The Minister for Local Government, Luke Hall MP has written to Local Authorities confirming that the Government intends to end the remote meetings by not renewing the emergency legislation that allowed them.
The letter explains that extending the regulations to allow virtual meetings beyond May 7th would require primary legislation.
Interestingly, in the letter the Minister mentions the Covid-19 vaccination programme. He states: “The reduction in cases of Covid-19 should result in a significant reduction in risk for local authority members meeting in person from May 7, as reflected in the Government’s plan to ease Covid-19 restrictions over the coming months.
I recognise there may be concerns about holding face-to-face meetings. Ultimately it is for local authorities to apply the Covid-19 guidance to ensure meetings take place safely, but we have updated our guidance on the safe use of council buildings to highlight ways in which you can, if necessary, minimise the risk of face-to-face meetings, and we will work with sector representative bodies to ensure that local authorities understand the guidance and are aware of the full range of options available to them.”
This is interesting because it optimistically assumes that the threat of Covid-19 and a potential third wave has been discounted by the Government.
Channel Four News reports that as the third wave hits Europe, more than thirty million people in the UK have now received their first dose of a vaccine. In Europe around twenty thousand people a week are dying with Covid-19 – and rates in central Europe are now among the highest in the world.
The question that remains to be answered is, will the UK stave off a third wave? As the graph shows the now familiar pattern of rising rates in Europe with the UK some weeks behind.
It should be remembered that rates of vaccination in the UK are not uniform. London has a significant variation within the city and Lewisham has a variable vaccination rate within the borough.
The Minister’s letter rightly points out that Councils will have to assess the risks themselves and apply measures to mitigate this.
One measure suggested is moving the largest meeting of the municipal year, the Annual Meeting – or Mayor making. For Lewisham Council this would mean to consider conducting the annual meeting prior to 7th May, and hold the meeting remotely while the express provision in current regulations apply. This would mitigate the risks.
Cllr Alan Hall has written to Kim Wright, Lewisham Council’s Chief Executive to ask her to clarify the Council’s intentions regarding the Ministerial Letter.remote_meetings-Letters-to-Council-Leaders-250321-covid
In response, 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.”
Lawyers in Local Government have issued a legal challenge and they have commented: “Councils are already actively considering the options the minister has suggested, including looking at alternative larger meeting venues at significant extra cost. The proposal to delegate significant decisions to officers is likely to be viewed as undermining democratic accountability due to the fact that such decisions are not subject to direct member involvement. Given the circumstances authorities find themselves in due to the imminent loss of virtual meeting provision, they now face unpalatable decisions, which include restricting member attendance and a reduction in members roles in decision making, whilst attempting to keep the machinery of local government moving. We remain fully committed to presenting our case at the High Court Hearing timetabled to be heard before the end of April 2021.”