Agenda item

Constitution - Proposed Variations (Agenda item 22)

Report of Councillor Ian Sherwood, Executive Member for People, Communications & Governance.

Minutes:

The Chairman introduced the report which had already been discussed at the Governance & Audit Committee meeting on 2 December 2021.

 

Councillor Ian Sherwood, the Executive Member for People, Communications & Governance presented the report and referred Members to the recommendations on page 376 of the agenda pack.

 

At the Governance & Audit Committee meeting, the proposals had been discussed, and all Members had been given the opportunity to raise any concerns or questions and subsequently had recommended the five recommendations to Full Council for approval. 

 

The recommendations were proposed and seconded and would be taken enbloc.

 

Councillor Jermy, the Leader of the Opposition did not support all the recommendations and was disappointed that these would not be taken individually and therefore he would be forced to vote against them all.  He asked for his opinion on this matter to be recorded.

 

He did not support recommendation no. 3, the variation to Standing Order No. 6, questions on notice and Standing Order no. 7, questions without notice as he felt that this was an attack on scrutiny and accountability and was being put forward as a vain drive on efficiencies. He reminded Members of how long previous Full Council meetings had lasted, not very long, and if this was too taxing for Members, this Council was in a sorry state of affairs.  Earlier in this meeting, all had heard that Members were so very hard working and were paid accordingly but now it was amending the Constitution to erode accountability in the name of efficiency and did not have the time every so often to subject itself to questioning.  He felt that the review that had been pencilled in for May 2023 was worth noting, as it was in the year when Breckland would be approaching the next set of Elections - Members would be voting to limit the opportunity for questioning, and then it would be reviewed. Even now, combining two Full Council meetings into one, this meeting had almost finished, and it had not even reached midday. The EDP had recently highlighted how elected Politicians were quick to seek out the press when sharing good news but went to ground when it was something that they did not want to talk about, like ‘beating horses’ for example.  These proposals were akin to these concerns, weakening accountability and scrutiny that led to bad decision making and ultimately a disservice to the Council’s residents; 40% of which did not vote Conservative at the last Election.

 

Councillor Jermy could not see how these meetings could be considered as lasting too long and he could not see that these proposals would lead to greater efficiency.  He felt that these meetings would be in comparison to Norfolk County Council’s – questions from the Opposition Group Leaders and in an attempt that they did not get a second round, those in the ruling Group would have some questions to fill the remainder of the time; therefore, every set of questions would be guaranteed to last for 30 minutes when there had been plenty of examples over the last year of actual questions not being raised and the allotted time not being filled.  Just a further attempt to weaken accountability and scrutiny at this Council in a Cabinet system where there was a larger majority of one Party and where there were already very few checks and balances not just for Opposition Councillors but for those who were back bench Members of the ruling Group too.  Breckland Council was a democratic body and scrutiny, and questioning was fundamental, and he urged Members to reject this proposed change. 

 

Councillor Gilbert agreed with Councillor Jermy’s comments.  He had been a Councillor for many years and was most likely the longest serving Member at this meeting and over the years this Council had had some good, thorough debates stemming from questions that had been asked.  He felt that a question should lead to a debate and not be blocked but if this recommendation was supported, it would do exactly that.

 

Councillor Gilbert then put forward a proposal, to remove the proposed wording for Standing Order 7.5 – ‘Questions shall be put forward and answered without discussion’, as this in his opinion, would be a retrograde step and a threat to democracy and therefore he could not support this particular recommendation.  He agreed with the remaining recommendations and would support them if not taken enbloc.

 

Councillor Gilbert’s proposal was seconded by Councillor Atterwill.

 

Following 8 votes in favour of the proposal, and the remainder voting against, the vote was not carried. 

 

The original recommendation remained.

 

Councillor Birt asked for his vote in favour of the proposal to be recorded.

 

He was not happy with voting the recommendations enbloc and agreed with Councillor Jermy’s comments and could not add much more other than to reinforce that recommendation no. 3 was simply there to reduce scrutiny and would have a dramatic democratic affect on this Council.     He was also worried about recommendation no. 2 which appeared to him to be quite lazy wording in respect of ‘with any requirements contained elsewhere within the Constitution’ especially when the Council had better wording in recommendation 4(j) where it specifically indicated how the process would be reported back, for example informing the Overview & Scrutiny Commission, and he would have liked to see the same wording applied to recommendation no. 2.    He also took issue with the inclusion of the word ‘minor payments’ in recommendation no. 4 as he felt £10,000 should not be regarded as ‘minor’ in terms of any payments towards maladministration.

 

He agreed with recommendations 1 and 5 but would not be voting on recommendations 2 and 3 and would reluctantly agree to recommendation no. 4 and would like his vote to be recorded as such.

 

Councillor Sherwood felt that it was important to remember that the current version of the Constitution was agreed back in 2016 to comply and link in with South Holland District Council.  The purpose of these changes was not about losing Members’ ability to speak and ask questions it was about ensuring that all Members across all Groups had an equal chance to ask questions in a fair and timely manner. The questions would remain in the same order i.e the Leader of the Opposition and if time allowed, the Chairman would then circle back.  The most important factor in all this was that the Chairman of the Council, Councillor Roy Brame, oversaw the smooth running of these meetings, and he had looked at the way the Council was ran, and had come forward with some of these suggestions. Ultimately, these suggestions then went through to the Governance & Audit Committee where the recommendations had been put forward to Full Council.  The correct process had been followed and there had been many opportunities for Members to put their views forward.  Therefore, the recommendations that have been proposed and read aloud and seconded still stands.

 

Councillor Atterwill also agreed with Councillor Jermy’s and Councillor Gilbert’s aforementioned comments and had summed up his exact thoughts on the matter.  There were elements of the recommendations that he could support, and he asked if the recommendations could be taken individually as he could not support recommendation no. 3 as he felt that this was an attack on the Opposition’s ability to ask questions. He was disappointed with Councillor Sherwood’s recommendations because although they disagreed on quite a few issues, he had always found Councillor Sherwood to be extremely courteous in this forum so was disappointed that as a democrat he wanted to reduce the ability of the Opposition. This was an opportunity for Members to ask questions on behalf of the communities that they represented and by approving recommendation no. 3 this ability would be removed.    

 

As had been stated previously, Councillor Borrett, the Chairman of the Governance & Audit Committee said that this had been discussed at the previous Governance & Audit Committee and was disappointed at some of the language that had been used. At that meeting, Members had looked at what other councils allowed at their Full Council meetings to establish whether Breckland Council was aligned.  He mentioned Norwich City Council where Members were limited for a period of some months before they were allowed to ask another question, and North Norfolk DC that had a far more draconian policy.   This proposal would not limit Members’ opportunities to ask questions at any meeting of the Council.

 

The Chairman, Councillor Brame stated that he had suggested the said changes back when the meetings were held via Zoom.  The Questions under Notice was a marvellous idea for Members to be able to help their constituents, but it was not such a good idea that the questions had to be asked at Full Council.  It was not productive, and Members should be carrying out such work all of the time by contacting Members or the Officers by whatever means and if not content with the responses provided, Members then had another opportunity under the Questions without Notice.  He had seen the Minutes of the Governance & Audit Committee meeting and no questions had been asked by any Member in attendance and certainly not by any of the Members who had since raised their concerns at this meeting today.  He assured Members that they would still be able to ask questions and there would always be Officers in attendance to assist.

 

The Chairman also stressed that the recommendations would be taken enbloc, following which any Member who wished to vote for or against any of the individual recommendations would be entitled to do so and their voting preferences would be recorded in the Minutes.

 

Councillor Dowling, agreed with much of what the Chairman had said but felt that a week was a long time in politics and submitting questions in advance and then having to wait for the responses, was not, in her opinion, very democratic.

 

In conclusion, Councillor Sherwood stated that many political comments had been made but pointed out that this administration had not called for this, it was a requirement put forward by the Independent Chairman of the Council that had then been taken through the proper democratic process to the Governance & Audit Committee and as the Chairman had indicated, no comments or concerns had been raised, and this was how democracy worked.

 

Following a vote, with 8 votes against the recommendations, it was

 

RESOLVED that:

 

  1. in order to clarify those situations where the Section 151 Officer is able to appoint Deputies the Constitution be varied as shown in Appendix A;

 

  1. Part 3 Section F3 Paragraph (v)(g) (Delegations to the S151 Officer) of the Constitution be varied to read as follows:

 

“(g) power to write off debts in accordance with the approved debt recovery policy; and power to authorise disposal of obsolete stores or equipment subject to compliance with any requirements contained elsewhere within the Constitution.”

 

3   in order to ensure that full Council can undertake its business more efficiently Standing Orders no. 5 (Order of Business), no. 6 (Questions on Notice) and no. 7 (Questions Without Notice) be varied as shown in Appendix C, and the variations be reviewed at the annual Council meeting in May 2023;

 

4)    in relation to complaints:

 

a)     Item 1(h) of the terms of reference of full Council be varied to read as follows:

 

1(h) Payment or other benefits relating to complaints or findings of maladministration, other than minor payments/benefits of up to £10,000

 

(b) Paragraph (j) of Part 3 Section F1 of the Constitution (Chief Officer general powers) be amended to read as follows:

 

(j) To authorise payments of compensation in connection with complaints (including those made to the Local Government Commissioner Ombudsman) of up to £10,000, subject to (i) the agreement of the Monitoring Officer and the appropriate Cabinet Member or Chairman of Committee and (ii) informing the Overview and Scrutiny Commission.

 

5)   in order to refer to recorded votes, Standing Order no. 39 (Voting in Committees and Sub-Committees) be varied as shown in Appendix D

 

 

The following Members asked for their votes to be recorded as follows:

 

Councillor Atterwill:

 

In favour of recommendations 1, 2, 4 & 5 but against recommendation no. 3

 

Councillor Birt:

 

In favour of recommendations 1, 4 & 5 but against recommendations 2 & 3

 

Councillor Gilbert:

 

In favour of recommendations 1, 2, 4 & 5 but against recommendation no. 3

 

Councillor Jermy:

 

In favour of all recommendations apart from recommendation no. 3

 

Councillor Dowling:

In favour of recommendations 1, 2, 4 & 5 but against recommendation no. 3

 

Councillor Brindle:

 

In favour of all recommendations except for recommendation no. 3

 

Councillor Harvey:

 

In favour of all recommendations except for recommendation no. 3

 

Councillor Morton:

 

In favour of recommendations 1, 4 & 5 but against recommendations 2 & 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     

 

     

 

 

 

 

 

 

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