As part of moving forward from the past ‘nasty council’ days of fraudulent ‘village green’ claims using privately-owned property, and failed grandiose magistrates court schemes, New Mills town council will shortly have a modern set of Standing Orders.
Why do standing orders matter?
Standing orders are the written rules of a local council. Meetings of councils, councillors, the Responsible Financial Officer and Proper Officer are all subject to certain statutory requirements. Properly made standing orders set out the basics of those relevant laws for everybody to see.
Subject to cleaning up a few errors that it appeared may have crept into the standing orders at last night’s town council meeting convened to discuss them, the new standing orders should last for a few years.
What follows are some notes on the potential errors or apparent errors.
There were 16 closely written pages in the draft standing orders (published by NALC - the National Association of Local Councils). A few errors or misunderstandings are perhaps inevitable at the first formal council discussion of them.
Once approved in their finished form, the council’s new standing orders will be available for all council taxpayers and members of the public to see.
This article may be updated as comments, points and corrections come in from contributors.
An unsatisfactory law that is shortly to be consigned to the history books nevertheless made it into the New Mills town council standing orders.
Recording and photographing meetings by the public is still prohibited in these standing orders (1).
Therefore, the council needs to watch carefully for the coming into force shortly of the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014, which abolishes all such bans. On present information, these regulations take effect on 6 August 2014.
A funny thing happened on the way to the quorum
The law on quorums of council meetings is crystal clear. The legal quorum of every local council is either three or one-third of the total membership, whichever is the greater (2). *
New Mills town council has a membership of 12. Therefore, the formula means that the legal quorum for this council is four councillors.
At last night’s meeting, some councillors appeared to be saying that the quorum for NMTC would now be three. If so, it may be that they have been misled by the ambiguous wording in NALC's draft model standing orders.
As long as NMTC’s quorum written in its new standing orders ends up as being four, the council will be complying with the law on this issue.
A chairman is needed before a committee can meet for the first time
The council appeared to vote to delete NALC’s paragraph 4(d)(iv). If so, this resulted from a misunderstanding of the text.
In the meeting, New Mills councillors said they want standing committees to choose their own chairmen. But that issue is dealt with in the subsequent paragraph in the standing orders.
The proposed paragraph deletion would mean a committee being selected but with no initial chairman to initiate the business of the first meeting.
This is a related issue to the memorable occasion - memorable for all the wrong reasons - when former town clerk Mrs Susan Stevens illegally chaired the start of a New Mills town council meeting. This happened after her husband Cllr Alistair Stevens had fallen out with the particular councillor who was required by law to chair the start of the meeting.
(Under the law, only a councillor can chair a council meeting, not an employee).
Enemy of transparency and future opportunity for fraud
The model standing orders state: ‘Upon a resolution which confirms the accuracy of the minutes of a meeting, the draft minutes or recordings of the meeting for which approved minutes exist shall be destroyed' (3).
Shame on NALC. The main purpose or effect of this nasty little paragraph is to gratuitously destroy evidence, and for no proper good reason.
In the light of the recent history of its council, the town of New Mills will be interested to see what their councillors now decide to do about this part of the council’s standing orders, and the reasons they give.
Fortunately, if councillors don’t choose the path of openness and transparency, parliament has now enacted the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014. Any interested party will shortly be able to preserve their own recordings of council meetings.
Councillors’ personal legal bills - will the public's money be taken to pay them?
At last night’s meeting there appeared to be some confusion about paragraphs 14 (c) and (d) in the standing orders.
If New Mills councillors try to put paragraph 14 (c) (iii) into the standing orders, which they appeared to do at last night’s meeting, this would mean the town council could try to use public money to indemnify councillors for their legal bills if a code of conduct complaint were to be made against them.
We await with interest to see if that particular paragraph makes it into the approved, published standing orders of New Mills town council.
Proposed service of summons and agenda by email
NALC have been a bit naughty in these model standing orders. In the law as it stands today, there is no provision for service of council agendas and meeting summons by email.
When the current law governing council agendas and summons was enacted (1972), neither email nor the internet existed in ordinary everyday society. They had never been heard of other than in a handful of esoteric computer science laboratories.
Yet NALC have put an optional paragraph in the model standing orders designed to encourage the use of email for the above purpose (4).
NALC themselves have publicly acknowledged that the law will need changing to enable email to be used for this purpose.
NALC have now started lobbying to try to get the law changed.
Since the law arguably does not permit email service of agendas and meeting summons, why is NALC - in its current model standing orders - enticing councils, councillors and officers to fall foul of it?
(1) Draft SO paragraph 3 (l)
(2) Draft SO paragraph 3 (u)
(3) Draft SO paragraph 12 (e)
(4) Draft SO paragraph 15 (b) i
* The law of quorums of local councils is the Local Government Act 1972 Schedule 12, paragraph 12