Page updated 2nd April 2020. See also the COVID-19 Resources page
In light of the current situation where working from home is a necessity, take this opportunity to develop your skills to be as prepared as possible once life does inevitably return to normal. We are delighted to announce a new suite of SLCC webinars designed to address issues related to Covid-19 as well as additional dates for existing webinars. Click here to view the full list of webinars.
Furloughing Staff under the Job Retention Scheme
The online guidance from the Government is confusing for parish councils. Having discussed this with our colleagues at NALC we have taken a pragmatic view that avoids issues of double taxation. Where a role is still required e.g. the clerk, then this should not be furloughed as the continues but is most likely being carried out from home. You cannot furlough an employee whose hours have been reduced. The employee must be given no work and cannot “volunteer” for the employer.
The Government expects that most public authorities will not furlough staff or claim the funding. Existing budgets and precepts contain funding for these salaries. The exceptions are, in our view, likely be in those parish councils that rely on commercial income from community centres, markets, carparks and other income generating activities. In those cases it may be appropriate to furlough staff where the closure of a facility means there is no work for them to undertake. The wider policy objective here is to avoid redundancies/job losses as a result of work being unavailable. It is also important that councils are not “profiting” from the Coronavirus situation.
We advise councils when considering furlough to assess whether the post can be carried out (with appropriate social distancing measures in place), how the post is funded and whether furloughing is appropriate. Document your reasons fully so that you have an audit trail.
Some examples to consider when contemplating furloughing staff
a large town council has a thriving market generating income of more than £200,000 per annum. This has been closed and there are 3 market staff for whom there is no work. Their posts are not funded by the precept. In these circumstances we consider furloughing would be appropriate.
a small parish has an admin assistant. The Parish has no income other than the precept and some bank interest. It has budgeted for the role for the year and included it in the precept. In these circumstances it would not be appropriate to furlough the employee even if there is no work available. This is because the post has been funded by public taxation.
What is essential work?
It is SLCC’s view that we cannot provide a comprehensive definition of essential work. This is because the sector is diverse and undertakes a very wide range of activities. Our advice is that clerks with their councils consider their normal activities, assess the impact of not carrying out the activity and balance this with the risks that staff are being exposed to. It is advisable to get consensus from your councillors as to whether or not work should be carried out. Seek views via email and use these as part of your process to document the decision.
If you do require outside staff to continue working with the appropriate social distancing measures in place, it is advisable to inform your local policing team which staff you plan to have working and why. If they are consulted, staff are less likely to be challenged and it may provide a useful reality check if the local policing team advise against the work being undertaken.
A minimum suggested process is as follows:
|Document/review current activity|
|Assess the impact of stopping activity|
|Review the risks of continuing activity|
|Identify the risks to staff|
|Consult with Police|
|Summarise analysis and circulate to councillors by email for views|
|Review responses and make decision under delegated authority|
|Inform staff and issue appropriate guidance to them|
|Update Police (on an ongoing basis)|
|Update councillors (on an ongoing basis)|
|Publicise decision on website so that residents know|
Linda Roberts FSLCC, Community Governance Tutor and Town Clerk to Melksham, has shared with us her risk assessment which she keeps as an evolving document and can be adapted by clerks to suit their own work.
Holding Local Council Meetings
On 24 March, SLCC and the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) issued a joint letter to local councils commending them for their work supporting their communities and reiterating the new rules on staying at home, self-isolating and shielding.
“As the coronavirus pandemic continues and the UK enters this new phase of government measures, we wanted to reach out to the local (parish and town) council sector. These are unprecedented and challenging times, and our first thoughts are for the health and welfare of yourselves and your communities.
We are hearing stories from up and down the country of local councils stepping up and supporting their local communities and most vulnerable. Such as Woodbridge Town Council in Suffolk, which has set-up an emergency response group of councillors and volunteers to assist with collection/delivery of medicines, shopping, walking the dog or simply being a voice at the end of the phone, and Hagley Parish Council in Worcestershire, which is acting as an information hub and plans to publicise restaurants are offering a delivery service and contact details for NHS helplines……”
Coronavirus Act 2020
The Act has been passed and is enabling legislation and gives the Government powers to create a range of statutory instruments/regulations. The areas of relevance to parish councils are as follows:-
- Revisions to processes for managing the dead as many parishes are burial authorities. Details on this will come from the Ministry of Justice.
- Powers for Government to deal with infected persons – these are not detailed at this stage and will require regulations.
- Powers around events, gatherings and premises – these again are not fully detailed. Section 78 give the Secretary of State the powers that the Government can remove the need for the Annual Meeting of Council and allow “virtual” meetings. The power to create regulations lasts until May 2021.
- Creation of emergency volunteering leave allowing suitable employees to take up to 4 consecutive weeks leave to volunteer in the health and care sector without losing their employment rights and current job. This will not apply to employees whose employer has less than 10 employees. Employees doing this will have a certificate issued by the appropriate authority. This along with changes to registration for doctors and nurses is designed to boost the numbers of staff available to care for the expected rise in patients.
Latest Government Rules
The latest rules are just that rules – not guidance and can be enforced by the Police and fines may be issued to those not complying.
The government is now (23 March 2020) introducing three new measures.
- Requiring people to stay at home, except for very limited purposes
- Closing non-essential shops and community spaces
- Stopping all gatherings of more than two people in public
Every citizen must comply with these new measures. The relevant authorities, including the police, will be given the powers to enforce them – including through fines and dispersing gatherings.
These measures are effective immediately. The Government will look again at these measures in three weeks, and relax them if the evidence shows this is possible.
1. Staying at home
You should only leave the house for one of four reasons:
- Shopping for basic necessities, for example food and medicine, which must be as infrequent as possible.
- One form of exercise a day, for example a run, walk, or cycle – alone or with members of your household.
- Any medical need, or to provide care or to help a vulnerable person.
- Travelling to and from work, but only where this absolutely cannot be done from home.
These four reasons are exceptions – even when doing these activities, you should be minimising time spent outside of the home and ensuring you are 2 metres apart from anyone outside of your household.
These measures must be followed by everyone. Separate advice is available for individuals or households who are isolating, and for the most vulnerable who need to be shielded.
If you work in a critical sector outlined in this guidance, or your child has been identified as vulnerable, you can continue to take your children to school. Where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes
In most cases parish council staff are not considered to work in a critical sector – the exception being clerks who administer burials. Please see the new advice note on burials.
Leaving home for work is to be undertaken only if that work cannot be undertaken from home.
2. Closing non-essential shops and public spaces
Last week, the Government ordered certain businesses – including pubs, cinemas and theatres – to close. The Government is now extending this requirement to a further set of businesses and other venues, including:
- all non-essential retail stores – this will include clothing and electronics stores; hair, beauty and nail salons; and outdoor and indoor markets, excluding food markets.
- libraries, community centres, and youth centres.
- indoor and outdoor leisure facilities such as bowling alleys, arcades and soft play facilities. communal places within parks, such as playgrounds, sports courts and outdoor gyms.
- places of worship, except for funerals attended by immediate families.
- hotels, hostels, bed and breakfasts, campsites, caravan parks, and boarding houses for commercial/leisure use (excluding permanent residents and key workers).
More detailed information can be found here, including a full list of those businesses and other venues that must close. Businesses and other venues not on this list may remain open.
It is the SLCC’s view that despite what Michael Gove said on BBC Breakfast that going to the allotment does not fall into permitted activity except for plot holders needing to tend to the welfare of livestock/hens.
3. Stopping public gatherings
To make sure people are staying at home and apart from each other, the Government is also stopping all public gatherings of more than two people. There are only two exceptions to this rule:
- where the gathering is of a group of people who live together – this means that a parent can, for example, take their children to the shops if there is no option to leave them at home.
- where the gathering is essential for work purposes – but workers should be trying to minimise all meetings and other gatherings in the workplace.
In addition, the Government is stopping social events, including weddings, baptisms and other religious ceremonies. This will exclude funerals, which can be attended by immediate family.
This definitely includes meetings of town, parish and community councils, their committees and working parties.
4. Delivering these new measures
These measures will reduce our day to day contact with other people. They are a vital part of our efforts to reduce the rate of transmission of coronavirus.
Every citizen is instructed to comply with these new measures. The Government will therefore be ensuring the police and other relevant authorities have the powers to enforce them, including through fines and dispersing gatherings where people do not comply.
They will initially last for the three weeks from 23 March, at which point the Government will look at them again and relax them if the evidence shows this is possible.
Schools & key workers
Schools and key workers With the closure of schools from Friday 20th March the Government has defined a list of key workers whose children will still be provided with a school place. For the most part town and parish council staff will not fall into the definition. The exception is those councils that are burial authorities as they are “managing the dead” – this is seen as a key public service.
The place for children may not be at their usual school and only one parent needs to be a “key worker” for the exemption to apply. The guidance is clear that children should be kept at home as much as possible and that use of the key worker provision should be a last resort.
How can we take decisions?
Local authorities are required to hold meetings to make decisions. The Local Government Act 1972 requires members to be physically present in order for a meeting to take place. This applies to councils in all tiers. The exception to that rule is in Wales, where for principal authorities only remote attendance is allowed under the circumstances provided by section 4 of the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011 provided there is a quorum of 30% physically present. This measure does not apply to community councils and may confuse dual hatted councillors.
Given that these times are indeed exceptional (and a declared pandemic should meet the test for this), most Councils will cancel their usual meetings and these need to be replaced with alternative decision making processes. The lawful way to do this is that a decision, that would otherwise have been on the agenda for a committee or Council, is now made by an officer. To ensure that this remains inclusive of elected members, the officer is advised in their decision-making seek the views of members of the committee/Council. This could be by email, SKYPE, telephone (not the best as there is no permanent record).
The officer cannot in law fetter (constrain) their discretion entirely, but that does not mean that they cannot give almost overwhelming weight to the views of members responding remotely to a report and officers’ advice, or even after seeing written submissions by members of the public in lieu of public access.
In some councils it may be desirable to formalise which members are to be consulted e.g Chairman & Vice Chairman. This does not in the SLCC’s view create a committee of 2 members and does not therefore need to meet. In political councils regard should be had to the existing protocols that the Council has established which may include the role of Leader and have reference to political proportionality.
Our colleagues at NALC have issued the following advice to councils with which SLCC completely agrees.
“NALC strongly encourages councillors and staff to follow government guidance on social distancing and self-isolation. This is particularly important if anyone is in an at risk group as identified by the guidance. We would encourage councils to consider if they need to hold scheduled meetings at all. The health and safety of councillors, staff and the public should be your primary concern. If local councils do follow government guidance on social distancing and social isolation and so they do not hold scheduled meetings, including annual council meetings, NALC’s opinion is that the likelihood of a successful legal challenge is low.
We are expecting government guidance on holding meetings remotely early next week, and NALC will also produce further guidance if appropriate next week. In the meantime, if local councils decide to not hold meetings and take decisions by email or other remote methods NALC feels it’s likely that afterwards if there were a challenge that the courts will accept that exceptional times called for exceptional measures. In the absence of government guidance we would suggest for now only taking decisions remotely for truly urgent issues. In this case councils should evidence their decision making as best they can, for example by asking councillors to confirm their votes by email to the Clerk for the Clerk to keep as a record of the decision.”
Annual Parish Meeting (England) & Community Meetings (Wales)
The Local Government Act 1972 Part III requires that an annual parish meeting takes place between 1st March and 1st June each year. There is no duty for the Parish Council to convene this although it is customary that it is convened by the Parish Council Chairman at a date and time set by the Parish Council. There is no effective sanction should the Parish Council not set a date and time for this to occur or if the Chairman does not convene the meeting.
In Wales there is no requirement for an annual community meeting however there is a procedure for electors to follow to demand one and this is set out in Local Government Act 1972, Schedule 12, para 30(1), as amended.
Click here to view the model pandemic plan (from the CIPD) which is available to SLCC members in the Advice Library (as the situation evolves the SLCC will update its advice.)
What about the Financial Year End?
Clerks should look at the agreed internal audit plan and consider whether this can be delivered by post/email/filesharing and teleconferencing thus minimising any need for face to face meetings. In larger councils this may be more of an issue. However, in smaller councils with fewer transactions a face to face meeting with the internal auditor should not be necessary.
Approving the AGAR
After the completion of accounts at the close of the financial year (31 March), they must be certified by the council’s responsible financial officer (RFO), considered and approved by full council by no later than 29 June, and published by 30 September. If a planned full council meeting is not able to approve the accounts e.g. the meeting is not quorate due to councillor absence, then an extraordinary council meeting can be called at a later date as long as it is within this timeframe. If councils are concerned about potential delays they may wish to consider approving the AGAR as early as possible, for example, at an April meeting rather than waiting for the May/June meetings. It may be that Government will extend the deadline to 30th September however as yet we do not have confirmation that MHCLG’s proposals to do this include town and parish councils.
Wales Audit Office Update & FAQ’s
The Wales Audit Office (WAO) has released an update and frequently asked questions to keep members up to date with the latest information.
Current requirements of The Accounts and Audit (Wales) Regulations remain unchanged in regards to the approval of the accounts which must be at a meeting of the council and not delegated down to the Chair. It is expected that there will be delays in the completion of audits with the Wales Audit Office, BDO and Grant Thornton and local councils having to close their offices for the foreseeable future.
Where can I get advice?
The coronavirus situation is fast-moving and there is an increasing amount of misinformation online. Clerks should be using government advice to inform decisions and be checking these sites regularly. Unless otherwise stated all advice applies to both England & Wales. The SLCC continues to monitor the evolving situation and will update this advice as it changes. We are in regular communication with our colleagues at NALC and One Voice Wales. This is to ensure that advice to the sector is consistent and to support their lobbying efforts to remove some of the barriers we are currently facing.
- Public Health England
- Guidance from Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy assist employers and businesses in providing advice to their staff
- There is advice from ACAS that is useful in considering any employment-related matters that may impact you and your staff.
Who is vulnerable?
This group includes those who are:
- aged 70 or older (regardless of medical conditions)
- under 70 with an underlying health condition listed below (ie anyone instructed to get a flu jab as an adult each year on medical grounds):
- chronic (long-term) respiratory diseases, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema or bronchitis
- chronic heart disease, such as heart failure
- chronic kidney disease
- chronic liver disease, such as hepatitis
- chronic neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), a learning disability or cerebral palsy
- problems with your spleen – for example, sickle cell disease or if you have had your spleen removed
- a weakened immune system as the result of conditions such as HIV and AIDS, or medicines such as steroid tablets or chemotherapy
- being seriously overweight (a BMI of 40 or above)
- those who are pregnant