Sheffield Councillors’ undemocratic use of Covid-19 powers

Following the Sheffield Labour administration’s proposition to cancel all political debates in full council meetings until April 2021, Sheffield’s Green councillors accuse the Labour Party of abusing emergency powers and violating democracy. 

Sheffield town hall
Green World

Green councillors have rallied together in Sheffield to call out the Labour administration for abusing emergency powers and violating democracy. 

This follows a full council meeting on 7 October, during which the Labour council voted to remove notices of motion and cancel all political debates until April 2021, using emergency Covid-19 powers to pass the vote. 

According to Green councillors, this means ‘an end to political debate that could criticise or offer alternatives to Labour’, highlighting the threat to local democracy in Sheffield.

Sheffield’s Green councillors are calling for the following amendments to the Labour administration’s proposal: 

  • that ordinary Council meetings are to take place on 4 November, 2 December and 3 February next year
  • that the meetings are to include public questions, petitions and members’ questions

  • the time limit for members’ questions is up to one hour to allow for scrutiny of the executive

  • that debate is recognised as vital for democracy and accountability, and therefore that at least one notice of motion on topical local issues from each group at these Council meetings is to be included. 

Explaining the cause for alarm, Councillor Martin Phipps, Sheffield Green Councillor for City ward, said: “At the November 2019 Full Council Meeting, Green councillors embarrassed the Labour group by highlighting its practice of deleting all of the text of our motions. Now, we have lost the opportunity to submit and publicise motions entirely.

 “Sheffield Labour and the city council are well known nationwide for their devious, top-down approach, lack of transparency and lack of accountability from the tree-felling saga. This is not an isolated case, but their general way of working is spilling out into public view. Despite the backlash against this, and a falling vote share across the city, they continue to push ahead avoiding debate because they have run out of ideas.

“Councils across the country continue to hold meetings and debate issues, despite the lockdown. Sheffield Labour instead uses the pandemic as an excuse to shut down democracy, accountability and scrutiny.

 “During its time in power, Labour has reduced the number of motions that opposition groups can submit: the Green group of eight councillors is currently only permitted to put four items on council agendas each year. Now, even these are being removed. It is now openly abandoning any democratic pretence and is pushing for motions to be suspended. This administration is obsessed with power and control.”

Councillor Angela Argenzio added: “What [the Labour administration] is doing is outrageous. Surely in these exceptional times, it should be seeking experience, advice and ideas from outside its bubble, not excluding everyone.

“What Labour is doing in Sheffield, in terms of its resistance to scrutiny, is straight out of the Tory government playbook.”

Under similar circumstances in March 2019, during which Green councillors submitted a motion to the council – asking the council to accept motions at meetings – Green Councillor Douglas Johnson commented: “This is a twisted approach to democracy.  

“Under the Cabinet system of local government, the full council has practically no decision-making role. However, it is important because it is a chance for opposition councillors to scrutinise the big policy decisions of the administration. These rules are clearly designed to silence opposition.”

Councillor Alison Teal added: “It also has a silencing effect on backbench councillors of other parties, since they can only put motions forward if their leaders and whips approve. The other thing is that it prevents any real prospect of cross-party working and keeps councillors in party silos. No provision has been made for independent members, which of course includes those councillors who used to be part of the Labour group.”