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Council Leaders Ask for Permission to Hold Virtual Meetings to be Reinstated

Published on: 11 Dec, 2021
Updated on: 11 Dec, 2021

By Martin Giles

Council leaders at Guildford and Waverley Borough Councils have called on the leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, to find the parliamentary time to allow provision for council meetings to be held remotely.

Council leaders Joss Bigmore and Paul Follows

Legislation to allow temporary permission, because of the pandemic lockdown, was enacted in 2020, although this expired on 6 May 2021. When judging an action brought by Hertfordshire County Council earlier this year, the High Court confirmed that primary legislation would be required to make virtual meetings legal.

An extract from the High Court judgement handed down in April 2021 making it clear that only physical attendance at council meetings is allowed but this has been interpreted in different ways by different councils.

It was subsequently said by the government that there was no Parliamentary time to bring in the required legislation to extend the provisions, due to the amount of Parliamentary business scheduled.

Published advice on the Surrey Association for Local Councils as seen on November 23. It has subsequently been removed without explanation.

During 2020, both borough councils successfully held remote meetings via “Zoom” and “Teams”, but since the temporary provision ended in May, councillors are required to attend meetings in person, in order to speak or to vote, although some meetings, such as the Executive Advisory Boards at GBC, are held virtually as they are considered not to be decision-making forums.

The issue has become a point of controversy at Ash Parish Council where two councillors, who have moved away to Wiltshire, are being deemed as still qualified as councillors despite not attending a council meeting physically for over six months. Normally after such a gap councillors are automatically disqualified.

See: Who Can Say If Parish Absentees Are Still Qualified Councillors?

Cllr Joss Bigmore and Cllr Paul Follows, leaders of Guildford Borough Council and Waverley Borough Council, respectively have written a joint letter to Mr Rees-Mogg and other senior government ministers and local MPs to urge them to find the time to extend the provisions along with the various other emergency regulations that will be tabled in Parliament in the coming days.

The letter states that Covid infection rates within the two boroughs are currently the highest they have been and that many councillors are having to isolate through illness or contact with others who have tested positive.

The councillors argue that all the facilities to conduct hybrid meetings are in place, and that only by making provision for remote attendance can full democratic participation be enabled, and the risk of delays to decision-making be avoided.

A Liberal Democrat spokesperson said: “With growing cases of Covid across Surrey and the Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday calling on people to work from home wherever possible Guildford Liberal Democrats are calling on the Government to reinstate council’s abilities to hold virtual meetings for all purposes including decision making.

“The issue was highlighted this week when significant numbers of councillors were unable to attend due to a combination of Covid, other illnesses and being clinically vulnerable. Decisions were able to be made as the council meeting was quorate but councils should not be hostages to fortune in this way.”

Cllr Julia McShane

Deputy leader at GBC, Julia McShane (Lib Dem, Westborough) added: “Councillors are having to choose between ensuring democracy happens and keeping ourselves and others safe.

“We know that virtual meetings work – we had them throughout 2020 – and we should be allowed to return to them given that Government guidance is to work from home wherever possible.”

But, asked if it was acceptable for councillors who have moved far away from the area they represent to take advantage of virtual meetings, she added: “I do not believe that remote attendance is acceptable if a councillor moves far away from their area, local councillors are elected to represent and serve the residents where they live this means they should be part of their community to be most effective.”

This point was reinforced by GBC leader Cllr Bigmore who said: “The question of councillors using remote attendance if they have physically moved away from an area is a separate topic unrelated to these emergency pandemic related issues.  That is up to the conscience of the individuals concerned – whether they can continue to represent their community effectively despite living far away, or whether they are merely ‘gaming the system’ as an opportunity to hold on to their seats.”

Mark Bray-Parry

Guildford’s spokesman for The Green Party: Said: “We support restoring remote working as a matter of urgency. The health risk posed by Covid, and the latest variant in particular, are significant. This risk ultimately leads to the exclusion of councillors from council meetings through a necessity to isolate or shield, in turn excluding entire communities from representation. That works against democracy and should never be tolerated.

“That is why we wish to see remote or hybrid meetings not only restored for Covid but to become a permanent feature of local government. Increased remote working has made huge strides in breaking down discriminatory barriers across many industries, to the benefit of many including those with disabilities and those with caring responsibilities.

“Improving accessibility improves the diversity of our local Government and therefore improves its representation of Guildford and the villages. Removing remote working is therefore restricting accessibility and is, as such, discriminatory and potentially illegal without justification.”

 

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test One Response to Council Leaders Ask for Permission to Hold Virtual Meetings to be Reinstated

  1. Ian Williams Reply

    December 12, 2021 at 2:52 pm

    I wonder whether these councillors will support similar provisions for our nurses and health workers all of whom have worked selflessly throughout the pandemic despite 24/7 exposure to patients with the virus.

    On an associated topic, while the government was quick to implement the removal of the £20 uplift to Universal Credit, why have they not removed London Allowance from those, including civil servants, enjoying home working?

  2. Keith Francis Reply

    December 13, 2021 at 1:01 am

    Don’t virtual meetings conveniently prevent residents from taking part? What late contentious item(s) blanked out for the public will appear on the agenda?

    The worst offender I know is a hospital’s “Public” AGM held by those means and following NHS England guidelines it has already announced that all their orchestrated meetings will be held virtually into the New Year.

    Editor’s comment: Virtual meetings held by GBC and at least two loca parish councils during periods of lockdown have allowed public participation.

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