Not All Meeting Clerks
At first glance, the YouTube video of a Handforth Parish Council meeting that went viral at the beginning of February 2021 seemed a neat expression of why “normal people” are put off participating in politics, and a tribute to the patient people skills of local authority officers. Best of the Handforth Parish Council Planning & Environment Committee Thursday 10th December 2020 – YouTube
However, Jackie Weaver, who acted as clerk for the meeting, is not an officer of the parish council. She is the CEO of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils, a branch of the National Association of Local Councils (“NALC”) who represent and provide training and support to their membership of parish councils. National Association of Local Councils (nalc.gov.uk)
While Jackie Weaver did not have authority to call the meeting, she was there supporting two councillors who did have lawful authority to call an extraordinary meeting where the chair refused to do so.
Handforth’s Democracy Problem
It seems that the councillors’ actions became necessary because the chair of the council had suspended the original clerk (also called the “proper officer”) who would normally set the agenda and summon councillors. It is said that he appointed himself as interim “clerk”, allegedly making unlawful decisions on behalf of the full Council. If this is correct then he effectively removed his fellow councillors’ democratic right to vote on decisions as a result of refusing to summon them to a meeting. Handforth Parish Council
How Parish Councils Work
Whatever “Aled’s Ipad” may have insinuated, Jackie Weaver would not only have read and understood the Parish Council’s Standing Orders, but may have had some involvement in writing/reviewing them, as her employer, NALC, publishes the model “standing orders”, reflecting statutory requirements, adopted by many parish councils. Revised Model Standing Orders – LALC – LALC
A parish council is an arm of government, albeit the lowest tier, with responsibility for making lawful, transparent decisions to spend local tax-payers money in accordance with the law and for the benefit of those in the parish.
The decisions of a parish council are only lawful where they are made by a majority vote of full council at a properly convened, quorate meeting held in public (or where the full Council vote in this way to delegate specific powers to a committee of at least three councillors). Statute, as reflected in a mandatory provision of every parish council’s standing orders, prohibits decision-making powers being delegated to any single officer, including the chair. Decision-making by single councillors is unlawful. Decision-making between meetings – whether of the full Council or a committee or sub-committee – is unlawful. (Save for certain specific, limited, decision-making powers delegated by the full Council to the clerk, who is an employee, or “officer” of the council.)
Meetings regarding council business are held in public. While the public cannot vote, they can attend, read the background papers, and watch their councillors debate and vote. In certain circumstances, strictly limited by law, press and public may be excluded for specific agenda items. However, such votes will be recorded as such in the minutes, and where there is no blanket exemption, councillors must vote on whether exclusion is necessary or desirable.
The Limits of a Parish Council Chair’s Power
Like a jury, decision-making must result from a majority vote of all members present, each member must decide for themselves, and no single member (whether the chair of the council or the foreman of the jury) is the “boss” of the other members.
The additional powers of a parish council chair are limited to presiding over council meetings to ensure all councillors have the opportunity to speak, taking votes of fellow councillors (sometimes with a casting vote), and signing minutes. The additional powers of a jury foreman are limited to taking the vote of fellow jury members and communicating this to the judge.
If a jury foreman suggested he had the power to declare people guilty independently of the rest of the jury and/or outside of a courtroom setting in response to a judge, most people would find this implausible. In contrast, however, the limits of the power of individual parish councillors, particularly the chair of parish councils, are not as widely understood.
Parish Clerks: An Independent Role
The union representing parish clerks, The Society of Local Council Clerks (“SLCC”), advises clerks that their primary responsibility is to advise the council on whether its decisions are lawful, and provide unbiased information to councillors before they debate and vote. Officially, the role requires the clerk to take instructions from the council as a body, as the clerk is not answerable to any individual councillor (not even the Chair). The clerk is supposed to demonstrate independence, objectivity and professionalism with regard to council business. It is also the clerk, as the council’s responsible financial officer, who must vouch for the lawfulness of the Council’s decisions when signing the financial and governance statements for the annual audit.
However, while on paper they are the chief officer (albeit often the only officer) of a parish council, in practice clerks are often isolated, sole employees, working part time hours for amateur bosses, many of whom are retirees, who have nothing to lose from acting beyond their powers. They have no job to lose; and they are playing with the house’s money, or at least funded by local council tax payers money and/or relying on insurance claims to cover any consequences.
When Parish Councillors Go Rogue
While unlawful decisions may have adverse consequences for the council itself, as far as councillor misconduct is concerned, there is a “light touch” framework for local government ethical standards under the Localism Act 2011. The Standards Board for England was abolished on 31 March 2012, and from that date English local authorities were no longer required to have standards committees to adjudicate on breaches and decide upon sanctions. The Act also removed the ability for councillors to be suspended or disqualified for a range of misconduct issues.
The Committee for Standards in Public Life highlights the adverse consequences arising from the current lack of effective sanctions available to underfunded district council monitoring officers. The cost of investigating a breach of the councillors’ code of conduct may be disproportionate to the benefits (which may now be limited to publicising the breach, requesting an apology or requesting training is undertaken), even where there are no confidential issues which prevent publicity of the breach.
In any case, both parish clerks’ and district council lawyers’ resources and working hours tend to be budgeted on the basis of the time it takes to do things when councillors are listening to advice from clerks and monitoring officers, abiding by their Code of Conduct and endeavouring to act lawfully. Allocated working hours and budgets tend not to take into account the time necessary for resisting the making of, or taking remedial action after, unlawful decision-making.
An SLCC survey of part-time Clerks revealed that, taking into account the hourly rate of pay and actual hours worked compared to contracted hours, there are a disturbing number of council clerks who are working for less than the minimum wage. An SLCC survey of monitoring officers indicated that 11% of those who responded were unable to commit resources to supporting parish councils with councillor behaviour issues with a further 49% only becoming involved when there is a complaint.
Jackie Weaver’s Intervention is a Privilege Not a Right
While NALC offer vital training and support to councillors and clerks where councillors vote to spend money on membership and training, it is important to realise that – rather than her being “parachuted in” from a higher tier of local government – Jackie Weaver’s services were available to the Handforth Parish Council only because councillors voted to pay for membership of the Cheshire ALC. Not all councils have the undoubted benefits of NALC guidance and resources.
Whilst this zoom video looks like it was scripted by the late, great Victoria Wood, these people are our politicians. They have signed a Code of Conduct and hold public office. They are not the cast of “Inside Number Nine” or members of a hobby group arguing over how to spend their own subs. As members of a Council, they have control of public money.
The Parish Clerks’ Predicament
The clerk, or proper officer, is an employee of the Parish Council. Their absence from the meeting, because they had been suspended by the chair (reportedly acting unlawfully), was the catalyst for the now legendary intervention of Jackie Weaver.
An SLCC survey of 800 clerks suggests that 15% of parish councils experience serious councillor behavioural issues such as bullying and disrespect towards other councillors or the clerk, and 5% of parish councils experience these issues to the extent that they are unable to carry out some or all of their proper functions. SLCC were quoted in a 2019 Committee for Standards in Public Life report:
“The impact often includes serious ill health, loss of employment, loss of confidence and a long-term detriment to their personal and professional lives. The parish sector experiences a high turnover of staff each year. In some areas of the country this can be up to 20-30% of clerks and a large element of this can be attributed to the underlying behaviour issues. We are aware of cases where the issues are long standing and repeated year on year, with multiple cycles of behavioural issues, loss of personnel and recruitment taking place.”
Clerks may also be put under pressure to acquiesce to unlawful decisions by councillor(s). While this may not always manifest in the dramatic intervention of Jackie Weaver or her colleagues from the ALC, this should be of wider concern, both from a democratic and an employment law point of view.
Parish Clerks’ Pay and Conditions: A Feminist Issue
The vast majority of parish clerks are female. Many of them are women who need to seek out these flexible, local, part time jobs to fit around caring responsibilities. Like Jackie Weaver, they may be patient women trying to ensure compliance with the law. Unlike Jackie Weaver, their line managers may be their local equivalent of the Handforth chairman or “Aled’s Ipad”.
Handforth Parish Council documents indicate that the Chair and Vice-Chair had been preventing councillors meeting and voting for six months. Thus literally preventing democratic debate. While these disruptive men purported to be acting in accordance with the law (“Read the Standing Orders! Read them and understand them!”), they attempted to prevent debate by applying the law against public policy and without following democratic principles.
There is a principle that law should serve the public interest: “all enactments are presumed to be for the public benefit”…“this means that the court must always assume that it is in the public interest to give effect to the intention of the legislator, once this is ascertained.” Standing orders, and the statutes from which they derive, exist to enable democratic debate, not prevent it. Holding fast against the misplaced confidence of rogue councillors attempting to disrupt a meeting by shouting, as at Jackie Weaver, to read and understand (their misinterpretation) of the very laws which were drafted to enable debate is something that should be above a parish clerk’s (often de facto sub-minimum wage) paygrade, but unfortunately it too often is not.
Democracy – often represented by a lone, overworked, underpaid, female parish clerk – has to have authority over specious misinterpretations of the standing orders. But how, realistically, can this be achieved?
Democracy May Be The Only Solution
The Committee for Standards in Public Life concluded their January 2019 report by recommending reforms to improve standards in parish councils. In the meantime, the last effective sanction left to deal with parish councillor misconduct is the ballot box. You see, in one sense, it is right to say “Jackie Weaver has no authority” in that she has no authority to get rid of those rogue councillors permanently. Low voter turnout means that many parish council seats are uncontested and serial misconduct is allowed to continue. It is therefore up to electors to vote in local elections to remove rogue councillors, and scrutinise their parish council’s decisions. (Unlawful decisions of the Parish Council as a whole, can be brought to the attention of the council’s External Auditor during the annual audit process.)
Exercise your democratic rights. Get involved with local democracy by standing for election and voting in elections at every tier of government. Look at the NALC campaign to recruit a more diverse range of councillors. Elections — #MakeAChange (nalc.gov.uk)
Don’t make the mistake of assuming that the effective restoration of democracy by the likes of Jackie Weaver is inevitable or even likely. She is a rare and precious creature. Local government democracy needs more women of substance like Jackie Weaver. And it needs us all to be more Jackie Weaver, and assert our authority for the sake of democracy.