Jackie Weaver: ‘End virtual council meetings? Dreadful idea’

Jackie Weaver has joined critics of a government move to end virtual council meetings in England from May.

By Jennifer Scott www.bbc.co.uk

Jackie Weaver

Minister Luke Hall has written to local authorities saying the government is under too much pressure to fit in legislation to allow them to continue.

Ms Weaver, who rose to fame after a meeting of Handforth Parish Council went viral, said it would be “dreadful” to bring them to an end.

The Local Government Association also called for the decision to be reversed.

Chair of the organisation, Councillor James Jamieson, said reintroducing face-to-face meetings “could easily involve up to 200 people in one room, even before adding in members of the public and reporters” – so their return would pose a “significant challenge” to councils to make them Covid-secure.

Lawyers in local government, along with Hertfordshire County Council, have now made an application to the courts to declare authorities already have the powers needed to hold online meetings.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said it had asked councils to share their experiences of remote meetings, saying they will use the evidence “to inform any potential future legislation regarding their use beyond the pandemic”.

Like many other organisations, local councils were forced to go online in 2020 due to the pandemic and restrictions on public meetings.

Emergency legislation was passed in the Commons to give them the power to do business over video conferencing tools, but the temporary law is due to run out the day after the local elections on 6 May.

In his letter, Mr Hall – the minister for regional growth and local government – praised the efforts of local authorities in England, saying they had “risen magnificently to the challenges of this period”.

But he said extending virtual meetings past May would involved primary legislation in the Commons, which would have a “significant impact… on the government’s legislative programme, which is already under severe pressure in these unprecedented times”.

media captionViral moments like this Handforth Parish Council meeting could come to an end – but there are more serious reasons for concern too

Mrs Weaver – the chief officer of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils – told BBC Radio Derby it would be “dreadful” to bring virtual meetings to an end.

She added: “I think all the evidence is out there to show that actually Zoom has done more… [and] has been instrumental in getting people involved.

“We can see it in the figures [with] people turning up. We are seeing it in the people that are showing interest in elections.

“I am not saying all council meetings should be held virtually and I know a lot of my councils are keen to get back to face-to-face meetings, but it would be so helpful, so valuable to be able to hold Zoom meetings.”

Mr Jamieson agreed the move risked “damaging the gains seen in public participation in remote council meetings during the pandemic and our vital local democratic process”.

He also pointed to the imbalance when it came to the rules in Westminster.

“MPs will retain the right to participate remotely until at least 21 June, but the powers-that-be in the House of Commons will not make time available to legislate for councillors to do the same,” he added.

The County Councils Network said the government’s decision was “deeply disappointing, considering the success of remote meetings”.

Its chairman, Councillor David Williams, said he had concerns over whether face-to-face council meetings could be done safely, adding: “The decision is illogical when you bear in mind the government’s own guidance stipulates that indoor events cannot be organised until 17 May at the earliest.”

‘Consider permanent option’

Asked for a response to the criticism, the ministry sent a statement from Mr Hall, who said: “Councils continue to play a vital role in our response to the pandemic and I am grateful for how they have used emergency powers introduced a year ago to continue to operate at a difficult time.

“As the vaccine roll-out continues and restrictions are lifted, councils holding face-to-face meetings from 7 May are being given the support and guidance they need to do so in a safe and secure way.”

He added: “I am keen to hear from councils and local residents about their experiences of virtual meetings so that we can properly consider whether to make these a permanent option.”