Edinburgh’s Independent Councillors have a right to be heard – Claire Bridgman, Gavin Barrie & Lewis Ritchie

Stopping councillors from undertaking the full range of their duties by barring them from committes is unsatisfactory and unsustainable, write Claire Bridgman, Gavin Barrie and Lewis Ritchie

Monday, 18th November 2019, 6:00 am
Epic group members have been denied places on council committees. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Serving as a councillor is a great honour and a huge responsibility. Our duty is to act as trustees of Scotland’s capital city; standing up for our constituents by advocating on their behalf, holding the actions of the council to account and scrutinising the decisions that impact the people we are proud to represent.

It is a responsibility that is shared equally by each and every one of Edinburgh’s 63 councillors – regardless of party or creed. However, it has become increasingly apparent that in the Capital at least, every councillor is equal but some are more equal than others.

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Edinburgh’s independent councillors are currently disbarred from all of the committees where the majority of scrutiny and decision-making within the council takes place. At a time when the public quite rightly demand more from their elected representatives and when cuts continually force the council to do more with less, prohibiting four councillors from undertaking the full range of their duties is both unsatisfactory and unsustainable.

We tried to resolve this situation by amending the council’s rules so that independent councillors would have a voice at committee level. We hoped to secure fair and equal treatment, not just for ourselves, but for all future independents who should serve our city. We were shocked and disappointed that the council’s leadership refused to debate our proposal or even meet with us to discuss it.

As committee membership was only open to members of political parties then one clear path remained open to us, which was to form the Edinburgh Party of Independent Councillors (EPIC). This prompted the council’s chief executive to recommend that committee membership be redistributed in order to ensure fair and proportionate political balance across the council.

The chief executive’s recommendations are clear and unambiguous. As a properly constituted party-political group that adheres to every relevant regulation and procedure set out in legislation, agreeing these recommendations should be a matter of course, as it would be unthinkable for anyone who considers themselves a democrat to oppose a recommendation of the chief executive which relates to the democratic function of our council.

There are those who argue that losing our rights is the price we should pay for leaving our political parties and that we should seek re-election in order to reclaim them. The obvious point is that if we were to do so, we would continue to be disbarred as we are now, unless the rule change that we ourselves proposed was adopted.

There is a hypocrisy too in this argument. The SNP, Labour and the Greens have all at various times benefitted from members leaving their original parties to “cross the floor” and join them. The ability to do so is a longstanding feature of our representative democracy that parties welcome when it suits them but criticise when it does not. They cannot have it both ways.

We are now approaching a general election where each party claims that our very democracy is at stake and that they alone can defend the rule of law and uphold the standards and principles upon which our political system and our society is based.

Edinburgh councillors now have an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to these principles. We believe they should seize this opportunity.

Cllrs Claire Bridgman, Gavin Barrie and Lewis Ritchie are members of the Edinburgh Party of Independent Councillors