Dear Mr Rees-Mogg,
Extension of local authority remote meeting arrangements
Last January, Crawley lost one of its councillors to COVID-19 and even with the progress of the vaccination programme we have members for whom the coronavirus continues to pose a deadly risk. I am asking for your help to ensure that no member of Crawley Borough Council is forced to choose between putting their health at risk or fulfilling their duties as a member of the council, by allowing councils to continue to hold meetings remotely until the pandemic has ended.
While there are many areas on which the different political groups on Crawley Borough Council disagree, the request to continue meeting remotely until the risk has passed benefits from cross-party support, as expressed unanimously at a recent meeting of the council’s Governance Committee: https://democracy.crawley.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=136&MId=3062
We would urge the Government not to make the mistake of conflating the desire for Parliament to return to in-person meetings with a decision around the appropriate arrangements for local government. Councillors act on a voluntary basis and are typically of a more advanced age than Members of Parliament.
It has been claimed that there is not sufficient time to bring in alternative arrangements before the May deadline. However, I was at Westminster the evening the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 was forced through the Commons in a single night. Where there is a need for it, provision can always be made.
Even if fast-tracking is not considered acceptable, the Secretary of State for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has the power under section 16 of the Local Government Act 1999 to modify the Local Government Act 1972 to allow these arrangements to continue, without the need for primary legislation. Alternatively, a deregulation order could be considered under section 1 of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994, even though there is now limited time for consultation.
As we carefully transition out of the pandemic, let us decide how to best mix in-person and remote meetings locally. Councils are democratically elected and locally accountable bodies, and we should have the flexibility to determine how, when and where to use this flexibility to benefit local communities. We fully understand that many meetings are best held in person – in many instances there can be no substitute for the face to face contact we have all missed. However, our council meets for many reasons, taking decisions across a wide variety of issues, and in many of these cases a meeting can be held just as satisfactorily online.
In the short term, if these powers are lost after 6 May, we will be in the impossible position of not being able to hold meetings remotely, but also having to restrict the numbers of councillors that attend in-person meetings to adhere to social distancing requirements. Whatever our ambition, it is not realistic for councils to find alternative local venues that can host a whole council meeting of 36 councillors, officers and members of the public in ways that adhere to current requirements.
The Prime Minister’s Roadmap to move our communities out of restrictions makes clear that gatherings of over 30 people outdoors will remain illegal until at least 21 June. Families and friends will continue to miss funerals and weddings, so we do not see how it is reasonable to require local authorities to hold lengthy gatherings of well over 30 people indoors to carry out council business which can easily be conducted remotely until further restrictions are lifted. Paragraph 3.4 of the Government’s own guidance on “Working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19)” makes clear the arrangements that businesses should make, the first step being to avoid in-person meetings.
If the provisions are not extended, it will be the case that many democratically elected councillors will be disenfranchised, and communities will effectively lose representation on the local issues at a key point in our local health and economic recovery. Indeed, remote meetings have facilitated local democracy, making it more accessible to different groups in our communities, making it more accessible to different groups in our communities, and we want to keep that flexibility about how we hold our meetings in future, not just during the pandemic.
We would encourage you to work with the Secretary of State the Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP to enable councils like ourselves to have choice about how we organise our meetings, so that we can use our local knowledge, and local judgment, to conduct our business effectively for the benefit of local communities.
Cllr Peter Lamb
Leader, Crawley Borough Council