|Place:||Cross Room, Civic Centre, West Paddock, Leyland PR25 1DH|
|Present:||Mr R Atkinson (Independent Chairman) in the chair
Borough Councillors Breakell, Foster, Heyworth and Palmer
Parish Councillors Mrs Gelder and Mitchell
|In attendance:||Maureen Wood (Director of Corporate Governance), David Whelan (Legal Services Manager) and Andy Houlker (Senior Democratic Services Officer)|
|Public attendance:||2 and Councillor Clark|
Apologies for Absence
Apologies for absence were submitted on behalf of Independent Members Mr Ellison and Mr Holt, Borough Councillors Otter and Mrs M Robinson and Parish Councillor Mrs Houghton.
Declarations of Interest
There were no declarations of interest.
Minutes of the Last Meeting
that the minutes of the last ordinary meeting held on 2 September 2010 be signed by the Chairman.
Request for Dispensation from Members of Penwortham Town Council
Standards Report attached
Circulated Letter (28K/bytes) attached
The chairman welcomed those present to the meeting and took the opportunity to congratulate Councillor Breakell and Councillor Kelly on being made Honorary Freemen of the Borough. He invited the council?s Legal Services Manager (David Whelan) to introduce the item and drew the committee?s attention to the recently received letter which was circulated.
The council had received applications for dispensations from a number of the dual-hatted members of Penwortham Town Council to enable them to take part and vote in any debates relating to the issue of making a financial contribution to South Ribble Borough Council for the provision of Christmas trees and the renovation/refurbishment of bus shelters. The request for a financial contribution towards the provision of Christmas trees was through the borough council?s Penwortham Area Committee and was in the region of ?2000. The contribution towards the renovation/refurbishment of bus shelters (around ?900) had been from borough council?s Neighbourhoods Directorate with a view to addressing two bus shelters (instead of just one if the town council did not contribute).
It was considered that such dual-hatted members would have a prejudicial interest as the issue could have a bearing on the financial interests of the borough council. On that basis without a dispensation they would only have a limited right to speak in such discussions and not be able to vote. Also the committee could consider granting dispensations to local authority members if over 50% of the authority or committee members as appropriate would be prevented from so taking part because of prejudicial interests. In respect of the town council 12 of its 18 members were dual-hatted and the town council?s constitution stated that the quorum for a meeting of the town council was 7.
The committee was informed that since publishing the report the council had now received applications from 10 of the 12 dual-hatted members. Those dual-hatted members were Councillors Best, Mrs Blow, Mrs Buttery, Mrs D Gardner, M Gardner, Hancock, Mrs Jenny Hothersall, Jim Hothersall, Mrs M Robinson and Mrs Woollard.
The Legal Services Manager referred to the circulated letter which suggested that certain dual-hatted town councillors should not be granted dispensations because of their respective roles/relationships.
The committee was advised it was not bound by any previous decisions on requests for dispensations. The question of granting any dispensations was at the discretion of the committee, as it might be felt that the general rule not to take part (prejudicial interest) was outweighed by serving the public interest.
With the permission of the committee a member of the public addressed the meeting. He stressed as a private citizen he had no political affiliation and asked the committee to safeguard fellow citizens. He was disappointed at the amount of time wasted because of the number of times this committee had had to consider dispensations from dual-hatted members of Penwortham Town Council and was suspicious there was a certain amount of public mischief.
He considered that the two requests for funding were separate issues and suggested that the requests for dispensations also be determined separately in respect of the provision of Christmas trees and the renovation of bus shelters.
In respect of the provision of Christmas trees, it was suggested that there was precedent and no town councillor should take part in making a decision. Until now the requests for financial assistance had always been in reverse with the town council approaching Penwortham Area Committee. On those occasions every member of the area committee was debarred. In respect of this request by the area committee, it had been a unanimous decision on 12 August 2010 to approach the town council. The Standards Committee had previously referred to ?collective? responsibility and this applied to all area committee members on the town council. He asked that this committee carefully consider not allowing those members of the area committee to take part in the debate.
He went on to suggest that whilst technically correct the report presented to the committee was misleading in its reference to the town council being inquorate if dispensations were not granted. There were other tried and tested procedures that could be applied to enable a decision to be made and the report did not reflect this.
With reference to the second matter requested by the council?s Neighbourhood Directorate concerning the bus shelters, the member of the public was amazed to see that the Cabinet member for Neighbourhoods & Street Scene had applied for a dispensation. He drew an exact parallel with the committee?s previous decision on a request for a dispensation and the Cabinet member also appeared to want to take part in deciding a request initiated by the member?s own department. The member of the public therefore requested that both the Cabinet member for Neighbourhoods & Street Scene and his spouse not be granted dispensations. In addition he again referred back to collective responsibility (and the previous decision not to grant a dispensation to Councillor Jim Hothersall) in respect of Councillor Mrs M Robinson?s application (being the spouse of a member of the borough council?s Cabinet). Therefore he asked that Councillor Mrs M Robinson also not be granted a dispensation to take part in the consideration of the request concerning the bus shelters.
The member of the public thanked the committee for listening to his address. He only wanted the borough council to be run properly. He pointed out that just because 50% of the members of the Town Council appeared to have prejudicial interests this did not mean dispensations had to be granted. He felt that as it stood if the dispensations were granted the council would be brought into disrepute.
The committee then gave permission for Penwortham Town Councillor Howarth to address the meeting. Councillor Howarth stated he had been on the town council for 16 years and the issue of requests for dispensations had not arisen until last year with matters affecting Penwortham Leisure Centre (which could be seen as unique at that time). There had always been dual-hatted members in the past - indeed prior to the borough elections in 2007 the borough council?s Leader, Deputy Leader and a Cabinet member had also been members of the town council. Yet there had not been requests for dispensations as there were no requests for financial assistance. Funds for the two current matters could have been allocated during the budget setting process. However, as monies had subsequently been taken out of the borough council?s budget it was suggested that it had created the problem. These were also not matters of partnership working but simply moving funds from one council to another. These two requests for financial assistance were not unique and he asked that the committee refuse the applications for dispensations.
The town councillor added that if the committee was minded to only refuse some requests, those refused be Councillors S Robinson and Jim Hothersall (as Cabinet members), Councillors Mrs M Robinson and Mrs Jenny Hothersall (as their respective spouses), Councillor Mrs D Gardner (as Chairman of Penwortham Area Committee) and Councillor M Gardner (as her spouse). Town Councillor Howarth also asked for guidance in respect of Town Councillor Rachel Gardner (daughter of Councillors D Gardner and M Gardner).
Town Councillor Howarth also commented that if these current requests were not refused it was likely there would be numerous further requests for dispensations in the future.
The chairman thanked the two previous speakers and commented that the committee?s consideration of these requests for dispensation would either be incredibly simple or complex. He sought clarification of the criticism of the report by the member of the public.
The Legal Services Manager stated he had clearly not sought to mislead the committee. He clarified with the member of the public whether the alternative decision procedure he referred to was an official of the Town Council exercising delegated powers. The member of the public concurred this was the procedure he meant. The manager reported that this option had been pursued and he had discussed this with the town council?s Democratic Services Manager as being the most practical/pragmatic method. However, the town council had indicated that it wanted the matter to be determined by members. If the dispensations were not granted by this Committee then there was still the option of delegation to town council officers. The Chairman commented that as the financial requests were relatively small this seemed the sort of matter that could be delegated to officers without councillor involvement and risk tarnishing reputations.
Town Councillor Howarth informed the committee that there had been a drainage issue at Penwortham Cemetery and the town council had delegated this matter to its officers. However, in respect of the current requests for financial assistance the town council was divided and delegating this to officers would put them in an invidious position.
The matter was then discussed by the members of the Standards Committee.
On hearing the list of councillors that had or had not applied for a dispensation, the Chairman understood the member of the public?s point regarding councillors in certain positions and their spouses having a particular interest.
Councillor Foster understood that if a member(s) had a clear and unambiguous conflict of interest this was prejudicial which he believed was so for these current matters. The Legal Services Manager responded that if any advice had been sought he would have advised that there was a prejudicial interest - councillors had clearly acted on this belief in this instance. He added that the view of the public was crucial. Whilst he agreed with Councillor Foster, Councillor Heyworth suggested the committee needed to be careful bearing in mind consistency and credibility.
In response to her enquiry Parish Councillor Mrs Gelder was informed that all borough members of the Penwortham Area Committee were also members of Penwortham Town Council. She wondered why the councillors had not known this would arise and take appropriate action.
Councillor Foster asked if any of these members had declared interests at the meeting of the area committee and if the town council?s quorum level could be lowered to six councillors. The Legal Services Manager thought it should be possible for the town council to amend its Constitution and reduce the quorum level from seven to six (a third) which tended to be normal.
Councillor Breakell concurred that the two requests for financial assistance were separate matters. In respect of the bus shelters he queried ownership and recurring costs. He did not agree with the suggestion to refuse all requests for dispensations regarding the provision of Christmas trees, the area committee was a self governing body and had the right to ask. However, he was concerned about the issue of the bus shelters raised by the Neighbourhoods Directorate, as there was the question of ownership and this was an operational matter. These two items would be for the benefit of Penwortham residents.
Councillor Foster was concerned with the request relating to the provision of Christmas trees; these were two separate authorities with the same councillors on each, who would not subsequently vote against the request for financial assistance. This took away the independence of the town council.
Parish Councillor Mitchell commented that the Western Parish Area Committee had recently agreed to give ?250 each towards the provision of five Christmas trees (it had not asked the parish councils for financial assistance). However, Penwortham Area Committee had dealt with this a different way.
The chairman considered that the actual amount of the financial request was not important, but nevertheless if the committee agreed to grant these dispensations it was likely to receive further applications for dispensations. Based on the comments by committee members it appeared the committee was minded not to grant these applications based on the good grounds that on this occasion the subject matters were minor and within the realm of delegation.
Councillor Foster still felt the amount was important and that there was an open and transparent process, he was not critical of the members involved as this arose due to them being dual-hatted. It was important to ensure there was confidence in the way the council conducted business. He posed a rhetorical question, did all members every time they had a prejudicial interest apply to this committee for a dispensation (to which he answered no). The independence of the town council had to be maintained and there had to be another way to deal with such matters (such as amending the town council?s constitution or delegating to officers).
Councillor Breakell stated he was minded to grant the majority of the applications regarding the provision of Christmas trees, however, the matter of the bus shelters still concerned him. It would have been far simpler if the area committee had dealt with this in a similar way to the Western Parishes Area Committee.
The chairman commented further that he was worried these current matters might only be the beginning (the committee had already determined a few requests by dual-hatted town councillors). If the committee refused to grant these dispensations the town council would then have to use other means at its disposal. However, the committee would need to be prepared for criticism that its decisions were not seen to be consistent (to date he always felt the committee had made the right decisions). If its decisions were inconsistent with minor issues the committee would then have problems when it considered major items.
Councillor Foster proposed that no dispensations be granted in respect of the request for a financial contribution from the town council towards the provision of Christmas trees. This was seconded by Parish Councillor Mrs Gelder.
Councillor Breakell felt that this would exclude a number of dual-hatted councillors that should be able to take part in the debate and vote. He also felt that there was an attempt to alter the political balance of the town council by placing this decision on dispensations in the hands of the committee.
Councillor Palmer commented that the precedent had already been set in deciding applications for dispensations and this should be followed. In response the Legal Services Manager explained that in respect of Penwortham Leisure Centre, Councillors S Robinson and Mrs M Robinson had not applied for a dispensation, Councillors Mrs Jenny Hothersall and Jim Hothersall?s applications were refused and all the other applications were granted. In the current case there was an additional point regarding the role of Councillor Mrs D Gardner as chairman of area committee.
Councillor Foster considered the matter relating to Penwortham Leisure Centre as a ?one-off? and supported the committee?s earlier decision to grant certain dispensations. However, the current matters were quite different and there would be always be circumstances when the committee needed to look at matters differently.
The member of the public stated for clarification that if Councillor Foster?s proposal was successful this was not in breach of any precedent by the committee.
Councillor Breakell proposed that with the exception of Councillors Mrs Jenny Hothersall, Jim Hothersall and Mrs M Robinson, the applications for dispensations be granted in respect of the request for a financial contribution from the town council towards the provision of Christmas trees. This was seconded by Councillor Palmer.
A vote was taken on the proposal that no dispensations be granted in respect of the request for a financial contribution from the town council towards the provision of Christmas trees. The vote was 4 Yes, 2 No, 0 Abstention. Therefore this proposition was carried and the alternative proposal fell.
In respect of the request for financial assistance towards the costs of refurbishing/renovating bus shelters the committee was reminded that it was not bound by the previous decision. In response to an enquiry the Legal Services Manager explained that the borough council?s Neighbourhood Directorate had limited funds. The town council has been asked to contribute 50% towards two shelters instead of only one being dealt with by the directorate.
Councillor Breakell stated he agreed with Councillor Foster and supported the refusal of the applications for dispensation adding that he felt this matter could have been handled better.
The committee did not feel this was partnership working and it was again wary of future matters being referred to it if these applications for dispensation were granted when there was a better way to deal with them.
Councillor Foster proposed that no dispensations be granted in respect of the request for a financial contribution from the town council towards the refurbishment/renovation of two bus shelters. This was seconded by Councillor Breakell and was unanimously carried.
1. RESOLVED (4 Yes, 2 No, 0 Abstention) that no dispensations be granted in respect of the request for a financial contribution from the Penwortham Town Council towards the provision of Christmas trees; and
2. UNANIMOUSLY RESOLVED that no dispensations be granted in respect of the request for a financial contribution from the town council towards the refurbishment/renovation of two bus shelters.