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Ash Council to Decide on Absent Councillors’ Status Following Further Legal Advice

Published on: 5 Sep, 2022
Updated on: 5 Sep, 2022

Helen and Tony Gorham – further legal advice on their status will cost Ash Parish Council £2,400.

By Martin Giles

Ash Parish Council’s decision to allow two members who moved to Wiltshire in 2020 to remain in post – even though they have not attended a single meeting, in person, since they moved – continues to look shaky.

The council is expected to decide on the issue following the receipt of further legal advice at their next meeting on September 12.

The National Association of Local Councils (NALC) has declined to back up the council chairman’s claim that they gave him advice that it was permissible for councillors’ attendance at online committee meetings to count under the “six-month rule”. The rule requires all councillors to attend physically, at least once every six months, or be disqualified.

Cllr Nigel Manning said that he had been advised in an unrecorded phone call that it was permissible for online attendance to count, despite very clear direction from the High Court. The advice was not confirmed in writing nor was it noted with whom Cllr Manning spoke.

An extract of the High Court Judgement from May 2021.

The two Ash parish councillors, Helen and Tony Gorham, a married couple who moved to Wiltshire in 2020, have only attended online committee meetings since then and in the opinion of Guildford Borough Council’s monitoring officer, a lawyer with specialist knowledge of the Local Government Act, they would appear to have been disqualified as councillors in November 2021.

See also: Will Legal Opinion on Ash’s Absent Councillors Be Received in Time to Hold By-elections?

GBC’s monitoring officer wrote in April that the advice given to the chairman by the NALC appeared incorrect: “The requirement, to attend any meeting of the authority, has required physical attendance at the meeting since 6 May 2021 when the Flexibility Regulations expired. If Cllrs Helen and Tony Gorham have not physically attended a meeting of the Parish Council since 6 May 2021 and the Parish Council did not grant a dispensation, then both Cllrs were automatically disqualified six months from their last attendance.”

But Cllr Manning refused to accept the opinion and in May the parish council agreed to consult further. In July, it was reported at a full council meeting that the parish clerk had “sought prices to provide legal advice from various chambers… to provide legal advice regarding the nonattendance of [sic] public meetings for two councillors.” The council members agreed to proceed with appointing lawyers at a cost of £2,400, setting a deadline to receive the advice by the end of August.

The NALC was asked byThe Dragon in May:

  • Is there any record of relevant advice being given to Ash Parish Council?
  • If so, what was the advice and who gave it?
  • If there is no record, is it likely that such advice would have been given?
  • What would be the current advice on the requirement for physical attendance by councillors at parish councils?

After months of delay, a spokesperson has only now offered a statement saying NALC supports proposals to make online meetings permissible, including the following: “Councils need the flexibility to meet in this way to be reinstated so that they can continue to work in the most accessible and resilient way possible, especially in times of emergency such as when there is adverse weather or flooding. NALC continues to lobby the government for legislation to allow councils to hold online and hybrid council meetings.”

Despite the association’s failure to answer the questions posed, this part of the statement appears to acknowledge that online meetings are not currently regarded as official meetings. This is the position accepted by all bar one of every other parish council in the Guildford borough.

The next meeting of Ash Parish Council is due to take place on September 12 at the Ash Centre.

See also: The Dragon Says: Time for Ash Parish Council Chairman to Admit His Error and The Dragon Says: The Strange Case of the Disappearing Councillors

 

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