A government decision to force councils to meet in public again after May's elections has been slammed by Oldham's Liberal Democrat Group leader.
During the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic last year, legislation was passed by the government to allow council meetings across England and Wales to be held remotely to protect participants and stop the spread of the virus.
Last week, MPs voted to extend emergency coronavirus powers for another six months but the government decided ‘it was not possible to bring forward’ the emergency legislation to allow councils to continue holding remote meetings beyond polling day on 6 May.
In a letter to council leaders, Luke Hall, Local Government Minister, said the decision was made with the 'excellent progress' of the vaccination programme, the reduction of cases and the roadmap out of lockdown in mind.
Oldham's Liberal Democrat Group Leader, Councillor Howard Sykes (pictured below), has accused the government of 'double standards on the issue of public safety' as Parliament is allowed to continue to meet remotely and says it will 'needlessly endanger the health of any participants'.
"We all want full Council meetings to recommence in person at the Civic Centre when it is safe to do so, but now is too soon,” he said.
"We are still in the middle of a pandemic. Many of our younger residents have yet to be vaccinated and those that have received the vaccine are mostly still awaiting the protection promised by a second jab.
"It has proven entirely possible to take public questions and allow the public to view proceedings at virtual Council meetings during the last year. It therefore seems sheer madness to endanger lives at this time when we could stay virtual for just a little longer and return to normality later this year.”
The first meeting after May’s local elections will be the Annual Council held on 19 May.
Annual Council is usually the busiest of the year as it is the meeting where the new Mayor is appointed. This year is likely to be busier than usual as two new worthy Freemen of the Borough – Frank Rothwell and Kevin Sinfield MBE – and one new distinguished Alderman – former Liberal Democrat Councillor John Dillon – will also be appointed.
Councillor Sykes added: “Given the requirement for social distancing, such a meeting, that may be attended by several hundred people, cannot be held in the Council Chamber. The only building nearby where this might be possible would be the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and even then, it would still be a logistical nightmare.
"On this issue, any common sense seems to have flown out of the Government’s window. It is simply an unnecessary and unneeded distraction at a time when Oldham and other councils should be working flat out to deal with the COVID-19 emergency and supporting residents impacted by it."