By: Jasmine Hughes
On the evening of the 10th December 2020, history was made as what may possibly be the most chaotic council meeting in local council history. In scenes reminiscent of The Thick of It, councillors from Handforth in Cheshire, England sat down to conduct an extraordinary meeting in order to discuss issues regarding the procedure of council meetings -- and, on a higher level, control of the council itself.
This monumental meeting is but a chapter in the long (and seemingly gruelling) history of tension within the Handforth Parish Council. And while greatly amusing (one need only glance at the Twitter trending page in order to glean some of the memes generated by this event), the Handforth Parish Council meeting pulls into the spotlight the procedures and mechanisms of local governance -- something that is perhaps so easy to forget about or may even, to some, seem to be of little importance. Particularly in times of great political turbulence, which may render the matters of Parish and Town Councils menial in comparison.
It was during this meeting, and amongst the chaos that blossomed the immortal words were spoken by a man under the moniker of ‘Aled’s iPad’(presumably Aled Brewerton, an independent councillor and - as he rather pointedly declares within the meeting - vice chairman of the council, and another councillor): “Read the standing orders. Read them and understand them!”
And so this article will aim to do exactly that -- we will break down the meeting, and all that was said, through reference to Handforth Parish Council Standing Orders; and, of course, it seems only fair that we also address the question that is on everyone’s mind: did Jackie Weaver have any authority within the meeting?
To begin, it may be of use to introduce yourself to the cast of characters of the Handforth Parish Council (and, truly, many of them certainly are characters), as well as establishing the context behind this disorderly Zoom meeting. The source of the councillors’ ire seems to stem from a long and bitter tussle for control of the council, in which two warring factions of councillors seems to have formed with one side in favour of chairman Cllr Brian Tolver (one of his supporters being the outspoken Aled’s iPad), and the other appearing to be far more in favour of Jackie Weaver’s diplomatic approach to establishing peace within the tumultuous committee, comprised of ‘John Smith’, ‘Cyn’ and ‘Sue’. Within the discussion held between the councillors, a series of contentious claims were made, many of which can either be confirmed or debunked via reference to the fabled standing orders.
We will begin with the issue of the legality of the meeting itself. Jackie Weaver, in an attempt to get the ball rolling after the meeting’s initial disruptions, remarks that the meeting at hand was “called by two councillors”, before swiftly being interrupted by Aled’s iPad, who interjects with the claim that the meeting has, in actuality, been called “illegally”. Given his proclivity for citing the standard orders, one would expect Aled’s iPad to be aware of what does and doesn’t constitute an illegal action, however it would seem that he is incorrect in his assertion. Under standing order 17(B), “two councillors may convene an extraordinary meeting of the Council”, and so the Zoom meeting is completely legal, and very much in keeping with the Handforth Parish Council Standing Orders. Perhaps, then, it is Aled’s iPad who could benefit from a light refresher on the standing orders.
Moving on, we are brought to the issue regarding Jackie Weaver’s position in the meeting -- that being whether she is or isn’t a proper officer. Cllr Tolver first raises this issue, questioning Ms Weaver as to whether or not she is a ‘Proper Officer’; Ms Weaver instead responds by asserting her purpose within the Council’s virtual congregation, that being that she is “here offering support to [the council] in the conduct of [the] meeting”, to which Aled’s iPad responds by arguing that Ms. Weaver is not, in fact, the Proper Officer. Ms. Weaver, as Chief Officer of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils, had been especially called in to oversee the proceedings of the meeting following misconduct claims and a letter from the Director of Governance and Compliance, which made reference to “multiple complaints about councillors’ behaviour”, and so (according to the meeting’s minutes) is functioning as Clerk in order to ensure a smooth and chaos-free conference. As per standing order 3(A), it appears to be the case that the Council’s proper officer is the clerk, and so it would appear that Ms. Weaver was well within her legally ordained powers to act as proper officer. On a further note, it is perhaps worth noting that Cllr Tolver was acting outside the scope of his authority in aggrandising himself with the title Handforth PC Clerk, as it appears on the Zoom meeting.
This then leads us onto what may be the most pressing question at hand: does Jackie “have the authority”? Cllr Tolver seems to think that this is not the case, but the standing orders may say otherwise.
“It’s only the Chairman that can remove people from the meeting,” states Cllr Tolver, “You have no authority here, Jackie Weaver. No authority at all.”
A beat of silence follows and is swiftly proceeded by Aled’s iPad’s mutter of disbelief: “She’s kicked him out”, a statement which accurately encapsulates exactly what sort of authority Jackie Weaver believes she has. But is she correct in acting in such a way?
According to standing order 10(A), “no person shall… behave offensively or improperly”. Although what exactly constitutes an “offensive” or “improper” conduct is not define within standing order 10, we are able to turn towards standing order 7 for guidance. Standing order 7 details the “Member Code of Conduct” for Handforth Parish Council, which has been adopted under the Localism Act 2011 and is based upon the core principles of public life, that being: selflessness, objectivity, integrity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. Standing order 7 also goes on to list “respect for others” as another aspect of the Code of Conduct (standing order 7, 4.12-13), specifically stating that one must not bully another person, and that all councillors must treat one another with courtesy. Using standing order 7 as a guide, one may find that they are able to conclude that the behaviour exhibited by many of the councillors within the Zoom meeting constitutes “improper” and “offensive” conduct.
In an interview with BBC Woman’s Hour on 5 February 2021, Ms. Weaver described the conduct of Aled’s iPad and Cllr Tolver as bullying. As per standing order 7, clause 4.13(iii), bullying is not tolerated. Then surely Jackie Weaver was within her authority to remove Cllr Tolver from the meeting, wasn’t she?
Sadly (and this may come as a genuine disappointment to the multitude of people tweeting under the hashtag #JackieWeaverHasTheAuthority), Ms. Weaver was acting outside of her scope of authority. Standing order 10(B) states that it is down to the Chairman to discern whether a councillor has breached standing order 10(A), and that “the Chairman shall express that opinion”, from which point any councillor may move that the person be “silenced or excluded from the meeting”, and that the “motion, if seconded, shall be put forthwith without discussion”. As was made clear in our analysis of the previous issue within the Zoom meeting (that being that proper officer versus clerk debate), Jackie Weaver is not that Chairman. That is Cllr Brian Tolver; in his absence (or, rather, in the event that he is forcefully rejected from the meeting), the responsibilities then fall to Aled’s iPad, as vice-chairman.
It would seem, then, that Cllr Tolver was right in claiming that Jackie Weaver has “no authority… none at all!”.
But what does one do if it is the Chairman who is acting in a disorderly and offensive manner? Who is accommodating for and perhaps even inspiring this hostile working environment? In light of the Parish Council meeting of 10 Decemember 2020, it may be of use for Handforth Parish Council to step back and re-consider aspects of their standing orders, especially in regards to dealing with disorderly behaviour and ensuring that the Code of Conduct is followed by all councillors, regardless of status within the Council. In her interview with Woman’s Hour, Ms. Weaver stated that “there is an element of bullying and bad behaviour in local councils,” before going on to say that “a lot of us are working very hard… to try and do something about that”. From this statement alone, it would seem that bullying, intimidation and otherwise offensive behaviour is not limited to Handforth Parish Council alone. If this is the case, then perhaps it is worth that many local councils take this as an opportunity to consider and review the conduct of their councillors, and then provisions laid out within their own standing orders and codes of conduct.
It is hoped that this Zoom meeting will serve as an opportunity for constructive change within local councils and parishes – at the very least, it has given many people a much-needed laugh over lockdown.