Disabled Arun councillor ‘excluded’ from in-person meetings

Two disabled councillors have criticised the government for not extending the rules allowing them to attend meetings virtually.

Councillors Amanda Worne and Claire Needs
Councillors Amanda Worne and Claire Needs

Former Arun District Council chair Amanda Worne (Lib Dem, Yapton) wrote to the Prime Minister in April to urge the government to allow virtual council meetings to continue.

Now, as a result of virtual meetings coming to an end, her fellow Lib Dem councillor Claire Needs (Aldwick West) has become ‘excluded’ from ADC meetings.

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Ms Needs has cerebral palsy and cannot attend in-person meetings because her care home only allows her to mix with four close contacts.

Local authorities like ADC turned to Zoom to host meetings throughout the pandemic which meant Ms Needs could attend without issue.

But emergency legislation which allowed meetings to take place virtually expired on May 7 and the High Court has since ruled that they must take place in person.

Ms Worne says this decision effectively ‘discriminates’ against some councillors with disabilities or long-term conditions.

She said: “Claire lives in a care home in Bognor Regis. Because of this and because they have to adopt a much stricter Covid policy as there’s a lot of them living together, she is not able to attend meetings physically.

“She is absolutely distraught because she is passionate about serving her community, she has been able to do so really competently but from the safety of her own room. Then all of a sudden that has been stripped from her.

She continued: “I had to sub for her at a meeting we just had because she couldn’t go in.

“When, like Claire, you have so much taken out of your hands anyway, why exacerbate her situation and make it even worse by taking something unnecessarily out of her hands?”

Around 16 per cent of councillors had a long-term health problem or disability which limited their daily activities according to the 2018 Local Government Association councillor census.

Luke Hall, minister for regional growth and local government, has since responded to Ms Worne’s letter saying that emergency legislation ‘was not possible’.

He wrote: “The government concluded it was not possible to bring forward emergency legislation on this issue.

“At that time, legislation was pending arising from an application by Hertfordshire County Council , the Association of Democratic Service Officers, and Lawyers in Local Government, seeking a High Court declaration on whether the Local Government Act 1972 could be interpreted to include remote meetings.”

“The Secretary of State supported the claim and agreed there was a case to be heard as the Local Government Act was passed by Parliament in a different age of technology.

“However, the High Court judgement handed down on 27 April 2021 was that the Local Government Act 1972 specifies that council meetings must take place in person at a single, specified  geographical location and being “present” at such a meeting involves physical presence at that location.”

The minister recognised ‘continuing concerns’ over face-to-face meetings and recommended that local authorities hold them virtually if they are ‘informal’ or ‘non-statutory’.

Ms Worne called the response ‘unacceptable’ and ‘too little too late’ and she is currently drafting a further letter to Mr Hall.

She said: “It’s not acceptable that central government has hybrid meetings so members of Parliament can still meet from home or attend in person.

“Most of the members of Parliament are quite privileged people – they don’t suffer from disabilities, they don’t have the challenges a lot of people suffer with in everyday life. Yet they’re still being treated better than the average person and people with disabilities.”

A wheelchair user herself, Ms Worne said that being able to attend virtual meetings during the pandemic was ‘a lifeline’.

She said: “I was chair of ADC through the main part of the pandemic last year and I’m a wheelchair user myself. Being able to do the meetings virtually was a lifeline.

“Before I even leave the house in the morning, I have an hour-long routine with my bowels.”

She said that holding hybrid or virtual meetings could give councillors with long-term health conditions the choice to work from home if they needed to.

She added: “It gives you a bit of freedom when you have had so much taken away. You can say ‘Actually, today I’m not up to going into the office but I can do it from home’.

“We shouldn’t solely be working from home, it’s still good and healthy to interact with other people, but it’s having that choice taken away completely. It’s about choices.

“Even though figures are going up, all restrictions have been lifted. But something that would give us a little bit of security and safety, they have taken away from us.

“Covid hasn’t gone away. What happens if you have to isolate? You can’t go to the meetings.”

A government consultation to explore the possibility of permanent virtual meetings for local authorities began in March.

A report has yet to be released but one upper tier authority said virtual meetings had saved it £6,000 a month in travel expenses.

According to the consultation ‘many local authorities’ referred to the benefits of remote meetings for disabled members but also noted that such meetings could pose ‘additional difficulties’ for members with hearing or visual impairments.

A survey by the LGA also revealed that 83 per cent of 243 English councils would hold online or hybrid meetings post-pandemic if they had the power to do so.

This comes as Bognor Regis town councillors voiced support for the option to attend meetings remotely.