Report of the County Solicitor: Chief Officer for Legal, Communications and Human Resources (CSO/20/15) outlining the scope of the Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020 and the Council’s Meetings Protocol, attached.
The Committee considered the Report of the County Solicitor: Chief Officer for Legal, Communications and Human Resources (CSO/20/15) which outlined the scope of the Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020 and the Council’s Meetings Protocol.
The Report highlighted that the Regulations had been made by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, in exercise of the powers conferred by section 78 of the Coronavirus Act 2020(1) and paragraph 36(1)(b) of Schedule 6 to the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011(2) and applied to local authority meetings (and police and crime panel meetings) that were required to be held, or held before 7th May 2021.
Of particular note were the changes in respect of the frequency of meetings, the Regulations overriding current Standing Orders, the requirement to hold an annual meeting being disapplied, access to information and the requirement for a paper copy of an agenda to be displayed in Council’s offices being removed, requirements for access of the public and press to meetings and the requirements under the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012.
Of course, the permission to allow remote attendance in Local Authority meetings was, by far, the most significant change to working practices. The Regulations stated that meetings were not limited to a meeting of persons all of whom, or any of whom, were present in the same place. The reference to a “place” included reference to more than one place, for example electronic, digital or virtual locations (internet locations, web addresses or conference call telephone numbers). A Member ‘in remote attendance’ could attend as long as certain conditions were satisfied such as being able to hear and be heard. The regulations preferred a visual solution, but audio was sufficient.
In order to apply the Regulations to current working practices, a formal meetings protocol was prepared. The most important issue was that the Protocol was as close to current processes, standing orders and public participation as possible, therefore ensuring accessibility was at the forefront of the new working.
A copy of the Protocol was attached at Appendix 1 to the Report which covered the use of Microsoft Teams for hosting remote / virtual meetings, access to documents, setting up the meeting, including external participants, joining the meeting (including a step by step guide), starting the meeting, quorum, declarations of interests, notice to speak, public participation, rules of debate, meeting etiquette, voting, part 2 reports, interpretation of standing orders, disorderly conduct, disturbance from the public, actions after the meeting, technical issues and equality.
Members also noted that the Council undertook its first remote meeting on the 8th April (Cabinet), which was just 5 days after the Regulations were published. The Council continued to learn and the technology still advanced with new functionality, so the experience of remote meetings would continually improve. The Local Government Association published Devon as one of their first case studies on their Remote Council Meetings Guidance webpages.
There were clearly savings to be made from holding remote meetings, however, Members noted a further price of work would be conducted which would consider meetings of the future and include many of the wider issues such as budgets, climate change and the environment.
It was MOVED by Councillor Connett, SECONDED by Councillor Aves, and
(a) that the contents of the Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020 meetings regulations be noted; and
(b) that the Regulation’s be formally adopted and the Council’s formal Meetings Protocol be endorsed.