Row over virtual meetings as Northumberland County Council continues online during crisis

The leader of Northumberland’s Labour opposition has criticised the authority for ‘shutting out’ councillors from online meetings.

Councillors Susan Dungworth and Peter Jackson.
Councillors Susan Dungworth and Peter Jackson.

However, the Conservative and council leader Peter Jackson hit back to say that Coun Susan Dungworth was ‘trying to make an issue out of nothing’ and that the authority ‘has been successful in responding to our democratic requirements right through the Covid crisis’.

The row follows an email being sent out to councillors earlier this month to inform them that only members of each committee will be able to appear as part of the remote meetings being held, with anyone else able to watch live on YouTube along with the press and public.

Coun Dungworth said: “It was quite a surprise to find that elected members are effectively being shut out of committee meetings, apparently because chairs of meetings find it hard to work out who are members of their meetings and who aren’t when they chair meetings online.

“This is the equivalent of slamming the door of the committee meeting room in my face.

“I was advised that I could view the meeting on YouTube, but surely the purpose of representational democracy is that as councillors we are elected to represent and therefore should be allowed the access to do so?

“It is also a bit disconcerting to discover that we have committee chairs who aren’t sure who are members of their committee and who aren’t, although I have been assured by at least one committee chairman that he had no problem with conducting a virtual meeting and distinguishing members from observers.

“As my invitation to the cabinet meeting was rescinded, I am particularly concerned that Coun Jackson may not know and recognise the other seven members of his cabinet?

“I do not understand why the leader and his administration have felt the need to do this unless they have something to hide and are scared of questions and scrutiny or maybe they just like talking to each other?”

However, Coun Jackson responded: “I am at a loss to see what Coun Dungworth has to complain about. It seems to me that she is trying to make an issue out of nothing.

“With the requirement for virtual meetings as a result of the Covid crisis, we have been putting in place ways in which the chairs can manage meetings effectively and fairly, and that decisions are taken properly.

“So only members of the committee who are able to speak and vote on items will be logged into the Google meeting. This will also help reduce the number of participants on screen, and make it clear to those watching the meeting which councillors are members of that committee.

“All meetings that are open to the public are being live-streamed on YouTube, and therefore everyone with an interest can view them there. All completely transparent and in line with long-established protocols.”

He added: “Coun Dungworth receives regular and detailed updates from officers. She has regular meetings with me as leader. She has access to the council’s scrutiny committees. She can attend the cabinet meeting as an observer.

“However, I do have to say that her attendance at cabinet meetings held before this Covid crisis was very infrequent and did little credit to her position as leader of her group.”

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