The challenges to preserving democracy during lockdown are being confronted across local and national government. Not least is the need for members of local authorities and police and crime panels to convene and attend public meetings remotely whilst at the same time maintain high standards of conduct, as required by section 27 of the Localism Act 2011.
An important step for local authorities in England was the making of regulations which allow remote attendance at local authority meetings. The Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020 came into force on 4 April 2020 and will apply to meetings of local authorities in England and police and crime panels until 7 May 2021. The definition of local authority for these purposes is wide and includes county, district and London borough councils, the Common Council of the City of London, the Council of the Isles of Scilly, parish councils, and a range of other authorities, such as waste disposal authorities, combined authorities, fire and rescue authorities and national park authorities.
The new regulations will provide for remote attendance at local authority and police and crime panel meetings by interpreting reference to meetings in other legislation as including meetings where the persons attending are in different places and attend at electronic, digital or virtual locations, such as internet locations, web addresses and conference call telephone numbers. A local authority member will be considered to attend a meeting if he or she is able:
- to hear and where practicable see and be so heard and, where practicable be seen by the other members in attendance;
- to hear and where practicable see, and be so heard and, where practicable, be seen by any members of the public entitled to attend the meeting in order to exercise a right to speak at the meeting, and
- to be so heard and, where practicable, be seen by any other members of the public attending the meeting.
The regulations also modify legislation relating to public and press access to meetings and documents by providing for the requirements to be met through remote access.
The regulations provide local authorities with flexibility to alter the frequency of meetings and to decide not to hold an annual meeting. Appointments which would have been made at a local authority’s annual meeting will continue until the next annual meeting or until such time as the local authority determines. Presumably this reflects the postponement of the elections that were due to be held this year and the potential difficulties with holding annual meetings in May.
Even before these regulations came into force, Waltham Forest London Borough Council was reported to have held a planning committee meeting with the members meeting in a room which allowed social distancing and with all other participation done by video conference. Clearly then there is interest in using remote attendance at meetings and there are resources to make this happen but there will be some practical issues to address when all attendance is remote.
The new regulations allow local authorities to make standing orders and other rules relating to remote attendance at their meetings. These may include provision for voting, member and public access to documents and remote access of public and press to meetings. We would encourage local authorities to do this and to review their constitutions generally to consider what amendments might need to be made to take account of the new regulations. The regulations say that the provision for remote attendance will apply notwithstanding any prohibitions or restrictions in a local authority’s standing orders or other rules. Whilst this makes it clear that local authorities must allow remote attendance whatever their constitutions might say, they may find that until they update their constitutions, there may be parts of them that are difficult to interpret and apply in the light of the new regulations.
Other practical issues would include:
- Ensuring that public access is provided and that confidentiality is maintained when confidentiality is discussed. This could be challenging if a large number of members participate in a meeting by means of different forms of technology and in circumstances where it may be difficult to establish if each member is alone whilst attending the meeting.
- Maintaining high standards of conduct, as required by section 27 of the Localism Act 2011. There have already been many interesting cases where monitoring officers have needed to consider allegations that members have breached codes of conduct through their behaviour at meetings held in the traditional manner. There may be many new nuances and parameters to consider in connection with behaviour when attending a meeting remotely.
Geldards can provide advice on any issues relating to local authority meetings, including reviewing local authority constitutions.
If you are responsible for any of these issues and have any concerns relating to the legal implications for the public sector arising from the coronavirus then please contact the following members of the Geldards Public Sector Team.
Tiffany Cloynes, Partner and Head of Public Sector
Telephone: 01332 378302
Paul Hilsdon, Partner
Telephone: 01332 378351
Clare Hardy, Senior Associate
Telephone: 029 2039 1766
Mobile: 07436 545362
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