- How do I give notice of a virtual meeting?
- How can we take decisions?
- Annual Parish Meeting (England) & Community Meetings (Wales)
- What about the Financial Year End?
- Where can I get advice?
- Who is vulnerable?
Page updated 3rd July 2020
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.
Latest Government Rules 26th June
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 rules change on 4th July. The rules are different in Wales
Going back to work
The government has relaxed the rules on working from 13th May for England. Clerks in Wales need to remain aware that the Welsh Government has only altered the rules on outdoor exercise and to a lesser extent than in England.
For the foreseeable future, workers should continue to work from home rather than their normal physical workplace, wherever possible. This is to minimise the number of social contacts across the country and therefore keep transmissions as low as possible.
For local councils, the majority of cases this will result in no changes in working practice at this time for the Clerk and other office staff.
All workers who cannot work from home should travel to work if their workplace is open. Sectors of the economy that are allowed to be open should be open, for example this includes food production, construction, manufacturing, logistics, distribution and scientific research in laboratories.
As soon as practicable, workplaces should follow the new “COVID-19 Secure” guidelines which will be published this week. These will ensure the risk of infection is as low as possible, while allowing as many people as possible to resume their livelihoods.
This does not currently include community and leisure centres which are expected to fall into Stage 3 of the Recovery Plan (at the earliest July).
This does however assist some clerks who manage outside staff as the guidance should support their decision making on how to create a safe working environment for these employees.
It remains the case that anyone who has symptoms, however mild, or is in a household where someone has symptoms, should not leave their house to go to work. Those people should self-isolate, as should those in their households.
Changes to the Furlough Scheme
The furlough scheme is being used by a small number of local councils where posts are not funded by the precept.
From 1 July, employers can bring back to work employees that have previously been furloughed for any amount of time and any shift pattern, while still being able to claim the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme grant for their normal hours not worked. When claiming the grant for furloughed hours employers will need to report and claim for a minimum period of a week. Until 1st July a claim must cover a minimum 3 week period and no work can be undertaken.
The scheme will close to new entrants from 30 June. From this point onwards, employers will only be able to furlough employees that they have furloughed for a full 3 week period prior to 30 June.
This means that the final date by which an employer needs to agree with their employee and ensure they place them on furlough is 10 June. Employers will have until 31 July to make any claims in respect of the period to 30 June.
From 1 July 2020, businesses will be given the flexibility to bring furloughed employees back part time. This is a month earlier than previously announced to help support people back to work. Individual employers will decide the hours and shift patterns their employees will work on their return, so that they can decide on the best approach for them – and will be responsible for paying their wages while in work.
From August 2020, the level of government grant provided through the job retention scheme will be slowly tapered to reflect that people will be returning to work. That means that for June and July the government will continue to pay 80% of people’s salaries. In the following months, businesses will be asked to contribute, but crucially individuals will continue to receive that 80% of salary covering the time they are unable to work.
The scheme updates mean that the following will apply for the period people are furloughed:
- June and July: The government will pay 80% of wages up to a cap of £2,500 as well as employer National Insurance (ER NICS) and pension contributions. Employers are not required to pay anything.
- August: The government will pay 80% of wages up to a cap of £2,500. Employers will pay ER NICs and pension contributions.
- September: The government will pay 70% of wages up to a cap of £2,187.50. Employers will pay ER NICs and pension contributions and 10% of wages to make up 80% total up to a cap of £2,500.
- October: The government will pay 60% of wages up to a cap of £1,875. Employers will pay ER NICs and pension contributions and 20% of wages to make up 80% total up to a cap of £2,500. For the average claim, this represents 23% of the gross employment costs the employer would have incurred had the employee not been furloughed.
An employer can still chose to make wages up to 100%.
Public Spaces & Play Areas
Play areas re-opening: From 4 July, people will be able to visit outdoor playgrounds (this also includes outdoor gyms). When attending playgrounds, people should not:
- gather outdoors in a group of more than six people from different households; gatherings larger than 6 should only take place if everyone is from just two households
- interact socially with anyone outside the group you are attending the playground with
The government recommends that you keep two metres away from people as a precaution or one metre when you can mitigate the risk by taking other named precautions i.e. avoid being face-to-face with people if they are outside your household, keep your hands and face as clean as possible, avoid crowded spaces, avoid shouting or singing close to someone outside your household etc.
SLCC will issue further guidance on this.
People may drive to outdoor open spaces irrespective of distance, so long as they respect social distancing guidance while they are there, because this does not involve contact with people outside your household.
When travelling to outdoor spaces, it is important that people respect the rules in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and do not travel to different parts of the UK where it would be inconsistent with guidance or regulations issued by the relevant devolved administration.
Clerks on the borders with Wales and Scotland need to be aware that the rules are different in those devolved administrations. Clerks with open spaces will need to review the “COVID-19 Secure” guidelines when these are published later this week.
All local government employees, including those employed by local councils are eligible for testing if they have symptoms of the virus.
Management of urban centres & green spaces in England
On 13th May the Government issued advice on management of urban centres and green spaces in England. The guidance is detailed and offers practical steps for clerks to consider using a decision tree.
Emergency funding for local councils
On 28 April 2020, MHCLG released the figures relating to emergency funding for local councils. The SLCC is seeking clarification as to whether any of these funds will be cascaded through to town and parish councils and will update members with information as soon as it is available. Click here to access this information.
In response to the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19), the Government has published an update on temporary and other measures aimed to make it easier to operate the planning system. These measures include the greater use of social media, delegated powers and representative groups.
This issue will be explored in more detail in the July edition of The Clerk magazine.
HMRC guidance on expenses and benefits provided to employees during coronavirus
HMRC have published guidance on the tax treatment of certain expenses and benefits provided to employees (including employees of local councils) during the current emergency. The guidance largely reflects existing law and practice but there are a few concessions. Click here to view the guidance.
There is also guidance on the tax treatment of expenses reimbursed to employees who work from home. This again largely reflects existing law and practice. This guidance can be found here.
Councils given key role in tracking
The LocalGov website reports that the government is to hand over £300m to principal authorities in England to support track and trace work in order that any future outbreaks be managed locally. Under the plans, councils have been asked to submit detailed virus control plans by the end of June to demonstrate how they would manage a localised outbreak including infection prevention strategies and ensuring effective testing capacity. The work will be led by Local Resilience Forums and council appointed boards and data will be shared with the Joint Biosecurity Centre allowing a more detailed local response should a further lockdown become necessary. Health and Social Care secretary, Matt Hancock MP, said: ‘Test and trace will work at its best with central government working side by side with local authorities. ‘We will work with them to reduce the spread of coronavirus in their area, harnessing their local knowledge and mobilising boots on the ground.’
Click here to read the full article.
The advice around face to face council meetings remains unaltered. NALC’s view with which the SLCC agrees, is that it’s worth highlighting that councils should not be holding meetings in person and wherever possible staff should work from home. If a Council needs to meet, for example to approve the accounts and AGAR, then this should be done remotely.
Neighbourhood Planning Consultation
The Government has amended its guidance on neighbourhood planning by including additional paragraph (107) on public consultation during the coronavirus crisis. This states, ‘The Neighbourhood Planning (General) Regulations 2012 require neighbourhood planning groups and local planning authorities to undertake publicity in a manner that is likely to bring it to the attention of people who live, work or carry on business in the neighbourhood area at particular stages of the process. It is not mandatory that engagement is undertaken using face-to-face methods. However, to demonstrate that all groups in the community have been sufficiently engaged, such as with those without internet access, more targeted methods may be needed including by telephone or in writing. Local planning authorities may be able to advise neighbourhood planning groups on suitable methods and how to reach certain groups in the community’. Click here to view the updated guidance
From 15 June, face coverings will be required while using public transport in England.
If you can, wear a face covering in an enclosed space where social distancing isn’t possible and where you will come into contact with people you do not normally meet. This is most relevant for short periods indoors in crowded areas, for example, on public transport or in some shops.
Evidence suggests that wearing a face covering does not protect you. However, if you are infected but have not yet developed symptoms, it may provide some protection for others you come into close contact with.
Face coverings do not replace social distancing. If you have symptoms of COVID-19 (cough and/or high temperature), you and your household must isolate at home: wearing a face covering does not change this.
A face covering is not the same as the surgical masks or respirators used by healthcare and other workers as part of personal protective equipment. These should continue to be reserved for those who need them to protect against risks in their workplace, such as health and care workers, and those in industrial settings, like those exposed to dust hazards.
Face coverings should not be used by children under the age of 2 or those who may find it difficult to manage them correctly. For example, primary age children unassisted, or those with respiratory conditions.
It is important to use face coverings properly and wash your hands before putting them on and taking them off.
The Government is encouraging people to make their own face coverings. The key thing is it should cover the mouth and nose.
For those who can sew, the SLCC Head of Advisory & Support Services has been using a pattern which can be found here which incorporates a nose wire to improve the fit on the face.
Reopening of Council Facilities - Guidance
Reopening of Playgrounds & Outdoor Gyms
On 26th June, the Government published guidance on managing playgrounds and outdoor gyms.
Notes on the Government guidance:
- This guidance is of a general nature and should be treated as a guide. In the event of any conflict between any applicable legislation (including the health and safety legislation) and this guidance, the applicable legislation shall prevail.
- This guidance does not preempt any forthcoming changes to this legislation. It is designed to provide the owners and operators of playgrounds and outdoor gyms with practical advice to help them prepare, so that when it is deemed safe for playgrounds and outdoor gyms to reopen by amendment to the regulations, they are able to do so in a way that is safe and minimises COVID-19 transmission risk.
- Owners and operators will need to think about the risks faced and do everything reasonably practicable to minimise them, recognising that it is not possible to completely eliminate the risk of COVID-19.
- Owners and operators must ensure that the risk assessment for the playground or outdoor gym addresses the risks of COVID-19, using this guidance to inform decisions and control measures. A risk assessment is not about creating excessive paperwork, but rather about identifying sensible measures to control risk.
- It is recognised that adherence to social distancing between individuals and households can be particularly difficult in a playground setting. This will mean that other ways of minimising transmission risk should also be considered and communicated to the parents, guardians and carers, who should remain aware of the residual risk.
- The government has produced a range of guidance to help people stay safe and reduce the transmission risk of COVID-19. This can be found on the coronavirus support and guidance page.
Following representations from the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) and SLCC we were pleased to be invited to meet with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) and other stakeholders involved in play area management and inspection. These positive discussions have provided us with greater insights to understand and advise on the recent guidance. In particular, NALC and SLCC welcome the Association of Play Industries (API) guidance that provides practical steps for playground operators. It refers to Government guidance and interprets it in a way that is appropriate for local (parish and town) councils to consider opening their play areas from 4th July onwards. For example signage to use alongside the API guidance, click here to view signage showing the 7 best practice steps to ensuring play area safety.
NALC and SLCC will continue to work with Government to help ensure guidance on play areas and other facilities is developed in way that best supports local councils and reflects the needs of their communities alongside the staffing and funding capacity of those councils.
Reopening of Playgrounds cont.
The safe reopening of playgrounds in England is recognised as being essential to the health and well-being of children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds who may have no access to outside space. SLCC Chief Executive Rob Smith said, ‘All evidence suggests that there are significant rewards physically, emotionally and socially through play and the well-being of their community is always at the forefront of local (town and parish) councils. A great many members have raised concerns that the current government guidelines on reopening playgrounds present significant challenges to their councils in terms of their practicality and the resources required. We are working on your behalf with the Association of Play Industries (API) and the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) to ensure the MHCLG develop guidance that is both practical and safe for users and operators.’
In response to our members concerns over the Government guidelines, together with NALC, we have put together a short survey in which we aim to gather important data to present to MHCLG in our ongoing discussions for the introduction of safe and practical measures for both users and operators. Your feedback is essential in strengthening our discussions and your help with this important matter is greatly appreciated.
The short survey consisting of 8 questions will be open until Friday 10th July and the findings will be presented to MCHLG in the coming weeks.
Reopening of council buildings
The Government has published guidelines for the safe management of council buildings. It signposts to relevant guidance on a range of different activities that can take place in these buildings, in line with the government’s roadmap to ease the existing measures to tackle COVID-19. Click here to view the guidelines.
Reopening of Public Toilets & Waste Facilities
Information has been published in a letter to local councils from Simon Clarke MP, Local Government Minister and Rebecca Pow MP, Environment Minister which includes guidelines on the opening of public toilets. The government are keen to keep public toilets open where possible in order that those people who need to make use of the facilities, which include those with specific health needs, families, outdoor workers and those exercising outside, may do so safely. To read the full letter, please click here.
The Government also issued updated guidance on managing green spaces. Click here to view the guidance.
Reopening multi-purpose community facilities
The government produced guidance for the safe use of multi-purpose community facilities and guidance for the safe use of council buildings which include what activities can take place from 4 July and what practical steps can be taken to manage risks. Click here to view the guidance.
Holding Local Council Meetings
Long awaited regulations have now been introduced to enable town and parish councils to conduct ‘virtual meetings’.
The Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020 came into force on 4 April and will apply to local authority meetings and police and crime panel meetings that are required to be held, or held, before 7 May 2021.
The new legislation allows councils to carry out their business lawfully whilst ensuring that the health and safety of officers, councilors and members of the public is protected in accordance with government advice.
The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has released guidance to help you to use video conferencing, such as Zoom and Skype, securely. The guidance can be viewed here.
In response to the new regulations SLCC has launched free webinar training for members and non-members on how to hold council meetings by webinar.
The pre-recorded 60 minute session will be presented by Andrew Maliphant and is an invaluable resource in assisting clerks facilitate their first virtual meetings.
The LGA Hub also provides a range of resources which although aimed at principal authorities may be of interest.
For more advice on council meetings please see the FAQ section below.
How do I give notice of a virtual meeting?
Regulation 13 amends Section 1 of the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960. The existing requirements of the public notice of the time and place of meetings is amended so that this obligation is met if notice is published on the website of the principal council within the meaning of the Local Government Act 1972. We suspect this is a drafting error and that the intention was for this to require posting on the parish council website – aside from the fact that it could be problematic to post notice of such a meeting on the principal council’s website, it of course makes sense for such postings to be on the parish council website. However, as the legislation currently stands, solely posting on the parish council website will not satisfy this requirement.
The position of the SLCC, and having discussed this with our colleagues at NALC, is that posting on the parish council website will suffice for the purpose of these Regulations. If you can additionally post notice of such meetings on the principal council website, then it is prudent to do so. It is further hoped that there will be an amendment in the near future to rectify this.
Additionally, there appears to be a further anomaly within the Regulations. As the 10(2) legal obligation in Part II of Schedule 12 of LGA 1972 has NOT been disapplied, this would suggest that the general requirements regarding the fixing of any notice of meetings three clear days before a meeting of the parish council ‘in some conspicuous place in the parish’ and the signature obligations will continue to apply. Again we have discussed the matter with our colleagues at NALC and the SLCC’s position is that a purposive and common sense approach to this will probably not be met with much criticism by the judiciary if circumstances dictate that due to health and safety matters etc this cannot be complied with to the letter. Once again we would welcome an amendment to the Regulations to reflect this, and again in the meantime if you are able to comply with the requirements of 10(2) and with minimum risk to health and safety then you may consider it prudent to do so in any event. Click here to view the ‘Virtual Meetings in England’ advice note.
Holding Meetings by Webinar – Free training
Following the regulations which enable town and parish councils to conduct ‘virtual meetings’, the SLCC has launched free webinar training for members and non-members on how to hold council meetings by webinar.
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.” Click here to view the dedicated NALC page
What is the latest advice on council meetings?
Following the Government announcement of further easing of lockdown restrictions from 4th July, NALC & SLCC strongly advise local councils to continue to meet remotely, without the need for face to face contact, for the present time. Local councils have the powers to hold public meetings remotely by using video or telephone conferencing technology until May 2021 and so most councils will have no need to meet in person. Furthermore, local councils have the duty to allow the public to observe council meetings without placing restrictions on the number attending, which many council meeting venues will not be able to accommodate in a safe way at this time.
Following the Government announcement of further easing of lockdown restrictions from 4th July, NALC & SLCC strongly advise local councils to continue to meet remotely, without the need for face to face contact, for the present time. Local councils have the powers to hold public meetings remotely by using video or telephone conferencing technology until May 2021 and so most councils will have no need to meet in person. Furthermore, local councils have the duty to allow the public to observe council meetings without placing restrictions on the number attending, which many council meeting venues will not be able to accommodate in a safe way at this time. Guidance can be found on SLCC & NALC’s dedicated Coronavirus webpages.
NALC & SLCC will be updating our guidance on remote meetings shortly to include information on how to approach ‘hybrid meetings’ where some people attend in person and others join remotely.
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
Following lobbying by the National Association of Local Councils (NALC), supported by SLCC, amendments will be made to the Accounts and Audit Regulations. This applies to English parish councils. The regulations will move the statutory deadlines back by 2 months:
- Accounts and AGAR to be approved and published by 31 August 2020 at the latest
- Public rights period to commence on or before 1 September 2020.
- Final audited accounts and external auditor report and certificate to be published by 30 November 2020
This will significantly alleviate the pressures on parish councils in producing their AGAR. SLCC encourages clerks to continue to progress their year-end accounts work as much as possible, realising that internal audit is impacted by the current restrictions and social distancing.
Changes to accounts and audit deadlines for 2020
The Government has published regulations extending accounts and audit deadlines in England for 2020. The Regulations do not apply to Wales although we expect separate regulations.
The period during which public rights of inspection may be exercised is now a period of 30 days commencing no later than Tuesday 1 September 2020. The rule that the period must include the first ten working days in July is disapplied. This in turn means that sections 1 and 2 of the unaudited AGAR must be approved and published on a freely accessible website, along with a notice advertising public rights, no later than Monday 31 August 2020. External auditors will provide templates as they have in previous years. Councils can of course approve and publish, and advertise public rights, at an earlier date.
There is no change to the procedure for approval and signature of sections 1 and 2 of the AGAR, so there must still be a Full Council meeting (which could perhaps be held remotely if the council has procedures in place for this and the regulations permitting this are still in force). There is no change to the rules where ‘under£25,000’ councils in England may declare themselves (again at a Full Council meeting) exempt from external audit.
There has been no change to the publication requirements and deadlines under the Transparency Code for Smaller Authorities (applying to councils in England where neither gross receipts nor gross payments for the year exceed £25,000). Councils should use their best endeavours to comply with the Code, if applicable, but the risk of challenge is low.
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