The legislation that will allow Reading Borough Council (RBC), to hold virtual meetings during the coronavirus epidemic comes in to force today, 4 April. Meetings can now be held by video or telephone conference. The regulations will remain in force until 7 May 2021.
The Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020 say that a councillor or member of the public will be attending a meeting if they are able:
- to hear, and where practicable see, and be so heard and, where practicable, be seen by, the other members in attendance,
- to hear, and where practicable see, and be so heard and, where practicable, be seen by, any members of the public entitled to attend the meeting in order to exercise a right to speak at the meeting,
- to be so heard and, where practicable, be seen by any other members of the public attending the meeting.
The regulations also allow councils to make rules to cover matters such as:
- member and public access to documents,
- remote access of public and press to a local authority meeting to enable them to attend or participate in that meeting by electronic means, including by telephone conference, video conference, live webcasts, and live interactive streaming.
What has been happening in Reading?
RBC were due to hold a Strategic, Environment Planning and Transport committee on the evening of 16 March when the Government first introduced social-distancing measures. The meeting was cancelled at short notice and the Civic Offices closed.
Since then all council meetings have been cancelled except for three licensing committees that have been postponed. The 17 March licensing committee was to review the licence for the Reading Community Carnival which was due to be held on 25 May.
RBC intended to hold an urgent policy committee meeting on 24 March but ultimately this was also cancelled. The meeting would have been attended by only three councillors: leader of the council Jason Brock (Labour party), deputy leader Tony Page (Labour party) and leader of the conservative group councillor Jeanette Skeats.
The troika was formed by invoking the provisions of the council’s constitution that allow the policy committee to take urgent decisions on all functions of the authority with a reduced membership.
Reading Liberal Democrats and councillor Ricky Duveen were critical of the move and said that RBC should have waited for legislation allowing virtual meetings.
The Decision Book
In the hiatus between the last council meeting and the next, possibly virtual meeting, RBC have continued to make decisions to enable the running of the borough.
The first of these was to change the decision book procedure. The decision book is used to publish decisions:
… made under delegated powers by the Chief Executive, Corporate Directors or the Chief Finance Officer and Monitoring Officer, in consultation either with the relevant Lead Councillor or committee.
Before coronavirus and the cancellation of council meeetings, councillors could ask for decisions to be referred to a council meeting.
Each decision is subject to a ‘call-in’ period of 10 days after publication, during which three Councillors may request in writing to the Head of Legal and Democratic Services that the decision should be referred either to a committee, or to the Council (as appropriate) for formal resolution.
The procedure has now been altered in a decision made by the Chief Executive Peter Sloman and Leader of the Council, Jason Brock. They have suspended the call-in arrangements and replaced it with:
… the ability during that period for three Councillors to request a retrospective review of the decision in writing to the Head of Legal and Democratic Services.
After changing the decision book procedure the first decision in the book was how the council will respond to the coronavirus epidemic.
This set out the council’s three priorities for Reading at this time:
- to support and protect vulnerable children and adults by ensuring the social care system continues to function effectively,
- to support the people who are most vulnerable and isolated in our communities,
- to support businesses and the local economy, and secure Reading’s economic recovery.
Will Reading hold virtual meetings?
RBC’s response to coronavirus included the possible use of virtual meetings when legislation had been passed. They have told us they are currently reviewing their decision making processes in the light of the new regulations:
This includes consideration of how meetings can be held virtually under the new Regulations, taking into consideration the Council’s procedure rules and other regulatory requirements such as members’ participation, access to information legislation and stipulations about committee proportionality in the Local Government & Housing Act 1989.
As part of defining any process for remote meetings, we will need to take into account the capabilities of the technology available to the Council in making those arrangements. We will provide further details as soon as is practicable.
The next scheduled meeting is the Audit & Governance Committee on 14 April.
- Legislation – The Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020
- RBC calendar of meetings
- RBC decision book
- Urgent meeting of RBC policy committee 24 March at 5pm
- Suspension of Democracy in Reading
- Reading Borough Council coronovirus advice and services affected