VIRAL video star Jackie Weaver is backing a petition calling for a change to the law around meeting on Zoom... but she has no authority in Brighton and Hove.

Jackie, who appeared in the infamous Handforth Parish Council video, has supported calls to change the law restricting decision making to people physically present at meetings.

She has got behind a campaign on the website, calling for a shake-up of English law, which would give a say to councillors who are attending meetings remotely.

A 50-year-old law has meant that Brighton and Hove City Council’s various committees have met in person with all councillors present since September 2021, despite fears around Covid.

The Association of Democratic Services Officers and Lawyers in Local Government are behind the petition, which comes amid disruption to recent meetings following the rise of the Omicron variant.

There were changes to the last two full council meetings of 2021 - and because councillors were not physically present in Hove Town Hall chamber, the law meant they could not vote on motions or approve committee decisions.

Brighton's Labour leader councillor John Allcock said both he and co-leader councillor Carmen Appich feel councils should have the power to decide whether to have virtual, hybrid or in-person meetings, according to the level of risk.

He said: “It is, of course, vital that the meetings are open to the public in order to ensure transparency and democracy.

“Interestingly, we believe the public participation increased in virtual meetings.”

While Labour councillor Amanda Evans is concerned with more than 100,000 cases reported every day and increasing hospital admissions and deaths, council meetings should be held virtually.

She said: “It is not just councillors up and down the country who are put at risk – it is the officers, the cleaners, the security staff.

“Come to that, it is the bus drivers and passengers as we all make our way to and fro, in order to mumble at each other in person through our masks, when democracy could be easily done – and seen to be done – maskless, on a computer screen."

The Argus: The Covid pandemic has caused disruption to council meetingsThe Covid pandemic has caused disruption to council meetings

Public engagement and councillors questions were held virtually for December’s full council meeting due to concerns about increased infections from the Omicron variant.

The meeting’s second half, which requires councillors’ physical presence, was cancelled due to the city’s rapid increase of Omicron cases.

Conservative councillor Robert Nemeth is keen to keep meetings in person.

He said: “We would happily attend meetings in person if it means that we are able to carry out the duties that we volunteered to carry out with gusto on behalf of the thousands of residents that we represent.

“The cancellation of full council meetings locally is seen by many as a way of escaping scrutiny, especially given how many in the real world never stopped working in the first place.

“Arguing about whether or not meetings should be virtual is simply a distraction when Brighton and Hove is now behind on nearly every meaningful metric.”

While independent councillor Tony Janio is against virtual meetings and feels the UK is doing better than other countries and the virus is “less deadly” than winter flu.

He said: “The suggestion that councillors return to whimpering behind screens at home appears to me to be another part of the hysteria that has engulfed the world over the last two years.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if we also petitioned to return to virtual meetings in Brighton and Hove, but I would be very much against this suggestion: If a councillor is ill and unable to attend a meeting, then so be it.

"We need to return to normality as soon as possible.”

A virtual public engagement session is planned ahead of the February 3 full council meeting.

Independent councillor Bridget Fishleigh is particularly keen to continue allowing residents’ to participate in meetings virtually, so they do not have to “schlep to Hove Town Hall”.

She said: “I personally welcome the ability to ask questions via video in council meetings where I’m not on the actual committee.

“I do think that council meetings should be conducted in-person whenever possible, with councillors who are shielding or self-isolating able to participate virtually, including voting.”

The Argus: Green councillor Hannah Clare caught Covid last yearGreen councillor Hannah Clare caught Covid last year

The Green's deputy leader councillor Hannah Clare recently slammed the government for not extending the work at home recommendation to councillors in England.

Speaking at the start of the children, young people and skills committee on Monday 10 January, Cllr Clare referred to her own experience of contracting Covid last year.

She said: “Every other nation in the United Kingdom has recognised the farce nature of councillors being dragged into council chambers when it is clear the public health risk is high, and that doing so by a virtual meeting is no less effective. But this Conservative government is content on putting us all at risk.

“As someone who caught Covid-19 last autumn from attending meetings related to my role, let me be clear that the risk is very real.

“On this committee we have members who are clinically vulnerable and one member who is heavily pregnant. Today she is putting herself and her unborn baby and her other small children at risk because the Conservative Government putting their fingers in their ears.”

Brighton and Hove City Council’s leader councillor Phelim Mac Cafferty has repeatedly criticised the law requiring councillors to attend meetings in person since May 2021, when the law allowing virtual meetings ended.

At the first hybrid Policy and Resources Committee meeting in a year back in May, Cllr Mac Cafferty said he was there under protest as the law did not keep up with the advances that allowed decision-making during virtual meetings.

Council committee meetings are still taking place in person.

The meetings are webcast live and are available for repeated viewing on the city council website.

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