Face-to-face council health meeting blasted as ‘hypocritical and irresponsible’

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Bedford Borough Hall

A Health Overview and Scrutiny meeting has been blasted as “hypocritical and irresponsible”.

Councillor Kay Burley (Labour, Kempston Central and East Ward) asked the Bedford Borough Council committee’s chair why the meeting on October 11 was convened as a face-to-face one in the council chamber, and not virtually.

But the committee chair said the council was ‘leading by example’ – and added that the government had not extended the period where local authorities were allowed to hold virtual meetings.

“As you are a member of the local outboard, you will therefore be aware of the recent increase in coronavirus infections,” Councillor Burley said. “You’ll also be aware that this council is encouraging agile working for employees, and it has committed to reducing climate change.

“Do you not think that it’s both hypocritical and irresponsible to have 15 or so people here, many of whom have travelled some distance, presumably by car, when everything could have been discussed, and the same conclusions reached, by meeting virtually?”

The chair, councillor Graeme Coombes (Conservative, Wilshamstead Ward) said: “Personally, I have always felt that we need to get back to business [as usual] as soon as possible,” he said. “And I have a personal belief that we need to have face-to-face meetings.

“In order to actually transact business properly, the committee has to meet as an in-person meeting.”

Councillor Coombes added he is aware that other members do not hold the same view, but that guidance from “up top” is needed on the matter.

“I do think it is the right thing [to meet face-to-face],” he said. “But I have to say there has not been anything that has come from the top that says, ‘this is what we are doing’.”

Councillor Burley said that her question was not answered, and added that coming into the chamber was not a good example to give to council employees, who are asked to come in only if it is necessary.

“I did ask you whether you thought it was hypocritical and irresponsible,” she said.”But it seems by your answer you clearly don’t.”

“I disagree, we’re not being hypocritical,” councillor Coombes replied. “I think we are leading by example.

“We are expecting bin men or women to go out and empty the bins, we are expecting carers to go into care homes, we are expecting teachers to teach.

“I don’t think it is right for us to expect some workers to go out and do their jobs face-to-face and for us to hide behind screens all the time.

“So I see no hypocrisy, I see a difference of opinion and you’re entitled to your opinion as I’m entitled to mine.

“But I think we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on this.”

As the next Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting on November 8 is informal it will be held virtually.

by John Guinn
Local Democracy Reporter

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