5th February 2021
Handforth Parish Council is not a happy parish council.
This is an extract from a formal Letter from the Director of Governance and Compliance at Cheshire District Council (text posted here):
And the unhappiest committee of all the committees of Handforth Parish Council is the Planning and Environment Committee.
An indication of this unhappiness can be seen in the minutes of its meeting of October 2020:
And then in November 2020:
Notice the mention of ChALC – this is to the Cheshire Association of Local Councils of which more in a moment.
So from the official record, something odd is going on.
And so we come to the ‘extraordinary’ meeting of that committee in December 2020, the agenda for which is here.
There is no mention on the agenda of who will do the clerking.
You will see that the chair of the wider parish council was expressly invited.
So were we.
Then this extraordinary ‘extraordinary’ committee meeting took place.
The formal minute of the first part of the meeting is as follows:
[ADD – a minute of a further related meeting that evening is here.]
As is now widely known, the minutes quoted above do not quite give justice to the remarkable scenes of that committee meeting.
This is compelling viewing, especially the first six minutes – and there is no surprise that it has gone viral.
So let us take what is said in this video in order.
The chair of the wider parish council (whose Zoom account describes him as a “Handforth PC Clerk”) refers to a meeting he was thrown out of ‘last time’ – it is not yet clear if this means the November meeting minuted above.
The chair then presses Jackie Weaver as to the latter’s standing, as a proper officer.
Weaver does not expressly claim to be a proper officer, but that she is clerking.
Who is Jackie Weaver?
Weaver is not a councillor nor is she mentioned in the agenda.
Weaver is no other than the Chief Officer of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils, the organisation which the committee has already had to refer the question of the legality of its meetings.
It appears she has been parachuted in as some sort of a municipal special agent.
The Winston Wolf of Cheshire local government.
The formal letter of the compliance officer and the previous minutes of the committee indicate why this invitation would have happened.
The minutes of this meeting describe her position as follows:
This indicates that she was not regarded for the purposes of the meeting as the ‘Proper Officer’.
And indeed, as we will see, the status of Jackie Weaver as ‘Proper Officer’ is a red herring.
Now we come to the ‘Standing Orders’.
Oh, the Standing Orders.
Standing Orders of any local authority are made under section 42 of the Local Government Act 1972.
Under the Standing Orders of this council, there can be ‘extraordinary’ committee meetings (standing order 17C):
And if the chair refuses to do so, then an extraordinary committee meeting can be called by two councillors (standing order 17D):
And this is what was done with this meeting.
So it would appear that the chair of the parish council may have erred in saying the meeting had not been called ‘in accordance with the law’.
Disorderly conduct is turn dealt with at standing order 10:
The chair of the parish council is thereby correct that only the chair can exclude people from the meeting.
The question is who is the chair of the meeting at the point the chair of the parish council is excluded?
(And then there is the more philosophical question of who can exclude a disruptive chair if the chair is disruptive.)
We then have the immortal exchange:
‘You have no authority here, Jackie Weaver, no authority at all!’
‘She’s just kicked him out.’
‘Read the standing orders, read them and understand them!’
At this point, on the face of the Standing Orders, it would appear that there had been an exclusions for disruptive behaviour, and that the exclusions – by technology if not by the power of the Standing Orders – had been effected by Weaver.
You will note that she also mentions reporting this to the compliance officer (the author of the formal letter of concern at the head of the post).
Weaver then takes the meeting to the election of a new chair, and another councillor is elected chair.
It then seems a message is sent to the excluded councillors that they could return if they behave, but they do not return.
A common sense solution many may think, if not one (strictly) in accordance with the Standing Orders.
Presumably the exclusions can be taken to then be ratified by the new chair, though this is not expressly said or minuted (and given the sequence of events, such a subsequent ratification may have been appropriate).
And the excluded chair and the disruptive councillors can hardly complain about their exclusions on the basis of non-compliance with the Standing Orders if, as they maintained, the committee meeting was illegitimate to begin with.
For on their own version of events, there was no valid committee meeting even taking place.
This viral incident is an insight into the reality of one local government meeting.
On balance, it would appear the disruptive councillors were wrong to say the extraordinary meeting was invalid.
And, on balance, the exact manner of their exclusions was not in accordance with the Standing Orders – though, in the circumstances, the disruptive councillors can hardly complain.
You would not get any of what really happened from the official minutes.
This is a useful reminder to all – including historians and legal commentators – that formal documents often do not give the full story.
As such this video is a boon for public transparency of council meeting.
This is why all council meetings should be streamed and available on video.
And in conclusion, on the face of the Standing Orders, Jackie Weaver did not seem to have the authority to call the extraordinary committee meeting – but she did not need to do so.
Weaver did not have authority as ‘Proper Officer’ – but she did not claim that she had such authority and she did need not any such powers for clerking.
Weaver did not appear to have the formal power to exclude the disruptive councillors – but, given that this exclusion was then accepted by the new chair, and that the disruption was plain, that does not seem to practically matter.
And these conclusions can be offered on the basis of reading the Standing Orders – reading and understanding them.
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