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Following the pleasing confirmation at the end of last week that the Government was "considering" relaxing the rules in relation to local authority meetings and the disappointment when nothing appeared in the draft Bill, fears that the Government didn't understand the very practical difficulties that local authorities were in were put to rest last night (23 March) when an amendment was put into the Coronavirus Bill that specifically allows the Secretary of State to make regulations in relation to meetings of local authorities.
It's currently at section 78 of the draft Bill, which went to the Lords today (24 March) and the text of the Bill is here https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/lbill/58-01/110/5801110.pdf. It applies, it seems to all local authorities not just councils at all levels.
Whilst the details of the changes will have to come in the regulations, the wording of what we know suggests that these may cover the requirements to hold meetings – so it's likely to include removal of the requirement to hold the authority's annual meeting before the end of May; and will allow meetings when members do not have to attend in person to join, speak at, vote in or otherwise participate in local authority meetings. They also may cover access to information, public admission and access to meetings, frequency of meetings and places where meetings are held.
More specifically, they refer to the provision for a person to attend, speak at, vote in or otherwise participate without all the persons being together in the same place – so "virtual meetings".
They cover both meetings of a local authority (Council); of the Executive; joint committees; committees and sub-committees and are specifically provided to apply to meetings held before 7 May 2021. Who knows how much the world will have changed by then?
Whilst there is no reference to, for example, the relaxation of the six-month rule under section 85 of the Local Government Act 1972, nor to matters that are not currently subject to any delegations, no doubt, however, much of this detail will be in the regulations once they are produced and can be applied once that is known.
So, changes should be coming. The issue is, when? Whilst it is welcome to see these, as they will undoubtedly make life somewhat easier once they are in place, before they come into force local authorities are having to make decisions on a day-to-day basis, without member input as currently required.
Whilst this is not so much of an issue where matters are for the Executive, as the leader can delegate these decisions to an individual member or officer, there is more difficulty in relation to council matters. In these situations, most authorities are sensibly using their existing Urgency and Emergency Powers delegated to the Chief Executive and other officers and are choosing to consult with group leaders about how these will be exercised. Frankly, in the circumstances, there is little else that can practically be done to achieve what has to be done to respond to what is needed in such an unprecedented crisis.
Whilst this works quite well when members are reasonable, and experience is that most members are going to be reasonable in these unprecedented circumstances, there are unfortunately some circumstances where the politics and the members are such that reasonableness is very difficult to achieve for whatever reason.
In these circumstances, authorities may well have to decide that they will resort to doing what they must do in order to do their duties and protect their own interests; and those of their residents. This may mean for example, that decisions that would otherwise be open to scrutiny and inevitable sometimes lengthy delay, are implemented as a matter of urgency; and authorities may reluctantly have to decide, after weighing up all the material factors, and all the risks, that these are exceptional times.
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