Councils should set the lead on public gatherings

We’d all like to get back to proper meetings in the Town Hall rather than at the Tennis Centre but as covid rates rise again we need to consider whether even these are safe.

Liverpool’s Liberal Democrat Councillors have written to the Mayor and Chief Executive of Liverpool City Council and the Chair of the Local Government Association to ask the Government to allow hybrid meetings of councils and their committees whilst the current surge in infections continues.

The organiser of the letter, Childwall Councillor Carole Storey says, “With infection levels rising as quickly as they are, we are reaching a point where many councillors, staff and members of the public are increasingly wary of attending meetings, especially if there are safer ways of holding them”.

We all want to return to normal as soon as possible. There are some attractions to having a zoom meeting which we could do before May 7th. It certainly reduced travelling times and, in some cases, assisted attendance by reducing child care and other problems with the work place of councillors.

There is no doubt that proper public debates should be resumed because they give better debate and proper inclusion of press and public. In the short-term however, it just makes sense to allow a hybrid system which allows the best of both worlds until infection rates get back to the suppressed levels that we had 6 weeks ago.

It would also surely make sense to allow councils to make that decision. They can judge best their infection rates and know the suitability of council and other buildings in the locality which can be used for public council purposes.

We know that it is technically possible to have hybrid meetings with some people working from home or in a safe office environment and some physically present in the Chamber. Unfortunately, it would now be illegal with the Government insisting that councils meet in person although having laxer rules for members of the Houses of Commons and Lords. Why there is one rule for them and one for us is beyond me!

We have held two Council meetings in the Tennis Centre and committees have been meeting in the Council Chamber. They just don’t seem right. For good or ill they lack the feel of a normal meeting and certainly cannot carry the cut and thrust which is dreadful if done wrong but very helpful if done right.

It is an attack on democracy if we have some councillors, residents and staff feeling worried about attending meetings and therefore staying away. The Government should immediately do two things:

  1. Use their powers under the Coronavirus Act to allow hybrid meetings; and
  2. Allow councils to set the trigger point of local infection levels for moving into and out of a hybrid meeting format.

Councils must be seen to set the highest possible standards of health protection. If people see us getting together, we will rightly be asked, ‘if you can do it why can’t we?’ This can easily be settled by a simple Government statement and use of existing powers.

The matter will also be taken up in the House of Lords by former Council Leader Lord Mike Storey who will seek urgent action from Ministers.

About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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