15 April 2021

Britain’s best known local council figure, Jackie Weaver and the professional body for IT have together called on the Government to make online council meetings legal, post-lockdown.

Jackie Weaver became an internet sensation when her handling of a combative meeting of Handforth Parish Council via Zoom, went viral.

Ms Weaver and BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT are calling for the right to continue to hold council meetings online, granted temporarily under the Coronavirus Act 2020, to become a permanent option.

They say the online meetings, which proved successful under lockdown, will grow participation in local democracy long-term - and help the environment.

Jackie, of Cheshire Association of Local Councils said: “The continuation of virtual council meetings is essential for enhancing local democracy which is the foundation of our society.

“It was vital to avoid face-to-face meetings during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, but there has been a great deal of feedback from local councils about the additional benefits of remote meetings. That includes the environmental and cost benefits of reduced travel, increased participation from local residents, accessibility, and the ability of the community to bear witness to the process. Remote meetings also have the potential to attract more diverse local council members.

“Returning to face-to-face meetings poses a significant challenge for England’s parish and town councils. I am deeply disappointed at the government’s decision not to extend remote meetings powers when there is a clear case and extensive benefits for this. I ask that The National Association of Local Councils (NALC) keeps lobbying for it and urge everyone to contact their local MP and tell them why this is so important.”

John Higgins, President of BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT said: “Online access to local council meetings has shown us the good, the bad and the ugly in local decision making. To use an old adage, the now notorious Handforth Parish Council video showed us how the sausage gets made, and although we didn’t much like what we saw – it’s better to see it being made than not.

Digital access to local democracy during the pandemic has transformed our ability to hold elected officials to account and call out inappropriate behaviour. It has also reignited calls for civil society to create a far more inclusive environment to encourage greater, more diverse participation in decision making; this reckoning is long overdue and Government must act swiftly to ensure our democracy remains online.”

“Local authorities have risen to the challenge of ensuring council business continues by conducting meetings remotely and with the right standards and security measures in place, online or hybrid meetings are far more accessible for elected members, local residents and the media.

“They vastly reduce travel time for councillors and allow documents to be more readily available and shared. Most promising of all is the potential for a more diverse range of people to be heard and have influence.”

The Coronavirus Act 2020 came into force on 4 April 2020 granting the right for council meetings in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to take place remotely through software such as Zoom or Teams. Currently this is due to come to an end on 7 May 2021.

Local authorities in Scotland already had the power to meet remotely prior to the pandemic. The Welsh Government has since made legal provision for Welsh local authorities to meet remotely.

The Government has launched a Call for Evidence on Local Authority Remote Meetings to gather evidence on whether to make current arrangements permanent in England.

The Local Government Association (LGA) and several partners also wrote to Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government last year calling for the law to be extended.

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