Agenda item

Coronavirus - Emergency Governance Measures (Agenda item 15)

Report by Maxine O’Mahony, Executive Director of Strategy & Governance and Monitoring Officer.


Prior to presenting the report, the Executive Manager for Governance advised that he had a constitutional matter that required reporting for information only in respect of decisions that the Chairman of the Overview & Scrutiny Commission (O&SC) had approved as not being subject to call-in due to urgency.


There had been two decisions that were urgent directly as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Two of the Council’s tenants had become subject to a Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) and in both cases a proxy vote on that matter needed to be taken very quickly. Relevant Members had been consulted and the reason for the urgency was that the Council would not have been able to respond in the timeline allowed had the Chairman not excluded the call-in. 


Referring to the report, the Executive Manager for Governance advised that the coronavirus emergency had changed the way that people lived and worked, Breckland Council was no exception. 


Social distancing requirements prevented the normal committee processes for decision making. 


Regulations were in place until May 2021 allowing virtual meetings.  There were a number of the Council’s usual rules within Standing Orders and elsewhere in the Constitution that needed to be amended in order to accommodate this new way of working.     


These changes would be temporary and the proposals within the report were set to expire at the point the regulations expired. 


In addition, the crisis had tested some of the Constitutional provisions and one such provision related to the Chief Executive’s emergency powers. Changes were only proposed to ensure that these powers could be used in the absence of the Chief Executive to make it clear that decisions taken in an emergency under emergency powers could not be called in.


Finally, Members were reminded of the implications if a Members failed to attend a meeting during a six month period. Many scheduled meetings had been cancelled for a significant period of time and although virtual meetings were now permissible, there were fewer meetings available for Members to attend.  At the same time, some Members could have potential difficulties that affected their capability to attend meetings, such as caring responsibilities, possible IT difficulties and potential illness.  The report, therefore, recommended that the Council approves in advance any absence exceeding six months, and such prior approval to be effective until the Annual meeting in 2021.


Councillor Birt drew attention to page 60 of the agenda pack at Appendix A where he had spotted a small typo under Standing Order 41.3 referred to itself twice rather than referring to 41.2.


Councillor Birt also expressed some concern over some of the proposed changes set out in Appendix B relating to consultation with Cabinet.


The Executive Manager for Governance responded that there was a provision in the Constitution that would enable him to correct minor numbering errors.  The changes proposed at Appendix B reflected the fact that, in an emergency, decisions often needed to be made immediately and it would not be practicable to do so in consultation with the Cabinet (but the delegation was always subject to consultation with the Leader). 


Councillor Birt proposed that the 4th bullet point in Appendix B be re-instated and the words’ where practicable’ be removed from the 3rd bullet point. 


Councillor Jermy had three points to make. 


The first was about his disappointment at gender specific references in the document.  In numerous cases it referred to ‘he’ and ‘him’ therefore, he felt that the document was not gender neutral and he provided an example.


The second point was around attendances.  Attendance at a meeting needed to be set to ensure quoracy.  He felt that this Council meeting was a fine example with Members being in attendance at the start of the meeting but not at the finish. Therefore, he asked if there were any provisions with the changes to note when Members were leaving a meeting for accountability purposes.


The third point was about the six-month attendance criteria changing for a longer period of time.  Virtual meetings he felt made it far easier to attend as Members could dial in from anywhere.  He was not clear if the changes being proposed were Breckland specific or if this had been a national suggestion and was being adopted by other authorities.


On the first point, the Executive Manager for Governance apologised for not picking these up.  The new Standing Orders were based on a model produced by the Association of Democratic Services Officer and Lawyers in local Government and tweaked to fit with Breckland’s Constitution. 


On the second point in respect of attendances etc, there were no particular requirements about leaving meetings early, which was also the case with physical meetings under the existing Constitution.  This was a matter that could instead be picked up as part of the protocol/etiquette for virtual meetings.


Finally, on the third point about the six-month rule, this was something that a great many Monitoring and Deputy Monitoring Officers had raised as a concern across many authorities.  Many were adopting the same approach given that it was unknown whether there might be a second wave which could affect attendance, whether there would be a Council meeting that was timed sufficiently to protect affected Members.


The Chairman, whilst not suggesting an amendment, would expect any Member out of courtesy, to let Democratic Services and herself know if they could not attend a meeting. 


Councillor Atterwill had no issues with recommendations 1 and 2 but had concerns in respect of the third recommendation and wanted the current procedure in place to be clarified. 


The Chairman provided Councillor Atterwill with an example.


The Executive Manager for Governance pointed out that Members’ attendances were monitored and were a Member be approaching the six months absence criteria, where appropriate, a report would be brought to Full Council.  The difficulty was that there were far fewer meetings and as such there may only be one or two opportunities.  If someone was at the four-month point where they have had perhaps technical difficulties with remote meetings added onto a period of time when meetings were not being held, and then if there was a second wave, a meeting might not be able to be convened. The Executive Manager for Governance appreciated that this was unusual but Breckland Council was not on its own. 


Councillor Birt’s proposal for his suggested amendments was seconded.


Following the roll call, the amendment was lost.


A further roll call was taken on each recommendation; and it was:




1)     Virtual meetings - that the amendments to the Council's Standing Orders and Access to Information Procedure Rules, set out in Appendix Aof the report, be approved and the Constitution be amended accordingly, such amendments (with the exception of the proposed amendment to Standing Order no. 14.1) to apply up to but not including 7 May 2021 (being the date on which the virtual meeting regulations expire), or such longer period as the law allows virtual meetings to be held, the amendments then to be removed from the Constitution without a further report.


2)     Emergency delegation to the Chief Executive- that the proposed amendments to the emergency delegation to the Chief Executive, shown in Appendix Bof the report, be approved, and the Constitution be amended accordingly.


3)     Vacation of office due to failure to attend meeting- that where any member fails throughout a period of six consecutive months to attend any meeting of the authority, including where an executive member fails to attend any meeting of the Executive or to take any executive decision, such failure be an approved absence due to the coronavirus peacetime emergency under section 85 of the Local Government Act 1972 and Standing Order no. 56, up to and including the date of the Annual Council meeting in 2021.



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