
As mentioned in a previous post, Vicky Seddon has written a letter in the Sheffield Telegraph about the recent local election results and Proportional Representation (PR), which appeared in the paper 10/05/12. If local elections were carried out using a system of Proportional Representation they would better reflect the wishes of the voters and give us a much broader-based Sheffield City Council. The exact outcome of a local election using PR may vary according to which system of PR is chosen and number of candidates in the multi-member wards and also people may change how they vote under PR, with some voters having less need for tactical voting. Northern Ireland uses the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system for its local and Assembly elections, as does Scotland (since 3rd May 2007, which came about due to the devolved powers of the Scottish Parliament). The London Assembly, Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament all use the Additional Member System (AMS) for their elections. European Parliament election in England, Wales and Scotland use a Closed List System, whereas Northern Ireland uses STV to elect their region’s representatives.
Sheffield had the biggest vote against having a directly-elected Mayor, 65% against & 35% for. Doncaster voted yes to retaining its existing directly-elected Mayor (62% for & 38% against). Bristol voted for having a directly-elected mayor (53.3% for & 46.7% against). (Birmingham, Bradford, Coventry, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Nottingham, Wakefield voted against having a directly-elected Mayor).
Public meeting on local government
There was an update on the arrangements for a future public meeting on changing the relationship between local government and Parliament, to make local government more independent of central control. More information about that will be published in due course.
We had a recap on Community Assemblies from Alan Kewley. It was suggested that Community Assemblies:
- haven’t come up to expectations and need reform to do the job better;
- vary in terms of structure and public engagement depending upon the area;
- need more powers to make their own decisions on spending, etc.;
- need to have smaller ward-level forums, which were part of the original proposals but never put into practice.
Electoral Registration and Administration Bill
We had an update regarding the latest proposals for individual voter registration rather than the household voter registration that we have at present. Current proposal for Individual mandatory voter registration instead of the previous idea of individual voluntary voter registration is welcomed. A household canvass is to take place in spring 2014, deferred from Autumn 2013, in order to ensure more people are registered. The constituency boundary changes to create more equal electoral districts will take place in 2015 and are in the same bill.
The next meeting will be on Sunday 8th July at 3pm at the Old Queen’s Head, Sheffield.
The following is a Report of the Steering Group meeting held on 22nd April 2012, 3pm-5pm at the Old Queens Head, Sheffield.
The website now has details of all our activities including Steering Group meetings, the recent public meeting and links to various campaigns about May’s mayoral referendums.
The Clean Up Lobbying Meeting at Friends Meeting House: it had been a good and lively meeting, with 60 people in attendance. Vicky Seddon has produced both a report of the meeting and our submission for the consultation process.
Elected mayor: a meeting with Sheffield Star involvement has been held, and there have been some press coverage. Sheffield for Democracy is not taking a position but there is information and links on campaigns for both Yes and No campaigns on our website.
Local Government: Graham Allen’s Constitutional and Political Reform Select Committee has opened a consultation on their radical proposals, to give proper constitutional status to local authorities, and also to give them finance-raising powers. We are hoping to organise a Sheffield meeting, jointly with the City Council, in June. We have had a very positive meeting with Council Leader Julie Dore to discuss this and subsequently meetings with Council officers.
Party Funding: Labour’s leader Ed Miliband has proposed a £5,000 cap on donations, as well as a cap on spending. This is likely to kick-start the debate.
Lords Reform. Liz reported that the Select Committee was to report on the following day – 23rd April. Probable 80% – 20% split in favour of elected and appointed peers. Bishops still there but fewer. 15 year terms. There will be arguments about whether there should be a referendum.
Consultations. Neil outlined some of the issues in the light of council policies on Community Engagement/Involvement/ Empowerment and how that worked out in practice from experience of recent local consultations. Important that more effort is made from officers and councillors to get local people discussing issues given a residue of apathy and disillusion. A piece on the website would be useful.
Next Meeting: 20th May in the function room of the Old Queens Head public house next to Sheffield Interchange at 3 pm. The meeting is open to all our supporters. Any donations towards the cost of room hire are welcome.
On 12 April 2012, we held a public meeting in Sheffield on “Open up Lobbying” which 60 people attended, to discuss and comment on the lobbying proposals. Speakers were Tamasin Cave of Spinwatch, Councillor Joe Otten, and Paul Blomfield MP. Based on that debate and other discussions between our supporters Sheffield for Democracy made a submission to the consultation on proposals for a statutory register of lobbyists, which closed last Friday.
Our report touches upon various issues related to lobbying in, including this bit regarding current political culture:
The unsatisfactory nature of the current situation, on access to influence and power, is well known and acknowledged, including by the Prime Minister, famously quoted as saying: “It is the next big scandal waiting to happen.” All three main political parties have been embarrassed at some point in the last three years by the action of some of their MPs and Lords.
The culture of lack of trust in our politicians encourages a belief that sleaze is inevitable, that ordinary voters have little if any influence, so that that voting cannot make a difference, with fewer people then bothering to vote, especially amongst those who are most needy and vulnerable. This is what politicians are hearing on the doorstep. One worry is about the disengagement of part of the population; another is the demand for extreme forms of direct democracy.
Not that all our politicians are tainted by poor practices; the majority are not, but suffer the same public disapproval which is damaging. Our media often assume this.
You can read more by downloading our Consultation Submission here (PDF, 376KB).
This post summarises the discussions at our “Open up Lobbying” public meeting that was held on Thursday 12th April 2012.
60 people attended a public meeting in Sheffield to discuss the lobbying proposals and to comment on them. Speakers were Tamasin Cave of Spinwatch, Councillor Joe Otten, and MP Paul Blomfield.
The unsatisfactory nature of the current situation, on access to influence and power, was discussed, with all three political parties embarrassed at some point in the last three years by the action of some of their MPs and Lords. The culture of lack of trust in our politicians leads to a cynicism which is seen as very destructive of our democracy: disengagement follows and a belief that sleaze is inevitable. This can lead to the belief that voting cannot make a difference, with fewer people then bothering to vote, especially amongst those who are most needy and vulnerable. This is what politicians are hearing on the doorstep; the worry is about the disenfranchisement of part of the population, which current proposals on voter registration, making it more a consumer choice than a duty of citizenship, will also affect.
One participant likened the system to the Mafia, which is known to ensure political cover for its activities through a high degree of organisation, and bribery and threats. However, whilst the strategy of political influence is similar, no one was suggesting those extremes of criminal activity were common in UK.
Access to influence
A recurring theme during our meeting was the issue of access to influence for ordinary voters. This included how issues were discussed, with a strong plea for clarity of expression on this, so that ordinary people who were not experts could understand the arguments. Too often, those of us who have worked on an issue use jargon or short-hand phrases, or assume a level of understanding that is not there. Also, access for those who do not have internet access needs to be thought through.
Transparency is important but, how can we ensure equality of access?
Party Funding reform
We had updates on Party Funding and Lobbying Reform. This would be a good topic, and good timing, to have a public meeting. We would invite local politicians of different parties to speak.
We also had a report of developments on Lords Reform, including Lord David Steel’s House of Lords (Amendment) Bill which included provisions to abolish elections of Hereditary Peers to the Lords so that the 92 Hereditary Peers currently present would eventually be phased out through natural wastage. This provision was dropped following the threatened tabling of 300 amendments by Hereditary Peers. Other provisions included allowing members to retire and that non-attendance for a whole session would result in the member taking permanent leave of absence. The resistance of the Lords to the modest proposals in the Bill shows the amount of self-interest and resistance to reform present in the Lords.
On Voter Registration, the latest report from the Government following consultation proposes to delay the Autumn 2013 household canvas until Spring 2014, and to change the previous proposal to make registration voluntary, although there is still uncertainty about whether and how to enforce this.
We also discussed the current situation on the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (awaiting Government regulations) and the Localism Act 2011.
On the introduction of elected mayors, it was decided that SfD would remain neutral and not campaign for or against an elected mayor for Sheffield but would seek to promote public awareness, debate and participation, via our webpages. (See our previous post “Should Sheffield have an elected mayor?” for details).
Our work on Community Assemblies is bearing (we think) a little fruit. Leader of the City Council Cllr Julie Dore has now provided written replies to questions asked at the Cabinet visit to the Central Community Assembly about the future of Community Assemblies; it appears they are not to be abolished but final proposals are not yet public. Meanwhile, we are seeking a meeting with senior Council officers on governance issues, and agreed how to progress this.
Meanwhile, the Chair of Constitutional Reform Committee in the House of Commons, with Graham Allen MP, is wishing to encourage new thinking about the relationship between national and local government, and there is a consultation process. It is possible that he would come to Sheffield to speak, and we could be involved in organising this. We will see if Sheffield City Council would be interested in co-sponsoring this. We will raise this with Council officers when we meet them.
Our contact at University of Sheffield has made some progress in contacting schools; we are going to suggest that we help them to run a Day School in the Autumn.
The next meeting, which is open to all our contacts, is on Sunday 25th March in the function room of the Old Queens Head pub at Sheffield Interchange at 3pm. Room hire is £10, donations welcomed.