Tory criticises Government 'hypocrisy' as councils 'forced' to hold face-to-face meetings

The Conservative deputy leader of a council has hit out at the Government for “forcing” elected members to meet face to face while Covid-19 is still spreading and other indoor gathering restrictions remain in place.

The House of Commons, where social distancing rules limit the amount of MPs allowed in at once
The House of Commons, where social distancing rules limit the amount of MPs allowed in at once

Stafford Borough councillor Mike Smith’s comments came just days before it was announced that there would be a four-week delay on the proposed lifting of rules limiting the number of people that can meet together inside.

Currently the “rule of six” still applies to people meeting indoors, although larger gatherings are allowed for reasons including work, education or volunteering purposes, funerals or support groups. Up to 30 people can meet outdoors.

Last month a temporary relaxation of regulations requiring council meetings to be held in physical venues expired. Local authorities had been allowed to hold meetings remotely during the past year, but despite calls to allow the measure to continue the Government decided not to renew it.

While many people have welcomed the opportunity to meet face to face once more others remain concerned about returning to physical meeting places while Covid-19 infections continue.

Councillor Michael Dodson was absent from this month’s Resources Scrutiny Committee meeting held at Stafford Borough Council’s Civic Centre. Councillor Smith told committee members that the reason for Councillor Dodson’s absence from the session was because he felt uncomfortable attending face-to-face meetings at the current time.

“I sympathise with him and I feel the same myself,” Councillor Smith said. “The Government’s guidance is we should have no more than six people – we have got a lot more than that.

“We’ve all walked up from the car park, probably put our hands on the handrail, and here we are with men and women at an age where we are vulnerable. I think it’s terribly wrong of the Government not to allow us to meet over the internet.

“Coupled with that, over the last two weeks the infection rate has gone from 2,000 a day to over 6,000 a day. The number of people on ventilator beds, after months of coming down, has now gone up – and you do not want to be on a ventilator bed.

“A friend of mine was in a forced coma, throat slit and a tube put in. Three weeks he was on that and he’s lucky to be alive, a non-smoker, non-drinker, fit as a fiddle and 56 years of age.

“This is a terrible disease. I know we’ve all had vaccinations and things are improving, but I do think it’s wrong that we’ve been forced to attend, because if we don’t attend we lose our right to be a councillor.”

Committee chairman councillor Ralph Cooke said: “I agree with you 100 per cent – you’ve expressed exactly my feelings. I think there’s a certain amount of hypocrisy going on in central Government because in the House of Commons and House of Lords they’re all spaced out very carefully, most MPs are on TV or Zoom, and yet they expect us to huddle together in this way.

“Is there some way we can protest? Is the cabinet or leader of the council minded to do something quickly?

“I hope we can get some sense into a nonsensical position because it doesn’t seem to have been thought through.”

Councillor Andrew Harp said: “We are in a similar position to the borough council at parish councils. They’re even smaller rooms and it’s very uncomfortable.

“If you’ve got a long room you can’t hear right down the far end of the room because (members are) all spaced out and it’s ridiculous.”

Councillor Smith told the committee that a response has been prepared by the council’s legal team to a Government consultation.

The Government has made a call for evidence, with a closing date of June 17, on whether or not to reintroduce legislation on allowing remote meetings.

Ian Curran, the council’s head of law and administration, said: “In the meantime any official meeting held has to have a physical location. That’s not to say we can’t do informal meetings if it is appropriate.”

A letter sent in March to council leaders from MP Luke Hall, Minister of State for Regional Growth and Local Government, said: “While local authorities have been able to hold meetings in person at any time during the pandemic with appropriate measures in place, the successful rollout of the vaccine and the reduction in cases of Covid-19 should result in a significant reduction in risk for local authority members meeting in person from May 7, as reflected in the Government’s plan to ease Covid-19 restrictions over the coming months.

“I recognise there may be concerns about holding face-to-face meetings. Ultimately it is for local authorities to apply the Covid-19 guidance to ensure meetings take place safely, but we have updated our guidance on the safe use of council buildings to highlight ways in which you can, if necessary, minimise the risk of face-to-face meetings, and we will work with sector representative bodies to ensure that local authorities understand the guidance and are aware of the full range of options available to them.”

Councils have been encouraged to continue providing remote access to meetings for members of the public. Local authorities have a legal obligation to ensure the public can access most meetings, with the exception of discussion of items that are of a confidential nature.

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