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Our clerk invited a previous councillor into our very first meeting in June, where almost the entire PC are new councillors, to provide a quote for email services.  We were advised by the clerk that unless our email was rectified immediately we would be in breach of audit and urged us to accept the quote. She explained that in an emergency decisions can be taken very quickly. The quote was expensive so we resisted, called an extraordinarily meeting set for 2 weeks later (mid June) to allow for research and comparative quotes.  The clerk advised this should be a work group meeting instead so that it would not have to be clerked or open to the public.  We agreed to call it a work group meeting and almost the entire group of councillors met to talk through the research. The clerk elected not to be there and in fact, prior to the work group meeting, placed further pressure on me to accept the quote provided and then advised none of us could now attend the training as we had not resolved the email issue.  Regardless, we continued with our research. At the work group meeting in mid June we agreed on a provider. Notes were taken of the decision and shared.

Given the clerk had advised us that the auditors had said the email had to be up and running before the end of June in order to be compliant, we agree to start the work immediately, before the second PC meeting in July, and as she had already advised decisions could be made in an emergency, we believed this was a compliant process.

However, the minutes produced by the clerk, of our first PC meeting did not mention the initial quote she sourced.  Instead the working group was renamed, in the minutes, a task and finish group, set a budget and named 3 people as members of the task and finish group. No budget had been discussed at the PC meeting in June. Strangely, the budget she inserted into the minutes was lower than the quote the clerk urged us to accept.  There was no agreement at the June PC meeting on who the 3 people leading this would be as the entire PC agreed to attend the work group meeting in mid-June, and only at that meeting did 3 people agree to run with the project.

When I challenged the minutes at the July meeting (only our 2nd meeting) bearing in mind I’m a new councillor, the clerk advised that this needed to be recorded this way as the rules on work groups had changed and the clerks weren’t advised.  A work group would have to be clerked and open to the public and as we had not done that, the process we undertook to arrive at the decision we did was incorrect.  I pointed out that no mention had been made of the fact that the previous councillor had even attended the meeting.  I also questioned why, if the clerks had not been informed of changes to work groups etc, this would matter.

The clerk became quite forceful and insistent, said we needed to be seen to be compliant and said we needed to trust her on this to keep things clean.  It went on for ages and eventually, I’m ashamed to say, we were literally worn down by her and I signed the minutes.  She reminded me of her situation (she has advised of personal ill health, and earlier that week had advised her partner was dying of cancer, she had requested leave in lieu of hours which of course we agreed to and insisted we didn’t source a temporary clerk as she wanted to respond to emails as this was an outlet for her).  She informed us yesterday her partner has died but still wants to manage emails.

The debate on the minutes was only our second meeting. It still bothers me.  I’ve been advised to write an email with all councillors in copy advising that although I’ve signed the minutes, I’m unhappy that they are not correct and would like to record a correction.

Is this the correct way to go about it?
by (940 points)

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Totally agree with Jules in that whats done is done and learn and move on.  I would recommend that you immediately book councillor training from your CALC.  It might be the case that training all your councillors at one time, say on a Saturday, could mean that it is undertaken in house and then you will all be up to speed.  It is dangerous to rely on the information from a single person and you have to have that knowledge in your back pocket that what your Clerk has told you can be down to interpretation (to put it politely).  

I presume that you have seen the Good Councillors Guide 2018 published by NALC? - it is downloadable from their website and is available probably with a search too.  Its a good starter for 10.

I would also print out copies of your standing orders and financial regulations to take with you to meetings.  Then if the Clerk says that something should be done like that and you are not happy, ask them to show you where in the SO or FR that rule lies...

In defence of the Clerk, I am sure that they do have the best intentions and it is a thankless task advising councils if they are breaking the law.  Sometimes they can be a lone voice shouting into the wind.  However, I cannot see what the issue with emails is and why a single quote is acceptable.  There are a number of procedural issues that you have raised.

  1. Standard Financial Regulations require more than one quote
  2. Clerks have the power for emergency spending but it is normally capped
  3. Task and finish groups / working parties are informal and therefore are not allowed to have a budget
  4. There should have been some form of terms of reference if the Clerk then says they are a formal group of the council
  5. The council is the employer of the Clerk and not the other way round.  Despite the tragic circumstances she finds herself in, the Council needs to find a locum clerk or Councillor to cover for her in this instance.  I find the requirement to keep an eye on emails a little concerning following what you have written - is there something she doesn't want anyone to see...?
Knowledge is power.  Get your knowledge asap.

by (24.3k points)
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Thank you so much.   I really appreciate the time you put into this.   She's quite good at telling us "there are new changes and this is how it is to be" and I think I'm going to ask her to show us or we stick to the old process.  It's difficult as of course her role is to guide us within the parameters but she seems to be setting her own.  Again, thank you,
Can't see how this is an issue that would be appropriately addressed by 'councillor training' which appears to be the default recommendation whenever a problem arises.
There may already be a wealth of suitable experience within this PC but it has yet to come to the fore whilst it is being suppressed by poor clerk activity.  It certainly appears that the problem lies with the clerk rather than with the Cllrs and that it is already recognised.
Read SOs, Good Councillor guides etc - absolutely 100%.
Have confidence that what 'appears' wrong probably is wrong unless absolutely proved otherwise.
Unless there is an identifiable skills shortfall within the PC what use would be gained from Cllr training other than bolstering CALC coffers and depleting tax payer funded PC balances?
When I first started out as a councillor, I found the training most helpful, and I quickly realised that things were not well in our council. At our ALC they allow some 'networking' time to speak to some of the attending providers of services. A solicitor was always on hand to give advice and I made full use of them to ask specific questions, which allowed me to push our council into doing the right things. So for me the training was a god send.
Absolutely Caroline, the OP stated that all the councillors were new so therefore it is correct that they need to undertake training asap to gain knowledge as to what they can and cannot do as a council.  Without that backup of their own knowledge, how will they know if the Clerk is acting incorrectly...
0 votes
You’ve had your pants pulled down.
by (6.4k points)
Yes. I think I made that clear. Any advice?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again record all meetings yourself and try to get the PC to do so as well
Draw a line under this and use it as a learning experience the problem with dragging things on is that you might end up looking like Handforth

The fact that your Clerk wants to “ keep control “ is a big red flag as this kind of behaviour can indicate all is not well
Actually that’s very helpful and I agree. Move on and take back control. Thank you
OK, so here’s what I interpret from your original question - may not be entirely accurate but it’s what I think you were relaying, how I interpret it and the conclusions I would draw from the information you have presented.

A new PC are being told by the existing clerk that the pre-existing “email services” are non compliant and must be resolved immediately in order to make an affirmative statement on the AGAR.

I’m assuming that the ‘new’ system will involve dot gov email addresses so as to provide a degree of separation between personal and PC business by email.  That is good.  That should have been done a long time ago but here we are trying to address it now - good.  (Central government are hardly setting a fine example after all.)

If this has been going on for the duration of the 20/21 AGAR report period trying to address it urgently so as to avoid it being recorded is not good.  It has been a non-compliance that did exist and so should be recorded.  The attempt to ‘rush through’ a last minute dot com ‘fix’ so as to avoid potential criticism does not take away the previous non-compliance, it simply masks it from view.  Also, it would appear that the clerk has pressured this action and engaged a previous Cllr who has provided a potentially non competitive tender.

If it is the creation of dot gov emails then the LA should be your first point of call rather than a private service provider.

Why would this previous Cllr not have raised this non-compliance and sought to resolve it appropriately whilst serving?  If they have the means to provide the service one might expect that they have some sort of professional competence to have been aware of the issue prior to ceasing office.

Why would the clerk seek to advantage a non-competitive quote and apply pressure to expedite the arrangement?  Well. Perhaps it is the responsibility of the person paid to provide advice and counsel to the PC to have been aware of the non-compliance and recommended appropriate measures to resolve it before it became a time critical issue.  The clerk wishes to avoid criticism at the AGAR because it was their job to avoid non-compliance.

Non-compliance - of itself - is not something to be ashamed of or brushed under the carpet.  Receiving a non-compliance report is the start of setting things upon the correct path.  What appears to have happened here is that the fear of the potential for a non-compliance report has generated further inappropriate and non-compliant activity.  This is not at all uncommon but it is a sign that a small weakness is probably masking far greater corporate inadequacies.  I arrive at that conclusion after spending many years as an international trainer, mentor and ISO 900/1 audit supervisor.   
The key thing to consider is that the new PC are not responsible for the actions of the previous PC (assuming there was a recent election and a significant change over of Cllrs.)

The new PC are however responsible for their own actions and it would appear that there is considerable ‘discomfort’ with what has been hoisted upon you.

You reference a clerk that has been ‘forceful and insistent’, you mention that it is a new PC and you also state that coercive pressure has been applied by the clerk.  You also mention that personal issues for the clerk have been used (presumably) in order to encourage Cllr’s to comply and that despite being granted leave, the existing clerk wishes to retain control and prevent a locum being installed.

These actions are indicative of an employee that wishes to avoid the potential of an external agent gaining access to their procedures and practices and the resultant potential for further questionable actions to be uncovered.

With a largely new PC, it may well be highly beneficial to have a temporary clerk installed so as to gain an impartial / second opinion of how things have been done.

Your original post presents (what are interpreted as) a number of significant concerns that you already have.  It falls to the new PC to take the bull by the horns and alter the administrative direction.  It reads like there are already significant competence, credibility and professionalism issues with the existing clerk and it reads like you have already reached that conclusion.
What happens next is on your watch…..
This is extremely helpful and the time you've taken to answer is greatly appreciated.  Actually the previous email was and she never gave me an answer as to why the new email addresses couldn't be set up.  She was still using it.  She said that a previous clerk had set them up and hadn't declared that this was his business, and that her inbox kept filling up.  We were so new and like deers in the headlights, and should have pressed her for an answer as to why we couldn't use the email system that was there until we could replace.
Again - thank you so much
Don't be a deer - be a badger!
You said " She said that a previous clerk had set them up and hadn't declared that this was his business". Good grief. This sound even more shady. Surely this should have been seen and dealt with when she took over from the old Clerk.

If you already have a domain name it is a simple matter to add a new email address - I think we were quoted £3/month for a new 365 email on our address, or a pop one which would be free!

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