Role of the Clerk
Becoming a Clerk to a Parish or Town Council is one of the most rewarding jobs in a local community – a competent Clerk underpins a good Council.
Clerks usually pride themselves in having a good deal of common sense, confidence to handle the administrative work, being a good organiser, IT literate and able to get on with most people. Underwriting these qualities is a sense of public duty – of wanting to help others in the community.
It is important to understand, however, that being a Clerk to a Parish Council is a job, not a spare time activity – even if it takes only a few hours each week to do.
The role of Clerk is to ensure that the Council as a whole conducts its business properly and to provide independent, objective and professional advice and support.
A Parish Clerk is the partner of the Parish Council. They are mutually supportive and could not really exist without each other. Parish Councillors are elected by residents. The Clerk is paid for by residents, because the salary is part of the village Precept (Council Tax)
The Clerk is the ‘Proper Officer’ of the Parish Council. This is a legal way of saying ‘point of contact’. A Parish Council needs a formal address to which legal papers and documents can be sent, and the Clerk is the person whose name and address is used for this formal role. The Clerk is the person to whom all correspondence should be sent, and replies from the Parish Council will come via the Clerk. This makes sure that the lines of communication are kept simple and uncomplicated. Some Clerks are employed full-time and some are part-time, but either way, they make it possible for a Parish Council to be contacted in the gaps between Parish Council meetings.
The Clerk is also the ‘Responsible Financial Officer’ of the council. This means that in law the Clerk is personally liable for the financial probity of the Parish Council – in other words, that all Precept money is budgeted for, spent in accordance with proper powers, and that the accounts are correctly drawn up and audited. Additionally, the Clerk is responsible for managing tax and National Insurance on any salaries paid, including their own!
Clerks, in discussion with the Chairman, draw up the Agendas for each Parish Council meeting. Usually there is a certain amount of background information to be read in advance of the debates, and the Clerk researches and collates these reports. An important aspect is to advise on any legal considerations that would have to be borne in mind.
After a Parish Council meeting, the Clerk produces the ‘Minutes’ which is the legal document recording what was decided, and then sees to it that the decisions are implemented. This might mean anything from submitting the parish council’s comments on planning applications to reporting highways defects, circulating information to residents or moving forward projects.
Sounds pretty daunting doesn’t it! – but like everything else in life once you know how, then it’s all fairly straight forward and a very rewarding role.
The History of the Parish Clerk in the United Kingdom
In 1439, Symkyn Birches was the first to be awarded the office of "Toun Clerk" of Coventry for the rest of his life and the position became commonplace as local government developed throughout England and Wales.
In 1835 the Municipal Corporations Act required every borough council to appoint a salaried Town Clerk. The position of Clerk was further consolidated by the Local Government Acts of 1888 and 1894 which granted, respectively, County Councils and then Urban and Rural Districts and the newly created civil parish councils the specific power to appoint a “Clerk of the Council”.
The importance of the Clerk’s position was underlined by Lord Justice Caldecote ruling in Hurle-Hobbs ex parte Riley and another (1944) observed: "The office of town clerk is an important part of the machinery of local government. He may be said to stand between the local Council and the ratepayers. He is there to assist by his advice and action the conduct of public affairs in the borough and, if there is a disposition on the part of the council, still more on the part of any member of the council, to ride roughshod over his opinions, the question must at once arise as to whether it is not his duty forthwith to resign his office or, at any rate, to do what he thinks right and await the consequences."
The Local Government Act 1972 was the start of Parish and Town Councils as we know them today. This Act has been amended and received various additions ever since to which the Parish Clerk needs to be conversant but, from 2000 we have seen many pieces of new legislation which has increased the responsibilities of the clerk exponentially; The Freedom of Information Act 2000, The Localism Act 2011, The Data Protection Act 2018 which includes the General Data Protection Regulation, are those which have created the largest impact on parish clerks recently. In addition there have been numerous ammendments and additions to these Acts including changes to financial regulations, all requiring the clerk to keep up to date in the administration of the council and in advising and guiding the council members.