Jackie Weaver and BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, have called on the UK government to keep online council meetings legal even as coronavirus restrictions across Britain are eased.
Don't pretend you don't know who Jackie Weaver is. For a moment back in February, Weaver was kind of a big deal after an extraordinary meeting of Handforth Parish Council's Planning and Environment Committee from December 2020 surfaced on YouTube and went viral.
The English parish, covering the town of the same name, is located 15km south of the M60 ring road, which circles the city of Manchester in northwest England.
The farcical meeting gave birth to immortal phrases such as the Saruman-esque "You have no authority here, Jackie Weaver, no authority at all!", "She's just kicked him out", "Read the standing orders, READ THEM AND UNDERSTAND THEM!!!!!!!11eleventyone", and "Please refer to me as Britney Spears from now on."
The tl;dr was that the council chairman refused to hold the extraordinary meeting, but two other councillors called it instead, in accordance with standing order 17D [you can peruse all the parish's standing orders here – PDF]. The chair erroneously refused to recognise the legitimacy of the meeting and was kicked out by Weaver, who was clerking, for disorderly conduct as per standing order 10.
Weaver was self-appointed clerk and indeed not the "proper officer" but she was, however, parachuted in in her capacity as chief officer of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils, which Handforth had already approached to ask about the legality of its meetings.
Without going too much into the minutiae of parochial democracy, it's clear that something stinks in Handforth.
Regardless of whether Weaver did or did not have "the authority", she came out the other side as a hero for her no-nonsense handling of the meeting.
Now she is continuing to use her powers for good. She said in a statement: "The continuation of virtual council meetings is essential for enhancing local democracy which is the foundation of our society.
"It was vital to avoid face-to-face meetings during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, but there has been a great deal of feedback from local councils about the additional benefits of remote meetings. That includes the environmental and cost benefits of reduced travel, increased participation from local residents, accessibility, and the ability of the community to bear witness to the process. Remote meetings also have the potential to attract more diverse local council members."
The Coronavirus Act 2020, enforced in April last year, granted the right for council meeting across the UK to take place remotely via the videoconferencing software of an authority's choice. However, this is due to end on 7 May.
While Scottish authorities already had powers to convene remotely, Wales has since made provisions for local councils to do the same and the UK government has undertaken a call for evidence to investigate whether such arrangements can be made permanent in England too.
As the UK emerges from another lengthy lockdown and restrictions are lessened across the board, it remains to be seen whether this won't simply plunge the country back into another quarantine phase. Plus, local democracy has managed to cough and splutter along all the while.
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"Returning to face-to-face meetings poses a significant challenge for England's parish and town councils," Weaver added. "I am deeply disappointed at the government's decision not to extend remote meetings powers when there is a clear case and extensive benefits for this. I ask that The National Association of Local Councils (NALC) keeps lobbying for it and urge everyone to contact their local MP and tell them why this is so important."
John Higgins, president of BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, agreed. "Online access to local council meetings has shown us the good, the bad and the ugly in local decision making," he said. "To use an old adage, the now notorious Handforth Parish Council video showed us how the sausage gets made, and although we didn't much like what we saw – it's better to see it being made than not.
"Digital access to local democracy during the pandemic has transformed our ability to hold elected officials to account and call out inappropriate behaviour. It has also reignited calls for civil society to create a far more inclusive environment to encourage greater, more diverse participation in decision making; this reckoning is long overdue and government must act swiftly to ensure our democracy remains online.
"Local authorities have risen to the challenge of ensuring council business continues by conducting meetings remotely and with the right standards and security measures in place, online or hybrid meetings are far more accessible for elected members, local residents and the media.
"They vastly reduce travel time for councillors and allow documents to be more readily available and shared. Most promising of all is the potential for a more diverse range of people to be heard and have influence." ®