Quoracy issues in combined authority scrutiny
What do you do if not enough councillors turn up to a meeting for it to be quorate?
Until recently this was perhaps a rather arcane point of procedure. Inquoracy in ordinary council meetings is really very unusual. But the advent of scrutiny at combined authority level has thrown the issue into the spotlight.
This is because quoracy requirements for combined authority scrutiny are set out in legislation. They place the bar significantly higher than the “minimum numbers” usually used in local authorities. This is for good reason – when it happens scrutiny across a whole area probably ought to involve most councils involved. It is a question of credibility and legitimacy if scrutiny proceeds with many constituent councils of a combined authority effectively unrepresented.
An unintended consequence is the genuine difficulty that combined authorities have experienced in ensuring that their scrutiny meetings are quorate. Cambridgeshire and Peterborough has been the most high profile example, but others have had similar problems – and mitigating those problems has involved the expenditure of a fair amount of officer time. Liaison with committee members to confirm attendance in advance and the proactive invitation and engagement of substitutes are all things that take time.
In order to overcome these problems we have to think about why they are happening. I sent an e-mail around last week to support officers in all six Mayoral combined authorities, asking for their views. Obviously this is hardly a scientific exercise but it could shed some light on the situation. I expect that had I also asked some councillors I would have got some different answers – and I directly welcome some councillor feedback on the below!
I had a few hypotheses that I wanted to test with these officers. I lay them out below with reflections based on officers’ thoughts, and then present a few possible ways forward.
- “The provisions in legislation place too high a set of expectations around quoracy”. There is a mix of viewpoints on this. In areas where chairs and support officers have been able to be proactive in developing solutions the legislative requirements have caused less of an issue. Unquestionably, the legislative requirements have caused problems, but the policy imperative behind them is clear;
- “The geographically dispersed nature of CAs’ areas make inquorate meetings that much more likely (and, as well, makes it difficult to secure subs at short notice)”. Inevitably, this depends on the geographic nature of the CA. Unsurprisingly this has proved less of a problem in areas covering a small geographical area, and where transport around the area is easier – so this is perhaps not as much of a general rule as one might think;
- “CAs have taken proactive steps to try to address these issues but the worry is still there”. My conversations with officers back up this hypothesis, and I’ll go on to talk about some of these solutions in more depth below. There’s no question that officers (and members) recognise the risks and are trying to develop ways around problems as they arise;
- “There is the risk that the quoracy regime can be used cynically by political parties – by informally withdrawing members from the committee to limit discussion on a given matter”. Such allegations have been made – and are difficult to either prove or disprove. The quoracy requirements can be misused like this, of course, but this does not seem to be a widespread issue;
- “Members may simply not see the value in CA scrutiny, and could be voting with their feet”. Evidence varies here. Inevitably some members are more engaged than others. At this stage there is no evidence to support a widespread disillusionment with and disengagement from combined authority scrutiny – CA scrutiny is, in many areas, delivering high quality work.
Where this is an issue, then, how can it be best resolved?
- Proactive engagement of chairs and members by officers to ensure that attendance plans are understood, with the engagement of substitutes at the same time – including having substitutes attend meetings as a matter of course to manage last minute availability problems. There are obvious resource challenges around this approach for both members and officers but it is probably the only immediate option;
- Working with political groups and senior officers more generally to better understand the strategic risks of inquoracy. Certainly, the risks are there – both reputational, and relating to the ability of the authority to conduct its formal business. Where the political groups of constituent councils understand their duties in ensuring that members commit to attend, and that senior officers at the CA ensure that the way that agendas are developed in co-ordination with support staff, the risks will hopefully be lessened;
- Designing meeting schedules to fit around members’ existing commitments. Scheduling of meetings (daytime vs evening meetings, and clashes with duties in the “home” authority) will always lead to unintended consequences. There may also be scheduled meetings of the combined authority or other cross-border bodies that may, conversely, make attendance for some members easier;
- Reducing the number and frequency of formal meetings, and seeking to carry out scrutiny differently. This may be less popular with members who want to ensure that scrutiny is carried out in public as far as possible. A reduction in the formal commitment and the introduction of more flexible ways of working (more task and finish working, more remote discussion of issues) may work;
- Continuing with meetings, but inquorate. This has in fact happened in a couple of places. We of course defer to monitoring officers in the advice that they may have given on this practice, but this does for us raise problems in the status of members’ discussions if a meeting is, indeed, inquorate. Such a meeting will not, in that case, be a formal, legal meeting of a committee and will, presumably, not be in a position to make recommendations or formally note or consider items. The application of rules of procedure and standing orders to such an inquorate meeting is also open to question. That said, continuing despite inquoracy does seem to be a way of making the best of the situation on the day itself.
We are continuing to keep a watching brief over the operation of scrutiny at combined authority level. We look forward to hearing the views of practitioners about how we can best do this. In the short term, we are planning in the early autumn to identify and publicise some early practical successes of CA scrutiny – instances where it’s made a difference to Mayoral actions and priorities, and to the lives of local people more generally.