(1) The General Counsel introduced his report in his capacity as KCC’s Monitoring Officer. He said that since the agenda papers had been published, Mr Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities had expressed the strong view that virtual meetings could be part of the way in which Councils could conduct their business.
(2) The General Counsel continued by reminding the Committee that he had written to the Secretary of State on behalf of KCC in November 2020 setting out the view that decisions on whether a Council’s meetings were held physically or virtually should most appropriately be taken by the Council itself.
(3) The General Counsel asked whether the Committee wished him to write again to the Secretary of State in the light of his recent statement, re-iterating the County Council’s view.
(4) Mr Gough said whilst recognising that different Members held different opinions on the question of whether meetings should be virtual or physical, the course of action proposed would find widespread agreement from everyone as, if the necessary legislation were to come into force, it would enable KCC to take its own decisions on a case-by-case basis. The potential value of allowing Members to join a meeting virtually had been underlined during the recent fuel crisis.
(5) Mr Sweetland said that some Members, especially those with underlying health concerns, would find it easier to attend virtually. In addition, those who were self-isolating during the pandemic would be able to participate.
(6) The Committee then discussed arrangements for the County Council meeting on 4 November. Dr Sullivan noted that there would be some 90 people taking part in the County Council meeting in the Chamber and asked whether the requirement for Members to be physically present in order to vote could be interpreted in such a way that their presence in County Hall would suffice provided that they were in the Chamber when votes were cast.
(7) The General Counsel replied that this was one of the possibilities that was being considered. He would be holding conversations with each of the Group Leaders and other Members. It was his role to ensure that every elected Member was able to participate legally and without concern for their personal safety.
(8) In response to a question from Mr Cooke, the General Counsel agreed to consider any issues arising from changes to the arrangements for Lateral Flow Tests and to include his findings in the note to all Members before the County Council meeting.
(8) Mr Hook suggested that speakers should be allowed to remain in a sitting position during County Council meetings rather than standing up, as was usually the case. This would partially mitigate the risk of spreading the virus.
(9) The General Counsel explained that Corporate Directors would be in the building but not the Chamber during the County Council meeting. This, taken together with those Members who sent their apologies, would free up space in the Chamber and enable the seating plan to be arranged so that Members were not crammed together during the meeting.
(10) The General Counsel replied to a question from Mr Lehmann by saying that he would investigate with the Director of Public Health whether it would be possible to make Lateral Flow tests available at an earlier time on the day of the County Council meeting.
(11) RESOLVED that:-
(a) the General Counsel be requested to write to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities re-iterating KCC’s views on meeting arrangements for the County Council, its Committees and Sub-Committees; and
(b) the comments made by Members of the Committee on arrangements for the County Council meeting on 4 November be noted.