When this virus crisis started all the Town Hall council meetings were cancelled, and rightly so.
This was back in March, but we are still struggling with the basic functioning of council democracy and scrutiny.
Some meetings are taking place online but with severe time restrictions and fewer councillors than normal are allowed to attend.
Others, such as full council meetings are not taking place at all.
The next scheduled full meeting is not until September and so with the last full council meeting taking place before the Covid-19 pandemic this will mean a gap of several months between the meetings which are normally held every two months.
Elsewhere in the country some authorities have a full calendar of meetings re-established now. All around the country we see many meetings being held successfully virtually and it should not be beyond Barnsley Council to do the same as this is impacting on our democratic process, transparency and scrutiny.
This is not just an issue for the Lib Dem group of councillors and we sent a joint letter, together with Independent Cllr Jake Lodge of Worsbrough, to the council asking them to run its full calendar of meetings online while these social distancing measures are in place.
Chief executive Sarah Norman has responded on behalf of the council saying that it is not possible to do safely at present, with available technology either unsuitable for large online meetings, or too insecure to guard against hackers.
But neighbouring Rotherham, for instance uses Microsoft Teams technology, the same as Barnsley Council, and held a full council meeting on June 3.
The council have also claimed they cannot do video conferencing because of concerns regarding “pornographic invasions” as a reason not to hold virtual meetings through Zoom. Zoom is used by Parliament and South Yorkshire Metro Mayor Dan Jarvis and many Schools.
We have even offered to hold a private ‘trial run’ of a full council meeting to test the technology and prevent any embarrassment before a formal, and public, version takes place.
Now our 4 councillors along with Cllr Lodge have each submitted a Councillor’s Call For Action - a rarely used device which enables any councillor to ask for their authority’s actions to be scrutinised. This is the last option available to try to get meetings restored, with the hope that a full council meeting could take place in July
In our view the Council is starting to find excuses to delay the proper democratic processes and scrutiny being put back in place and is now in the National news for the wrong reasons.
Barnsley Council doesn’t welcome scrutiny. You are probably aware that over the last year the Council have imposed time limits on questions that can be asked by Councillor’s at meetings. Other neighbouring Councils have full council meetings up and running virtually. Why can’t this happen in Barnsley?
We will continue to challenge the Council on this issue until Democracy is restored.
Following pressure from the councillors call to action the cabinet has agreed to attempt to run council meetings over video link as neighbouring councils do.
Cabinet spokesman Alan Gardiner said
“We’re in the middle of an organisation-wide IT transformation project which is updating our IT systems and giving us access to new software and collaboration tools. Some staff, including elected members, do not have full access to the new technology, as the rollout has been delayed due to the pandemic. This means that some of the tools we could use to run large scale meetings are not available to everyone. We’re working to make sure all staff and elected members have access to the upgraded IT kit as soon as possible."
Previously it had been claimed it was because Zoom was vulnerable to pornographic content.
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