Aisha Iqbal: Leeds councillors who didn’t bother voting on budget are making a mockery of democracy

Leeds Civic Hall main chamber

Another year, another budget rubber-stamped. And what have we learnt?

Precious little to make the local Government financing process more transparent to the average voter, that’s for sure.

But quite a lot about the petulance of politicians of all persuasions.

In a budget meeting yesterday (Wednesday) lasting more than four hours, the topic of council tax - which is, let’s face it, the only thing most casual observers are really interested in - came up only briefly and was voted through with relative ease.

All in a few hours’ work to raise bills by 5% (that’s about £64 for the average Leeds home before police/fire precepts are added).

Tax rises are a fact of life, most of us accept them through gritted teeth.

But to manage to waffle on for four hours with hardly a mention from any party was quite a feat.

The full council meeting is political theatre at its finest/most ridiculous. And the budget-setting is the ultimate showcase of this.

To misquote the Bard, many councillors were full of party political sound and fury at Leeds Civic Hall this week, but ultimately it signified nothing.

Even one of their own, the ever reliable Morley Borough Independent Robert Finnigan, referred to the whole thing as “pantomime”.

He was, utterly predictably, shouted down, but he had a point.

The few (relatively small in cash terms) rays of light announced during the meeting, like the confirmation of an £8.75ph Living Wage minimum pay rate for all Leeds council staff and new money to help support people with mental health issues, was overshadowed by an at times ludicrous display of pomposity.

I was particularly intrigued this year by the annual farce of the opposition’s proposed amendments to the administration’s’ budget.

Ostensibly ideas for helping the council to deliver services better, they end up being a time consuming display of showboating and one-upmanship with inevitably the same result every time.

Every single one of the record 30 amendments proposed by the opposition parties - and there were some good ideas in there - was voted down

Each opposition party leader had actually been briefed by the council’s chief accountant to work out costing and viability, and in almost every case, the conclusion was that the amendment “will not materially impact on the overall robustness of the council’s budget for 2018/19”.

However the parties voted en bloc, and each amendment fell down.

This was bothersome, but predictable.

But not as irritating as the fact that when it came to the final vote on the main budget, the 91 councillors present in the room suddenly went down to 79.

No one had left the chamber, but 12 councillors - whether of a single or various parties is unclear - decided to sit it out entirely.

This was possibly the most important vote of the evening, their chance to say yay or nay or, indeed to abstain, on the city’s short term financial future.

There is a correct democratic way to approve, disapprove or sit on the fence.

However a dozen people chose not to do anything at all.

It meant their vote wasn’t recorded and I can’t understand the rationale behind it.

In fact, I find it unacceptable.

If you didn’t vote on the budget, and therefore couldn’t be bothered to engage with the democratic process for the sake of the people who elected you, you should have all your allowances taken away.

I certainly don’t want my council tax paying for any councillor who can’t be bothered.

It was definitely odd, to the point that chair of the meeting and Lord Mayor Jane Dowson had to ask for clarification from legal officers that this was allowed.

She noted there was an “en bloc reluctance to push any button whatsoever”.

It didn’t matter ultimately, because the motion passed anyway. But the dirty dozen, as far as I am concerned, have a lot to answer for.

They are making a mockery of democracy, and effectively sticking two fingers up to the Leeds people who voted them in.

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