Remote working regulations published
The Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) (Regulations) 2020 have now been published.
They come into force on 4 April. A full breakdown of the Regulations, their contents and implications will shortly be available in material produced by LGA, ADSO and the LLG, which we will link to when it is published.
The Regulations apply to all councils in England and Wales – including parish, town and community councils, and combined authorities. They also apply to Police and Crime Panels.
From the perspective of overview and scrutiny, there are a few points to note.
The Regulations are permissive. Meetings can be convened by video or phone (so, appearing by video is not necessary) – the requirements are that members attending remotely should be able to hear, and be heard, by others in the meeting and by the public. The expectation is that public meetings will be viewable via the web.
The Regulations invite councils (at Regulation 5(6)) to amend their standing orders to make particular provision for voting, member and public access to documents, and the details of remote access of the public and press.
The Regulations will cease to apply in May 2021, although in our view it is likely that in due course these provisions, or something like them, will be put on a permanent footing.
The Regulations give the Secretary of State the power to issue guidance, although our understanding is that there is no immediate intention to do so; the LGA, alongside a range of other bodies (ourselves included) are in the process of preparing sector-led guidance for councils which will provide advice on remote arrangements.
There are perhaps two connected challenges for councils here. The first is logistical. How do you ensure that the processes are in place to transact meetings – in terms of deciding what platform to use, making arrangements for the exclusion of press and public for confidential items, for the sharing of agendas and information in what will be a paperless environment. How do you manage voting, and the recording of resolutions and minutes? On these points our colleagues at ADSO and LLG are providing significant support to their members to put the necessary constitutional building blocks in place – in particular, for quasi-judicial and regulatory meetings, where getting things right is crucially important.
The second challenge is behavioural, and relates to skills. This is the matter on which we propose to focus in the coming weeks. Some councillors will be used to video (audio) conferencing from other walks of life, but we have never really worked this way in local government, and for many it will be novel – especially without technical support on hand. Even where councillors have the IT skills (and the right hardware) to successfully engage, the behavioural expectations around committee meetings are likely to be very different. It may be difficult to see the body language of others in the meeting; the chair might find it difficult to keep track of who wants to speak. This presents a challenge to officers and witnesses presenting reports and providing evidence too.
We are all just at the beginning of what will be a verya steep learning curve. However, the last few weeks have also demonstrated how quickly people and organisations can adapt to new ways of working and communicating. The importance of maintaining appropriate democratic governance and oversight during this period will, we believe, drive progress quickly.
In the coming days and weeks we will convene workshops and produce material (and convene workshops) which focus particularly on this behavioural and skills challenge. In the meantime, having a sense from scrutiny practitioners about where you feel pressures and needs lie would be useful – and having a sense of the innovations you’re planning on remote working would be useful too.
In the coming days, the LGA is setting up a hub for information and resources on remote working, (you can access the hub here). We are working with them – and with other sector bodies like ADSO, LLG, NALC and SOCITM – to ensure that guidance and support is useful, proportionate and comprehensive.