THE first ever virtual public council meeting at West Berkshire was held this morning (April 24) via the video conferencing app Zoom.

In a bid to make local politics more inclusive, councillors can now take up to 12 months leave when having a baby or adopting. That’s after the personnel committee at West Berkshire Council rubber-stamped the new parental leave policy, which was first proposed in December.

The coronavirus lockdown and social distancing rules meant that much of the council’s decision-making had to be postponed, as legally councillors had to be in the same room to vote. The last public council meeting was more than a month ago, on March 11.

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But the government recently gave councils the power to hold virtual meetings via video conferencing apps, like Zoom. The first one held in West Berkshire went smoothly without any technical glitches, and members of the public could watch from a livestream on YouTube.

During the meeting, the new parental leave policy received cross-party support.

Councillor Jeff Brooks (Lib Dem, Thatcham West) said: “I think it’s a good policy and should be supported. But outside of this committee, we need to be promoting this.

“How are we going to take this forward so younger people, who might have children, come forward to be a councillor? There’s no point making the policy and then forgetting about it.”

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Cllr Dennis Benneyworth (Con, Hungerford & Kintbury) said: “I’m fully in support of what I think is a very good policy, and hopefully it widens the appeal to would-be councillors.”

The parental leave policy is aiming to make it easier for women and younger people to become councillors.

West Berkshire is one of the worst councils in the country for gender diversity, according to the Fawcett Society. Only 14per cent of councillors in the district are women, compared to the national average of 35per cent.