Council chamber
The public gallery in Woolwich Town Hall is not wheelchair accessible

Representatives of Greenwich social care users have been blocked from attending a meeting held to discuss increased charges because the council is refusing to hold it online.

At the beginning of last year councillors voted through a package of cuts to the social care budget, resulting in bigger bills for some of the borough’s most vulnerable people.

Tomorrow night’s meeting of the adult social care scrutiny panel is due to discuss what has happened since the charges were brought in last September.

But because Greenwich Council has decided to hold the meeting in person, some disabled participants are unable to attend because of the pandemic, or will find access difficult in the cramped conditions of Woolwich Town Hall.

After the pandemic began last spring Greenwich, like other councils, switched to holding virtual meetings – allowing the public to watch planning decisions, scrutiny panels and even standards hearings that would normally only be seen by those with the time and ability to attend.

Emergency laws explicitly allowing this ran out last May, moving councils back to a law drawn up in 1972, long before the internet age, which states that the public must be admitted to meetings. A court ruling on the issue stated that decision-making meetings had to be held in person so that the public could physically attend, but was silent on allowing remote contributions.

Greenwich has gradually moved back to having its meetings in person – but other boroughs have found ways to continue holding some meetings online, particularly those which do not make decisions about policy, such as scrutiny panels.

Social care cuts protest
Greenwich DPAC protested against the budget cuts last February

Croydon’s equivalent of the adult social care scrutiny panel met last night via Zoom as it did during the lockdowns.

But Greenwich plans to have tomorrow night’s meeting in the council chamber, which has no wheelchair access in its public gallery and little room for people with disabilities and their personal assistants.

While it could move to committee rooms elsewhere in the building, access is difficult as there is only one lift in the town hall.

With coronavirus case rates higher now than they were when virtual meetings were still being held, and many people with disabilities still being advised to stay at home, campaigners say they are being shut out.

Jenny Hurst, of Greenwich Disabled People Against Cuts, has been asking the council to allow her to attend the meeting virtually.

She told 853: “After months of being able to access council meetings online, I am upset to find that – just when issues affecting disabled people have been scheduled – this is no longer an option.

“I requested an appropriate ‘reasonable adjustment’ under the Equality Act 2010, but the council has fallen back on a piece of almost 50-year old legislation to decline to livestream the meeting.

“I am annoyed, as the council themselves had continued to hold remote meetings after the flexibility allowance was withdrawn. I have continued to shield under medical advice, not for the fun of it, but I am now facing having to go against my doctor’s advice to be able to exercise my right to ask my questions and hear answers in real time.”

Hurst said that other councils had held hybrid meetings, where matters were discussed informally online before taking decisions in person, and she had asked Greenwich to consider this too.

“Part of me feels that it is a convenient way for councillors and council officers to avoid having to directly address the very people affected by the decisions being reported on,” she added.

Greenwich cabinet meeting October 2019
The ongoing pandemic means that it is harder for many people to physically attend council meetings

An response from a council officer seen by 853 says: “We would have preferred for this to be a hybrid meeting to increase the equality of access, but this is not allowed under the current central government legislation.”

However, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities told 853 that current legislation does not prevent councils from providing video access to meetings. The recent court ruling on the issue states that “where the requirement for the meeting to be ‘open to the public’ or ‘held in public’ applies, members of the public must be admitted in person as well”.

The department said it was for individual councils to satisfy themselves that they had met the demand for public access.

The government recently held a consultation on changing the law to explicitly allow virtual meetings. The Local Government Association said in its response that “disabled people and people with caring responsibilities or working commitments can find virtual meetings easier to access; this applies to residents and councillors alike”.

Earlier this month the Local Government Chronicle reported on councils’ frustration at the lack of clarity over the situation. The chief executive of the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny think tank, Jacqui McKinlay, told the website that “the general rule seems to be that council and cabinet need to meet in public”.

She added: “The next level down, which includes audit and scrutiny, are still public meetings but some councils are coming up with their own interpretations of what that means.”

Greenwich Council told 853: “Under the Local Government Act 1972, it is not currently possible to hold hybrid meetings, and this was confirmed by the High Court earlier this year. We hope the government will change their mind and bring in new legislation to allow councils this flexibility.”

It said it had moved the scrutiny meeting to more accessible rooms, would provide a recording of the meeting after the event and would allow written or recorded contributions. The council said it was unable to provide a livestream from the committee rooms as the equipment was still being tested.

Updated at 2pm on Thursday with council response.

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