Fringe Box



Tempers Erupt Online in Borough Council Non-attendance Dispensation Debate

Published on: 12 May, 2020
Updated on: 14 May, 2020

Cllr Jan Harwood, top left, responding to implications that the proposal to exempt members from normal attendance requirements was to favour a Lib Dem member. The image was taken from the webcast of the online meeting. Below Cllr Harwood is Cllr Billington, the Mayor who chaired the meeting.

by Martin Giles

Reporting of this story has been delayed because the GBC webcast of last week’s full council meeting (May 5) has only today been made available.

In a council debate expected to be uncontroversial if not dull, Paul Spooner, the former GBC leader, was told by present deputy leader, Jan Harwood (Lib Dem, Merrow): “Shame on you. You should know better. It does not matter what colour your badge is, or your political party we are all colleagues in this chamber and we should care for one another and your lack of compassion speaks to your character.”

Comments by Cllr Spooner’s party colleague Nigel Manning (Ash Vale) were “despicable”, said Cllr Harwood, who then fell silent while appearing to struggle to contain his temper.

The row was over a proposal to adopt provisions that allow exemption from the normal requirement for members to attend a council meeting at least once in a six-month period, or trigger disqualification. The new provision is allowed under legislation introduced to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Cllr Paul Spooner

But Cllr Spooner (Con, Ash South & Tongham) said he did not understand what was trying to be achieved. He felt existing rules already allowed exemptions in particular circumstances and thought most councillors, unless with a very serious illness, should attend as required, given that meetings could now be held online. He asked why the proposal had been brought forward.

Cllr Manning pointed out that existing legislation already allowed for medical exemption and he was concerned that anyone giving a Covid-related reason for non-attendance would obtain a six-month exemption from the attendance requirement which he felt was unnecessary given online meetings allowed attendance, at an individual’s home, even if one was self-isolating.

He suggested council leader Caroline Reeves (Lib Dem, Friary & St Nicolas) and Cllr Harwood were bringing it forward because a fellow Lib Dem member had not attended for more than five months and the intention was to protect that member.

Cllr Nigel Manning

Cllr Manning felt the motion went too far and gave exemptions to councillors, “who did not necessarily deserve it. It means people get the allowance, no matter how small, for a long period of time without doing the work for their residents they were required to do”.

Cllr George Potter (Lib Dem, Burpham) emphasised that the new rules were being adopted, by many other local authorities, and as permitted under national legislation. He said not all councillors might have the technological ability to participate in online meetings or may have become full-time carers.

He denied Cllr Manning’s suggestion about a party political motive and added that one Lib Dem councillor had not attended because one of their children was in hospital for a long time, suffering a very serious condition. He said Cllr Manning’s comments showed he was completely out of touch and suggested he “should have a period of introspection and reflection” to consider whether his comments were appropriate.

Cllr Paul Abbey (R4GV, South Ash & Tongham) said all members should be mindful there were all kinds of problems, including mental ones, that had come about because of pressures caused by the pandemic which could cause non-attendance at council meetings. So he would be supporting the motion.

But if those listening to the debate a week ago (it could not be viewed by the public live) thought it had come to a head they were wrong. Cllr Harwood was seething. He said he would have to choose his words carefully because he was “blown away” by the lack of compassion from Cllrs Spooner and Manning and Cllr Manning in particular.

Cllr Jan Harwood

Cllr Harwood said: “It is not appropriate for me to air out personal issues or challenges faced by councillors in a public setting such as this. But I encourage Cllr Manning to reach out to the member he refers to, about whom he has made a public accusation against, essentially, and find out more details.

“And assuming he [the councillor referred to] entertains Cllr Manning and reveals those details to him I very strongly suggest he retracts his statement and puts forward a formal apology at his earliest convenience. It’s so despicable that he would…”

Cllr Harwood then paused and appeared to be struggling to contain his anger. “Yep, that’s a very strong suggestion to Cllr Manning.

He then continued: “And to Cllr Spooner who cannot envisage scenarios in which this provision might be necessary, I say shame on you. You should know better. It does not matter what colour your badge is, or your political party, we are all colleagues in this chamber and we should care for one another and your lack of compassion speaks to your character.”

Cllr Caroline Reeves

Council leader Reeves said it would be completely inappropriate to go into the personal details of the case referred to but she could see no reason why the motion should not be adopted and she, “was really disappointed people had been so negative”.

The motion was adopted by 39 votes to two. Only Cllrs Spooner and Manning voted against. There were two abstentions one, as usual, by the Mayor and one from Cllr Marsha Moseley (Con, Ash Vale).

Hear the whole debate and the whole meeting here.

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Responses to Tempers Erupt Online in Borough Council Non-attendance Dispensation Debate

  1. Colin Cross Reply

    May 13, 2020 at 12:37 am

    Let the results of the voting speak for themselves.

    It is sad but true that there are still some Tories that display little or no humanity.

    Petty party politics? Time to call time?

    We need to rise above snide point-scoring.

    Colin Cross wished to make it clear his comment was made in a private capacity, not as a R4GV councillor.

    • Jim Allen Reply

      May 13, 2020 at 10:42 am

      I agree with Cllr Cross 100 per cent. Kindness costs nothing, nastiness lasts a lifetime.

  2. Jules Cranwell Reply

    May 13, 2020 at 10:09 am

    What was said at the council meeting doesn’t surprise me in the least.

    Following my dealings with Cllrs Spooner and Manning, I wish they would get out of public life for good.

  3. Wayne Smith Reply

    May 13, 2020 at 4:21 pm

    I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised that the webcast of the meeting isn’t available on the GBC website (13-May). Has it been pulled? So much for openness and transparency!

    Editor’s note: We have contacted GBC to inform them that the webcast does not seem to be working.

    May 14, 10am the webcast is, once again, available.

    • Wayne Smith Reply

      May 14, 2020 at 3:26 pm

      Thank you Dragon.

      For those interested, the motion under debate starts at approximately 1 hour 35 mins. Also interesting to note that being forced to have a virtual online meeting results in recorded votes, yet when in the council chamber our elected representatives eschew the technology available (installed at no minor cost) in favour of a show of hands?

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