Self-isolation confusion sparks new calls for councils to be allowed to meet virtually in Hertfordshire

Since May 7 all statutory council meetings have had to be held with councillors attending ‘in-person’

Wednesday, 21st July 2021, 1:30 pm

Confusion over self-isolation guidance – that led to a number of councillors walking out of a council meeting – has prompted calls for the government to reconsider the laws relating to virtual meetings of councils.

During the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic councils were allowed to hold all their meetings virtually.

But the time-limited Coronavirus regulations that made that possible ceased in May.

Hertfordshire County Council

And since then – despite an appeal to the High Court by the county council – all statutory council meetings have had to be held in-person.

On Tuesday, July 20, a number of councillors walked out of a meeting of the full council, after it emerged at least one attending councillor had been ‘pinged’ by Track and Trace.

And that episode has sparked calls for the government to look again at whether councils should be allowed to meet virtually.

Liberal Democrat Chris White, who is also leader of St Albans District Council, was among those opting to leave the meeting on Tuesday, July 20.

And he agrees that the government should look again at the issue.

“The council shouldn’t be meeting in person – it’s far too soon,” he said.

“But the government won’t allow us to meet remotely, so we have to take these risks.

“It’s not the county council’s fault. The county council took this to the High Court.”

Hertfordshire County Council – alongside Lawyers in Local Government and the Association of Democratic Services Officers – spearheaded a national bid to allow virtual council meetings, in April.

At the High Court the council questioned whether the existing Local Government Act (1972) would allow virtual meetings to continue – asking for an interpretation of words such as 'meeting', ‘place’, ‘presence’ and ‘attend’.

But the High Court determined that under the existing Act meetings ‘must take place in a single, specified geographical location’.

And since May 7 all statutory council meetings have had to be held with councillors attending ‘in-person’.

Alternatively the government could have opted to extend the legislation that temporarily allowed councils to meet virtually – but they had indicated that there was not the time to change the legislation.

Following the latest meeting of Hertfordshire County Council, Conservative leader Cllr Richard Roberts said the government should reconsider.

“I think the government should reconsider, in the sense of allowing councils to have mixed, virtual and in-person, meetings,” he said.

“So, if you have got vulnerable councillors, for example, they can still attend the meetings.

“We know we have councillors that need protecting – so yes, I think a combination of virtual and in-person would be really helpful. And I am sure the government is thinking about it.”

Leader of the Labour group Cllr Judi Billing highlights the different rules for Parliament, where MPs are allowed to attend the ‘chamber’ remotely.

And she questions why the government should have any power over decisions on how local government should meet.

Referring to the move to in-person meetings, she says: “That is where the government has completely stymied us.

“A lot of meetings are still being held remotely that aren’t statutory council meetings.

“And it would be nice if we could have a hybrid solution – which would also be good environmental grounds, as it would cut down on travel.”

Meanwhile leader of the Liberal Democrat group Cllr Stephen Giles-Medhurst points to councillors who have been unable to participate in ‘in-person’ meetings recently, due to self-isolation – even though they could access them remotely.

And he said this made a “mockery” of the situation.