Should councils be allowed to continue doing virtual meetings? part two

“Across the country virtual meetings have been seen as a great success to increased participation.”

The Ministry of Local Government has signalled that it is sympathetic towards local authorities continuing to hold virtual meetings. Secretary Robert Jenrick MP has said it will support Hertfordshire County Council in its legal case on the issue.

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Local government has been zooming for a year now:

Should councils be allowed to continue doing virtual meetings? – Vision Group for Sidmouth

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This has been happening across the world:

Local government meetings in the age of COVID | hollandsentinel.com

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In the UK last month, central government said it couldn’t find the time to extend regulations to allow virtual meetings to continue:

New guidance on safe use of council offices – GOV.UK

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The Local Government Association responded immediately:

Responding to the announcement that emergency legislation allowing virtual council meetings will not be extended, Cllr James Jamieson, Chairman of the Local Government Association, said “This decision is extremely disappointing. The Government’s own roadmap out of lockdown states that indoor gatherings or events – organised by a business, charity, public body or similar organisation – cannot be organised until May 17 at the earliest. Yet councils will be unable to hold remote meetings from May 7. MPs will retain the right to participate remotely until at least June 21 but the powers-that-be in the House of Commons will not make time available to legislate for councillors to do the same.

“The case is clear for the ability for councils to continue to be able to hold meetings flexibly. We urge the Government to reverse this decision and not force councils to have to hold COVID-19 secure face-to-face council meetings until all restrictions are lifted. Holding face to face council meetings, with supporting staff, could easily involve up to 200 people in one room even before adding in members of the public and reporters. This is likely to be a significant challenge with councils, for example, having to source larger venues in order to be able to host meetings with social distancing measures in place, such as full council meetings which will need to be held following the May local elections. This also risks damaging the gains seen in public participation in remote council meetings during the pandemic and our vital local democratic process.

“Left with no choice, Lawyers in Local Government, the Association of Democratic Services and Hertfordshire County Council have made an application to the Courts to declare that councils already have the powers needed to hold online meetings. The LGA will be providing support in these proceedings as the representative body for councils.”

LGA statement on virtual council meeting powers not being extended | Local Government Association

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Reaction from local government leaders has been pretty furious – and has been across all parties:

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Birmingham City Council deputy leader, Cllr Brigid Jones, described the move as ‘absolute madness’. She tweeted: ‘Councils know best. Let us decide.’  (26 March)

LocalGov.co.uk – Your authority on UK local government – Virtual insanity: Councils hit out at refusal to extend meeting rules

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Hertfordshire County Council leader cllr David Williams says a government decision not to allow virtual attendance at council meetings after May 7 is “illogical”… But Cllr Williams – who is chair of the County Council Network (CCN) – says the decision is “deeply disappointing”… “It also risks democratic participation at a time when interest in local matters is particularly high.” (29 March)

Hertfordshire County Council leader slams government decision not to allow virtual council meetings | Hemel Today

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Teignbridge District Council managing director Phil Shears said that the decision will present ‘significant logistical and financial challenges’ to ensure meetings can be held safely. He added: “This decision is very disappointing. Across the country virtual meetings have been seen as a great success to increased participation and inclusion, as well as enabling local authorities to address their climate change agenda. Public viewing figures have shown an increase in participation in our council meetings, and they have also enabled councillors with caring or employment related responsibilities to more easily accommodate meetings.” (7 April)

End of virtual council meetings ‘a backwards step’ – Devon Live

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One of the region’s longest-serving councillors, Conservative-run Darlington council’s cabinet member for resources Charles Johnson, said he disagreed vehemently with the Government’s position. He said: “It sets the wrong example telling everybody else to do what they should do and they don’t do it themselves. You are exposing people again to risk after all the efforts we have been going through to minimise risk, It’s going to be some time before everybody’s vaccinated. It’s a totally bad decision. We can’t keep lockdown running for all the time we have to protect people and then say it doesn’t matter now.”  (8 April)

Bringing back face-to-face council meetings ‘sets the wrong example’ | Yorkshire Post

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Now the government is insisting that councils go back to normal practice and resume face-to-face meetings. This seems a retrograde step in the digital world. Perhaps the solution is for the government to fund councils to allow them to webcast meetings, as Kent County Council does. The viewing figures may not be great but if webcasting is good enough for the Commons, it ought to be good enough for councils. (9 April)

KCC’s upcoming ‘Super Thursday’ elections, the potential end of virtual council meetings…

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In the meantime, some councils are pushing ahead with virtual meetings anyway:

Mendip District Council and Somerset West & Taunton Council (SWAT) both webcast their meetings through their official website, with past meetings being archived online. A Mendip spokesman said: “We are currently upgrading audio visual systems in our council chamber to facilitate the continuation of live streaming meetings and/ or a hybrid solution. “We are continuing to explore ways to improve access and ensure our meetings are both covid-safe for those that need to be physically present, and are compliant with the government’s roadmap restrictions as we ease out of lockdown. We intend to continue to live-stream our public meetings. They have proved extremely popular with our members, staff and the public. They have offered increased flexibility, improved participation – and democracy.”

Streaming of Somerset council meetings to continue even after coronavirus restrictions end – Somerset Live

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And there is a case going to court very shortly:

Council lawyers seek court declaration on virtual meetings | News | Law Gazette

Council lawyers prepare to lose virtual meetings despite court challenge | News | Law Gazette

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Interestingly, the local government minister is supporting the case:

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has signalled that it is sympathetic towards local authorities continuing to hold virtual meetings. Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick MP has said it will support Hertfordshire County Council in its legal case on the issue.

MHCLG has issued a statement in response to the challenge saying it recognises there is a case to be heard as the regulations, part of the Local Government Act 1972, were drawn up before virtual meetings were possible. The rules require local authorities to ensure members of the public can be physically present at full council and committee meetings. They were suspended in April of last year in response to the Covid-19 lockdown.

Jenrick said: “We will be supporting the action by Hertfordshire County Council and Lawyers in Local Government as we believe there is a case to be heard. Councils have done a fantastic job over the last year and remote meetings are just one innovation of many. We recognise remote or virtual meetings by councils, have widened access to local democracy and we will be keen to lock in the good work councils have undertaken during the pandemic to embrace technology. However, appropriate safeguards must be in place to ensure transparency, scrutiny and probity are maintained.

“In the event the action is not successful, the temporary provisions in the Coronavirus Act regulations will come to an end after May 6, and so councils should continue to prepare for that eventuality. Guidance has been issued to help councils to meet safely and securely. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is conducting a call for evidence on the use of remote meetings and we would encourage councillors and members of the public to participate, so that we can better evidence the next steps.”

MHCLG gets behind council virtual meetings | UKAuthority

   
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