As I type we are one week away from the expiry of the 2020 Coronavirus Act provision that allows Parish Councils to meet remotely. After May 6th, Parish Councils are expected once more to meeet physically in a public venue.
This is to comply with laws that were written long before teleconferencing was even a word, and the only means of distant personal communication had a rotary dial and a curly wire into a wall socket. No mobile telephony, no Internet, no email or web browser. Can you even imagine such times now?
In the face of the pandemic, the government worked to produce primary legislation in order to safely allow the work of local authorities to continue. But they time limited it, in the expectation this ‘would all blow over shortly’. Of course, it didn’t, and still hasn’t.
Unlike county councils and town councils, most parish councils don’t have their own buildings in which to hold meetings. They rely on meeting in venues owned and operated by others. In our case we used to meet in a small room in the village hall.
It was snug even when members of the public did not also attend; a dozen people sat around a large table in a room approximately 5m x 6m.
When we realised how much longer than planned the pandemic was going on for, I wrote to my MP Luke Hall, back in February. As it turned out he claimed to be responsible for the legislation that allowed us to continue working throughout the crisis. He replied to my call to extend the provision:
“I am actually the Minister responsible for this change, and have received numerous representations from individual local authorities and sector representative organisations making the case for the continuation of remote meetings beyond 7 May 2021. As with your own email, the arguments have been well made and are understood. At the moment there is no option under the Coronavirus Act 2020 to extend the current regulations allowing councils to meet remotely or in hybrid form, as the legislation contains a limitation date of 7 May 2021.”
It wasn’t of course solely my Parish Council that wrote in seeking clarity on the situation. A High Court case was brought by Hertfordshire County Council, Lawyers in Local Government and the Association of Democratic Services Officers. You will of course note that at Westminster business is still being conducted remotely, with very few MPs turning up to sit in the House of Commons.
It’s not a simple issue of get on with it. Firstly, there is the matter of the venue. Too small, or unavailable, or of undetermined hygiene especially if used by unknown others. And a Parish Council is highly unlikely to have cleaning staff. Who affirms the safety of the venue?
Then there are the meeting participants. It may be that some or all of the councillors and staff have had one or even two of the vaccinations. My second one is scheduled for 4th May. But without vaccine passports we don’t know and can’t ask if anyone has decided not to or cannot take a vaccine. And we don’t know who might choose to come to a public meeting.
I’m married to someone who is extremely clinically vulnerable to covid-19. I’ve pretty much isolated with her for the last fourteen months. My clerk is also vulnerable. Other members of the council may be, or their partners or children may be. It is not reasonable to expect us to gather together when remote meeting has proved so very worthwhile.
We have had more members of the public attend our Teams online meetings than used to turn up to physical meetings. We’ve asked if they prefer to have an annual report made available rather than hold an annual meeting of the parish, and the majority who responded did. We are not our grandparents… we can work in a screen more effectively, see documents more clearly, hear each other more clearly, and work more safely.
If it’s not safe for our MPs in the huge rooms of Westminster, how can it be safe for Parish Councillors in smaller rented venues? And how hard can it be to bring new legislation, or extend the current legislation, or simply give guidance to affirm decisions made in remote meetings will contnue to be deemed lawful?
In an environment where people are fined for coming together, it is ludicrous that we might be sanctioned for refusing to do so.