MEMBERS of the public in West Berkshire will lose their right to speak during council meetings as new videoconferencing technology is brought in.

People unhappy with a local issue or campaigning for change could — before the coronavirus lockdown  — question the lead councillors responsible for dealing with those issues.

But now, as West Berkshire Council switches to holding virtual public meetings, the public will lose their right to speak at meetings.

READ MORE: Tips in West Berkshire will open for longer after lockdown

Instead, people will be able to submit written questions. But answers to these may not be read out, and crucially no follow-up questions can be asked.

These ‘supplementary’ questions are often when lead councillors have to think on their feet, and when more illuminating information is revealed — and a key part of public scrutiny, according to local campaigners and opposition councillors.

People will also no longer have the right to present a petition during the remote meetings.

READ MORE: Delays to new park and ride bus at Thames Valley Park

Details of the changes were revealed in a report by Sarah Clarke, the council’s head of legal. Councillors will vote on Wednesday, April 29, to approve the changes.

Written submissions must be no more than 500 words, and submitted to the council no later than midday, two days before the meeting, according to that report.

Opposition councillors said the changes were ‘worrying’ but work was happening behind the scenes to increase public participation.

Councillor Lee Dillon (Lib Dem, Thatcham North East), the leader of the opposition in the council, said a balance needed to be struck between keeping the council functioning and proper democratic involvement.

Cllr Dillon said: “We are working with the administration to review the proposals and hope to see a review stage built in, with the purpose of expanding public participation once we get use to working in this new way. 

“We also hope to see a facility being made to allow e-petitions to be still be submitted. 

“Councillors have an important role to play in representing their residents views and I would encourage constituents to get in touch directly with their councillors on issues like planning so their views can be represented, not just in writing but through their members too.” 

Cllr Steve Masters (Green, Speen) said: “Any diminishing of public engagement isn’t particularly welcome. When you don’t have representation on the council, it’s a way of ensuring scrutiny. It’s quite worrying, eroding public scrutiny in those ways.”

However, the switch to virtual meetings means for the first time they are livestreamed, so people can watch them online from home. This was welcomed by the Newbury Labour party, who have campaigned for meetings to be livestreamed since before the pandemic began. 

Dr Julie Wintrup, Newbury Labour policy officer, said: “While we applaud the council for moving to virtual meetings, we are disappointed that the format looks set to continue the somewhat stale and alienating traditions of the past. 

“We have asked that as policy, meetings are livestreamed, that the spoken word is welcomed and the voices of those who so often represent wider groups in our communities are heard loud and clear.

“We dread the thought of more pre-prepared reading and lengthy answers. Questions do not need to be 500 words long. Better in our view to keep questions and answers short and to the point, to encourage the interactive use of Zoom, and to allow those vital supplementary questions.”

A council spokesman said the changes were needed because of "potential technical difficulties" and will be only temporary while social distancing rules apply. 

The spokesman said: "Although there will be no opportunity to ask a supplementary question during a remote council meeting, this does not preclude further questions being submitted to a subsequent meeting.  

"All questions submitted to remote council meetings, together with the answer given, will be published in full. Potential technical difficulties beyond our control (limitation of members of public connectivity) are the drivers for the change in the first place, not any desire to limit public engagement. 

"The council does not accept that it is limiting public participation or engagement in meetings. The proposed changes will only apply to remote council meetings which are time limited by the legislation, and they will not change the existing rules for meetings taking place at a physical location."