‘Not Your Meeting’: Democracy in the Council Chamber

S&C regular and pensions campaigner Shelagh Simmons highlights one in a series of failures of local democracy, following her experience at last week’s Full Council meeting. Additional reporting by Sarah Cheverton.

The Solent Combined Authority and the Arts Lodge at Victoria Park were just two instances where public opinion was swept aside at the Full Council Meeting on Tuesday, 11th October, despite active community opposition and a complete failure by local politicians to demonstrate a meaningful public mandate for their decision-making.

But there was another issue on Tuesday’s agenda in which I had a personal interest:  the state pension age (SPA) and the way its equalisation has been unfairly and cruelly implemented for women born in the 1950s.

It is the subject of a major campaign I am involved with, led by Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI), who recently announced their plans to legally challenge the government on their pensions policy.  We want fair transitional arrangements for thousands of women – including here in Portsmouth – who expected to receive their pensions at 60 but now have to wait up to another 6 years without proper notice and time to prepare for such a major change. Portsmouth MP Flick Drummond supports the campaign and is a founder member of an All Party Parliamentary Group currently lobbying the government to introduce transitional arrangements for women affected.

Now if you don’t know anything about the changes to women’s pensions, it’s fair to say there’s a lot of opposition to the plans.

Former Minister of State for Pensions, Baroness Ros Altmann, outlined strong concerns about the policy in her resignation letter to the Prime Minister. She stated that “short-term political considerations, exacerbated by the EU referendum, have inhibited good policy-making” on pensions, and continued:

“I am not convinced the Government adequately addressed the hardship facing women who have had their state pension age increased at relatively short notice.”

Numerous councils – including Manchester, North Devon, Newcastle, Plymouth and Blackpool – join the former pensions minister in her concerns and have voted to support the WASPI campaign by writing to the Secretary of State on our behalf.  Last month, the Isle of Wight Council joined them.  A motion proposed by Labour Councillor Geoff Lumley attracted cross-party support. Cllr Lumley stated in a recent council meeting:

We need to send a message to government that we care about the 1,500-2,000 Islanders this will affect.

When the motion was raised on the Isle of Wight, Council Leader, Independent Councillor Jonathan Bacon, said he didn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t support it. He doesn’t have too far to come to find out.

Tuesday 11th October was an important day in the campaign when petitions signed by tens of thousands around the country were handed in to Parliament. So it was particularly important for campaigners and residents when a similar motion – proposed and seconded by Liberal Democrat councillors – came before Full Council.

That is, until Council Leader Donna Jones stood up and called for it to be kicked down the road to a scrutiny committee. According to the Leader, postponing the debate would ‘have a much fuller and thorough discussion than here at the Council, and actually, this isn’t a local issue.’

You can see the item come up at Tuesday’s meeting in the following video, at approximately 4 hours and 22 minutes.

The Leader explains that postponing the planned democratic debate is justified because this is an issue deserving of full and thorough discussion, which is presumably why so many other councils across the country have chosen to debate it at similar meetings. In Portsmouth, the debate was tabled for a full council meeting and, until her surprise announcement that it should be delayed, was assumed to be taking place. All Councillors were present at the meeting and therefore all wards and residents represented, and interested local residents and groups were present for the debate – some had submitted deputations. It is therefore hard to understand the Leader’s explanation that delaying the debate somehow better serves local democracy.

Neither is the Leader’s stated concern about state pensions not being ‘a local government matter’ any easier to understand, given the Full Council debate on leaving the EU that took place in March of this year.

State pensions are an issue affecting thousands of local women. On her website, Flick Drummond explains:

In Portsmouth South, according to the independent House of Commons Library, around 3,010 women are directly affected by the 2011 Pensions Act alone. 241 local residents signed the e-petition calling for transitional arrangements, which received almost 200,000 signatures nationwide.

Given its local relevance, when Lib Dem councillors submitted it, the item was accepted for debate and placed on the agenda. The City Solicitor has since confirmed to me that he considered it an appropriate item for inclusion. I submitted a written deputation to be included in the Council’s considerations. Those of us waiting for the debate to take place sat in the public gallery for over 4 hours, until past 6pm. All Conservative members voted in favour of the Leader’s suggestion, which suggests there was some coordination of their vote in advance.

Having asked at the start of the Council meeting who was eligible to take part in the debate, why did the Leader then allow residents to sit and wait for 4 hours before announcing her intention to pull the item?

I was shocked to see the Leader’s supporters in delaying the debate included two of my own ward councillors, Conservatives Luke Stubbs and Jennie Brent (who also happens to be a victim of this policy).  Both are fully aware of how important this matter is to me because I wrote to them about it.

In our correspondence on the issue, Councillor Stubbs complained about the lost value of his own private pension.  While I have some sympathy, if you are a fan of the unfettered free market – as he is – you can hardly complain when it comes back to bite you.  But this isn’t about a private pension.  It’s about a contract between us as individuals and the state.  The contract is that we work and contribute to the country in exchange for a small amount of dignity and security in our older years.

Many of the women affected by the changes to pensions have had no opportunity to build up their pension pots.  They are totally reliant on their state pensions.  And with the gender pay gap not projected to fully close for another 43 years, women continue to be disadvantaged.

Both my councillors witnessed my distress – and that of others in the public gallery – when they and fellow Conservatives decided to delay the debate. Despite my previous correspondence with them on the subject, neither has yet approached me to follow up on their decision.

In the video above, you can make out the raised voices of local residents and campaigners – myself included – shocked at the sudden revelation that they had waited for 4 hours to participate in local democracy for absolutely nothing. In response to our complaints, the Lord Mayor reprimanded us for protesting, stating that ‘There’s a democratic process,’ something it might have been useful for him to remind his own Members.

The Lord Mayor then told us:

‘Please leave the Chamber. If you don’t leave the Chamber, I’m getting security.’

The decision was shocking to the public in the gallery, and the handling of the debate and the decision to pull it seems strange and insensitive, to say the least. But why would the Leader want to suddenly delay this particular debate?

Some might speculate that if the debate had gone ahead, it could have been embarrassing for Minister of State for Department of Work and Pensions, Penny Mordaunt, also MP for Portsmouth North. Not only has this policy come under attack from former Minister of State for Pensions Baroness Ros Altmann, but it could be seen as embarrassing to demonstrate a lack of support for the policy in her own constituency, on the very day an endless stream of petitions against the changes were being delivered to Parliament.

To those unfamiliar with the antics of our local politicians, the decision to postpone a debate may seem inconsequential, but for residents who regularly engage and participate in local politics, it’s the latest incident in a broader trend of behaviour towards residents, organisations and groups that criticise or disagree with Council policy.

Other councils have supported local women concerned about their future under the current pension plans.  By contrast, Portsmouth City Council dismisses them and threatens them with the police when they protest.

While continuing to insist women’s pensions aren’t a local issue, Donna Jones has since said she is actually ‘hugely sympathetic’ to our plight. This sympathy certainly wasn’t evident to the public last week when, finding herself being challenged on her decision to delay the planned debate, she barked, ‘We just need to go to the vote then, don’t we?’ The vote to postpone the debate was decided by an overwhelming Conservative vote in favour.

The Lord Mayor’s closing comments on the item were perhaps more revealing than he intended when he told the complaining residents in the public gallery to leave the Council Chamber, dismissing us with the words:

‘This isn’t your meeting. If you’re not happy you can write in.’

If a meeting of all ward councillors doesn’t belong to the constituents of those wards – including the residents in the public gallery – I’m not clear whose interests councillors think they serve when they sit in Chambers.

But then, given last week’s meeting, perhaps neither are they.

Image by Jackson Davies.