Making democracy difficult

While we have all been hearing about the interior design tastes of various Conservative ladies (past, present and aspiring residents of Downing Street), there has been another little episode in the drama of local democracy. The case brought by Hertfordshire County Council to allow the continued use of Zoom and similar tools to enable on-line meetings was rejected by the High Court. For whatever reason, the government has managed to create a perfect example of Catch-22, as described by Mick Fletcher in his article a month ago.

Those involved in local government, at any level, will have been holding meetings throughout the Covid-19 crisis using remote meeting facilities like Zoom and Teams. Although the headlines are taken up with the response at central government level, all of us will have been directly affected by the reactions of our local councils in implementing those decisions and responding to local needs. This is where the arm-waving at central government level is translated into action on the ground. Opening or closing playgrounds and providing community support to those in need are the sort of things that even the smallest parish council will probably have had to manage. Multiply that up to the next level of local authorities, and issues such as public health and schools have a fundamental effect on the local management of the crisis.

None of this just happens of its own accord. Local government officers have worked throughout the crisis – often from home – and our elected members have also adopted remote working practices. However, for formal meetings of council members, the Coronavirus Act 2020 that was passed at the outset of the crisis had to include the critical piece of legislation to allow council members to attend meetings remotely, rather than in person. 

This legislation was fundamental in enabling our democratically elected councillors to oversee and direct the machinery of local government as it continued to function, and provide critical responses to the crisis.

The issue is that the legislation is time-limited and expires on 7 May 2021. From that date onwards, councils will no longer be able to meet online. To enable them to do so requires new primary legislation (apparently an extension of the existing legislation is not sufficient) and there are already too many other issues pressing on the government’s time:

“The Secretary of State declined to promote primary legislation for this purpose, due to pressure on the Government’s legislative programme.”

Councils are therefore left trying to square a circle in which they are not allowed to meet online, but at the same time the Roadmap out of Lockdown appears to preclude indoor meetings until 17 May while the rule of 6 applies. From 17 May, Step 3

“…will also allow some larger performances and sporting events in indoor venues with a capacity of 1,000 people or half-full (whichever is a lower number)”

Only by Step 4, which will take place no earlier than 21 June, does the government hope to be in a position to remove all legal limits on social contact.

On this basis, if you treat a council meeting as a performance or sporting event, it is possible to meet after 17 May – but only if the venue can accommodate double the number of elected members, plus a reasonable contingency for officers in attendance, and members of the public. Otherwise (and assuming that the roadmap encounters no diversions for any reason) councils must wait until Step 4 on 21 June before meeting.

Remember that in some cases the forthcoming elections mean that it will be a new set of councillors who have to make these decisions, and that they must meet within 21 days of the elections scheduled for 6 May. Remember also that many council chambers are deliberately configured to accommodate the number of elected members (unlike the House of Commons, which does not even have enough seating space for its MPs).

The mystery remains why the government has wilfully chosen to make life difficult for local authorities. Is it just a dislike of new-fangled technology and a yearning for the 18th century? In those days, the two parties in the Commons had to be separated by more than the length of a sword – which virtual meetings would satisfy admirably. 

Note that Wales and Scotland already have legislation allowing remote attendance at meetings, and have had for some years. It is very much a matter of government choice that the same is not yet true in England. 

In the legal challenge, led by Hertfordshire County Council to establish whether remote meetings could continue within the current legislation, the High Court concluded that they could not, and that new legislation would be required.

“We recognise that there are powerful arguments in favour of permitting remote meetings. But, as the consultation documents show, there are also arguments against doing so. The decision whether to permit some or all local authority meetings to be conducted remotely, and if so, how and subject to what safeguards, involves difficult policy choices on which there is likely to be a range of competing views. These choices have been made legislatively for Scotland by the Scottish Parliament and for Wales by the Senedd. In England, they are for Parliament, not the courts.”

Robert Jenrick, the secretary of state for local government, has undertaken a consultation, launched on 25 March, to understand the experience of local authorities in the whole of the UK regarding remote meetings. Anyone can contribute.

It would be a great shame if the evidence were not forthcoming to demonstrate the benefits of remote meetings under normal circumstances, capturing the lessons learned in lockdown. For my part, these include:

  • Economy: our parish Clerk covers more than one parish and must travel from home to meetings, for which we pay her mileage.
  • Comfort: allthough our village hall is a lovely place, its charm on a January evening has begun to wear off by about 10pm. It can be a bit draughty.
  • Inclusion: the flexibility of attendance from home would enable a wider range of people to attend meetings and to serve on councils 
  • Community involvement: we have had new faces attending the meetings. One attendee has even been co-opted onto the council.
  • Convenience: for the future, I would not need to tailor my travel plans around meeting dates, as I could attend remotely. Equally, I could attend from home if I were suffering from a minor illness, which would save me from passing a cold on to the rest of the council. 

I accept that there may be downsides: for example, for those who are not internet-enabled. We need to consider these and make allowance. However, England is the back marker and can build on the experiences of Wales and Scotland, so it should not be difficult.  

Therefore, while I have a nagging worry at the back of my mind as to whether the government has some private agenda about online meetings (which the private sector now regards as absolutely normal), I would encourage anyone who has practical experience to respond to the consultation. Why should local government not join the 21st century?