Constitution of the council

Protocol for virtual meetings

The following protocol shall be adopted where virtual attendance is relevant in relation to the conduct of all meetings of the Council and its various committees and sub-committees.

Introduction

1. Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales Regulations 2020) make provision for remote attendance at, and remote access to council meetings, held on or before 7 May 2021.

2. The regulations enable the council to hold meetings without all, or any, of the members being physically present in a room. They allow for remote meetings through electronic and digital means at virtual locations using video and telephone conferencing, live webcast and live interactive streaming.

3. The "place" at which the meeting may be held may be a council building, or where the organiser of the meeting is located, or an electronic, digital or virtual location, a web address or a conference call telephone number.

4. In order for members to be able to attend meetings of the council remotely, they need not be physically present, provided they are able to hear and be heard – and, where practicable, see and be seen by – other councillors and members of the public attending remotely or in person.

5. The procedure rules in this protocol take precedence over council standing orders in relation to the governance of remote meetings.

6. In line with the regulations, this protocol is designed to provide a guide to virtual formal committee meetings involving members, officers and the public during the COVID-19 crisis, and will be kept under regular review.

Prior to the meeting

7. Attendance notification – Where a meeting is to be held fully virtually this will be set out in the summons to the meeting and members and officers expected at the meeting will be provided with access. For any meeting where virtual attendance is optional, any member or officer who will be taking part in the video-conference committee, must inform the relevant Democratic Services officer not less than 24 hours in advance of the meeting taking place, excluding the day of the meeting.

Email addresses of all non-council participants in a meeting must be supplied to Democratic Services not less than 24 hours in advance of the meeting by relevant officers. Public observers will be able to watch the meeting via live stream. If they have any enquiries during the meeting they can direct them to communicationsteam@thurrock.gov.uk.

8. Code of Conduct – The Code of Conduct still applies to virtual meetings, and the same procedures undertaken in a physical meeting still apply, for example waiting for the Chair to give permission to speak. The code of conduct for members can be downloaded below.

9. Disturbances – Participants must try to limit disturbances wherever possible. For example, mobile phones and other electronic devices – TVs, tablets, and so on – must be on silent during the meeting.

10. Visibility – Participants must remain in view of the camera at all times. A professional appearance must be upheld at all times – for example, no eating during the meeting. Non-alcoholic drinks may be consumed, but these must be prepared beforehand.

11. Technical support – The video-conference link must be established and tested before the commencement of the meeting by the clerk, Chair and voting members of the committee, ideally at least 15 minutes beforehand. Any problems establishing a video-conference link must be reported as soon as possible to the clerk, or IT services.

12. Agenda – Democratic Services will publish the agenda and report for committee meetings on the Council's website and will notify Councillors by email. Printed copies be circulated as per normal procedure.

13. The following wording will be added to the introductory page on the agenda:

Due to government guidance on social-distancing and COVID-19 virus the XXX Committee on XXX date will be held virtually online. The press and public will be able to watch the meeting live online at the following link: [LINK]

14. Recording meetings – The Microsoft Team software platform has a facility for recording meetings, so therefore all virtual meetings will be recorded and published in audio and visual.

At the meeting

15. The Chair will undertake a roll call at the outset of the meeting, and at any reconvened meeting, and ask all participating members and officers to introduce themselves and declare any interests. At this point, members and officers will also confirm that they can see/hear the Chair, and have no technical difficulties. The Chair will remind councillors and officers to mute their microphones when not speaking, to reduce feedback and background noise.

16. If members have an interest to declare during the meeting, they must do so by raising their hand and waiting for the Chair to call on them, or use the 'chat' facility if they are not seen immediately. Any members participating by remote link who declares a pecuniary interest for an item is required to mute both their microphone and video during the item in question. They will be brought back into the meeting via the chat facility on Microsoft Teams.

17. Should any aspect of the video-conference link fail, the Chair will call a short adjournment of up to 15 minutes to determine whether the link can be re-established. If the link is re-established the Chair will continue the meeting from the point at which the link had previously failed.

In the event of link failure, the relevant remote members and officers will be deemed to have left the meeting at the point of equipment failure, and the meeting may be suspended by the Chair. The meeting should be suspended unless the meeting remains quorate and the business remaining is sufficiently urgent to warrant the continuation of the meeting having regard to the number of Members who have lost the remote link.

18. The voting procedure for remote members during a video-conference will be a roll-call vote, with the Chair asking each voting member individually for their vote. Whilst the recording of the meeting will retain each member's vote, this will not be recorded in the minutes unless a formal recorded vote is required.

19. If the video-conference committee enters exempt or confidential session, then the remote participants must confirm individually that their remote working venue is secure, that no member of the public can see or hear the meeting, and no recording – other than the council's – is taking place.

20. The Chair may also ask each person in turn if they have any points they wish to raise on a particular item before completing the discussion and agreeing any recommendations. Members who wish to speak outside of this rule will need to clearly raise their hand or using the 'chat' facility if they can't be seen by the chair immediately. When referring to reports or making specific comments, members and officers should refer to the report and page number in the agenda, so that all members have a clear understanding of what is being discussed.

Meetings of Full Council

21. Where meetings of Full Council will take place using virtual attendance, Democratic Services will prepare a detailed briefing note for the Mayor to be able to manage the business of the meeting electronically.

Public questions

22. The council will continue to take questions from the public as set out in the Constitution. The member of the public asking the question will need to submit their question in writing as there will be no opportunity to ask the question in person. A copy of the question will be circulated electronically and published on the council's website.

The Mayor will read the question out, and the relevant portfolio holder will respond to the question within the standard timeframe. The provision for a supplementary question will be removed.

Petitions

23. During the COVID-19 crisis, it will not be possible to accept paper petitions. A scanned petition, or petition submitted through the electronic portal will be acceptable, provided it meets the requirements as set out in the Constitution – go to rules for submitting a petition. The member of the public submitting the petition will be invited to submit a speech in writing as there will be no opportunity to present the petition in person.

A copy of the petition will be circulated electronically and published on the council's website. The petition organiser will then receive a written response within ten working days. The provision to submit petitions containing at least 1,500 signatures for debate will be suspended during the COVID-19 crisis.

Members questions

24. The council will take written questions to the Leader of the Council, Cabinet members or the Chair of any committee, provided the appropriate notice is given as set out in the Constitution. Members will have the opportunity to read their question at the meeting, however members are asked to bear in mind the limited officer availability to assist members with preparing responses to such questions.

Motions

25. Members will have the ability to submit motions to Council as set out in the Constitution. Members are asked to be mindful of the overall situation and consider if their motion is appropriate for the meeting or whether it could be held for a later meeting.

Amendments to motions

26. Members are asked to consider carefully the need for amendments. Political groups are asked to contact the mover of a motion to see if their amendment can be treated as an alteration.

Speaking at council meetings

27. Speeches from members should be kept to a minimum. Group leaders may initially wish to identify key speakers within their group – this does not include the mover and seconder of a motion. There will be no Points of Order or Personal Explanation.

Members who wish to speak during a meeting will need to indicate using the 'chat' function on Microsoft Teams and will be invited to speak by the Mayor. Members are asked to state their name before making a comment.

Voting

28. Voting will be managed by the Democratic Services officer minuting the meeting. If an item requires a vote, the Democratic Services officer will read out the name of each member in turn, in alphabetical order, and ask them how they wish to vote.

Each Member will need to unmute their microphone before speaking. Once a Member has given their vote then microphones should be muted again. The Democratic Services officer minuting the meeting will record the outcome of the voting and announce it at the meeting.

29. If an item does not appear to be contentious, the Mayor may ask members whether any member disagrees or wishes to abstain. In the situation where there is any dissenting voice, a vote will be taken.

Other formal meetings of the council

30. Other formal meetings of the council may take place using the Microsoft Teams software platform. Democratic Services will prepare a detailed briefing note for the Chair to manage the business of the meeting electronically.

31. Committees will continue to take questions from the public as set out in the Constitution. The member of the public asking the question will need to set out the question in writing as there will be no opportunity to ask the question in person, and must adhere to the timeframes laid out in the Constitution.

A copy of the question will be circulated electronically and published on the council's website. The Chair will read the question out.

There will be no opportunity for members of the committee to ask questions of clarification. A written reply will be sent within 10 working days.

Managing the meeting

32. The management of the meeting will follow the Constitution as closely as practical, with the variations mirroring those for Full Council meetings, particularly with respect to voting.

Hybrid meetings

33. All participants in hybrid meetings will follow the protocols set out above.

34. Prior to the meeting, remote attendees – or group leaders, if Full Council – will be asked to identify those remote members wishing to speak to specific items so the chair is aware and able to introduce them at the appropriate time.

35. During debate, the Chair will open the conversation up to those attending via Microsoft Teams. Those members wishing to speak will write their surname in the 'chat' function of the Microsoft Teams meeting, in order that the Democratic Services officer can inform the Chair.

36. When invited to speak, the remote attendee will unmute their microphone and make their contribution. Once finished they will mute their microphone.