LLG (Lawyers in Local Government) and ADSO (the Association of Democratic Services Officers) have called on the Government to restore the ability of councils to meet remotely, even if only for a temporary period, in light of the emergence of the Omicron Covid variant.
The two organisations said: “The recent arrival of the new covid variant and the reimposition of restrictions announced by the Prime Minister in the last few days have increased concern amongst councillors in some authorities about the risks of in-person meetings particularly in cases where they are elderly and possibly vulnerable.
“We are already receiving feedback from authorities that they are having to re-introduce measures (similar to the lockdown periods) to safely manage their council meetings.”
They cited as examples:
- restricting the number of members able to attend (at the same time providing live streaming for those councillors who cannot attend for health reasons)
- reducing the number of items to be discussed
- minimising those items that require voting
LLG and ADSO said: “Both our organisations promote good governance as a cornerstone of our existence. We fully understand the risks associated with remote council meetings in matters such as compliance and integrity of voting and collectively local government worked hard during lockdown to ensure that those risks were minimised. In the main, councils responded positively, and problems were few and far between.
“We accept therefore that any future arrangements for remote meetings should operate within appropriate guidelines/rules. We have offered to work with the Government and the Local Government Association to agree a national code or protocol to promote compliance and best practice. We feel that current and future technology can assist in this and can greatly improve the management and regulation of these meetings.”
LLG and ADSO have continued to lobby ministers on the issue since a Divisional Court ruling in April 2021 which clarified that meetings held by local authorities in England under the Local Government Act 1972 would have to take place in person from 7 May 2021 when emergency regulations introduced in the early stages of the first lockdown expired.
In June LLG called for the ability of local authorities in England to hold meetings virtually to be put on a permanent footing, “to be used flexibility by each individual local authority when it so determines”.
Earlier that month the Local Government Association made a similar call in its submission to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government call for evidence and urged ministers not to adopt an “overly prescriptive approach”.