Suffolk County Council: Debate on libraries turns into democratic car crash

Cllr Patricia O'Brien
Chairman of Suffolk CC
Yesterday's full Suffolk County Council spent a lot of time discussing libraries. To begin with there were questions from campaigners with Judy Terry reading prepared responses. Then I gave my speech to the Council for the so-called "debate" triggered by the 35 000 petition responses, followed by a speech from Liz Williams from Rosehill Readers. There were three short speeches from councillors in response and then Judy Terry replied saying our petition would be taken into account by cabinet and that was about it.

We then sat through some less than gripping business until there was finally a real debate on libraries on a motion put by the Labour Group. You can read an account by Sue Hall who is a library campaigner at the meeting or see Wordblog's re-publication of my live tweets for a flavour of what happened.

If you are still confused after reading these accounts I am not at all surprised!

The debate began with a straightforward motion from Labour:
This Council calls on Suffolk County Council Cabinet to give an assurance that no Library in Suffolk will be closed before 2013
Judy Terry then moved an "amendment" to this motion changing it to:
This Council calls on SCC Cabinet to retain the library network and continue to work with communities to ensure its long term sustainability and development
Labour raised concerns about the legality of this "amendment" which pretty much obliterated the whole text of the motion. The Monitoring Officer ruled that it was acceptable and debate began.

What then followed (which you can read in detail in the links above) was disorganised chaos. An amendment was proposed to the ammndment and the Chairman Cllr Patricia O'Brien appeared to have difficulty understanding the procedure. In the end a backbench Conservative member had to explain the procedure and what was happening to the Council as the Chairman increasingly lost her grip on the meeting.

In scenes that a second rate high school debating society would be embarrassed by we saw cheap political points being scored in front of a still packed public gallery full of library campaigners who had come wanting to see a real debate on libraries.

Several of the councillors who did speak admitted they hadn't read the proposal documents but did not appear to be embarrassed about speaking and voting about something they evidently did not understand.

Sandy Martin, Labour Leader called on the Council to vote against Judy Terry's ammendemt and to provide an assurance rather than an aspiration to keep libraries open.

Mark Bee appeared to decend into paranoia, accusing Cllr Stringer the Green leader of a conspiracy when he moved a simple ammendement to Judy Terry's motion inserting the word "existing" before "network". This, Cllr Bee claimed would "bind" Judy Terry and not allow any of the exciting innovations proposed to go ahead. Cllr Stringer understandably looked bemused at this suggestion.

Judy Terry spoke of the need for libraries to embrace technological changes with no sense of irony whilst her motion was being photocopied so it could be handed around the chamber on small pieces of paper...

Some Councillors began to blame library campaigners for turning the issue into a "political football" whilst they made cheap tribal political points against their opponents. Politics, evidently, in Suffolk is something the County Council think they have a monopoly on.

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory the Council voted for Judy Terry's ammendment, in fact they did so twice for reasons that are unclear. If the Administration wanted to try and rebuild the trust they admitted they had lost with library campaigners then this was the complete opposite of how they should have behaved.

It was like watching a democratic car crash.

The Administration had a chance to send a simple message assuring the people of Suffolk that libraries would stay open as their press release claimed. It failed to do so and as Sandy Martin said the only reasonable assumption from this failure is that all libraries are not safe. The County Council may as the cabinet papers say "aspire" to keep them open but that is a long way from an assurance.
Suffolk County Council 2477886624704049975

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