CORONAVIRUS — INFORMATION FOR LOCAL (PARISH AND TOWN) COUNCILS
SOURCES OF ADVICE
The coronavirus situation is fast-moving and there is an increasing amount of misinformation online. We should be using government advice to inform decisions and be checking that advice regularly.
- Public Health England has FAQs that will be updated regularly
- This guidance, developed with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, aims to assist employers and businesses in providing advice to their staff
- You may find the advice from ACAS useful in considering any employment-related matters that may impact your local council
- For further reading, the Local Government Association has published a very useful list of different government advice sources
ENGAGING WITH THE GOVERNMENT
NALC is engaging with Smaller Authorities' Audit Appointments (SAAA) about audit and with the Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) as a matter of urgency on a range of issues. A summary of some of the issues we are raising with MHCLG is below:
- Holding of statutory meetings — such as annual parish meeting and the annual council meeting. We are communicating the concerns that councils have around their ability to hold meetings within the statutory deadlines.
- Audit deadlines — We are communicating the concerns that local councils have around their ability to hold meetings within the statutory deadlines.
- Elections — With the change of date around elections we are seeking clarification on the implications of this.
- Democratic decision-making (e.g. if councils are unable to be quorate for an extended period of time) — We are communicating the difficulties that councils are experiences or expecting. This includes the question of phone/online attendance
On 16 March 2020, local government secretary Robert Jenrick MP addressed over 300 council leaders and sector bodies in a call on the government's response to coronavirus. He reaffirmed the government's commitment to supporting councils to focus their efforts on the priority area of social care, providing vital support for vulnerable people and supporting their local economies — read the full press release on MHCLG's website. NALC is awaiting confirmation that these changes will be applicable to local councils, plus legislation will need to be passed for this to come into effect and we are seeking clarification on the detail. In particular, the MHCLG press release states:
- The deadline for local government financial audits will be extended to 30 September 2020
- It will consider bringing forward legislation to remove the requirement for annual council meetings to take place in person
- It will consider bringing forward legislation to legislation to allow council committee meetings to be held virtually for a temporary period
We will provide further updates as we find them out.
MANAGING RISKS TO THE COUNCIL
We would recommend that local councils consider different scenarios and what actions might help mitigate any risks to the council. This will vary for individual councils and it may be that no specific actions or changes are required. As examples:
- It may be helpful to review your scheme of delegation to ensure it is fit for purpose and would ensure minimal disruption to the work of the council if councillors are not able to attend meetings and committees. For example, you may wish to consider if certain decisions could be delegated to the clerk, in consultation with the chairman and vice-chairman, as a contingency plan in case council meetings are postponed due to the coronavirus
- You may wish to review critical functions or services and consider how these would continue in the case of staff absence
- You may have local residents with queries about coronavirus, in which case we would advise you signpost them to government information and advice as highlighted above
WHAT DOES THE LAW SAY ABOUT HOLDING COUNCIL MEETINGS?
There are a number of statutory meetings and deadlines that apply to local councils – you can find out more about these from your county association or by reading our Legal Topic Note 5 (located in member's area of NALC's website —login required). There has been no change to legislation or government guidance to amend these statutory duties.
Where the law does not provide for a particular scenario (e.g. the holding of the annual council parish or town meeting outside of the statutory timeframe, if the government advises against meetings being held) we would be guided by the government as to what should happen. We will be engaging with government on this and a range of other issues and will keep you updated on any developments.
Posted: Thu, 19 Mar 2020 12:10 by Jon Chitty