Reading Borough Council (RBC) will hold an urgent meeting of the policy committee this evening, 24 March, at 5pm. The first item on the agenda is the RBC response to the coronavirus epidemic. This includes proposals for the organisation of meetings and decision making at the council in the current situation.
It also sets out working arrangements with the Thames Valley Local Resilience Forum (TVLRF) that declared a major incident in relation to coronavirus on 20 March.
The meeting will comprise only three councillors: leader of the council Jason Brock (Labour party), deputy leader Tony Page (Labour party) and leader of the conservative group councillor Jeanette Skeats.
RBC say that because of the coronavirus epidemic they are invoking the provisions of section 7.7 of their constitution (see below) that allow the policy committee to take urgent decisions on all functions of the authority with a reduced membership.
The meeting will also deal with business on the agendas of the cancelled strategic environment, transport and planning committee of 16 March, the cancelled personnel committee of 18 March and matters on the agenda of the full council meeting that should have taken place on 24 March.
Policy committees are usually attended by seventeen councillors: the leader and deputy leader of the council; all lead councillors; five Conservative councillors including councillor Jeanette Skeats; Green Party councillor Rob White and Liberal Democrat Ricky Duveen. In normal circumstances the quorum for a policy committee is five members.
Neither the Liberal Democrats nor the Green Party are represented in the membership of the urgent policy committee. As Park ward has three Green Party councillors this leaves the ward without any direct georgraphical or indirect political representation.
Reading Liberal Democrats have criticised the action that RBC have taken. On their website under the headline Suspension of Democracy in Reading they say:
Lib Dem leader Cllr Ricky Duveen criticised the move to silence democratic opposition, saying the council had taken this action precipitously without waiting for government legislation to enable councils to use modern video conferencing technology to hold meetings, something that is expected very soon as councils up and down the land look for alternatives to holding meetings in Civic Offices. …
“There was no need to act so quickly to curtail local democracy” said Cllr Duveen.” I gather some councils are already using video-conferencing to hold meetings and I don’t see why Reading could not use the technology before curtailing our democracy.”
On 16 March the local government secretary Robert Jenrick MP addressed over 300 council leaders in England about the support that the government could give to local government. This included considering bringing forward legislation to to allow council committee meetings to be held virtually for a temporary period.
As the Civic Offices are now closed to members of the public, there will be no public or press access to the council chamber. The meeting will be webcast and can be viewed live at 5pm.
UPDATE : The meeting was later planned to be a conference call but was cancelled and did not take place.
Section 7.7 of the constitution states:
7.7 Urgent Items
7.7.1 The Policy Committee may take urgent decisions on all functions of the authority, including on behalf of other Committees, and full Council, subject to the function not being reserved by statute to full Council or another Committee.
7.7.2 An item of business will be urgent if the need for the decision could not have been foreseen at the preceding scheduled meeting of the relevant Committee, Policy Committee or full Council, and to delay taking the decision to the next scheduled meeting of either the relevant Committee or full Council would seriously prejudice either the Council’s or the public’s interests.
7.7.3 In addition to 7.3.2 above, the Policy Committee may call additional meetings to deal with any such urgent items of business, subject to:
a) the meeting being called and the agenda published in line with the Access to Information Procedure Rules in part 4 of this Constitution;
b) the Committee having a quorum of three members present, which includes:
i) the Leader or Deputy Leader
ii) the Lead Councillor responsible for the function concerned or the Chair of the responsible Committee (if different, and a Policy Committee member)
7.7.4 In exceptional cases, where it is not possible to call an urgent meeting comprising the above, the Head of Paid Service or Monitoring Officer may agree to an additional meeting of Policy Committee being held to determine an urgent item of business to prevent the Council or public interest being seriously prejudiced, with up to three different members of the Policy Committee present.
7.7.5 The facility to call additional meetings of Policy Committee to determine urgent items of business is in addition to the general facility available to all Committees to call additional meetings as set out in para. 7.3.2 above.
- RBC policy committee 24 March 2020 papers & webcast
- RBC constitution
- Thames Valley Local Resilience Forum
- Reading Liberal Democrats website & Suspension of Democracy in Reading
- Robert Jenrick reaffirms support for councils in their coronavirus response
- Reading Green Party
- Reading Labour Party
- Reading West & East Conservatives
- One Reading Community Hub During Covid-19 Launch