Council leader clashes with Conservatives over 'unsafe' mandatory meetings

Councillor Elizabeth Dennis-Harburg, leader of North Hertfordshire District Council

North Herts Council leader Elizabeth Dennis-Harburg has accused Conservatives of being 'callous' by insisting on fully-attended council meetings - Credit: Rebecca Stewart

The leader of North Herts Council has accused her Conservative colleagues of putting people at risk of contracting COVID by insisting that meetings are held in the council chamber.

Labour Cllr Elizabeth Dennis-Harburg said that both her party and Lib Dem colleagues have called for reduced attendance to allow for social distancing.

She said: "Local Tories are selfishly and callously putting the lives of North Herts councillors, officers, their families and close contacts at risk by insisting on a fully attended council meeting in a space which cannot be made COVID-secure.

"In a closed meeting, the leader of the opposition Claire Strong stated that only 20 per cent of people actually get seriously sick from COVID as justification for cramming all 49 members into the council chamber."

The concerns come following the death of deputy council leader Paul Clark from COVID towards the end of last year, which Cllr Dennis-Harburg described as "a very fresh wound".

She continued: "A number of councillors are worried for their own safety, and that of those they have at home with vulnerabilities. We believe no councillor or officer should be made to feel unsafe going about their duties.

"The Conservatives have demonstrated a manifest lack of care, and responsibility. They are seeking to exploit the pandemic to political advantage by attending as a full group where the more responsible joint administration is looking to protect the many, placing their needs above the petty political ambitions of the few.

"Tellingly, one opposition member revealed they felt unsafe at a recent meeting where others were coughing loudly and uncontrollably."

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In a statement, North Herts Conservative Group said: "We believe that it is wholly inappropriate for Cllr Elizabeth Dennis-Harburg to leak out of context remarks from a closed meeting and to have seemingly leaked private emails from members of the council to the press.

"Such actions are unethical, go against the code of conduct for councillors and undermine the office of leader.

"The Conservative leadership explained to Cllr Dennis-Harburg that it was our belief that all councillors should have the opportunity to be present at the next meeting, allowing them to practice their democratic right and to properly represent the people that elected them.

"We suggested that we could have a COVID-secure council chamber if screens were used to divide members or we could use Hitchin Town Hall, which had been used for previous meetings.

"These suggestions were refused flat out by Cllr Dennis-Harburg and her coalition partners, who prefer to deny the residents of this district a fair say."