Constitutional dilemmas

An interesting item in the recent full council meeting is item 8, about the Teignbridge constitution. The constitution is a lengthy document but legally underpins all the council’s decisions and actions. Councillor Patch (independent) has pointed out that the constitution was changed sometime last year, apparently without consulting councillors.

This relates to a decision the previous year which councillors did agree to, asking the monitoring officer (the council’s solicitor) to “tidy up” the constitution, which at the time was not a single document but a collection of web pages that had been added to in stages without much review. The tidy up was needed, and was not supposed to materially change the content.

This was done, but the new constitution was posted to the web site without consulting councillors again, without drawing attention to it, and the old web pages were discarded.

Councillor Patch believes that there are “several material changes in the document that erode the rights of Members of the Public and Members of the Council to scrutinise the work of this Council.” In the recent full council meeting he urged councillors not to “Nod through” the new constitution. Instead he invited councillors to vote to reinstate the old constitution pending a review.

I voted against councillor Patch’s amendment to reinstate the old constitution, and I voted for the motion to accept the new one, with the proviso that there is a clear mechanism for any material changes to be reversed, which there is. I agree with councillor Patch that this is an important issue, but I am not nodding through the changes.

I think it is unfortunate that the new document was not circulated, that the old ones were not archived and the change was not announced, however the officer had not specifically been asked to do these things, and they did do as they were asked. They tidied up the constitution.

I cannot support reverting to the old constitution which has been deleted and only exists in paper copies with some councillors. I don’t have a copy. Are other copies all the same? By voting to accept the new constitution, it puts the council back in a robust position to make decisions, and avoid future confusion. The ambiguity puts all the council’s actions at risk.

I have looked in detail at the “material changes […] that erode the rights […]”. I see changes of course, but not quite so major as they might be portrayed. On several of the alleged points I can see no material difference at all.

The chair can reject questions that are inappropriate according to the constitution. The old constitution said “after consultation with the independent person” and this phrase is dropped. It isn’t clear who “the independent person” was, or what this ever meant. In my view it is the job of the chair to reject questions based on the criteria set out in the constitution.

In some cases powers have indeed been added for example to dismiss questions that specifically should be taken by a sub committee. I don’t consider this eroding our rights, just making the process clear. Tidying up.

The public can ask questions relevant to the business of the council. This has been changed to the business of the meeting. This is a significant material change. It is just one word, and I suspect it was a genuine error, but that is one word too many and this change needs to be restored. I will pursue this to get it changed back.

There is a change that motions can now be rejected if they relate to the personal affairs or conduct of individual Members or include inappropriate or inflammatory language. These would seem reasonable.

It is claimed Group Leaders have lost the power to veto delegated ‘minor’ changes to the Constitution. This could be a material change, but the difference is not as strong as it seems. Group leaders never had the power to veto a change because they didn’t like it. The removed wording is “If group leaders agree a change is minor, It can be done by democratic services manager” The only power being lost is for a Group leader to insist that a change is major if others claim it is minor.

This one deserves a closer look, but at most we should restore the power that group leaders actually had, not bestow a full veto that it is claimed they had.

So overall I think we did the right thing. The council now has a constitution that has been affirmed and we can all read it. It needs a couple of words changing, which we will do.

The new constitution can be viewed at