The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has signalled that it is sympathetic towards local authorities continuing to hold virtual meetings.
Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick MP has said it will support Hertfordshire County Council in its legal case on the issue.
This comes soon after it indicated that the temporary change in regulations that has facilitated meetings using video conferencing technology due to the pandemic lockdown is due to come to an end on 7 May.
There has also been a legal challenge to the change from local government organisations, including Hertfordshire, Local Government Lawyers and the Association of Democratic Services Officers. This comes in response to the general popularity of virtual meetings as a way of boosting public participation in local democracy.
MHCLG has issued a statement in response to the challenge saying it recognises there is a case to be heard as the regulations, part of the Local Government Act 1972, were drawn up before virtual meetings were possible.
The rules require local authorities to ensure members of the public can be physically present at full council and committee meetings. They were suspended in April of last year in response to the Covid-19 lockdown.
Jenrick said: “We will be supporting the action by Hertfordshire County Council and Lawyers in Local Government as we believe there is a case to be heard. Councils have done a fantastic job over the last year and remote meetings are just one innovation of many.
“We recognise remote or virtual meetings by councils, have widened access to local democracy and we will be keen to lock in the good work councils have undertaken during the pandemic to embrace technology. However, appropriate safeguards must be in place to ensure transparency, scrutiny and probity are maintained.
“In the event the action is not successful, the temporary provisions in the Coronavirus Act regulations will come to an end after May 6, and so councils should continue to prepare for that eventuality. Guidance has been issued to help councils to meet safely and securely.
“The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is conducting a call for evidence on the use of remote meetings and we would encourage councillors and members of the public to participate, so that we can better evidence the next steps.”
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