Lack of accountability fears spark demand for virtual council meetings

Concerns have been raised about accountability during lockdown. (left to right) Rhodri Oliver, scrut

Concerns have been raised about accountability during lockdown. (left to right) Rhodri Oliver, scrutiny committee chairman, and Harry Clarke, a Labour member of Breckland Council. Picture: Breckland Council/Harry Clarke - Credit: Breckland Council/Harry Clarke

A Norfolk councillor has raised concerns about accountability during lockdown and urged the authority to resume oversight meetings “as soon as possible”.

Timothy Birt, Green Party councillor for Saham Toney. Pic: Green Party.

Timothy Birt, Green Party councillor for Saham Toney. Pic: Green Party. - Credit: Green Party

Harry Clarke, a Labour member of Breckland Council, wrote to the overview and scrutiny (OSC) commission chairman to call for the meetings to be restarted.

He said: “I am writing to you to formally request meetings of OSC recommence as soon as possible.”

It comes after a Green Party member claimed the council was using the virus to dodge checks.

But chairman Rhodri Oliver, (Cons) said he had asked two weeks ago for the July OSC meeting to take place in order to focus on the response to Covid-19.

READ MORE: ‘Self-congratulatory and sycophantic’ - council’s virus response criticised

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Scrutiny of Breckland is cross-party, meaning members from all political groups take part in the holding the council accountable.

Mr Clarke, ward member for Dereham Withburga, said: “I have followed with interest - and a little concern - the debate around levels of scrutiny and accountability in our changed circumstances.

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“Scrutiny is a very important part of local democracy in normal times, and possibly even more in our current situation.

“It’s also important where there is a majority party in control.”

At a remote meeting last week, Timothy Birt said the council had “a reputation for poor scrutiny” and added: “It looks like Covid-19 has been an excuse to remove it.”

READ MORE: SPECIAL REPORT: Will lockdown rules impact local democracy and accountability of our councils?

But Mr Oliver previously said there were “still checks but it’s fair to say that we’re not doing it in a formal scrutiny meeting.”

And he added: “I’ve asked for the next meeting to be held in July and we’ll be continuing with scrutiny as normal from then. I’m not sure I accept that we have a bad reputation for scrutiny.”

The OSC has not met since February 6, 2020, with meetings in March, April and June cancelled.

Mr Clarke added: “Other than cabinet, the OSC is the only real opportunity to have a dedicated slot to apply scrutiny.

“The next scheduled meeting is July 16. I hope we will resume then, meeting virtually by Zoom.

READ MORE: Virtual council meeting held to decide not to hold virtual council meetings

“You are reported as saying you have held ‘remote group sessions’.

“Technology is therefore no impediment. Representatives serve all residents. Around 25pc are not in the governing party.”

Mr Oliver said he ensured all members could ask the questions they felt were appropriate.

The commission is made up of nine Conservatives, one Labour, one Green and one independent member. Deputy-chairman, Lynda Turner is also a Conservative.

READ MORE: ‘Not a decision which has been taken lightly’ - council scraps meetings and puts power in hands of select few

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