RULING councillors have been accused of control freakery after ordering colleagues to tell them when they want to speak at meetings -- and go to the toilet!

The instructions were contained in an e-mail to Labour members of Blackburn with Darwen Council in a bid to prevent the party losing vital votes while people are out of meetings.

It was sent to all Labour councillors after they almost lost a motion put before the council by the Liberal Democrats. Labour currently holds 36 of the council's 62 seats, with 20 Conservative councillors and six Lib Dems.

The e-mail said they should not speak at council meetings unless they had attended a meeting of the Labour group beforehand and if they needed to go out during a council meeting for "a comfort break" they must tell the party's chief whip before leaving.

Conservative leader Coun Colin Rigby today accused Labour leaders of "control freakery" and LibDem leader Coun Paul Browne said he thought the Labour party was panicking because they risked losing overall control of the council in the May local elections.

Coun John Milburn, the party whip, confirmed he had sent the e-mail, which has been leaked to the Lancashire Evening Telegraph, but denied it had been an over-reaction to the party only defeating a Lib Dem motion by one vote.

Council leader Malcolm Doherty denied it was a case of people asking permission to go to the toilet but added: "We just have to make sure we don't have a lot of people out of the room at the same time."

Roy Williams, policy officer at the national Local Government Association, said it was rare that party rules such as this came to light, but said he believed it was understandable if the Labour group was a "bit jittery" as the local elections approach in May.

He said: "Maybe this is taking organising a tiny bit far, but it's not surprising if they feel nervous in the run up to the local elections.

"Perhaps the councillors will just have to go before they attend a meeting, or not have too many cups of coffee."

The e-mail warned councillors they faced disciplinary action if they didn't follow instructions which also included:

Arrange holidays and work commitments around council dates.

Attend all meetings they are part of "unless it is impossible."

Inform Labour bosses in writing if they are unable to attend a meeting.

Coun Milburn said: "It's my job to ensure that everyone who should be there is there and if they are not that they have a damn good reason."

He said: "We are in a situation where our majority has been lower than it has for some time and it's my job to ensure that at any particular time we do not have lower numbers than the opposition.

"A comfort break is okay if people just go to the toilet and come back but but sometimes they stop for a smoke or a chat and can be out for 20 minutes, and we don't know if they have left."

Coun Doherty said: "We have a group meeting before the council and to try to keep some order we will decide in advance who is going to speak, mainly to limit the number of speakers. If people don't attend group meetings they don't know what the decisions are about who should speak, and they should talk to the whip. No one is ever asked what they are going to say."

He said at a recent meeting a number of Labour councillors had to leave early and when others were out of the chamber the ruling group was temporarily in the minority.

Coun Doherty said: "Occasionally people have to be reminded of their obligations and that is all it is. The group seem to be perfectly happy about it."

Coun Browne said: "We have no whip in our party, that is why I'm a Liberal because I don't believe in being told when and how to vote. Each of our members has their own minds and will not be pulled over the coals for it."

Coun Rigby said he thought this level of "control freakery" had been confined to national politics but now it affected local parties too. He said his party was "not that prescriptive".

He said: "I think they have gone into panic mode for nothing. It might be worth enquiring if they have to put their hands up, like at school, before leaving the chamber."