When the coronavirus pandemic forced the United Kingdom to impose social distancing measures, the UK and Welsh Governments acted quickly to ensure that local democracy would not suffer because local authorities could not meet in person.
Even before the current crisis, legislation had been made in Wales which gave local authorities power to allow some members to participate in meetings remotely but did not provide for meetings to be held entirely remotely. The provisions that local authorities in England and Wales have made in their constitutions for delegation of functions and urgent decision making mean that many decisions can be taken without the need for all members of the authority to meet together.
However, there are some circumstances in which meetings are needed and it is also important that members of the public have access to local authority decision making and have opportunities to participate. Therefore regulations were made in England and Wales, which enable local authorities to conduct meetings entirely by remote attendance.
The regulations relating to local authorities in England and to police and crime panels provide for remote attendance at 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.
In Wales the regulations allow local authority meetings to be held by means of any equipment or other facility which allows people to speak to and be heard by each other.
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 relevant regulations will apply to local authority and police and crime panel meetings in England that are held before 7 May 2021 and to local authority meetings in Wales that are held before 1 May 2021. However, if the arrangements prove effective in practice, legislation might be introduced to allow for remote attendance at meetings indefinitely. Local authorities might therefore find it helpful to monitor issues that arise from remote attendance, so that they can identify any lessons to be learned for long term arrangements.
The use of technology to conduct meetings remotely could have many positive effects. For example, it might attract interest in local government from people who might not have shown an interest before. However, there are some important practical issues for local authorities to consider when conducting meetings through remote attendance.
- Access to meetings. The availability of technology and the familiarity of local authority officers and members with using it means that all local authorities should be able to introduce facilities for remote working but they need to be confident that no practical difficulties will disrupt the ability of members to participate in meetings. If the arrangements do not work in practice, there could be questions about the validity of decisions taken at meetings which are conducted remotely.
- Confidentiality. If an item of local authority business is exempt from public access, it is important for the local authority to be sure that attendance at the relevant meeting and access to relevant documents are restricted to persons who are legally entitled to have access. This may be difficult for local authority officers to monitor when members are attending meetings from their own homes or other locations.
- Conduct. Plenty of allegations have been made in the past, suggesting that the behaviour of members at meetings have amounted to breaches of their local authority’s code of conduct. As members adapt to a new way of participating in meetings, local authorities might find that they experience an increase in such allegations.
- Consistency with a local authority’s constitution. The relevant regulations disapply anything in a local authority’s standing orders or other rules which would prohibit or restrict remote attendance at meetings. The regulations also allow local authorities to make standing orders or other rules relating to remote attendance. Local authorities should consider reviewing their constitutions and making appropriate amendments to ensure that their constitutions are effective and easily understood in the context of remote meetings.
The introduction of legislation to allow local authorities to conduct meetings remotely has been an important action to address a crisis. If the legislation continues on a long term basis, this could be an important tool for local democracy. In order for this to work effectively, it will be essential for local authorities to address the practical issues.
Tiffany Cloynes is a partner, and Clare Hardy is a senior associate at Geldards LLP