Northern Ireland

Hybrid council meetings to continue under new regulations following anger among elected reps

Regulations allowing remote attendance for council meetings will continue under newer legislation

DUP MLA Gordon Lyons. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA

Councillors are set to be able to continue attending meetings remotely under plans by Stormont’s Department for Communities.

Notification that hybrid meetings would be ending under previous regulations sparked anger in council chambers across the north earlier this month, with elected representatives complaining that the move was “undemocratic” and even “anti-family” as it would impact carers and those with young children.

Councils had been advised that regulations allowing hybrid meetings under the Coronavirus Act 2020 were to lapse, with a letter from the Department for Communities stating DUP minister Gordon Lyons saw “no justification” to extend them and telling councillors to prepare for in-person only meetings.

The letters to council chiefs prompted heated debates, with reps outlining concerns over losing the flexibility offered by remote attendance, calling the move “short-sighted”, “illogical” and “utterly ridiculous”.

The issue was also raised at the Stormont Assembly by Alliance MLA Sian Mulholland, who said not allowing for hybrid working was “effectively putting a barrier in the way of those with caring responsibilities, young families, conditions or illnesses and those who live in rural communities”.

The Northern Ireland Local Government Association said it would work with councils on “any practical or legal implications which may result from this decision”.

However, the Department for Communities (DfC) has said that following the lapsing of the coronavirus legislation, Mr Lyons has asked officials to proceed on regulations for hybrid/remote working under the Local Government (Meetings and Performance) Act (Northern Ireland) 2021.

In a letter to Fermanagh and Omagh District Council responding to written concerns by councillors, a DfC spokesperson said: “Minister Lyons is committed to giving councils the flexibility to hold meetings by remote/hybrid means and will be bringing forward regulations, as soon as possible, using the powers in the Local Government (Meetings and Performance) Act (NI) 2021.

“The minister considers this to be more appropriate than continuing to use powers under the Coronavirus Act 2020, which was intended as emergency legislation, and will ensure that councils will have powers for remote/hybrid meetings, but based upon more regularised legislation.

“A draft of the proposed regulations has been sent to the department’s solicitors for scrutiny.

“In order to keep the gap in legislative provision for remote meetings to a minimum, the department, in parallel with obtaining legal scrutiny of the draft regulations, is seeking (Council) input.”

The letter added the proposed regulations are “very similar” to the previous ones.

At a committee meeting this week, Independent Omagh councillor Josephine Deehan, who said: “This certainly will make life an awful lot easier for many of us”.

Sinn Féin’s Dermot Browne added: “It’s very positive news that we are finally going to get legislation.

“However, I think a lot people are going to be scratching their heads wondering why the emergency legislation couldn’t have been extended whilst this legislation was prepared and consulted on.”