'You can petition us, but only through our own website' declares Herts Council

Councillors will also have questioning of executive members limited
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HERTFORDSHIRE residents who want to e-petition the county council will now ONLY be able to do so through the council’s own website.

And in a further move county councillors will be limited in the number of written questions they can put to executive members.

The changes are to be brought in after a review of the council’s constitution, which was agreed by a meeting of the county council on Tuesday (May 23).

Hertfordshire County CouncilHertfordshire County Council
Hertfordshire County Council

For residents the changes will mean they can no longer submit petitions created on websites such as change.org

And for councillors it will limit the – previous unlimited – number of written questions they can submit in advance of a council meeting.

As a result, up to just six questions will be accepted from Liberal Democrats, two from Labour and one from the Independent councillors before each council meeting.

Backing the changes, leader of the county council Cllr Richard Roberts said the use of the council website for e-petitions was safe, secure, easy to access and easy to administer.

And he stressed that the change reflected the impact on staff time – and was not designed to deter petitioners.

“There is no desire to reduce the number of petitions coming through or the quantity of them,” he said.

“The problem with the external petitions wherever they arise is that they can be anywhere in the country, anywhere in the world.

“And our staff then have to figure out which ones are actually based in Hertfordshire, which are relevant to what we are up to – and that is the whole point really.”

Nevertheless Liberal Democrat Cllr Paul Zukowskyj said that making people register in order to sign a petition on the council website would discourage them.

And he accused the Conservative-led administration of wanting to “suppress democratic representation”.

In contrast Conservative Cllr Reena Ranger suggested there were data security advantages in residents using the county council website.

And pointing to the ‘hundreds’ of other petition websites, she said: ” None of us can guarantee what happens with that data.

“None of us can tell you where that data gets sold.

Meanwhile – according to reports presented to councillors – concerns have been raised by officers about the volumes of written questions submitted by councillors.

And in backing the new limit , Cllr Roberts pointed to the 248 written questions put by the Liberal Democrats since 2018 – with a further four from Labour and three from Independent/Green.

However Liberal Democrat Cllr Stephen Giles-Medhurst suggested the reduction in the number of questions to executive members allowed was “unreasonable” and “undemocratic”.

And he said: “You are stifling democracy. You are stifling debate. And make no bones about it that is what you are doing.”

During the meeting a Liberal Democrat amendment – which was not backed by the council – suggested that any e-petitions should be accepted, provided they included the information required for validation.

And it suggested the maximum number of written questions should be increased – to the equivalent of half of the number of the members in each political group.

Presenting the amendment leader of the Liberal Democrat group Cllr Steve Jarvis said that as a matter of principle he did not think restricting the number of questions was a desirable thing to do.

And, with regard to e-petitions, he suggested the council “should be making it easier for the public to engage with us”

The amendment was also backed by the Labour group, with Cllr Asif Khan suggesting the council needed to enhance democracy.

And he suggested the e-petition function on the council website could be ‘clunky’.

However the amendment did not get the backing of the county council, which has a Conservative majority.