The Committee received a report which provided an update to Members on the arrangements put in place and measures taken to date in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that the Council’s decision making processes have continued to operate effectively.
In presenting the report, the Assistant Director of Legal and Democratic Services explained that new Regulations had come into force as a result of the Coronavirus Act 2020, handing local authorities new powers to hold public meetings virtually by using video or telephone conferencing technology or by other remote means during the coronavirus pandemic.
Furthermore, the regulations removed existing requirements for local authorities to hold annual meetings this year, and allowed for all current appointments (i.e. Chairs and seats on committees and representation on outside bodies) to remain in place until May 2021. These measures were aimed at helping local authorities redeploy their resources to deal with the pandemic and ensure essential business continues whilst upholding democratic principles and protecting the health and safety of Members, officers and the public in line with official public health guidance.
It was noted that remote attendance by a Member at a virtual committee meeting was deemed to satisfy the requirement in relation to Members having to attend at least one meeting in a period of 6 consecutive months under the Local Government Act 1972. It was recognised, however, that under the circumstances, it would not be possible for all Members to attend virtual meetings in the absence of Full Council meetings taking place, so the Assistant Director confirmed that he had written to all Members as Monitoring Officer confirming that he would exercise the delegation given to him by Full Council to disregard the lockdown period when calculating failure to attend by any Member. Councillors would be notified at the point that this period concluded.
During discussion, the Chair asked whether Officers would be capturing the learning gained from holding virtual meetings, as people’s experiences of participating in online meetings varied according to their own personal circumstances. In reply, the Assistant Director advised that a survey of Members would be undertaken in the autumn on this subject, as he was aware that experiences varied according to the devices used by Members. He also confirmed that he would be writing to those Members without Council laptops offering them new machines, in order that everyone participating in virtual meetings had reliable and consistent functionality across the same platform.
Members acknowledged that virtual meetings brought some benefits, such as the convenience of enabling members to remotely attend briefings with officers and other shorter meetings that they might otherwise have had difficulty in attending. There was also potential for making attendance at Member seminars and training sessions easier in future, if these were held as virtual events such as webinars. Other Members however still felt that they would prefer to meet physically if and when circumstances permitted. The Assistant Director added that, overall, virtual meetings had been successful and it was hoped that the legislation passed by the Government enabling remote meetings would be extended beyond the current end date of May 2021 so that remote attendance by Members remained open as an option in the future.
In response to a comment by a Member with regard to the number of ‘Rule 16’ special urgency decisions that had been taken during the pandemic, the Assistant Director explained that as Doncaster Council was a Mayoral Authority, the legal position was such that the majority of decisions could be taken by the Elected Mayor. He added that other local authorities had delegated decision making powers to officers, which was a less democratic arrangement than if decisions were being taken by individuals who had been elected. The Assistant Director stated that he believed that the number of Rule 16 decisions taken had been appropriate under the circumstances. He also confirmed that these decisions had been taken in line with the provisions contained within the Council’s Constitution, and in accordance with the rules, Councillor Jane Kidd had been consulted each time as the Overview and Scrutiny consultee.
In response to a comment by a Member with regard to potential data protection and confidentiality risks with remote meetings, the Assistant Director stated that, to a large degree, this was a matter of personal responsibility, in much the same way as when Members received confidential agenda papers and had to ensure these were kept in a secure manner.
RESOLVED to note the contents of the report.