Local council meetings
Following the government announcement of further easing of lockdown restrictions from 4 July, as at 26 June, both NALC and SLCC strongly advise local councils to continue to meet remotely, without the need for face to face contact. The government rules still state that we should all work from home if we can.
Local councils have the powers to hold public meetings remotely by using video or telephone conferencing technology until May 2021 and so most councils will have no need to meet in person. Furthermore, local councils have the duty to allow the public to observe council meetings without placing restrictions on the number attending, which many council meeting venues will not be able to accommodate in a safe way at this time.
However, where a local council does have an identified need to hold a physical meeting, as they are unable to conduct council business any other way, they can consider doing so from 4 July. These meetings must be managed within the social distancing and safer workplaces guidance produced by the government, which includes the requirement to conduct a risk assessment to determine if it is feasible and safe to hold a physical meeting.
It is important that this risk assessment is carried out, and any identified actions to reduce risk to attendees are implemented before any face-to-face meetings resume. Councils must keep documentation of this risk assessment and the reasons why the council has taken the decision to return to face-to-face meetings.
If your council wishes to consider returning to face-to-face meetings we have produced a checklist to help ensure this decision is made in accordance with relevant regulations and requirements.
Restrictions to social gatherings from 14 September 2020
The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (England) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2020 were made on 13 September and came in to force today, 14 September, at 12.01. They amend the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (England) Regulations 2020 ("the Principal Regulations"), so that people may not participate in social gatherings, in any place, in groups of more than six, unless they are members of the same household, two linked households or exceptions apply.
NALC’s view is that although the Principal Regulations continue to permit local councils to hold meetings (now as an exemption to the six-person gatherings limit) in COVID-19 secure premises, the NALC position remains that we recommend that councils continue to meet remotely. MHCLG reissued its guidance last week and deals with meetings at section 3d. MHCLG continues to recommend that where meetings can take place digitally without the need for face-to-face contact, they should continue to do so.
Remote meeting regulations
On 12 August, Simon Clarke MP wrote a letter to NALC to thank all organisations across local government that “have responded so magnificently to the challenge of ensuring that vital council business continues by conducting your council meetings remotely”. The letter also provides information on changes to the regulations that affect Parish Meetings
On 2 April, the government published The Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020. These regulations came into force on 4 April.
NALC has also responded to the government, feeding back issues relating to the regulations – this information can be found in the engaging with government section.
Understanding the regulations:
- NALC has a legal briefing on our interpretation of the regulations
- Lawyers in Local Government (LLG) and the Association of Democratic Services Officers (ADSO) have also produced guidance on the regulations on how they affect all local authorities – NALC was pleased to contribute to sections related to local councils.
Guidance for holding meetings remotely:
- NALC has produced guidance for local councils on how to hold effective remote council meetings. This also includes information on how to approach hybrid meetings, where some individuals attend in person and others join remotely.
- Northamptonshire County Association of Local Councils has created a video to demonstrate what a virtual meeting of (the fictional) Great Pipping Parish Council would look like. It is a training video designed to show how a chairman would deal with councillors joining by computer and phone, declarations of interest, public participation and confidential items where members of the public and press are excluded.
- The National Centre for Cyber Security (NCSC) has issued updated guidance to help individuals and organisations choose, set up and use video conferencing safely and securely.
- We have received a large number of queries related to Zoom. If you do choose to use Zoom, there is a range of free information and training to help people use the platform which is definitely worth having a look at to help get you started. A recent update on the Zoom blog has been guidance on hosting public meetings including how to keep uninvited guests out of your meeting.
Other activity related to remote council meetings:
- NALC has been pleased to be involved with a number of national organisations to provide guidance and support on holding remote meetings.
- NALC engaged with the Crown Commercial Service and Zoom regarding a discounted package. This discount is only available for a minimum of 10 licences per subscription, so is unlikely to be appropriate for many local councils, but if you would like to find out more do contact your county association.
Health Protection Regulations and council meetings
The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (England) Regulations 2020 (“the 2020 Regulations”) were made on 3 July and came in to force on 4 July.
The 2020 Regulations refer to gatherings in private dwellings, vessels and land that is a public outdoor place. No more than 30 persons can participate in a gathering in such places. Public bodies are able to exceed the 30 person gathering restriction in premises used for the operation of a public body if certain conditions are met. They are:
- the gathering has been organised by the public body;
- the person responsible for organising the gathering has carried out the requisite risk assessment (which would satisfy the requirements of regulation 3 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999), and;
- the gathering organiser has taken all reasonable measures to limit the risk of transmission of the coronavirus, taking into account the risk assessment.
In determining whether all reasonable measures have been taken to limit the risk of transmission of the coronavirus, any guidance issued by the government relevant to the gathering in question must be taken into account.
NALC’s view of the 2020 Regulations is that (i) public body can include parish councils and parish meetings and (ii) they do not prevent gatherings of more than 30 people (indoors or outdoors) if the above conditions are met. However, NALC remains of the view that remote meetings are the best way of holding meetings at this time.
The above guidance applies until the further direction of the Secretary of State and the Regulations will be reviewed every 28 days, the first review being carried out by 31 July.
Impact on year-end accounts and audit
Following NALC’s engagement with government around local council audit timeframes final regulations were published on 7 April and will come into force on 30 April. These extend the statutory audit deadlines for 2019/20.
The Joint Practitioners Action Group (JPAG) has produced updated flow charts and step-by-step guides related to the changes to audit time frames. These can be found on our JPAG webpage.
We are pleased the government has listened to the sector and recognises the need for an extension to the timeframes for audit. This extension is for two months and not the minimum of at least three months which NALC called for in our response to the consultation on the draft regulations.
On 22 April, Max Soule, Deputy Director, Local Authority Accountability and Oversight at MHCLG has emailed a letter to all local authority chief executives in England, confirming the extended audit deadlines for 2019/20, just in case they were not aware through other sources. The letter is also being published on Gov.uk to ensure that it is in the wider public domain.
Will elections be affected?
The Coronavirus Act, which the government introduced on 19 March, postpones any elections that were due to be held in May 2020 until 6 May 2021. Any other electoral events, such as the council or parliamentary by-elections, will also be postponed until May 2021.
NALC has published a legal briefing, which gives guidance on the implications for local councils of the Local Government and Police and Crime Commissioner (Coronavirus) (Postponement of Elections and Referendums) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020. This includes commentary on the prohibition on holding elections to fill casual vacancies until 6 May 2021.