Sector bodies issue open letter calling on government to enact legislation allowing meetings to adopt a hybrid model in the long term
Local government representatives have claimed that their inability to support remote participation in meetings is “wreaking havoc” with democratic processes. Five groups representing the sector have issued a collective call for government to urgently pass laws to enable councils to offer hybrid meetings.
When the first national lockdown came into effect in March 2020, emergency legal provisions were put in place to enable all types of local council in England to host remote meetings. These were removed in April 2021 and subsequent legal campaigns were not successful in arguing that existing, pre-Covid legislation already permitted online proceedings.
Local authorities are, thus, now required to conduct all meetings in person at council chambers.
In an open letter to media outlets and government, the quintet of organisations representing councils and their employees have called on government to urgently pass laws that would enable local authorities to conduct hybrid meetings.
“The government has consistently argued that primary legislation is required to change the law and have cited a lack of parliamentary time as a reason for not bringing forward the necessary legislation,” the letter said. “We feel this matter is so important that the required parliamentary time should be found, not only because the current Omricon variant is wreaking havoc on the democratic process, but also because there are positive and wider reasons for remote provision.”
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The missive argues that enabling the necessary legislative amendments would not only allow councillors and the electorate to participate during the periods of isolation that coronavirus will continue to require, but will also deliver long-term benefits for democracy.
The letter said: “[Remote] meetings have shown: increased attendances at remote council meetings by both councillors and the public; significant cost savings for some authorities arising from much less travel to meetings; the environmental benefits of less travel, particularly in the large county authorities; a better work/life balance for councillors; improved equality of access to meetings for all and opening up opportunities for more people to stand for election as councillors; more transparency and openness for the public to see and engage in council meetings; an option to move council meetings online when there are constraints or emergencies, for example bad weather such as snow or flooding.”
The groups behind the letter claimed that they “understand the reasons… and agree that many… meetings – for example full council – work better when people are together”. But authorities should have a choice to “decide what works best for them” – as has been the case for some time for councils in Scotland and Wales, the letter said.
In England, the requirement for wholly in-person meetings is already excluding elected members whose household includes a clinically vulnerable person and means that “members of the public – who found accessing remote meetings more convenient – are also being disadvantaged”, the letter said.
“Remote meetings have been integrated into business and society throughout the world, including the House of Commons,” it added. “We want local government to have that same level playing field.”
The letter was undersigned by senior representatives of the National Association of Local Councils, the Association of Democratic Services Officers, Lawyers in Local Government, the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny, and the Society of Local Council Clerks.