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Press Release: 13.02.09

13th February 2009

Could councillors soon be voting from the pub?

Councillors in Swale will soon be paid for voting from their sofa or from the pub, the small print of Government documents revealed last week. Ministers are to push ahead with changing the law to let councillors skip town hall meetings, but still cash in on their council tax-funded salaries and pensions. This is despite overwhelming public opposition to the plans in a formal consultation.

1. Councillors to stay put on their sofas: In July last year, as part of a widely-derided ‘Community Empowerment White Paper’, the Government announced plans to allow “remote” voting in town halls. This would mean that Swale councillors will not have to turn up at meetings. They will be able to vote by phone or internet, from their home, their place of work or the local pub. The White Paper also included plans to introduce free doughnuts and prize draws for voting in elections; to remove controls on town hall propaganda; and to undo anti-sleaze laws brought in to stop ‘jobs for the boys’ corruption.

2. Anger at Labour Government plans: The small print of the responses to the Government’s consultation, published on 26 January, reveals widespread opposition to the changes. Less than a quarter of town halls backed the plans, warning that the move “erodes public confidence in democracy” and is “lacking transparency and accountability”. The responses note that “concerns were also raised about the practicality and cost of remote attendance and voting”, and stresses that “citizens want to be able to attend public meetings and see their councillors at work.” Alarm was also raised over the increased risk of expensive legal challenges to controversial decisions, such as planning applications. But the Government has simply ignored this opposition, and says it still plans to change the law, regardless.

Gordon Henderson said:

‘Most Swale Borough councillors work really hard and they have a vital role in standing up for our communities. But local decision-making by the council must remain open, transparent and public. That means decisions must be taken in the Council chamber, not over a pint in the Red Lion.

‘At a time when council tax bills are to hit record levels and people are working harder than ever to make ends meet, it is incredible that the Government is effectively pushing for some councillors to do less work for more money.

‘I fear these plans for armchair voting and voting from the pub will create real cynicism amongst hard-pressed council taxpayers.’

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