Lancashire councillors clash over 'private' coronavirus meeting

A row has broken out about whether a Lancashire County Council meeting, at which the authority’s response to the coronavirus will be discussed, should be held in public.

Friday, 15th May 2020, 6:11 pm
Updated Friday, 15th May 2020, 6:12 pm

The Labour opposition group has called for a planned virtual gathering of the internal scrutiny committee later this month to be webcast – just as its meetings are in normal times, when they are held at County Hall and are open to residents and the press.

However, the authority says that the event is not a formal meeting of the cross-party committee, but a forward planning session to decide exactly what will be on the agenda at future meetings which will be accessible to the public online.

It comes just 24 hours after the Conservative leader of the authority Geoff Driver and Labour opposition leader Azhar Ali clashed over democracy during the first ever virtual cabinet meeting at Lancashire County Council.

There will be no meetings at County Hall for the foreseeable future - but the democratic process has restarted

County Cllr Ali said of the internal scrutiny meeting: “They are claiming it’s going to be treated as a dummy run and more like a working group, so they don’t need to webcast it – but the fact is that it’s about Covid and so should be open and transparent.

“Since this crisis started, we’ve asked twice to set up a cross-party group for all of us to work together, because County Cllr Driver won’t even respond to emails.

“We want a group set up for the recovery process, so that when we come out of this and hopefully don’t get a second wave, we can learn lessons and have robust processes going forward.”

After a two-month hiatus in all council meetings since the lockdown began, County Hall is gradually reinstating its meetings calendar, using remote technology.

County Cllr Driver rejected the charge of secrecy over the planned internal scrutiny hearing.

“County Cllr Ali has absolutely no intention to help the people of Lancashire.

“His problem now is the same as it has been since the elections in May 2017 – he simply cannot bear to see the local authority being well-managed, unlike the chaos he was a part of, and he is trying at every turn to throw a spanner in the works. Thankfully, we will not allow that to happen,” he said.

A spokesman for the county council said: “We are currently in the process of re-establishing all of our committees and holding them virtually in public via webcast. We aim to hold all of our scrutiny committees virtually on the dates originally agreed and set in the calendar in June and July.

“To make sure our scrutiny committees can focus on the things that really matter when the formal meetings take place, we have agreed to hold an extra work planning session on 29th May. This is a meeting of the members of the internal scrutiny committee where they will be invited to identify the issues and areas of work that they wish to concentrate on at future meetings.

“Whilst members will obviously be given some information about the response to coronavirus, this is purely to help them decide what issues they want to consider in full, open, public session. The opportunity to properly scrutinise the issues will take place in formal, public committees in the coming months.

“Scrutiny [committees] regularly hold such informal meetings, usually once a year to help decide the work programme for the coming year. We have decided that we will hold an extra one given the massive changes brought about through our response to the pandemic.

“We will also be using the session as an opportunity to test our systems and give members a chance to practice being part of a virtual meeting. Whilst we have successfully held a cabinet meeting virtually, scrutiny involves a completely different set of members.”