15. Councillors on the Committee

Our constitution gives the council the right to appoint someone to our committee – are they any different to the rest of the committee?

Many local organisations find themselves in this position. The first thing to do is look closely at your constitution to determine exactly what the situation is. There are 3 possible options

1. The council nominates observer(s)
2. The council nominates either staff members or councillors as trustee(s)
3. The council itself is named in the constitution as a trustee and a staff member sits on the committee to discharge the council’s responsibility

NB In addition to the confusion over what the committee and the members of the committee are called, there is further scope for confusion here as in local authority circles councillors are referred to as ‘members’ and local authority staff as ‘officers’.

In Option 1 the observer merely observes, is not a voting member of the committee and may contribute if invited to do so by the chair. Even if the council is a funder the observer has no special powers or authority over the committee.

In Option 2 the councillors or staff nominated by the council are trustees like all the others and must put the interests of the charity first rather than represent the interests of the council. If there is a conflict of interest they must put the interests of the charity first.

In Option 3 it is the council that is the trustee and the staff member is there to carry out the council’s duties. The individual staff member does not have personal liability. In general, where the Council is the trustee, it acts alone.

Where a local Authority is the Trustee, does it always act alone?

In general yes, but not always. The council may involve others for a variety of reasons such as involving users, involving independent trustees, or it may have involved others with a view to eventually changing the constitution in order to remove itself as sole trustee. This is a relatively rare situation and you should seek specialist advice from the Charity Commission or read the ‘Councillors’ Guide: to a council’s role as charity trustee’.

Our Parish Council has written to tell us that they have the right to appoint a trustee to the committee. Is this right?

In certain circumstances Parish Councils have a right to appoint trustees under section 79 of the Charities Act 1993. Speak to the Charity Commission first. You may need independent legal advice.

Where can I find out more about Local Authorities and Charities?

The Charity Commission has produced a Local Government Charity Toolkit (do not download, open in Internet Explorer only).  You can also contact the Charity Commission directly if the Toolkit doesn’t answer you questions.

Is there a guide to how councillors and officers should behave on a committee?

Yes, NCVO and the Local Government Association drew up a code of Practice for this situation. Called ‘Are You Sitting Comfortably?’ it sets out acceptable standards of conduct for councillors (members) and local authority staff (officers) who find themselves sitting on management committees of voluntary organisations. Although ten years old, it has not been superseded and the principles remain sound.

Next FAQ: What are governance codes?
Previous FAQ : User Involvement and Participation on Committees

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A Word About Words

This site is aimed at those who govern (control) small organisations - whether they are charities, companies, both or neither. Those who govern them may be called a variety of names. We have chosen to use mainly 'management committee' and occasionally 'committee member' or 'trustee'. more...
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