Saturday 20th April 2024,
North Yorks Enquirer

WTC: Keeping Tabs on the Minutes

May 17, 2023 Whitby Town

WTC: Keeping Tabs on the Minutes

  • – an “In My View” article by NIGEL WARD, commenting on an exchange of correspondence on the time-honoured subject of  “openness and transparency” within local authorites.

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I was interested to see that Whitby Community Network (WCN) lost no time in following up on a topic of discussion raised at its meeting held at the Coliseum on Monday 15th May 2023, on the subject of transparency at Whitby Town Council. An approach was duly made the very next day, by email to the Town Clerk and the new Mayor, which reads:

To Town Clerk, Mayor,
 
Can we please request that Whitby Town Council adopt a policy of publishing MINUTES of its meetings (full, and committee) on its website (in draft form) within, say, 5 working days of the meeting.
The current process of never putting minutes under https://www.whitbytowncouncil.gov.uk/beta-whitby/documents.html?query=&tag=Minutes&sort=latest&submit=Filteruntil a year has passed is a serious hindrance to democracy.
In fact the only current way of seeing minutes is to wait 2 months until the next meeting of the particular type and looking under the AGENDA to find the minutes for approval. This provides a suitable deterrent to any member of the public taking an interest in council matters, and we have to assume this was not the actual intent.
Given that WTC has increased its precept significantly in the current financial year, with no published rationale for this increase, and given that it has paid members of staff, it should at least attempt to provide some modicum of responsiveness and respect for the public, and providing visibility of its minutes in good order would be a start down this path.
Please advise when you will be adopting an improved policy.
Regards
Whitby Community Network
This was supplemented, in very short order, by the following addendum:
Further to this request, we would like to enquire why the WTC full council meeting has a section “to approve as an accurate record the following minutes”
  1. These are voted on by councillors who were not even present at the respective meetings; please explain the reasoning behind that since such councillors will not be in a position to state if they are a true record.
  2. There appears to be no scrutiny of committee actions by the overall town council, as in the committees do not report back to full council. When will this be remedied? The subsequent wording of the vote in full council would need amending at this point, effectively to accept the actions of the committee.
  3. The section at the meeting “to approve as an accurate record …” applies to a large group of minutes, not one by one, which seems peculiar also. Wouldn’t approving them one by one be a clearer and more correct process?

Regards Whitby Community Network

Whitby Town Clerk, Mr Michael KING, responded very promptly (as is his wont) with the following words of polite dismissal:

(1) Regarding the approval of minutes, the following extract of the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) Legal Topic Note 5, sets out the position:

“66.The draft minutes of a meeting are circulated with the agenda for a subsequent meeting tasked with approving the accuracy of them.”

“67.The draft minutes of a meeting must be formally approved by the next suitable meeting and duly signed by the Chairman of the meeting (paragraph 41(1) of schedule 12 to the 1972 Act). The signed minutes of the meeting serve as a legal record of what has taken place at the meeting to which they relate. Before a meeting approves the minutes of a preceding meeting by resolution, the meeting may, by resolution, correct any inaccuracies in the draft minutes. The attendance (or otherwise) of the Chairman or those voting in favour to amend or approve of the minutes is irrelevant. Minutes should not be altered once signed unless inaccuracy in the minutes is discovered after they have been signed. Inaccuracies in the signed minutes can be amended by resolution at a subsequent meeting.”

Namely, that “The attendance (or otherwise) of the Chairman or those voting in favour to amend or aprove the minutes is irrelevant”.
(2) & (3) At full council meetings, there are two categories of decision under the heading MINUTES (my emphasis):

  • To approve as an accurate record, minutes of the following meeting(s)…(full council), and
  • To receive the (draft) minutes of the following meetings…(committees)

These are separate recommendations and are taken as separate resolutions. Only council minutes are approved. Draft committee minutes are received (en bloc) but are not approved. Committee minutes are not approved until the next meeting of each committee – and are, necessarily, considered individually. Council may scrutinise or comment on any of the draft minutes of those meetings (and could by resolution of full council refer to the approving committee instructions to amend the draft) under the following agenda item:

“COMMITTEE RECOMMENDATIONS
Any other matters arising from the minutes noted above”

I hope this clarifies these points for you.

The Town Clerk has offered his opinion; here is mine:

Mr KING’s response typifies the position frequently adopted by Town and Parish Council Clerks in at least three ways.
Firstly, Mr KING’s remarks are, in my view, something of a ‘red herring’; they do not address the point at issue. Mr KING is correct in that Minutes, as “background papers”, should be attached to the Agenda for the meeting at which they are to be Resolved as accurate. The Clerk calls upon guidance issued by the body to whom Clerks habitually turn for support, the National Association of Local Councils (NALC), rather than providing a direct reference to the primary legislation – the Local Government Act 1972. The distinction – for anyone unclear – is that NALC Guidance is mere OPINION – not LAW. The law is set out in statute in the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014.
At s.6 of the Openness Regulations 2014, “background papers” for attachment to Agendas are described thus:
6.  In this Part—
“background papers” in relation to a decision which falls within regulation 7(2), means those documents other than published works, that—
(a) relate to the subject matter of the decision or, as the case may be, part of the decision; and
(b) in the opinion of the proper officer—
(i) disclose any facts or matters on which the decision or an important part of the decision is based; and
(ii) were relied on to a material extent in making the decision;
Also, meeting Minutes must be published as soon as reasonably practicable, as set out in s.8(1) of the Openness Regulations 2014, which states:

Decisions and background papers to be made available to the public

8.—(1) The written record, together with any background papers, must as soon as reasonably practicable after the record is made, be made available for inspection by members of the public—

(a) at all reasonable hours, at the offices of the relevant local government body;
(b) on the website of the relevant local government body, if it has one; and,
(c) by such other means that the relevant local government body considers appropriate.

It is true that ‘reasonably practicable’ is not defined in law, but I am advised that 10-14 days after the meeting took place should generally be regarded as achievable; the 5 days noted by WCN may be a little ambitious.

Being “made available for inspection” means published clearly on the WTC website, as set out in (b) above.

I am at a loss to understand why Mr KING appears to have overlooked the Openness Regulations.
Secondly, WCN notes that different members of WTC may be called upon to approve certain Minutes than those members who were present at the relevant meeting. It should be recognised that it is the Council (as a body) that bears the responsibility of approving its Minutes, not individual members.
If members are present at a meeting at which Minutes are approved, but were not present at the meeting at which those Minutes were taken, it may well be appropriate for those members to abstain from the vote to approve. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that it is WTC, as a body, that is approving the Minutes.
The sad reality is that by no means ALL Councillors (never mind members of the public) read – or even gloss over – draft Minutes of Committee meetings until they appear as appendices to published Agendas (three clear days before Full Council meetings), which may run to between 50 and 100 pages.
Thirdly, and importantly, Mr KING’s focus on the self-evident distinction between receiving the (draft) minutes” and approving(the minutes) as an accurate record” entirely misses WCN’s point.
When the Minutes of multiple Committees come before Full Council, they do so as an Agenda Item (not always Item 7b) in the following format, where Committee Minutes are taken en bloc:
Full Council invariably Resolves to “receive the (draft) minutes” and, with nary an exception, does so unanimously and WITHOUT debate or any active scrutiny whatsoever.
The (draft) Minutes then wend the way back to each of the Committees, where they are duly “approved as an accurate record” by the members of each respective Committee, confident in the knowledge that their respective Minutes have, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, been in and out of Full Council without challenge.
This is rather like passing in and out of a country without ever passing through Customs.
In my view, if the Minutes of each Committee were to be considered separately and individually by Full Council, instead of calling upon members – many of whom may (having not been present at the respective Committee meetings) have no personal knowledge of the accuracy or otherwise of the (draft) Minutes (and, for that reason, are reluctant to raise any queries) – waving through the Minutes of ALL seven Committees with a single casual nod, then the prospect of some semblance of diligent scrutiny would be immeasurably enhanced.
In this way, the public could be assured that members attending Full Council were exacting proper checks and balances on the activities of the Committees (which are very rarely attended by members of the public).
Perhaps Mr KING does not appreciate that Councils must not only be fastidious in the diligence of their standards of internal scrutiny – they must be seen to be so. The confidence of the public in WTC’s standard of accountability is reliant upon that.
The case for receiving Minutes en bloc relies on nothing more substantial than the desire to save time; skimping on the Minutes to save a few minutes.
For a Council that meets only bi-monthly (i.e. six times a year), this policy is casual to the point of laziness. Holding the view that the work of the Committees is unworthy of full and proper inspection is an affront to “openness and transparency” – of a similar order as claiming that elections are expensive and, and that basis, need never be held.

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