Emergency powers

The LGA has helped shape the new Coronavirus Act to ensure councils can act as a fourth emergency service and design new ways to support communities.

Councils are playing their part in supporting the national effort to tackle COVID-19 by re-designing services to shield the most vulnerable and support communities, while also continuing to support their local businesses, which face very significant risks at this time.

The Coronavirus Act passed by Parliament last week is positive as it provides assistance with cutting unnecessary burdens and freeing up capacity.

Councillors will be able to attend council meetings remotely and cancel meetings altogether, if needed. These freedoms are needed to ensure councils can continue to take decisions as the coronavirus emergency progresses, and protect the functioning of local democracy.

The 329-page Coronavirus Act sets out wide-ranging powers enabling the Government to restrict events, close premises and enforce social distancing rules, among other things.

It also includes measures aimed at reducing the pressure on local government and other frontline sectors, such as relaxing rules around detention under mental health laws and the provision of social care for older and disabled people.

For example, for the duration of the ‘emergency period’, the Act makes provisions for the Secretary of State to ease councils’ responsibilities under the 2014 Care Act, which would mean not having to comply with various duties including around needs assessments (including for carers), financial assessments and the preparation of care and support plans.

This allows councils, supported by national government, to make decisions to prioritise resources, services and support to those with the greatest needs.

The LGA worked closely with ministers, MPs and Peers as the Bill passed through Parliament and influenced it to ensure that councils have greater flexibilities to support their communities at this time.

The Government amended the Bill to include our proposals around the holding of council meetings. The Secretary of State can now lay regulations so that councillors can attend, speak at, vote in, or otherwise participate in local authority meetings without being together in the same place.

This should allow councils to both postpone meetings and engage in decision-making and voting remotely. This applies to all tiers of local government including parish councils, joint boards and fire and rescue authorities. We have pushed this very hard and we think it will give councillors the flexibility required to serve their local communities in these times.

The Act also provides protection from eviction for renters, as landlords will now have to give a warning period of three months.

And it allows for the emergency registration of social workers, so additional staff can be drawn in quickly, mainly from those who have retired recently or people who have nearly completed social work training.

Parliament is now in recess until 21 April, but the legislation will be debated and voted on every six months to ensure MPs are content for it to continue.

It is essential, both now and for the coming weeks, that councils are supported by national government to do things differently and support our communities. The Coronavirus Act will help councils do this, and the measures are welcome.

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