This is quite bizarre in the short term because meetings are not permitted under current Covid rules. According to the roadmap, from 17th May groups of 30 will be allowed to meet outdoors, but only 6 indoors. The earliest date at which meetings could be held indoors would be 21st June. In stark contrast, Parliament will continue to allow remote attendance until 21st June.
But it is also worrying in the long term, since the current practice has made it possible for councillors and members of the public to attend meetings even when they could not physically attend easily for reasons of health or disability.
Some 90 Lib Dem Council Leaders and Opposition Leaders have signed an open letter to Robert Jenrick MP, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, and to Luke Hall MP, Minister of State for Regional Growth and Local Government. Here is the text of their letter:
Dear Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP & Rt Hon Luke Hall MP
We write to you as Liberal Democrat Leaders and Group Leaders on councils across England. The government’s decision not to extend legislation allowing councils to meet flexibly after May 7th 2021 is wrong and should be reversed as a matter of urgency.
Local councils across the country have worked hard to ensure that virtual meetings are accessible and inclusive, with many examples of increased public participation since their inception. We take the public health of our residents, employees, and elected members very seriously, and have grave concerns over the practical and health implications of what the government is proposing. Praising the work of local councils in your letter as “magnificent” is meaningless if poorly thought-through decisions such as these are dictated to local authorities, with zero consultation or input.
And we know this opposition extends beyond our party – we agree with the Conservative Chair of the LGA who has been very clear in his statement: “This decision is extremely disappointing. The Government’s own roadmap out of lockdown states that indoor gatherings or events – organised by a business, charity, public body or similar organisation – cannot be organised until May 17 at the earliest. Yet councils will be unable to hold remote meetings from May 7. MPs will retain the right to participate remotely until at least June 21 but the powers-that-be in the House of Commons will not make time available to legislate for councillors to do the same.”
We call on you to allow councils to choose on this matter and are happy to meet with you or your officials to discuss how this can be done.
We have also been sent a quote from Cllr Howard Sykes, who is the Leader of the Lib Dem group on the Local Government Association. He writes:
In February we saw the Tories say that it was too dangerous for Councillors to deliver a leaflet outside, despite being masked up and following COVID safety rules in the fresh air, but it’s now ok to cram councillors into a hot crowded council chambers – this decision is absolute madness.
* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames where she is still very active with the local party.
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