Public barred from crunch council meeting

Members of the public will be barred from a crucial Walsall Council meeting after it was halted by Pro-Palestine protesters.

Authority chief executive, Emma Bennett has informed all 60 elected members the resumed meeting on Wednesday (January 28) will provide only online access for the public.

The initial meeting, which would have seen the budget for the next year and beyond being set, was adjourned after Mayor Chris Towe was interrupted by people in the council chamber public gallery.

Residents, including members of the Walsall Kobar Friendship Association, started to speak and said they had tried to submit a question through usual procedures but had been denied. But the interruption sparked displeasure in the chamber and led to calls for the gallery to be cleared with councillors asked to leave.

Police were called and a number of officers attended. This prompted angry shouts of “shame” and “ceasefire” to be shouted by members of the public, while paper was also thrown from the balcony.

The disturbance was criticised by a number of elected members including Walsall Council’s Conservative leader, Mike Bird and Walsall Labour Group boss, Matt Ward.

Councillor Bird labelled the protest a “disgrace” as they have to set a legal budget and added he would “never kowtow to intimidation”.

And Councillor Ward said the interruption achieved nothing, adding he would happily have met the protesters to discuss the issue and see how they could support them had they contacted him.

But Councillor Pete Smith, independent member for Blakenall ward, criticised the decision to bar the public and said the protest was ‘modest’ with residents’ anger only aggravated by the decision to clear the gallery and call the police.

He added the disturbance would have been avoided had the question been permitted and that the protesters were grateful to the small number of councillors – including himself – who stayed in the chamber to listen to them.

Councillor Smith said: “It seems that council leadership is using “a sledgehammer to crack a nut” by banning the public from attending the public gallery to observe the most important meeting of the year, using Monday’s modest protest in the gallery as the excuse.”

Another who stayed in the chamber was Councillor Aftab Nawaz, leader of a group of independents who left Labour last year over Keir Starmer’s stance on the issue. He said:

“It’s a very important meeting and it sets the budget for Walsall and should be open for all the public. What happened last Thursday, I share the sentiment of what was said but of course the meeting needs to go ahead and can’t be stopped forever.

“I don’t think it was the intention of the people who came to stop the meeting, they just wanted to have their voices heard and tried to use the democratic process to have their voices heard. That’s why they decided to protest.

“It’s regrettable it has to be held almost behind closed doors and it would be better if the public was allowed in – I don’t think there is a danger to councillors and I don’t think there was on Thursday.

“The points made by speakers were articulate and very well made and it’s a shame they don’t feel they have that space in the democratic system to have that say.”

A council spokesperson said: “The meeting of council adjourned on Thursday 22 February 2024, shall reconvene on Wednesday 28 February 2024.

“The decision to clear the public gallery, due to a disturbance, remains in place for the meeting scheduled for Wednesday 28 February 2024.

Proceedings can be accessed live on the council’s streaming platform.

Under the authority’s constitution, chief executive Emma Bennett can reject a question from the public if it “is not about a matter for which the local authority has a responsibility or which affects the borough; is defamatory, frivolous or offensive; is substantially the same as a question which has been put at a meeting of the Council in the past six months; or requires the disclosure of confidential or exempt information.”


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