22 January 2021Publish date: 22/01/2021
On the 6th May 2021, the Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) 2020 regulations come to an end.
LLG & ADSO, together with numerous stakeholders, want to see continuing provision for local authorities to conduct meetings virtually. We do not want a situation where meetings from the 7th May 2021 onwards to have to take place in person. We consider and indeed, the government has indicated, that we will not have returned to a pre-pandemic stage and are likely to remain under tiers for some time yet. But quite aside from the covid compliant difficulties in returning to in person meetings, a real focus here should be on the effective local democratic process, decision making and engagement advantages from the ability to hold virtual meetings. Statistics bear out that public participation in meetings have increased remarkably. There is also the long-term effect to consider; the real probability that the flexibilities afforded will attract a more diverse range of public demographic to stand as councillors. Any provision which enables equality of access, increased democratic participation and effective decision making must be retained.
Recently, the Secretary of State (Robert Jenrick) has said that whilst accepting that the provision has been successful, he has no plans to extend the date as it requires primary legislation and there is no vehicle to do that in time for May. He added that whilst it is not possible at the moment, if there is an opportunity to make it more permanent, he will take it.
LLG & ADSO have recently instructed counsel to examine this issue. We know of at least one local authority which has already received counsel's opinion, and which identifies two regulations which would give the Secretary of State powers to implement virtual meeting provisions. These are s16 Local Government Act 1999 and s15 Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016. The advice also included a view that the Executive or Cabinet will still be able to meet remotely (if permitted under their constitution) as Schedule 12 of the Local Government Act 1972 does not apply to the executive and there is no law which requires presence or place.
We will of course disseminate our advice to members when received next week and continue to lobby the government. In the meanwhile, if you have any members you could approach about this issue to generate support direct to Ministers this would be useful. The more noise we can make to bring collective pressure the better.