Britain’s best known local council figure, Jackie Weaver, and the professional body for IT have joined forces to urge the Government to make online council meetings legal after lockdown.
In March, the Government informed local authorities that they will not be able to hold virtual council meetings after 6 May, a right they had been granted temporarily under the Coronavirus Act 2020.
In a letter to council leaders, local government minister Luke Hall said the Government had ‘concluded that it is not possible to bring forward emergency legislation on this issue at this time’.
The decision is being challenged in the High Court by the group Lawyers in Local Government, the Association of Democratic Services Officers and Hertfordshire County Council.
Ms Weaver, the chief officer of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils, became an internet sensation with her handling of a combative meeting of Handforth Parish Council via Zoom.
She has now partnered with the BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT to call on the Government to make the right to hold council meetings online permanent.
‘The continuation of virtual council meetings is essential for enhancing local democracy which is the foundation of our society,’ Ms Weaver said.
‘It was vital to avoid face-to-face meetings during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, but there has been a great deal of feedback from local councils about the additional benefits of remote meetings. That includes the environmental and cost benefits of reduced travel, increased participation from local residents, accessibility, and the ability of the community to bear witness to the process. Remote meetings also have the potential to attract more diverse local council members.’
She continued: ‘Returning to face-to-face meetings poses a significant challenge for England’s parish and town councils. I am deeply disappointed at the Government’s decision not to extend remote meetings powers when there is a clear case and extensive benefits for this.
‘I ask that The National Association of Local Councils (NALC) keeps lobbying for it and urge everyone to contact their local MP and tell them why this is so important.’
John Higgins, president of BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT commented: ‘Online access to local council meetings has shown us the good, the bad and the ugly in local decision making. To use an old adage, the now notorious Handforth Parish Council video showed us how the sausage gets made, and although we didn’t much like what we saw – it’s better to see it being made than not.
‘Digital access to local democracy during the pandemic has transformed our ability to hold elected officials to account and call out inappropriate behaviour. It has also reignited calls for civil society to create a far more inclusive environment to encourage greater, more diverse participation in decision making; this reckoning is long overdue and Government must act swiftly to ensure our democracy remains online.’
He added: ‘Local authorities have risen to the challenge of ensuring council business continues by conducting meetings remotely and with the right standards and security measures in place, online or hybrid meetings are far more accessible for elected members, local residents and the media.
‘They vastly reduce travel time for councillors and allow documents to be more readily available and shared. Most promising of all is the potential for a more diverse range of people to be heard and have influence.’
Responding to the call, local government secretary Robert Jenrick said: 'We will be supporting the action by Hertfordshire County Council and Lawyers in Local Government as we believe there is a case to be heard. 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.'