Report from the Chairman of the Constitution Committee.
The Chairman of the Constitution Committee presented her report. At the meeting of the Committee on 16 December 2019 a Working Group was formed to review the Constitution; it was composed of all Members of the Committee. Since its formation, the Working Group had met four times and had discussed the following topics:
· The role of Members
· Engagement by the public
· Member training
· The Committee’s own remit
· Rules of procedure
· Clarity around definitions such as Key Decisions
Work was also on going by the Head of Governance to review and refresh the Scheme of Delegation which would be reported to a future meeting of the Committee.
The Covid-19 pandemic had meant that the review had been suspended to support urgent decision-making and the establishment of remote Committee meetings. A revised project plan was shown at Appendix 1 to the report.
Appendix 2 to the report gave a revised structure to the Constitution which was split into 10 parts.
· Part 1 contained a Summary.
· Part 2 contained the Articles.
· Part 3 dealt with the Responsibility for Functions.
· Part 4 concerned Procedure Rules.
· Part 5 covered Codes and Protocols.
· Part 6 covered Financial Regulations.
· Part 7 covered the Contract Procedure Rules.
· Part 8 dealt with the Petition Scheme.
· Part 9 covered the Members Allowance Scheme.
· Part 10 covered Templates.
Appendix 3 detailed the changes that had been made to the Summary section of the Constitution. Appendix 4 detailed the changes to Article 1, The Constitution, Appendix 5 covered Article 2, Members of the Council, Appendix 6 covered Article 3, Members of the Public and the Council, Appendix 7 dealt with Decision Making and Appendix 8 contained a table showing the significant amounts other authorities used when making Key Decisions.
Each appendix showed track changes where changes had been made or where wording had been moved to another more relevant section of the Constitution.
One Member expressed concern that the Constitution would primarily be available electronically and that hard copies were available on request for a fee. She also referred to mandatory training for certain Committees. She had attended licensing training but had not been allowed to substitute on the Committee. This was being looked at as part of the review and would be embedded within the Constitution.
Another Member referred to where political balance had been crossed out and it was stressed that this had been a section header only. The requirements relating to political proportionality of committees were set out in legislation. The Committee requested the addition of some text to the Summary and Explanation referring to the requirements for politically balanced committees.
More discussion followed in relation to the appointment of outside bodies and the functions of the Overview and Scrutiny Committees that had been written within the summary section of the Constitution. One Member felt that this did not fully reflect the role of an Overview and Scrutiny Committee. It was stated that information contained within some areas had been moved to more appropriate parts of the Constitution.
The Director of Law and Governance stressed that no powers were being taken out or added that would alter the content of the Constitution. If any major changes were required these would be highlighted to the Committee. The Committee would need to agree any such changes and recommend them to Council. The changes before the Committee were being made to improve clarity and to address any duplication or contradictions within the current Constitution.
The Chairman echoed these comments and felt that perhaps the Member was being disingenuous as nothing was being removed from the Constitution, rather it was being streamlined. Further reassurance was given that nothing was being taken out. It was acknowledged that the track changes within the document made them look complicated. Members were advised that formatting and numbering would be reviewed once changes had been made.
A request was made to have a clean copy before Full Council to enable a sense check to be carried out and to see that nothing had inadvertently been missed out.
Ø Action Note
That a clean copy of the document be circulated to the Committee before going to Full Council.
Discussion on Appendix 5 followed. Some Members felt that a rider should be included at 2.3 (viii) about exceptional circumstances which prevented Members attending Council and which had been approved by Council. A comment was also made about elections and when they were held, referencing the current Covid-19 crisis. Members were advised that the content of the Constitution reflected legislative requirements. Changes to the dates of elections were governed by Government legislation and only changes to law would allow election dates to change.
Appendix 6 covered Article 3, Members of the Public and the Council. A discussion on Mayoral referendums followed with questions asked on how that would affect a district council with parish and town councils and how a unitary authority or devolution would affect a district council. The Director of Law and Governance indicated that she would look at the issue for Members and report back.
Ø Action Note
The Director of Law and Governance to look at Mayoral Referendums and how that impacted a District Council.
A Member asked that the wording at 3.2 be clarified that “members of the public must not be violent, abusive or threatening, whether in person or writing to Councillors or officers….”.
Ø Action Note
3.2 Responsibly of Members of the Public to include wording;
“members of the public must not be violent, abusive or threatening, whether in person or writing to Councillors or officers….”.
Appendix 7 dealt with a revision to Article 4, the content of which was contained within Article 17. The content of this Article would be separated to make it simpler to find information. A basic framework would be included at the top of the Article and information on Key Decisions. The section on the Forward Plan would be moved to a more logical place within the Constitution.
Members were reminded that the Working Group had previously looked at the definition for Key Decisions. Legislation stated that a Key Decision meant an executive decision which resulted “in the relevant local authority incurring expenditure which is, or the making of savings which are, significant having regard to the relevant local authority’s budget for the service or function to which the decision relates; or to be significant in terms of its effects on communities living or working in an area comprising two or more wards or electoral divisions in the area of the relevant local authority”.
Currently the Council did not put a figure on what was significant, officers used their judgement. The Interim Director of Finance was guided by the Official Journal of the European Union thresholds for goods and services contained within the Council’s Contract and Procurement Procedure Rules and the Financial Regulations. This threshold was €200,000 which was roughly £189,330; it was noted that this amount fluctuated in line with the exchange rate. It was therefore suggested that a Key Decision should have a value of £200,000 and above for both revenue and capital expenditure or savings.
Members discussed £200,000 as a significant figure. A comment was made in relation to severance pay but the Director of Law and Governance stated that this did not fall under this expenditure. Further comments were made about how decisions below £200,000 would be made, this would be by either a Non- Key Decision or an Officer Delegated Decision. One Member felt that the different size of budgets held, could make the figure of £200,000 too low or too high. It was stated that Officers were mindful of the Official Journal of the European Union threshold figure of €200,000 and therefore the proposed £200,000 was in line with current capital expenditure. Whatever figure was decided on would be kept under review.
The Interim Director of Finance stated that the figure had been discussed with officers. The report appendix detailed benchmarking with other authorities and it was noted that the values they used related to the size of the authority and their level of spend.
The Council’s gross turnover was in the region of £77million and a balance needed to be struck that allowed Members to be aware of significant expenditure, but not to the extent that it fettered or delayed the day to-day business of the Council. On balance, the Interim Director of Finance felt that £200,000, was the right level to ensure that both sides were satisfied.
If decision-making was being planned effectively, it was not considered a threshold of £200,000 would cause delay.
The Contract and Procurement Procedure Rules and the Financial Regulations, which formed parts of the Constitution, had been adopted at Council in January 2020. Thresholds had been aligned where possible within the documents so that there was no confusion or conflict for Officers. The Interim Director for Finance was satisfied that the proposed threshold of £200,000, was fit for purpose at the current time.
One Member expressed concern that the proposed figure of £200,000 was out of line with the figures used by other authorities. Appendix 8 indicated that the definition of significant for other councils within the same audit family as South Kesteven ranged from £20,000 to £100,000.
The Interim Director of Finance reassured the Member that some Councils did have lower thresholds, but stated that Members should be mindful that comparisons may not be, like-for-like. For example, the Council had a Housing Revenue Account (HRA), which meant that it had wider business interests and was larger than some of the authorities listed. The Interim Director of Finance was aware that some of the authorities listed were also currently undertaking their own reviews.
It was proposed, seconded and AGREED:
Recommendation to Council:
That the Constitution Committee recommends the word significant in relation to Key Decisions as shown within the Constitution be replaced with a figure of £200,000, this figure to be kept under review.