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Chris Fox's Politics Section

The Conduct of Meetings

The material on this page is taken from a publication concerned with British community-level councils. However, many of the principles covered can be applied to any meeting. For the purposes of this page, the term "chairman" refers to the person presiding at a meeting and the term "clerk" refers to the person taking the minutes.

The main purpose of a meeting, if not the only one, is to formulate instructions on which people, for example the council's officers, can act. Even a decision to take no action is such an instruction. Decisions must be taken with the support of a majority of those present and voting.

Basically, the agenda for a meeting contains the following items:

The minutes will also include an additional item - possibly two - at the start. Under Present, there should be a list of those present and eligible to vote. Should there be anyone, other than the general public and the press, who is present but not eligible to vote, they are best listed under Also Attending. The item Apologies (for Absence) then contains a list of those who have informed the chairman or clerk in advance that they will not be attending the meeting.

The item Minutes of the Last Meeting is concerned solely with whether the minutes of the previous meeting constitute an accurate record of that meeting. It does not follow that everything that is said must be minuted, although the minutes should record all decisions taken. It does, however, follow that something should only be minuted if it actually happened during the meeting.

The item Matters Arising is also concerned with the minutes of the previous meeting. This item should only be used for reports of progress and for feedback; should any substantial issue arise requiring new or additional decisions, it should be discussed under a dedicated agenda item.

A decision to take a particular action cannot be taken under Any Other Business: the relevant business must be given as a separate item on the agenda, and the decision taken under that item.

In order for a council to be able to take a decision, the intended action must be lawful, the information available to the council on the issue must be as complete as possible, and the number of people present and eligible to vote must equal at least a specified minimum, termed the quorum. It is also required that notice of the meeting be given to all members. If someone does not receive a notice to which he is entitled, that does not necessarily make the meeting illegal; but if an irregularity appears to be intentional or important, the meeting should be adjourned until it has been corrected.

The issues on which members are asked to vote must be clear. This means that members must know exactly what they are being asked to decide and that propositions must be in a form that can be answered by a simple "yes" or "no". Also, motions should be in the affirmative form: it is never necessary to propose that a particular action not be taken.

Where amendments to a motion are tabled, a vote on each and every amendment should be taken before the vote on the principal motion, which by that point may or may not have been amended. A single, combined vote on the motion and amendment(s) should not be taken, not least because it would mean the chairman effectively vetoed all but two options; indeed, any way of combining the votes would restrict members' voting options. On another point, it is unnecessary to table an amendment that negates the principal motion: one can simply vote against the principal motion.

There may be occasions where the council is faced with more than one option, either because there are matters of detail subsidiary to the main issue or because the options are mutually exclusive. In these cases, one option should be tabled as the principal motion, with the others tabled as amendments. Where the alternative options are subsidiary matters of detail, it will be easy to decide the principal motion. But what if the options are mutually exclusive? The recommendation there is for the council to discuss the options together until the general opinion is apparent, then to decide which option to table as the principal motion. If there are more than two mutually exclusive options, the council could first choose between them in one vote, then decide whether to enact the chosen option (This would effectively be done anyway if there are only two options).

There are three closure motions. One is a motion to proceed to the next business; if this motion is passed, discussion of the current item is terminated and no vote on it is taken. Another is that "the question be now put"; if this is passed, the person who tabled the original motion has the right to reply before a vote on that motion is taken. The third is a motion to adjourn a discussion or a meeting.

When a motion is being discussed, all viewpoints should have a fair hearing. The recommendation is for the chairman to invite those in favour and against the motion to speak alternately, with himself not speaking either first or last. If, at any point, it is evident that nothing new can be said in a debate, the chairman is justified in putting the matter to the vote even though there may still be members wishing to speak.

A speech should be relevant to the matter under discussion. If it is not, the chairman should tell the speaker to return to the point. If the chairman is unsure, he should ask how the speech is relevant. A speaker should not refer to previous agenda items, because they have been concluded and are irrelevant to the matter currently under discussion. Finally, personal observations should be avoided, and if a member makes an offensive personal comment he should be made to apologise.

Because the chairman is elected by the council, his authority is derived from the council as a whole and his rulings must be obeyed by an individual councillor because they are (indirectly) the rulings of the council itself. It follows from this, however, that the chairman cannot overrule the council and that a councillor who is dissatisfied by the chairman's ruling may invite the council to disagree with it.

The authority of the chairman is limited to matters of procedure. Being chairman neither increases nor decreases his right to speak.

On all but one occasion, the chairman has both an original vote and an additional, casting vote. There is nothing to say he must cast his original vote at the same time as the other members, but there is no good reason for him to take a vote then to decide how to use his own vote.

If the vote on a motion is tied, the chairman could declare the motion not carried on the grounds that a tied vote is not majority support. However, such a view could be considered to show lack of courage. It is for this situation, therefore, that the chairman has a casting vote. The recommendation is that the casting vote be used in such a way as to allow the matter to be discussed again; for example, on a motion to accept a particular tender a vote in favour concludes the matter, but a vote against allows further negotiations to take place.

Points of order relate to matters of procedure only and take priority over all other business. If a member interrupts a speaker with a question that is not a point of order, the interruption should be ruled out of order and the speaker asked to continue; it is then for the speaker to decide whether or not to answer the question. As examples, the question "Do we have the power to do this?" is a point of order, while the question "Can we afford it?" is not.

It is important that business is conducted with reasonable speed. Long meetings bore those attending, and long intervals between meetings lead to missed opportunities and lack of continuity. A council cannot expect to be consulted regularly by other layers of government if it does not answer letters reasonably promptly. On the subject of the length of meetings, it is recommended that meetings continue for no more than two hours without a break.

Regarding the frequency of meetings, it is recommended that councils meet at least once a month. Should any urgent business arise, the council should either hold an additional meeting or have an alternative arrangement in place for dealing with such business: it is illegal for the chairman or any other member to take a decision binding the council. Business is urgent only if it arose too late to be included in the agenda for one meeting and it would be too late for action if it were left until the following meeting; if it is "urgent" only because it was not notified in time to appear on the agenda, it can wait until the following meeting.

The public and press are entitled to attend meetings of the council, except where the council decides - for a valid reason - that particular matters are best discussed in private. Neither the public nor the press can take part in proceedings, but the council may set aside a short period in meetings when they can raise questions or comments; this period may be either during the meeting (by adjournment of the meeting) or at its end.

Nobody has the right to disturb or obstruct the proceedings of the council. If anyone interrupts the meeting, the chairman should cut him short; and if he will not stop, the chairman should warn him that he will be expelled from the meeting if he continues. If this warning is ignored, it should be resolved - without discussion - that the interrupter be excluded. If he refuses to leave, he should be removed by force, with the help of the police if necessary. Should the audience in general become disorderly, it may be necessary to either close the meeting or adjourn to a more private place; it is, however, illegal to decide to exclude the public from a future meeting.

It is recommended that letters received by the council not be read out exactly as written: it is normally sufficient to report the main issue covered in the letter. Should the exact text be needed by every councillor, copies can be issued. If the council receives a letter complaining about its actions, it is important for the good name of the council that the complaint be handled properly and fairly.

If a member has a personal interest in any matter, he must declare it. If the interest is also prejudicial, meaning it is likely to influence the member's judgement of the common good, he should withdraw from the meeting and not seek to influence proceedings.

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