Amendment 58

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill - Report (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 1:39 pm on 13 July 2023.

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Baroness McIntosh of Pickering:

Moved by Baroness McIntosh of Pickering

58: After Clause 70, insert the following new Clause—“Local authorities to be allowed to meet virtually(1) A reference in any enactment to a meeting of a local authority is not limited to a meeting of persons all of whom, or any of whom, are present in the same place and any reference to a “place” where a meeting is held, or to be held, includes reference to more than one place including electronic, digital or virtual locations such as internet locations, web addresses or conference call telephone numbers.(2) For the purposes of any such enactment, a member of a local authority (a “member in remote attendance”) attends the meeting at any time if all of the conditions in subsection (3) are satisfied.(3) Those conditions are that the member in remote attendance is able at that time—(a) to hear, and where practicable see, and be heard and, where practicable, seen by the other members in attendance,(b) to hear, and where practicable see, and be heard and, where practicable, seen by any members of the public entitled to attend the meeting in order to exercise a right to speak at the meeting, and(c) to be heard and, where practicable, seen by any other members of the public attending the meeting.(4) In this section any reference to a member, or a member of the public, attending a meeting includes that person attending by remote access.(5) The provision made in this section applies notwithstanding any prohibition or other restriction contained in the standing orders or any other rules of the authority governing the meeting and any such prohibition or restriction has no effect.(6) A local authority may make other standing orders and any other rules of the authority governing the meeting about remote attendance at meetings of that authority, which may include provision for—(a) voting,(b) member and public access to documents, and(c) 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.”Member’s explanatory statementThis new Clause would enable local authorities to meet virtually. It is based on regulation 5 of the Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020, made under section 78 of the Coronavirus Act 2020.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

My Lords, I will speak to and move Amendment 58 in my name and those of the noble Baronesses, Lady Pinnock and Lady Hayman of Ullock; I thank them warmly for their support for it.

The legal basis relies on the previous Regulation 5 of the regulations made under Section 78 of the Coronavirus Act 2020. During the pandemic, it was generally felt that remote meetings of councils worked very effectively, and the change has been a source of great disappointment and increasing irritation to local councils, to those elected to represent their constituents at that level and to professional clerks. I received some powerful briefings from the two organisations especially concerned: the LGA and the SLCC, which represents the professionals who man the councils.

I listened carefully to my noble friend Lord Howe’s response in Committee. He clearly stated:

“The Government are of the view that physical attendance is important for delivering good governance and democratic accountability”.—[Official Report, 15/3/23; col. 1392.]

He went on to say that it permits the public to “view proceedings remotely” but that he was prepared—indeed, he promised—to keep the matter “under review”. I urge my noble friend to use this opportunity to review the regulations, to reintroduce them, to revise the law and to agree to Amendment 58.

The lifting of the Covid regulations that permitted councils to meet virtually has been a retrograde and undemocratic measure. The Government removed councillors’ right to democratically represent their constituents when they are temporarily unable to attend or, as I found on many occasions while trying to nurse a constituency in North Yorkshire, when they find that they are physically unable to attend meetings given the climate, particularly in the bad-weather months from December through to March, owing to snow or ice on the roads. They may also have care responsibilities towards an older or a younger generation and they could fulfil those duties if they were able to attend the meetings remotely. They may also suffer from a moment of temporary infirmity that prevents them attending.

In Committee, I mentioned distances to travel. The 57 miles from probably the furthest point in my former constituency, Filey, to the county town of Northallerton would take at least an hour and a quarter on a good day, so you are looking at something approaching a three-hour round trip. In the summer months, you have additional traffic, which delays matters, and I mentioned the inclement weather in the winter months.

These regulations worked perfectly well during Covid; all I am asking my noble friend and the Government to agree to do is revert to them. The particular weakness in my noble friend’s argument is that the House of Lords permits committees to meet virtually, so we have a situation where, regrettably, there appears to be one rule for those of us who are fortunate enough to serve on a House of Lords committee and another for those who are elected to councils, who are unable to meet remotely and virtually. I believe that that is unfair and undemocratic.

I received some powerful briefings in this regard; I will briefly share them with noble Lords. Following an extensive survey, the Local Government Association recently published a report showing that 95% of those responding from principal councils indicated that they wanted to reintroduce virtual meeting technology as an option at statutory meetings. They have suffered an impact on the recruitment and retention of councillors, and barriers have been created since the removal of these regulations permitting virtual attendance, particularly where there are work and caring commitments or health and disability issues.

I had not appreciated that, in certain circumstances, some committees, particularly licensing ones—I declare an interest in that I chaired both the original committee looking into an inquiry on the Licensing Act 2003 and the subsequent follow-up inquiry—are currently convened under legislation other than the Local Government Act, such as for licensing hearings, schools admission appeals panels and regional flood and coastal committees. These have been able to continue to use virtual meeting options to hold their meetings. In the view of the LGA, this has created a two-tier system, where councils can reap the benefits of virtual attendance at some meetings but not others. This demonstrates that councils already deliver accountability and good governance in hybrid meetings.

The Government confirmed in Committee that they are prepared to keep the matter under review. I believe that there is no time like the present to review it. You cannot have a situation where some council meetings can be virtual but others cannot and where we meet virtually in committees in our own House. There are very good reasons for hybrid or remote meetings in certain circumstances; the flexibility that was enjoyed during the Covid pandemic should apply where councils choose to use it.

With those few introductory remarks, I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Seccombe Baroness Seccombe Conservative 1:45, 13 July 2023

My Lords, I disagree wholeheartedly with my noble friend. In the lockdown period, I thought it was awful when people had to vote remotely and were charged with being on a beach somewhere. I believe that, in politics, we need each other; we need debate and discussion and to hear other points of view. I believe that doing that in person is right for a healthy democracy.

Photo of Baroness Pinnock Baroness Pinnock Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I make clear that this amendment, to which I have added my name, is about local authorities having the option to make some of their meetings virtual or hybrid. It is not about going back to having all meetings held virtually; it is about having the option to do so where that makes sense in local circumstances.

During the Covid pandemic, we learned that virtual meetings could be conducted and worked well, in accordance with local authority conduct of meetings. There is no problem with the legality of how they were conducted. I accept the noble Baroness’s point about how we need to be together in a democracy but that is difficult on some occasions, and some people will be excluded if we do not provide an option for local authorities to make meetings accessible by making them virtual.

For example, people with disabilities find it more difficult to travel to a meeting in person—and then there are those with caring responsibilities and those with demanding work schedules. In many parts of the country now, people have long commutes to work. That option of a virtual meeting means that they can fulfil the responsibilities of being a local elected councillor as well as being in work. We do not want to revert to a situation in which local councils attract only people who are retired, because they are the only ones who have time or are able to go to meetings. We want as broad a selection as we can of people from our communities to become councillors, including the young and old, people with disabilities and people with caring responsibilities. We need them on our councils so that those voices are heard. That is one reason why the option—and it is an option—of holding meetings virtually is important.

The second is the huge size of some of the councils that the Government have now created. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, used the example of North Yorkshire, which is now a unitary council. People know where Selby is now, so I will use the example of Selby, which is in the south of the southern tip of North Yorkshire. To travel to a meeting in Northallerton, where the county headquarters is, means covering a distance of about 53 miles, which would take probably an hour and a half—so it is a three-hour round trip to go to a council meeting. Think of how many people that will exclude: those who cannot drive would not be able to get there, as there are no buses and no trains, or very few. This is not like London. In the winter North Yorkshire has snow, which makes it even more difficult to get physically to meetings, which is when a virtual option makes really good sense. There is also the example of this House, which has managed perfectly well holding its Select Committees virtually. If we can do it here, surely local authorities should be allowed to do it.

My last point is that this amendment is to a part of the Bill on devolution. If devolution means anything, it means that local authorities and local councils should be able to make the decisions that matter to them—to have the flexibility to make decisions appropriate to their situation. We know that the Local Government Association, as the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, said, is fully supportive of this amendment and this approach. We will obviously listen very carefully to the response by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, but if the noble Baroness is not satisfied with the response and wishes to test the opinion of the House, we on these Benches, for the reasons I have given, will fully support her.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, one thing that we have heard in the debates in Committee and today is that councillors are a vital part of our local democracy; they represent the needs of their residents and they work to improve outcomes for their local communities. But it is also important that any good decision-making is done by people who reflect their local communities and bring a range of experience, backgrounds and insight. As we have heard, by law, councillors have to attend meetings in person at the moment. We have also heard how important Zoom and Teams were for councils to continue to meet and the public to continue to take part during lockdown and the pandemic. It also brought people together and involved more people than previously in many cases.

We debated at length in Committee the benefits of continuing to allow virtual attendance at council meetings. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, thoroughly introduced that when she spoke to her amendment, and I am very happy to support her in what she is trying to do. Unfortunately, the Government withdrew this ability. We know that it supports a large range of people, as the noble Baroness laid out: the parents of young children, carers, disabled people and people with long-term illnesses. It enables them to come forward and represent their communities and encourages wider public participation, which is surely a good thing.

When we think about access to participation, why would the Government not lower barriers to that participation? Why can we not have virtual participation in council meetings as an option? We think that councils should have the flexibility to decide for themselves whether this is a useful tool that they can use. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, also mentioned, as have others, the option that we have in this House for virtual participation by those with disabilities and health issues. As others have asked, why at the very least can we not have the same dispensation for local councils that we have here in this House? The Government need to look at this again. If the noble Baroness wishes to test the opinion of the House, we will support her.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, this amendment seeks to replicate the situation created by the time-limited regulations that the Government made during the pandemic using powers in the Coronavirus Act 2020 that gave local authorities the flexibility to meet remotely or in hybrid form. Those regulations expired on 7 May 2021, and since that date all councils have reverted to in-person meetings. The Covid regulations, if I may refer to them in that way, were welcomed when they were issued for very good reasons, but they were nevertheless reflective of a unique moment in time, when a response to exceptional circumstances was needed. That moment has now passed, and the Government are firmly of the view that democracy must continue to be conducted face to face, as it has been for the last two years and for most of history prior to the pandemic.

Noble Lords have argued with some force as to the benefits of meeting remotely, and I completely understand why those arguments should be put forward. In the end, however, they are arguments based on one thing alone—expediency. With great respect, those arguments miss the point.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Labour

That is only from the perspective of the councillors. What about the public? They have the right to listen in to the council meetings without travelling, and they are losing that right. Of course, it was left to Mrs Thatcher to get the council meetings open anyway, with her Private Member’s Bill. This is an opportunity for the public not to participate but at least to be part of it and to listen without the need to travel.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I greatly respect the noble Lord, but it is Report and I hope he will understand that point—but I am also coming on to the very point that he has raised. He is absolutely right about the expectations of the public.

I suggest that the point at the heart of this issue lies in one of the core principles of local democracy, which is that citizens are able to attend council meetings in person and to interact in person with their local representatives. To allow for a mechanism that denies citizens the ability to do this, ostensibly on grounds of convenience, is in fact to allow for a dilution of good governance and hence a dilution of democracy in its fullest sense.

Councils take decisions that can fundamentally alter the lives of people. Where an elected authority comes together to impose such changes, it should be prepared to meet in the presence of those whose lives are affected. I shall exaggerate a little to make a point, and I do not mean to cause offence to anyone—

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 2:00, 13 July 2023

With great respect, I hope that the noble Baroness will hear me out. I will address that point.

I was going to exaggerate a little to make a point; I will do so. I do not mean to cause offence to anybody, but someone whose life is directly affected by a planning decision, let us imagine, would not wish to find that the councillors concerned had taken the decision from their respective living rooms with test match coverage playing in the background. The same principle applies to the interaction between local councillors. If a council meets either in committee or in full session—especially if it meets to take decisions—councillors are entitled to expect that they will be able to deal with their fellow councillors face to face, debating with them, challenging them and taking decisions in the same room.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

No, I will not give way, I am sorry. To put that another way, anyone who has chaired a remote online meeting—whether in a local council or any other context—will know that the internet, accessible as it is to most of us, is nevertheless, by its very nature, a barrier between people. To chair a council meeting online is therefore to experience the considerable responsibility of trying to ensure that debate is both reactive and interactive, that the right balance between different arguments is achieved and that decisions are taken in the light of arguments that have been presented to those assembled in the most effective fashion.

I do not for a minute deny that the ability to conduct virtual meetings during Covid served a useful purpose—but we were making do. We have only to think of how things were in this Chamber during that time. Did we really think that a succession of prepared speeches transmitted from noble Lords’ kitchens or armchairs constituted the kind of effective debating that we experience in Committee or on Report for a Bill?

Photo of Lord Reid of Cardowan Lord Reid of Cardowan Labour

I am trying to follow the Minister’s logic, but I am afraid that my intellectual capacity prevents me doing so. I therefore ask a simple question. By all logic of his argument, there should be no hybrid Select Committee meetings in this House, yet there are. Does he think that that therefore devalues those Select Committee meetings?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

That point is very similar to one made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and my noble friend about an option of virtual attendance in case of illness or disability—as we have in this Chamber—but that option is on an exceptional basis. With great respect, that is a far cry from the terms of the amendment that my noble friend has tabled. We know what effective debating looks like: it is when we can stand in this Chamber and look each other in the eye—as at present—as active participants.

No limits are placed on authorities broadcasting their meetings online, and I would encourage them to do so to reach as wide an audience as possible. However, I hope that my noble friend Lady McIntosh and other noble Lords who have aligned themselves with her position will understand why I am coming at this from the point of view of a principle: that it is our duty to safeguard democracy as fully as we can and not to short-change it. I hope therefore that my noble friend will not feel compelled to oppose that principle by dividing the House today.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

My Lords, I regret that I have had no reassurance whatever, and my noble friend did not even repeat the assurance we got that the Government would keep this matter under review. I find it unacceptable that, under legislation other than the Local Government Act, licensing hearings, school admission panels and regional flood and coastal committees can meet and take decisions that affect people’s lives. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, made the very valid point: why should it be acceptable for the public to access physical meetings remotely but not those who are temporarily or permanently unable to travel because they cannot get access to public transport? I also find it unacceptable that we have established a very good principle that we can meet remotely in Select Committees of this House but we are not extending the same right to democratically elected councils. I would like to test the opinion of the House.

Ayes 169, Noes 156.

Division number 4 Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill - Report (2nd Day) — Amendment 58

Aye: 167 Members of the House of Lords

No: 154 Members of the House of Lords

Aye: A-Z by last name

Tellers

No: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Amendment 58 agreed.