A petition that won’t lie down: democracy and post-16 travel cards

Last week Suffolk’s  ‘Save the  eXplore Card’ petition earned the right to be discussed at full Council – having received over 6,000 signatures.   (To remind you: this  young person’s travel card, a brainchild of SCC’s last Lib-Lab Coalition, has been cut halfway through this academic year without any form of consultation or risk assessment by Suffolk County Council.)

Unfortunately, it turned out that SCC – having set up their e-petition site as a legal requirement – had not thought at all about what should happen after an e-petition had reached 3675 signatures  and was discussed at full council – as is required by the SCC constitution .

From the first there was great confusion.

The originator (Patrick Gillard)  found that his petition had not been acknowledged:  it still registers as ‘failed to achieve the requisite number of signatures’ on the epetition site.  SCC had not invited him to speak as he asked (and was his constitutional right). When he insisted on speaking, another speaker (Greer Hill, Otley College) was un-invited by SCC. After pressure from myself and Kathy Pollard, both speakers were finally allowed their 5 minutes  – but this left only 10 minutes for discussion.  SCC offered no explanation for this.  This was a grave discourtesy to the speakers and to all those thousands of petitioners  they represented.

Although this  petition was heard in the middle of GCSE, A.A/S and college exams, it was handed to Transport Portfolioholder Guy McGregor by a very large group of  Just 42 youth club members, other young people,  MYPs, councillors, and representatives of schools and colleges. These were eager to  explain their anxieties. Cllr McGregor’s  response was his old traditional theme “you can only spend a pound once.” He did not explain why he had failed to consult on this cut or explored alternative options. No explanation of this has ever been forthcoming!

At this point it turned out that two teenage members of Woodbridge’s Just 42  youth club , who had scheduled a public question, had not had this question acknowledged at all by SCC. I had to  go to great pains to get their  right to speak agreed  and it was only very few minutes before the debate that it was confirmed. This was another grave discourtesy – in this case,  to the youngest public questioners ever to address the council!

During the meeting, SCC’s new Leader Mark Bee spoke about a new era based on the principles of  Listening; Openness/ transparency; and Practical, common sense solutions to problems.  Although he mentioned other cuts,  he never directly mentioned the Explore card. The resounding silence of SCC’s administration re this cut and the lack of any consultation is one of the great mysteries of this year.

After the petitioners had spoken, Councillors from all parties had the opportunity to speak briefly before  the portfolio holder replied.  (my speech below). Cllr McGregor did not repoond to these concerns raised but merely re- asserted that  the cut was necessary.

At this point it became clear that no-one had any idea as to what was to happen nextClearly ending the process undemocratically, without a vote,  by means of a response from the very person who had organised, agreed and implemented the cut made the whole epetition process completely futile. After a heated exchange in the chamber, a  short recess was announced. During this  Mark Bee and Guy McGregor spoke directly to the young people from Just 42 and  promised that the problems of their particular cut would go  before scrutiny. This was however, outside the chamber, and remains unminuted.

The strength of the young people’s clear, polite and determined  objections made it clear to the administration at this point – if not before – quite how much people care about  this cut . These young people were not coming here to observe democracy: they were coming to take part!

Three  things are clear –

  • the Explore card may be dead but it ain’t lying down;
  • SCC MUST tell the petitioners officially  now, exactly what is to happen next
    – and finally;
  • SCC’s procedure for dealing with e-petitions MUST be defined before the next council meeting in order to prevent this a repeat of Thursday’s shambles and to ensure these petitions to perform the constitutional function for which they were created.

My speech on the Explore card 26 May 2011

We’ve heard first hand – from the thousands of responses to the petition, from those  addressed us – most of all from individual young people in our divisions – that this cut was a bad idea – a short term fix  that didn’t consider the future.

There was no impact assessment for this cut –made  halfway through the educational year. Instead SCC boxticker noted  blandly that

There may be an adverse impact to the 15-19 age group – but there was  no need for an impact assessment  as it is a discretionary activity and has been identified as a budget saving proposal

In other words – it will have an impact but we don’t care!

Rather like saying I’ll  pay my council tax because I have to  but  I won’t pay into a pension because I’m feeling poor. The explore card expenditure is not just money paid out – it is money invested in the future  it  IS our pension plan – The young people of Suffolk – future builders, magistrates, nurses, shopkeepers, entrepreneurs, firemen, soldiers, carers, taxpayers – are our future and we will be relying on them in the years to come. It is in our interests to support them now so we can get the best out of them when we need them later on.

The administration tell us that we can’t afford it and that home-to-school transport cuts are  ameliorated by help with post-16 discretionary passes, and tempering the Catholic transport decision.

This is a red herring.

The Explore card is the most important home-to-school pass we had because it was such excellent value for money – giving halfprice travel at all times to all places to all young people at a total cost to the council of less than £30 a year for each of its 55,000 users!

Where a discretionary pass  gives one school day, school hour  journey each way at the cost of £150 a term to the parent and a lot more to the council, the explore card  was much more flexible- used by those studying in the evening or  multi-site, by those  wanting to attend a distant college because the local school didn’t run the course,, those on training courses outside the scope of Suffolk’s transport policy, starting a first time job or going to job interviews to find one. Those who want to go out safely in the evening, without worry about road conditions and ability to drive. Those who we don’t want to hang about the bus stop because they can’t afford to get on a bus. All  this for £30 a head.

Colleagues, we can afford this investment in our future. I won’t remind you of some of the recent headlines on SCC expenditure  but  we all know that it is not as simple as “can’t pay wont pay” . Even in a time of cuts there’s a large element of what we choose to pay for. Suffolk is poor but resilient – we’ve enough in the reserves to pay to reverse  this decision and continue investing this  £30 a head in the future of these young people and our county.

4 thoughts on “A petition that won’t lie down: democracy and post-16 travel cards”

  1. As the originator of the petition, I am as confused as you are about the actual outcome of the meeting. I have written this morning to the council and copied to Mark Bee, as follows:

    I have just been copied in by Greer Hill on the very clear statement of her concerns about the actual outcome of the petitions to save the eXplore card. She and I (and Cydonie and Trevor from the Just 42 Youth club in Woodbridge) addressed the Council meeting on May 26th but were left very confused by the outcome.

    To make the process simpler, can I put exactly the same questions to you as Greer puts below. It is very important to know that the concerns and wishes of thousands of Suffolk residents are not swept under the carpet. Can you say how the council intends to meet its constitutional requirements over the petitions, and most especially our ‘Save the eXplore card’ petition? We would like the huge efforts that people put into the petitions to be met with an adequate and well-thought-out response.

    Best wishes,

    Patrick Gillard

    (NB, as well as copying this to Mark Bee, the Leader of the Council, I am copying this mail to Greer Hill, my local councillor, members of Just 42 and the local MYP, all of whom attended on Thursday and signed or presented petitions)

    (Greer Hill, Head of Student Services at Otley College wrote:

    Having now had opportunity to reflect on last week’s events, I would very much welcome some clarity about what happens next. I must admit, I was more than a little surprised with the manner in which the petition was received. Having worked tirelessly, as did Patrick Gillard, to secure as many signatures as I did, I was expecting more of a democratic response – in spite of the fact that we were exercising our constitutional rights, we were silenced quickly and no formal outcome was recorded – as far as I can recall. And yet, outside of Chambers, I understand that both The Leader and Cllr McGregor agreed in discussion with the young people present, that this would go forward to the next Scrutiny Committee for further deliberation. Something similar was in fact also recorded within the EADT, page 5, on the Friday.

    Please can you confirm at your earliest convenience;

    * What was actually recorded within the minutes;

    * Whether and when I can expect to receive a copy of the minutes that were taken in respect of the eXplore Card petition;

    * What The Leader/Cllr McGregor actually agreed to outside of Chambers;

    * What SCC procedures document in respect of petitions – it was clear that no-one really had any idea what was supposed to happen following presentation of the petitions, and in view of the fact that we were all privy to this confusion, I would welcome feedback on what should have happened. Certainly from where I was sitting, any sense of democracy was sadly missing;
    * What happens next. I realise this will depend largely on whether we can move forward from informal discussions held outside Chambers.

    I remain passionate about this issue and plan to maintain momentum. The media activity surrounding the eXplore Card petition on both the Thursday and the Friday will hopefully serve as encouragement to the thousands of young people waiting in the wings to see what will happen next. And since the EADT recorded the scrutiny ‘decision’, I am similarly waiting in the wings.)

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