By Lee Trewhela - Local Democracy Reporter

Following a discussion which mentioned bullying among councillors, Cornwall Council has agreed to stop the process of voting via secret ballots.

After previous discussion at the council’s Constitution & Governance Committee, Cllr Barry Jordan proposed a move to get rid of secret ballots at a full meeting of Cornwall Council yesterday (Tuesday, April 18). The ballots are usually used to vote for the chairs and vice-chairs of committees. A member of the Conservative Cabinet passionately argued that “the only people who want to keep it are those that have got something to hide, that are shifty and behaving in a manner that is not conducive with local politics”.

Cllr Jordan said: “One of the things which made me quite unhappy was the bullying at the last council when a member of the committee – I won’t mention the person’s name – was actually bullied and lost his position as a vice-chairman because he wouldn’t vote how he was asked to vote. Now, that is wrong – anybody in this chamber who is bullied into doing something they shouldn’t be doing should report it, we have a procedure against bullying.

“There are four things we can do in this chamber – we can vote for, against, abstain or leave the chamber; there is no reason to have secrets. Why should there be a secret ballot in this council? I, for one, have no problem sticking my hand up, whether it’s right or wrong.”

Cllr Chris Wells, who seconded the recommendation, said that in the interests of transparency and fairness “we should be seen to be open as to how everybody votes”. He added: “Any intimidation or bullying that is apparent should be dealt with very swiftly and that too should be open to public scrutiny – nothing like that should be kept under the carpet.”

A proposal was aired to keep secret ballots to vote people into positions of power. Lib Dem councillor Colin Martin, who supported keeping the secret vote for this purpose, said: “There is a tension between when things should be transparent but there are occasions when for you to do the right thing for your voters, you might feel you need protection from the political consequences within your group. For the sake of protecting your right to stand up for your voters, you should protect the right to have a secret vote to put people into positions of power.”

Independent councillor Loic Rich said: “I agree with what Cllr Martin said – if you’re voting for the chair or vice-chairs of committees and you want the best person for the job, it might not be what your party, group or colleagues think is the best person and that does put you under a certain degree of pressure.”

Deputy leader of the council David Harris added: “I don’t always agree with Cllr Martin … and this is another occasion when I don’t. It’s dead simple – if you haven’t got the courage of your convictions to stand up and be seen to be doing the right thing, then I’m not sure you’re doing the best for your constituents who voted you in.”

To the sound of bleating noises from some fellow councillors, John Conway said: “Are we human or are we sheep? If I disagree with someone I will vote against it and I will be quite clear that it will be seen by everybody that I am voting against it. We are voted by our constituents to stand up and do what they want, and they have every right to know how we are voting for things.”

Independent councillor for St Columb Minor John Fitter, who supported the motion, said: “I will speak up and have no fear of speaking up. I remember to my horror the disgraceful episode when certain members of the Conservative group aided and abetted people on this side of the chamber, using a secret ballot, to get rid of Alec Robertson, the first leader of this unitary authority. Quite disgraceful.”

Laughter echoed around the chamber when Cllr Fitter added that their number included a “gentleman who had been appointed as the member for transparency, who introduced the motion”.

He added: “Stand up and be counted. If you don’t like somebody and don’t think they’re doing a job in the correct manner for the benefit of the people of Cornwall, you stand up and say so.”

An angry Louis Gardner, Conservative portfolio holder for economy, said: “I’m quite horrified by what I’ve heard this morning. I’ve been horrified to hear that members have been sacked from jobs before and they’ve been vilified by their own party members before because of the way they voted. Whatever party it’s happening in, I’m shocked and appalled.

“This council has policies on openness, honesty and transparency, and right at the top of those policies is its stance on anti-bullying. We shouldn’t allow any mechanism to exist which promotes bullying so we should wipe that mechanism out.

“When I got elected I made a de facto contract with my voters that whatever way I voted you stand in front of your own electors and justify the way you voted. If you can’t do that, then you shouldn’t be voting and you shouldn’t be in this chamber. We should stamp out this secret ballot rubbish – get rid of it. The only people who want to keep it are those that have got something to hide, that are shifty and behaving in a manner that is not conducive with local politics. Vote to agree with Cllr Jordan as anything else is ridiculous.”

The motion was carried.