On 25 March, the Coronavirus Act 2020 received Royal Assent. It is now timely to take a step back and review aspects that public sector organisations may find helpful but also generally take a look at the Act and its impact.
The Act's measures are substantial and exceptional and go beyond the powers normally available to public bodies. With that in mind, much of the discussion in Parliament was around the nature of those powers, the extent to which they would be utilised, and for how long.
The Act contains a number of “sunset provisions” which impose a time limit on most but not all of the Act. The measures will generally expire no later than late March 2022 at first instance, two years after Royal Assent.
Whilst there was power to expand that, there were limited powers to review the arrangements contained within the legislation prior to that period of time elapsing. This is to be contrasted with, for example, the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 where emergency regulations must be made afresh every 30 days and lapse 7 days after they are laid, unless both Houses of Parliament have explicitly approved them.
As a result, there was a view within Parliament that the two year “sunset provisions” were too long, and as a result, the government compromised and introduced what is now Section 98 of the Act, which provides a review mechanism for the measures in the Act at six monthly intervals.
Of particular interest to colleagues in the public sector dealing with governance will be Section 78 of the Act. This was discussed in a previous note but in summary, introduces the power to make regulations with regard to meeting and proceedings of local authorities, and hence allow virtual meetings and remove the need for an AGM.
It is a feature of this piece of legislation, understandably, that much of the Act contains the power for further regulations to be made, and as always, the devil will be in the detail of those regulations.
The government's exact plans for enacting these and indeed utilising other regulation making powers and the timescale in which they are to be exercised are not known.
These are often known as 'Henry VIII powers' as the clause provides that regulations may, under this section, be made to supplement or modify any provision of an enactment or subordinate legislation or may be made which are inconsistent with primary legislation.
The key question to the timing of this, and whilst nothing has been said by the government expressly as to this, it is appropriate to deduce from some of the statements made and legitimate expectations that also exist within the local government and public sector community that the regulations are in hand and will be with us, at least in a draft format, quite shortly both in relation to virtual and annual meetings as well as other aspects.
In England and Wales, principal councils (that is to say county, district and unitary authorities) must hold an annual meeting in March, April or May each year. In an election year, this must take place between 8 - 21 days after the election. Combined authorities and joint authorities must hold their annual meeting in March, April, May or June. The obligation is statutory and contained in Schedule 12 of the Local Government Act 1972.
Equally, in England parish and town councils must hold an annual meeting every May. In an election year, this must take place during 14 days after the elected members take office and they must also hold at least 3 further meetings per year on dates of their choosing.
In Wales, town and parish councils must hold an annual meeting every May, but they are not required to hold any further meetings during the year.
It has been reported that the government committed on 20 March to legislating to remove the legal obligation on local authorities to hold annual meetings and to allow councillors to dial in to vote in a meeting (as reported in the local government chronicle of that date).
Given that, it would clearly be necessary for the government to produce secondary legislation relatively quickly, or they will fail to achieve that which they have stated is their policy objective on this matter. It is reasonable to believe therefore that draft regulations will appear quite quickly.
Other regulations dealing with other matters such as elections are also likely to be brought forward too with pace, as they also have certain time constraints that appear on the face of the Act to address. It does remain to be seen whether the secondary legislation will be a series of regulations addressing individual topics, or like the Act, a compendium of provisions addressing a whole range of issues.