Online participation in Council meetings must be allowed again

Jackie Weaver has said that she wants online Council meetings to continue. Although I am sure she knows the difference, this article from the BBC does rather muddy the waters by not distinguishing between streaming Council meetings and remote participation in them (although it does give us another chance to watch the meeting that introduced us to Jackie Weaver’s authority).

Nearly 20 years ago I was asked to chair the National Project for Local e-Democracy, with the remit to explore digital means to improve democratic participation in Council decision-making. At that time some Councils did not even have a website, and where they existed they were non-transactional. The Project pioneered online consultation and petitions at Council level, amongst other things, and encouraged councillors to use online methods of communication with residents, including blogs, which were the only social media available at the time.

Webcasting was another of our initiatives, and many councils adopted the streaming, and subsequent playback, of Council meetings. The systems usually allowed for some interaction through chat. The intention was to allow residents to observe and follow the people they had elected.

At the time the technology for online meetings did not exist, and, as we all know, Zoom and other platforms were only adopted widely during the pandemic. They meant that both Parliament and local councils were able to continue to run meetings and debates without breaking the Covid restrictions.  However, remote participation at both levels did require a change in the Government regulations.

Those regulations for Local Government ended on 7th May 2021. However Covid restrictions were still in place at that time, which meant that social distancing would have to be observed by anyone attending an in-person meeting. In practice this made it impossible for Full Council meetings to be held in many Council chambers, as there was not enough room to space people out.  Pleading for hybrid solutions (a mix of in-person and online attendance) was rejected by the Government, even though they still continued in Parliament.

This was a terrible mistake. During lockdown it became clear that online meetings widened participation. They enabled councillors and officers who were shielding, isolating or injured to contribute to meetings. They also made it much easier for members in rural areas, based considerable distances from Council offices, to attend.

Whilst there is merit in meeting in person, the option to attend through an online platform should still be offered to those who need it. Even today it is very difficult for someone who is clinically vulnerable to attend Council meetings safely.

The BBC homes in on a scheme at Nottinghamshire County Council to install the technology to allow for hybrid meetings, even though they can’t be used for remote participation by councillors at formal Council meetings. In practice, most Councils already have the technology to both stream and run online meetings in a modest way and at less expense.

This is a political issue, not a technological one. Whilst live streaming has never been banned, the Government needs to recognise the benefits of allowing hybrid meetings and amend the regulations accordingly.

 

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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2 Comments

  • David Howarth 3rd Mar '22 - 11:05am

    I am a member of a County, District and Town council, as well as the Combined Fire Authority. Technology has its pros and cons. I have always advocated live streaming of meetings, and generally it has been embraced. The advantage is there is nowhere to hide and denying what you said is pointless. It is also useful for clipping your speech to post on social media. We also stream meetings on Teams so anyone isolating or in a remote location can dial in, take part, but not vote. Another pro is limiting journeys.
    The downside is that during Covid a member dialled in from Spain and voted. We could end up where you wouldn’t even have to live in the country. In an authority with a tiny minority every vote counts. Then you can dial in, turn off your microphone and camera, and go and do the hoovering (guilty as charged!) Would it be for the full term and negate the six month rule?
    To lose your seat you would have to almost disappear. Back in the day I was a member of Tyne and Wear County Council but in the final year had moved to London. I used to trek back up to the North East for full council avoiding a by-election. If we introduce hybrid meetings with voting rights, you can claim the dosh without leaving home.
    The final downside is that in debate I want to see the whites of their eyes. If they are squirming they can’t turn the camera off!

  • Jason Connor 4th Mar '22 - 11:02am

    Clinically vulnerable can attend council meetings safely. I attended one in person earlier this week on customer service and most of the people there were clinically vulnerable and pleased to meet face-to-face. People can still wear masks, socially distance in large meeting rooms. There is an issue of around meeting the needs of people with disabilities, access etc though. My local council is now holding estate walkabouts online for us council tenants. How on earth we can point out problems on our estate which need addressing such as flytipping on a wall, urinating in the basement etc. – yes these are the sorts of issues we get in council blocks on the zoom platform is a mystery to me? The whole idea of walkabouts are that you go around your estate and residents highlight the issues so online meetings are a ‘no’ from me unless you offer a combination of both so that everyone is ‘included’.

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