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Agenda item

Local Authority Remote Meetings: Government Call for Evidence

To agree a response to the Local Authority Remote Meetings: Government Call for Evidence.

Subject To Call In::No - Decision taken as urgent as defined in Scrutiny Rule of Procedure 15.1 because there would be insufficient time for the completion of the call-in process before the consultation deadline.

Decision:

That the Council’s response to the consultation entitled Local Authority Remote Meetings: Call for Evidence be delegated to the Borough Solicitor, in consultation with the Leader of the Council, taking account of the Committee’s discussion, including:

·        Delete the first bullet point in response to Q5 and replace with wording to indicate that Members missed the informal exchanges they were able to have when meeting in person.

·        Expand on the point that members of the public had encountered some issues with accessing Zoom meetings when speaking at Committee.

·        Include reference to there being additional costs of remote meetings as well as savings.

·        Reflect both sides of the arguments for and against hybrid meetings e.g. improved work/life balance / not always conducive to individual domestic circumstances of participants.

·        While there was no evidence that some Members were not participating in remote meetings in the same way they would if the meetings were held in person, there was concern expressed that there may be reticence on the part of some Members to participate.

·        The Council had moved to a recorded vote by default which was not the right thing from a Constitutional point of view but also it lengthened the meeting process considerably.

Minutes:

7.1            The report of the Head of Democratic Services, circulated at Pages No. 18-25, asked Members to approve the Council’s response to the government consultation entitled Local Authority Remote Meetings: Call for Evidence. 

7.2            The Borough Solicitor advised that the Regulations which had been introduced to enable meetings to be held remotely had expired on 7 May 2021 and the government had now issued a consultation paper asking for evidence on local authority remote meetings. The intention was that it would gain an understanding of how much, if any, appetite there was for remote meetings to continue, either solely or in a hybrid way, and therefore how any primary legislation should be drafted. The report before Members had been drafted from the Officer perspective of how the meetings had been administered and comments received from Members over the last year and the Committee was asked to add the Member perspective should they so wish; there was of course no requirement for the Council to make a submission should that be the Committee’s choice.

7.3            The Chair welcomed comments; he knew there were a wide variety of views and felt it would be a good idea for them to be shared and then encapsulated at the end. During the discussion which ensued, a Member expressed the view that the report was a fair assessment of the issues but felt there was room to clarify the issues that some members of the public had experienced when trying to access public speaking remotely at Planning Committee. He also questioned whether the Council was considering introducing the option of webcasting its meetings. In response, the Borough Solicitor confirmed that this was being considered and the costs being calculated for further discussion.

7.4            One Member expressed the view that the questions put forward in the consultation were not very balanced. He felt remote meetings were leading the Council into Members being isolated in their homes with no contact with fellow Councillors. Meetings had tended to take longer as some had difficulty accessing them meaning they did not commence on time and the requirement to take the vote by asking each Councillor in turn to state for, against or abstain took a long time. He agreed that the Council should be webcasting meetings, as it provided more opportunity for members of the public to observe, but he would not want to see a situation where all meetings became remote – although he could see the scope for smaller, one-to-one type meetings to be held in that way. In terms of costs, whilst he could see there would be reductions there would also have been costs and this was not something which was mentioned within the consultation document. Referring to the benefits in terms of climate change, it was the case that people working from home were using their vehicles less but, of course, those that walked, cycled or had electric vehicles were already reducing their carbon footprint. He also felt that being made to work from home could cause a strain on family life due to the inconvenience for other family members of having to avoid certain rooms or being quiet at different times so as not to disturb meetings. In particular, he had missed the contact with other Councillors and Officers which was gained from seeing each other face to face.

7.5            Referring to the questions asked within the consultation, a number of Members felt the report did that well. It was accepted that remote meetings did not suit everyone but there were those that it worked for really well in terms of being able to better fit life and work together; particularly where they had a lot of Parish Meetings to attend and could do so without taking up a lot of time driving from home to the meetings. One Member expressed the view that the answer to question five was incorrect and that Members had not had difficulties gauging the ‘mood in the room’ at remote meetings; she asked for that point to be removed.

7.6            The Chair advised that, from his perspective, he had found working remotely a challenge and, if it was expected that Members would continue to work from home, there were certainly some who would need additional equipment which would come at an extra cost. Furthermore, he felt that remote meetings had possibly inhibited some Members from speaking and therefore stifled some of the debate which would have been had if a meeting had been held in a face to face forum. He also felt the Council had moved to a recorded vote system by default in the way the vote had to be taken when working remotely which was an unintended consequence – in his view this was unfortunate and made the meetings take much longer.

7.7            Accordingly, it was

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