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Government minister reiterates need for primary legislation if councils to be allowed to hold meetings remotely on permanent basis

The Government has reiterated the current position that any permanent change allowing local authorities to meet remotely requires primary legislation, after calls last month from organisations including the Local Government Association (LGA), Lawyers in Local Government (LLG) and the Association of Democratic Services Officers (ADSO) for councils to be given the ability - even if only on a temporary basis - to hold meetings in this way in light of the impact of the Omicron variant.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle, a Green Party peer, had submitted a written question asking whether, further to the spread of the Omicron variant, “local government bodies can hold meetings remotely if they choose”.

In a written statement issued on 31 December 2021, Lord Greenhalgh,, Minister of State for Building Safety and Fire jointly at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Home Office, said: “A High Court judgement handed down on 27 April 2021 confirmed that the Local Government Act 1972 specifies that council meetings must take place in person at a single, specified, geographical location and being “present” at such a meeting involves physical presence at that location.

“This judgement confirmed that the regulations which allowed local authorities to meet remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic did not apply to meetings after 6 May 2021.”

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He added: “Any permanent change would require primary legislation, and would depend upon Parliamentary time being available. Non-statutory or other informal meetings where local authorities deem that in-person attendance is not required can be held virtually.”

Lord Greenhalgh’s statement does not mention whether a temporary change is under consideration.

In response to the ministerial statement LLG said: "LLG together with ADSO are surprised and somewhat confused by the response from Lord Greenhalgh, which seems to be out of sync with previous statements from Michael Gove and Kemi Badenoch. Last summer, the local government sector was invited through the call for evidence to put forward its case for remote meetings. We still await the Government’s response despite the statement by Lord Greenhalgh. The Judges in the High Court case on remote hearings were clear that it was for Parliament to change the law (as had happened in Scotland and Wales) not the courts of law. It is therefore within the gift of Government to make such provision.

"Remote meetings bring many advantages to local democracy beyond tackling Covid, but the urgent need is to manage the risks of Omicron. Since the publication of regulations on 13th December relating to Plan B, there is a now fundamental inequality between councillors and officers. The latter are encouraged to work from home. They can therefore attend meetings remotely. Councillors cannot. Many councils are struggling to ensure the safety of councillors in venues which are not fit for such purpose. Local democracy is being adversely affected as a result.”

ADSO and LLG this week launched a petition calling for councils to be given the choice to meet remotely.

Last month the LGA added its voice to calls for urgent legislation to facilitate councils being able to host remote and hybrid meetings in light of the Omicron variant.

Cllr James Jamieson, Chair of the Association, noted that a recent LGA survey of councils, conducted before the emergence of Omicron, on the impact of returning exclusively to in-person meetings showed that 72% of councils saw a drop in councillor attendance at statutory council meetings and 73% reported that public attendance at council meetings had also fallen.

Earlier in December LLG and ADSO had urged ministers to restore the ability of councils to meet remotely, even if only for a temporary period.

The spread of the Omicron variant has led councils to cancel meetings. Cambridgeshire County Council cancelled a full council meeting to be held on 14 December, citing “fears about the effect of rising numbers of the new covid variant ‘omicron’ on Members, staff and residents who have not yet had their vaccination booster, and those vulnerable to poor Covid outcomes”.

Kent County Council also cancelled a full council meeting scheduled for 16 December. Vice-Chairman Lesley Game said that despite the flexibility of members to try and help the meeting go ahead, “in face of rising cases, and with so much still unknown about Omicron”, she had a duty to consider the health, safety and welfare of all those who had been due to be in the Chamber at County Hall.

The Government call for evidence on the use of remote meetings closed on 17 June 2021.

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