Ministers have rejected the chance to scrap rules that prevent disabled councillors taking part in council meetings remotely, despite Conservative MPs and peers urging them to change the law.
Members of the House of Lords finally accepted defeat yesterday (Wednesday) after the government repeatedly rejected amendments to its levelling-up and regeneration bill that would have eased the rules that mean councillors must attend a meeting in person if they want to take part.
Emergency regulations that allowed council meetings to be held online – or in a “hybrid” combination of in-person and online attendance – during the pandemic were only in place until 6 May 2021.
Since then, it has been illegal for councils in England to hold hybrid or virtual meetings, although the Welsh government passed legislation allowing remote meetings two years ago, while Scottish local authorities have had powers to do so for 20 years.
A Local Government Association (LGA) survey found that 95 per cent of councils want the powers to be able to reintroduce virtual and hybrid technology for statutory council meetings.
Two disabled councillors, both Conservatives, spoke in June of how the ability to take part in meetings virtually on some occasions would allow them to fulfil their roles.
One of them, Cllr Dr Jane Worlock, a councillor at Hart District Council in Hampshire, who has a progressive mobility impairment, said: “Attending virtually during the pandemic allowed me to fully realise what truly accessible local government could look like.
“Flexibility through hybrid meetings could remove the inherent barriers of in-person only meetings and encourage greater public engagement from parents, carers, full-time workers and disabled people who might find it more challenging to attend in-person.
“It would be difficult for me to overstate how important it is that councils are allowed the flexibility to offer virtual and hybrid meeting options.”
The LGA call for the government to allow hybrid meetings was backed by a series of Conservative MPs and peers – and other political parties – over the last week, as supporters pushed for a change in the law.
Among them were Tory MPs Peter Aldous, Liam Fox and Theresa Villiers, who called on ministers to change their resistance to a modernisation of the law.
Aldous said on Tuesday: “Set in the overall context of a bill that gives local communities and local councils greater discretion and greater autonomy and looks to devolve powers away from Whitehall, it is perverse that the government are dictating to local authorities how they conduct themselves.
“The provision will strengthen local democracy and will make it easier for such groups as the disabled, parents with young children, carers and those in full-time employment to participate in decision-making in their own local communities.”
Despite his comments, MPs voted against the amendment by 292 to 177.
In the Lords, the Conservative peer Baroness [Anne] McIntosh, a former Conservative MP, who proposed the amendments to change the law, said on Monday: “It is not fair that they should be excluded from attending a meeting because they cannot get there physically either because of weather – floods and storms, or snow in the winter – or due to some disability or illness or childcare commitments.”
Among the Conservative peers who supported her call was former health secretary Lord [Andrew] Lansley, who said there were “physical, demographic and personal circumstances that mean that members may wish or need to participate in meetings remotely”.
But Earl Howe, the Conservative deputy leader of the House of Lords, said the government had “consistently expressed the view that councillors should be physically present to cast their votes and interact in person with citizens”.
The view was repeated in the Commons on Tuesday by housing and planning minister Rachel Maclean, who said the government’s position had not changed.
She said all MPs recognised the “real problems faced by people who wish to take part in local democracy without being excluded because of where they live, because they do not have a car or because of other barriers”, and she added: “We need our politics to be as inclusive as possible.”
But she said the government could not accept the Lords amendment and told MPs: “It is a long-standing principle that local democracy should take place face to face.”
Withdrawing her amendment yesterday, Baroness McIntosh said: “To move from completely virtual attendance during Covid to a situation where no virtual or remote attendance is allowed seems baffling.”
She suggested she would try again in the future to secure a change in the law, telling Earl Howe: “If there is any possibility in any of the legislation in the King’s Speech, I will latch on to it. I give him early warning of that.”
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