CLAIMS there has been “a lack of democracy” at West Berkshire Council meetings have been branded “farcical”.

The Conservative-run council has decided to let people join their virtual meetings to speak and ask questions, for the first time since April.

When councillors stopped meeting in person due to concerns about Coivd-19 they started conducting them remotely, using the video conferencing software Zoom.

They agreed that members of the public would not be allowed to speak or ask questions during these meetings, which are broadcast on Youtube, due to concerns about technical issues, but they could submit questions in writing.

However, the council can now confidently use the software and on September 10 councillors voted to allow people to take part in all of these virtual meetings, except Planning Committee meetings.

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Cllr Adrian Abbs (Liberal Democrat) said: “Having been shouting about the lack of democracy that was imposed on us by not having the public attending, I’m ecstatic that we are going to finally have them back and speaking.”

Cllr Steve Masters (Green Party) also welcomed the move, saying the council is “leading the way in closing the democratic deficit”.

He added: “The more engagement we have with the public, the better. I welcome this.”

But Cllr Ross Mackinnon (Conservative) described the suggestion that there has been a lack of democracy as “farcical”.

He said: “The decision we made as a council, supported by his (Cllr Abb’s) party back in April, was to ensure decisions remained in the hands of elected members and not in the hands of elected officers.

“I, along with many members who supported the motion, understood the misgivings at the time but the agreement, which I think was a good one, represented a good way forward, balancing competing risks and benefits.

“Lack of democracy – not in my book.”

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Members of the public will be allowed to join as ‘Zoom Webinar Panellists’ so they can ask questions and speak to councillors.

Once they have finished speaking, they will become ‘Zoom Webinar Attendees’, meaning they will only be able to watch the meeting.

This new system will be used at meetings of West Berkshire Council and all of its committees, except the Planning Committee, when people will still be asked to submit questions and comments in writing.

A council report states: “Much more is now known about how remote meetings can be undertaken, and members (councillors) have become experienced and adept at engaging in remote meetings via Zoom.

“In particular, council officers have become experienced at using the facility of a Zoom Webinar (as opposed to a Zoom Meeting) to ensure that remote meetings are as secure as possible.

“With the experience of the past few months it is now considered that a limited reintroduction of public participation in meetings can be achieved.”

The report also says the system won’t be used at planning meetings because “there might be different individuals seeking to share the limited speaking time” and ” technical issues would ensue”.