The Local Government Secretary, Robert Jenrick, has said the Government will support the High Court claim being brought by Lawyers in Local Government, the Association of Democratic Services Officers and Hertfordshire County Council over the ability of councils in England to hold remote meetings.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government confirmed that, in papers provided to the Court to support the claim, the Government recognised that there was “a case to be heard” that the Local Government Act 1972 should be interpreted as allowing for virtual meetings “as the legislation was passed at a time when virtual meetings could not have been envisaged”.
The case will be heard by the High Court on 21 April.
Jenrick said: “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.”
The MHCLG added that it was essential that councils “can be held to account by their residents, and to ensure that any future arrangements regarding remote meetings continue to strengthen both scrutiny and transparency”.
Last month the Local Government Association described as “extremely disappointing” the Government’s decision not to extend the Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020, which expire on 7 May 2021.
Ministers have said such an extension would require primary legislation and the impact this would have on the Government's legislative programme.
The LGA and the National Association of Local Councils are backing the claim brought by LLG, ADSO and Hertfordshire CC.