The impact of Covid-19 on Local Authority decision making and flexibility for meetings
Following the Coronavirus Act 2020 local government has been eagerly awaiting regulations made under section 78 to weave some flexibility into the meetings requirements so that local government decision making (and the attendant openness requirements) does not stop during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The key headline is that remote attendance is now permitted and entirely electronic meetings (video conference, live webcast, live interactive streaming, etc) will be capable of constituting a validly held meeting where the authority can make decisions – at Cabinet, committee and all other levels. The Regulations will come into force on 4th April 2020.
The Local Government Act 1972 (LGA 1972) has always been interpreted to have required that meetings must be in person and where attendees are in the same physical "place". The Regulations state that such "place" may now be understood to include "electronic, digital or virtual locations such as internet locations, web addresses or conference call telephone numbers".
The methods by which the public can now have access to the meetings include (but are not limited to) video conferencing, live webcast and live interactive streaming. The Regulations are not prescriptive as to the specific platform for meetings so long as there is video and audio capabilities, but it is important to note that the public may need capability to participate in the meeting also.
Regulation 4 states that the authority may determine when they hold any meetings and alter the frequency, move or cancel any such meetings without further notice. This provides flexibility as to when meetings are held and seemingly gives authorities broad discretion with their timetable. We would, however note, that notice of the meeting and availability of documents for such meeting may now be on the authority's website only.
Authorities are empowered to make provision in the authority's standing orders for remote attendance at meetings regarding, for instance, voting, member and public access to documents; and remote access of public and press to a local authority meeting to enable their attendance or participation.
Disqualification under s.85
Members of local authorities will be reassured that their remote attendance at a meeting is sufficient to avoid any threat of "disqualification" under s.85 of the LGA 1972.
Resourcing remote meetings
Authorities will obviously need to consider the methods by which they wish to conduct meetings, with many Council buildings closed it may be necessary for wholly electronic meetings to be held. In order to do so authorities will need to consider the provider of such technology and whether they are adequately secure and protected (especially in terms of voting) as well as carrying the requisite licence from the software providers.
Authorities will also need to ensure that there is suitable access to the remote meetings to members of the public (where public access is not lawfully excluded) There may well be additional practical issues with delivering meetings, for example the requirements that the public attendees to be able to hear and see the meeting as well as be heard and, where practicable, be seen themselves. Every authority will need to ensure that its systems for holding virtual meetings will be compatible with the requirements of the Regulations.
Updating Standing Orders
The Regulations state that authorities may update standing orders to refer to remote forms of meetings and attendance. Depending on the current flexibility within authority's Standing Orders this may not be necessary, however we would advise all authorities wishing to commence remote meetings to consider their standing orders first. Conducting a meeting in contravention of its standing orders may invalidate the decisions made.
A brave new world
The Coronavirus Act 2020 provides that the Regulations made under s. 78 can only apply to meetings required to be held, or held, before 7 May 2021. Any extension beyond this period will require primary legislation. The Government has previously consulted on introducing flexibility into the local government meeting process. As local government beds down into new and remote ways of working, with easily accessible virtual meetings potentially leading to more community engagement in meetings than we have seen in the past, the nettle of modernising local authority meetings might finally be grasped.