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Covid-19: Local Democracy

Volume 803: debated on Wednesday 3 June 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the operation of local democracy in the United Kingdom during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

The Government recognise the impact that the Covid-19 pandemic can have on the operation of local democracy. With the devolved Administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, they took action, including obtaining the necessary legislation, to postpone all local elections and polls until 6 May 2021 and to enable council meetings to be held remotely. In this way, councils can continue to operate in line with public health guidance and to uphold the principles of local democracy.

The Minister refers to legislation and enabling councils to act, but what are the Government doing to ensure that that local democracy is functioning? Councils’ activities seem to range very widely: some are holding full meetings and planning inquiries at which members of the public are able to participate fully, but there are others, such as Peterborough, where the opposition is appealing for a full council meeting. What do the Government intend to do to encourage support and ensure that local democracy takes place, and will they listen to what those democratic considerations come up with and ensure that that guides government policy at Westminster level?

Meetings can be held remotely, including via telephone conferencing, videoconferencing, live web chat and live streaming. The noble Baroness is right in that there has been a difference in response. As a former council leader, I know that my own local authority has decided to cancel its AGM in May, whereas other London councils continue to elect mayors and carry out their annual general meetings. The noble Baroness should note that these are devolved administrations, and guidance is available through the LGA, whose website contains best practice guidance. However, we will continue to note where councils are not continuing to function as they should according to the regulations.

There is widespread concern that tackling Covid-19 has been too centralised. The mayors and leaders of Greater Manchester, Liverpool, Gateshead, Newcastle and Sunderland have all called for more decisions to be made locally. People are more likely to support plans for recovery when they can see that their local needs have been taken into account. Can the Minister outline the role of local councils in the decisions that are made on recovery and regeneration of the UK economy?

The postponement of elections has enabled councils to focus on their role in response to the pandemic and to lead in the recovery phase. It should be noted that under the Civil Contingencies Act there are 38 local resilience fora, in which councils play their full part in leading in the recovery phase and in the response to the pandemic.

My Lords, as the Minister has said, the Covid-19 legislation allowed for by-elections in local authorities to be postponed until May 2021. However, this is leading to a deficit in local democracy. How many vacancies in county and district councils and unitary authorities are now waiting for 2021 to be filled?

I will write to the noble Baroness on the specific number of vacancies. However, I make the point that many people involved in by-elections, including one of my colleagues in local government, Councillor Botterill, understand the need to delay these elections. They understand that it is important and that the decision to delay is the right one. However, I will of course write to the noble Baroness with the specific numbers.

I declare my interest as set out in the register. Local councils have had considerable success in bringing in rough sleepers and finding beds to protect them from Covid-19. Even in normal times, the process can be particularly challenging when helping entrenched rough sleepers, so all this is to be applauded. But what are the Government planning to do to sustain and build on this achievement?

I first congratulate Westminster City Council, which my noble friend led with such distinction, in its response to getting rough sleepers off the street. Some 90% of rough sleepers—5,300—are now in accommodation. The plan called for by the noble Lord, Lord Bird, was big and bold. The Secretary of State has announced 6,000 supported homes for vulnerable rough sleepers, which really does give a symbol of hope and opportunity, along with £433 million government funding for 3,300 homes to be made available in the next six months. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to end rough sleeping.

Clearly, one of the biggest differentiators between local councils’ and government’s ability to deliver services is the quality of digital infrastructure, skills and understanding. What extra support is the Minister giving, both to the local digital team that works in his department doing vital work and sharing resources, and to the local councils themselves?

The noble Baroness is right that access to broadband is one of the key parameters; it facilitates local democracy. I shall write to the noble Baroness on the specifics of what we are doing to support local councils. Again, I note that many councils are functioning fully and providing that continuity of executive as well as scrutiny of the Government.

My Lords, I declare my relevant registered interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the work of our locally elected politicians, councillors and mayors during the pandemic? Secondly, will he agree with me that each local authority that has responsibility for delivering elections next May would be well advised to review their procedures so that they are confident that they are able to deliver the administration of the election—everything from the nomination process to the polling day operation and the count—while protecting the public, candidates and staff at that vital time?

The noble Lord is right. The local government response to the pandemic has been exemplary. I agree that it would be sensible to review procedures so that there will be a proper functioning of local democracy next May.

Given the distrust in government decisions nationally and locally, what thought have the Government given to the promotion of citizens’ assemblies, organised remotely, to enable citizens to be party to evidence and discussion?

I note the noble Baroness’s comments about the functioning of local democracy. Certainly, in my 20 years, I always felt that we had one of the best examples of local democratic accountability through our councillors and engagement with local business groups. I will look at the noble Baroness’s comments. We continue to work with other bodies, including citizens’ and other assembly groups to ensure that their voices are heard.

My Lords, while there has, on occasion, been excessive delegation to officers and a paucity of democratic scrutiny, remote working has generally worked extraordinarily well. I think there are lessons to be learned beyond the pandemic. Will my noble friend the Minister undertake to review the use of videoconferencing for council and committee meetings? Will he undertake to look at pilots to extend this beyond the pandemic, to make it a normal part of local government life?

My noble friend is right that remote working and videoconferencing have been broadly well accepted by local councils up and down the land. I will undertake that we conduct that review and look at how this can be continued. Obviously, these regulations have been brought in and are effective only until next May.

My Lords, in the absence of the Lord Speaker, with the leave of the House, I must tell noble Lords that the 10 minutes allocated for this Question is up.