Friday, July 21, 2023

Federal Council: Standing Orders cometh...

When last I wrote about Federal Council, I was perhaps slightly unfair to my colleagues and their failure to adopt Standing Orders after three meetings.

Having reflected on the matter somewhat, it seems reasonable to ponder upon the question of, when founding a new organisation, who should take responsibility for producing Standing Orders and ensuring compliance withy the constitutional niceties.

The previous constitutional review, during the Presidency of Sal Brinton, established a requirement for each committee to provide its own secretariat, and I do wonder whether or not this was brought to the attention of the new Federal Council after it was elected. That said, it would have required someone to volunteer to take on the role, knowing what was likely to be required, and acting upon that. And, having fulfilled that role myself when Federal International Relations Committee was formed, I did have the advantage that we were a continuation rather than a founding.

But, we are where we are, and given that the Party's Company Secretary effectively acts as our Secretariat, managing meetings, supplying documents and suchlike, it was entirely understandable that there was a hesitancy to act. Besides, very few people join Party committees to act as "house bureaucrat"...

And so, Federal Council meets on Sunday to consider the work of a small working group tasked with drafting our Standing Orders. My sense is that they've done a pretty good job, reflecting the constitutional restrictions placed upon Council, although, like with most rulebooks, you only really know how good they are once someone has decided to test them. So, my working position is to adopt them, on the basis that, if there are any serious oversights or omissions, they'll emerge over time.

We have been given some choices though, and I thought that I might explain them and indicate how, and why, I'm planning to vote as I am.

The first question is related to Paragraph 2.9:

The Chair will share with the President and the Federal Council any reasons given by those members who requested a matter is called in and…

OPTION A: will respect and uphold a request by any member to keep confidential that they have or have not requested a call-in.

OPTION B: will, if a matter is called in following the request of 13 member, share with the Council a list of those members who requested the call-in. 

My personal sense is that, if I am to be held accountable by those who elected me to Federal Council, there should be a record of my actions (or lack of them). I acknowledge that there may be individuals who would rather not have their identity revealed, and I respect their preference, but I tend towards transparency and, if my choices are out of line with the membership, it is right that they have more than just a manifesto to go on. So, I'll be supporting OPTION B.

The second question is related to Paragraph 2.11:

A member may…

OPTION A: withdraw their call-in request before the meeting of the Federal Council at which the decision is to be considered by informing the Chair. If a withdrawal reduces the number of requests to fewer than 13 then the decision ceases to be called in (i.e. there cannot be a motion to overturn it) but may remain on the agenda as an item for discussion.

OPTION B: not withdraw their request to call-in a decision after the Chair has notified the President and Council that a decision is to be called in.

This is a somewhat more difficult question. Prior to our last meeting, a decision of the Federal Board had been called in by the required thirteen members (and no more). Accordingly, the President was invited to prepare and make a presentation to the Council in relation to that decision, requiring expenditure of time and resource to do so. Subsequently, one of the thirteen withdrew their request, making that item unnecessary.

On the one hand, before indicating that you wish to call-in a decision, you are beholden to your colleagues and to the wider Party to obtain as many facts as you can prior to submitting that call-in. On the other, more information may emerge after the deadline which satisfies you and gives you grounds not the want such a call-in.

However, I'm minded to choose OPTION B because, I think, having required a response from Federal Board, we should treat that response, and the effort expended in providing it, with the respect that it deserves. It also acts to focus minds and discourage "frivolous" call-in requests (I'm not entirely happy with the word "frivolous" in this context, but a better word escapes me for the moment).

And finally, perhaps the least contentious of the three choices is over whether to have one or two Vice-Chairs. I think that, as a means of encouraging a more diverse leadership of Federal Council, I'd plump for two, with some requirement to seek diversity amongst the three leadership roles. That shouldn't be taken as a criticism of the current leadership - I don't have cause for concern about the current team - but more a marker for future choices.

Hopefully, our meeting on Sunday will be uncontentious, although you don't always get what you want, and whether or not my preferred options are the ones chosen, ultimately, I'll be voting to accept the Standing Orders in their final version. Committees need a framework and rules to live by, and Federal Council is not exception.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

NALC National Assembly - a reminder that my colleagues have legs…

It is occasionally hard to believe how long I’ve been a member of the National Assembly of the National Association of Local Councils - more than two and a half years now - and today I met my colleagues “in the flesh” for the first time.

There’s little doubt that meeting in person comes with certain advantages. For example, you can read a room rather better and decide whether or not you really need to add your voice to a debate - and the answer is often… well, no, not really. And you can exchange muttered comments with those around you, which offers a degree of entertainment and amusement.

So, I set off from my small, but perfectly formed, village on the Connecting Communities bus at a rather civilised 8 a.m. to catch the first off-peak train to London and, after a perfectly relaxed journey, I eventually found the new NALC headquarters between Holborn and Tottenham Court Road in time for a cup of coffee and an 11 a.m. start.

The meeting itself was an efficient one. Having dealt with minutes of our last meeting, we discussed our leadership and committee structures in the hope of encouraging both members of the National Assembly and the wider Parish and Town Council community to serve on our various committees. I admit that, to some extent, I’ve been guilty of standing back a bit, working on the basis that I don’t have a firm enough grasp of the inner workings of NALC to add value. There are, in all likelihood, people who have probably have more useful experiences or skills, or are more ambitious, and I’ve not been minded to stand in their way. 

However, there were vacancies on a number of committees that needed filling, and I concluded that, perhaps, my stance wasn’t sustainable any more, so I’d put myself forward to serve on the Smaller Councils Committee - they don’t get much smaller than Creeting St Peter, and I feel that the perspective of “micro-Parishes” can easily be lost amidst the talk of service provision and project funding. Our needs are less complex for the most part but, when we need help, it can feel a bit overwhelming. Large infrastructure projects, complex planning applications, these are often a major challenge to a small group of inexperienced volunteers with little professional resource to call upon. And so, I’ve got my first meeting of Smaller Councils Committee next Tuesday…

Our Chief Executive, Jonathan Owen, updated us next on some of the strategic work that is being done, both internally and externally. The Levelling Up Bill has allowed NALC to make some progress on its goals for the sector, enabling stronger ties with our Parochial Church Councils and allowing local councils to make Dependent Carer Allowance payments. Our President* and Vice Presidents have been extremely active in promoting our agenda in Parliament and achieved some success in persuading Ministers that we offer some quick, easy wins in terms of their agenda too, and the professional team who “provide the bullets for Parliamentarians to fire” can and should take pride in that success.

We also took a look at how the organisation is led and managed to ensure that we reflect the needs of our member councils and the County Associations. So, did we need to create new structures or tweak the existing ones, and how do we engage with a wider cross section of our members?

The pre-lunch session ended with a pleasantly brisk run through of a series of constitutional changes. And yes, many of them were tidying exercises, reflecting changes in the local government ecosystem, but nonetheless necessary. But my surprise was reserved for the adoption of STV for our internal elections going forward. There had been an attempt to make such a change earlier this year, which fell despite achieving a simple majority, and I expected some meaningful dissent, but it was passed with little opposition.

Lunch gave me an opportunity to tag along with a building tour to show a small group of National Assembly members the office space and the building facilities in NALC’s “new crib”, following the disposal of its old headquarters building. I’m of the view that, not only are the financial implications important, but the impact on our professional team is too. Does a hybrid working arrangement work for them? Are we taking advantage of the opportunities on offer? I also asked if an ergonomic assessment had been carried out because working on fixed desks with laptops doesn’t always work, especially for those of us who are, and I put this politely, more advanced in years and vulnerable to musculoskeletal problems.

The afternoon was occupied with presentations linked to our Net Zero agenda, talking about some of the actions our sector is, and will be, taking to support it. Given that even a micro-Parish without premises can make a contribution to the Net Zero agenda - Creeting St Peter recently replaced its ten aging streetlights with new LED ones which use far less electricity, cause less light pollution and reduce our expenditure significantly - our sector should play its part where possible, setting an example for those we serve.

The afternoon continued with a series of committee reports, culminating in a very detailed and thorough financial report. I’d been surprised by the relatively ad hoc nature of financial reporting when I first joined the National Assembly but must acknowledge that my concerns were not only listened to but acted upon, and I’m now comfortable that I can properly fulfil my scrutiny function based on the information at my disposal.

We ended our meeting with a discussion of a proposal from the Devon Association of Local Councils to produce a medal that might be awarded to long-serving Parish Councillors in recognition of their commitment to their communities. I’d consulted my County colleagues, who had mixed feelings about the idea, and it seemed that they weren’t alone. We agreed that this sort of recognition might be more effective coming from a county level, and thus County Associations might consider acting upon the idea.

And with that, we were done. A few of us retreated for drinks and an opportunity to reflect on what had happened, which I found particularly useful and interesting. One of the problems of operating in effective isolation from those you work with is that you lose the spontaneity and occasionally random conversations that add context to our efforts, especially if you’re relatively new to an organisation, as I am in this instance.

I think that I’m going to have to come to a few more of these…