In this time of great uncertainty, the Government has issued much-welcomed Regulations which will give local authorities greater flexibility in the conduct of meetings. The Regulations came into force on 4 April 2020 and apply to local authority meetings (and Police and Crime Panel meetings) which are required to be held, or held, before 7 May 2021.
The Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020 (“the Regulations”)
The key points for local authorities are as follows:
- you can hold and alter the frequency and occurrence of meetings without requirement for further notice
- you can determine not to hold your annual meeting
- current appointments will continue until the next annual meeting or when the local authority determines
- meetings, including any annual meetings, can be held remotely, including by (but not limited to) telephone conferencing, video conferencing, live webcast, and live interactive streaming
- requirements for public and press access to meetings and documents can also be complied with through similar remote access
- you can make standing orders in respect of remote meetings, and will not be constrained by any existing restrictions.
The measures will come as a huge relief to local authorities, particularly as until now they have been required by legislation to hold annual meetings between March and May, such meetings being in person, requiring attendance of all members at a place together.
Fundamentally, the ethos behind the Regulations is to be enabling. They confer the statutory power to hold a remote meeting without the need to effect any immediate amendment to an authority’s constitution in order to have that meeting. This is notwithstanding any prohibition or other restriction contained in the standing orders or any other rules of the authority governing the meeting.
Furthermore, the Regulations make provision for authorities to make changes to their standing orders, at a remote meeting convened under this new power, to enable them to deal with the practicalities of holding remote meetings. Such practicalities include voting, member and public access to documents and remote access of public and press.
The power to make standing orders also provides an opportunity for councils to establish protocols for use by members and the public and implement measures to prevent abuse.
It should be noted that it remains the case that conducting a meeting in contravention of standing orders may invalidate the decisions made by an authority. It will therefore be important to use the power to make standing orders to cover off the practicalities for the new, remote way of meeting.
The flexibility introduced by the Regulations will be important not only for local authority meetings, but for other public meetings such as planning inquiries and licensing hearings and, potentially, public consultation.
For the purposes of these Regulations, a local authority includes county councils, district councils, combined authorities, parish councils, joint committees constituted to be a local planning authority, fire and rescue authorities and national park authorities. The Regulations apply to meetings of a local authority, an executive of a local authority, a joint committee of two or more local authorities, and a committee or sub-committee of any of those bodies.
Remote attendance conditions
Regulation 5 makes it clear that any reference in other legislation that local authority meetings must involve persons being present in the same place can now be met by councillors attending remotely, provided certain conditions are met:
These are that members in remote attendance must at all times be able:
- to hear (and where possible see) and be so heard (and where possible be seen) by the other members in attendance
- to hear (and where possible see) and so be heard (and where possible be seen), by any member of the public entitled to attend the meeting; and
- to be heard (and where possible be seen) by any other member of the public so entitled who are present or accessing the meeting remotely.
Local authorities will need to give close attention to these conditions and should bear in mind that whilst members need to be able to speak and hear, so do those who wish to “attend” any meeting in order to exercise a right to speak at it. Such members of the public may need to have access to a network or have access provided for them. Otherwise members of the public need only be able to hear.
A practical issue will be the need to ensure all members are capable of using the means chosen by which to hold meetings. Distance training and practice meetings before going live are likely to be invaluable.
Access to documents
The Regulations make provision for local authority members and officers, and the public, to have access to documents without attending council buildings. Under existing legislation, where certain documents are required to be made available for inspection by members of the public, it will now be sufficient for local authorities to publish the documents on their website.
The obligation to supply copies of such documents in response to requests made by members of the public and on behalf of newspapers will not apply at the current time. However, local authorities should still comply with their obligations under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 when requests for information are made.
Local authorities will need to ensure that they provide notice of their meetings when, and in the manner, required.
The requirement in England for five clear days’ notice to be given of principal council meetings, including annual meetings, still applies, although such notice can now be given on the council’s website.
More generally, a local authority can hold its meetings at such hour and on such days, and alter the frequency, move or cancel such meetings as they may determine, without requirement for further notice. Although the full effect of that provision is not totally clear, where notice of a meeting is required and has been given, but the meeting is subsequently cancelled, altered or moved, it would seem that further notice does not need to be given in respect of that change.
In summary, the Regulations provide great clarity, and some would say a step forward into the 21st Century, in relation to the acceptability of remote attendance at meetings, and the use of video-conferencing and live webcasts. Being able to hold all meetings flexibly, including annual meetings, executive meetings, and committee meetings, will assist local authority business to continue while adhering to official public health guidance.
We are acutely aware of the difficulty and pressure put onto our local authority clients at this time. For the foreseeable future we are operating business as usual and all of our lawyers and legal support are fully equipped to work from home, and are now doing so. If any current or prospective clients would like further guidance on this topic, please contact Ruth Neave, Legal Director and Head of Public Sector Team.
The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at April 2020.