An attempt to get South Holland District Council to support the UK leaving the European Union was blown out of the water by leader Gary Porter.
UKIP group leader Coun Paul Foyster (Holbeach) proposed the following motion: “This council believes the interests of our residents will be best served by leaving the EU”. It was supported by fellow UKIP member Coun Pete Williams (Spalding St Paul’s) and Independent group leader Coun Angela Newton (Spalding Monkshouse).
But Coun Porter insisted it was imperative that, as a corporate body, the council remains neutral. He said members can freely campaign for Remain or Leave but staff should not be bound by members’ opinion, nor should they express their opinion in their professional capacity.
In an amendment, the leader added seven words to the motion which turned it on its head. It read: “This council believes the interests of our residents will be best served by the council remaining neutral on the question of leaving the EU” and was supported 30-3 in a vote.
Coun Foyster had argued that it was councillors’ duty to help the district’s electorate to decide which way to vote in the June 23 referendum.
Referring to a local government email he had received some months ago, he said: “It was about the need to act as community leaders, to help shape opinion, to advise and inform people on complex issues that they may have a difficulty understanding. In my belief the EU is clearly one such issue.”
Insisting that it was not a party issue, he added: “There is temptation to remain neutral but in my opinion that’s not a particularly moral option and our electors may not look kindly on members to take that stance. I don’t think just voting is enough in this referendum. I think it would be better if we all said what we think.
“The decision is going to have more influence on the lives of people in South Holland than the excellent work of the devolution proposals.
“I say we should take a lead on this matter. Our MP and our county council have already seen fit to do so and I think it’s our turn.”
His appeal for support was immediately dismissed by Coun Brewis, who said: “In 1975 we had a vote and Lincolnshire had the highest majority in favour [of staying in the European Economic Community] 73/27 and I was in the nos at that time.
“But we’ve still got 85 days to go before this secret ballot and, as I said at county [council], I think the last thing of our job is to tell people what to do in a secret ballot.”
He noted that the three signatures on the motion all represented “metropolitan” areas of the district.
Coun Brewis suspected that in and around wards near his in Sutton Bridge there were more people involved in the food industry than the rest of the UK and claimed many firms had, in the past, considered moving abroad.
He said: “I happen to believe that the biggest danger facing us at the moment is if they all go, who’s going to take all those people off the dole?”
Coun Newton, insisted that there financial benefit from leaving the EU.
“I’m sick and fed up of our money going to support issues over there when it should be spent on our schools and health service.”
She added: “And I believe it is not impinging on people’s right to make their own decision. We have people in the chamber who go out at election time and say ‘I hope you’re going to vote Independent’ or ‘I hope you’re going to vote Conservative’ and that’s no different to what we’re doing now.”
Coun Porter told her: “The purpose of the amendment is not to stop members having an opinion or publicly expressing an opinion, the purpose of the amendment is purely to stop anybody associating this corporate body with the opinion.
“If we speak as a council, we don’t only speak as members of this chamber, we speak on behalf of all of our staff and I don’t think it’s right that we should expect our staff to be bound by a position one way or another by members.”
Both the district council and Lincolnshire County Council – which backed a motion that the county would be better off if the UK left the EU – are controlled by Conservative groups.
South Holland and the Deepings’ Tory MP John Hayes will vote Leave, against the desire of Prime Minister David Cameron.