The Liberal Democrat group at Horsham District Council has formally welcomed the County Times’ Free Speech Charter - launched in the wake of the secrecy controversy following Christian Mitchell’s deselection as chairman-elect.
Individual Lib Dem councillors Christine Costin, Godfrey Newman, Leonard Crosbie, and David Skipp have already written to the County Times confirming their support.
Frances Haigh, leader of the Lib Dem Group, said: “The Liberal Democrat Group at HDC welcomes the WSCT Free Speech Charter.
“Our party constitution includes the following:- ‘We believe that people should be involved in running their communities. We are determined to strengthen the democratic process and ensure that there is a just and representative system of government with effective Parliamentary institutions, freedom of information, decisions taken at the lowest practicable level and a fair voting system for all elections. We will at all times defend the right to speak, write, worship, associate and vote freely’.
“In our Standing Orders, one of our four Aims is:- ‘To increase the effectiveness of members as representatives of their constituents’.
“As a group, we discuss issues and agree a group position, but members are free to act in accordance with their own individual conscience.
“Members are never prevented from speaking or voting as they wish, nor are they sanctioned.
“The statement for the Free Speech Charter: ‘I undertake to speak, write and vote on behalf of my constituents without fear or favour of party discipline. If I am a member of a political party, I will respect its values and honour its pre-election manifesto pledges - but I will always put first the people I am elected to serve’, is therefore totally in accordance with Liberal Democrat principles.
“Each councillor is free to make their own decision as to whether they wish to sign the Charter.”
The newspaper has contacted all 44 district councillors along with the leaders of the political groups at West Sussex County Council inviting them to sign up to a simple statement of intent.
It says: “I undertake to speak, write and vote on behalf of my constituents without fear or favour of party discipline. If I am a member of a political party, I will respect its values and honour its pre-election manifesto pledges - but I will always put first the people I am elected to serve.”
Future candidates of any political party and none are also invited to be signatories.
UKIP has already given its total backing to the Charter - and former Tory deputy leader of HDC Roger Arthur, who defected to UKIP a year ago, has also said he will be signing.
National leader Nigel Farage has strongly welcomed the initiative while leader of the UKIP opposition on the county council Michael Glennon has made a firm commitment to it.
Independent candidate Nik Butler was among the first to pledge his support.
Head of News Mark Dunford said: “It is our hope that out of this story we can achieve something that will really help the electorate re-engage with local politics; and the issue of free speech could not be more timely in the year we commemorate the sacrifice of millions of young men in the First World War. Next year, is the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the cornerstone of modern freedom.”
Political editor Joshua Powling added: “The Free Speech Charter is designed to encourage more open debate in council meetings and eliminate the whipping of votes.
“We believe it will help rebuild the public’s trust in local politics as well as engaging more people in the democratic process at council level.
“I know from my own experience of covering council meetings, how dismayed many members of the public are by the predetermined nature of many key debates.
“Planning committees are a notable exception. It would be excellent if all business was transacted with the same spontaneity.
“Turnout at elections has been falling steadily over many years, especially among a younger generation. There is a real sense that much of the ‘cut and thrust’ of political debate has been lost by the single party cabinet system exacerbated by closed private meetings of political groupings where whipped votes have become sadly too familiar on matters of legitimate public interest and concern.”
The Charter was instigated following a whipped vote to deselect Tory vice chairman Mr Mitchell, who said he had been punished for speaking out on behalf of his constituents over plans for massive housing in North Horsham.
Since then, Mr Mitchell has written in this newspaper to describe the secret meetings of his Conservative Group where key decisions are taken in private, and a ‘secret court’ he faced last autumn for raising matters which he believed were in the public interest.