Northern Ireland

Scrapping of hybrid working for council meetings criticised as ‘anti-family’

The hybrid working policy allowing councillors to attend meetings remotely since the Covid pandemic has now ended

Newry NMDDC HQ Monaghan Row. Permission for all LDRS to publish.
Newry, Mourne and Down councillors have criticised the ending of hybrid working for meetings.

Stormont’s Department for Communities is facing a challenge from elected representatives after a decision to end hybrid meetings for councillors across the north.

The order by the department has been criticised as “anti-family” and “undemocratic” by members of Newry, Mourne and Down District Council.

A hybrid working system has been in operation for councils since the Covid-19 pandemic, allowing councillors to attend meetings via video-link from home as well as in-person.

A letter from DUP communities minister Gordon Lyons was sent to all council chief executives, advising that the system would be winding up and councillors would have to physically attend future meetings.

Newry, Mourne and Down Council chief executive Marie Ward told Tuesday’s full meeting of the local authority: “What this effectively does is bring to an end the legislation that has enabled and facilitated hybrid working.

“So, from Wednesday (March 6) this is our last hybrid statutory meeting of council.

“This was landed on us as councils on Friday (March 1). I have to say, you have to be in physical attendance from Wednesday when the legislation falls.”

Nadhim Zahawi visit to Belfast
Communities minister Gordon Lyons. PICTURE: DAVID YOUNG/PA

The departmental letter states that Minister Lyons now believes there is “no justification” to extend the hybrid legislation.

Rowallane Alliance councillor Tierna Kelly said hybrid meetings “benefit a lot of us, particularly those on parental leave, with caring responsibilities and people who are unwell or long term sick”.

“This will significantly disadvantage women as they tend to be the main carers of families and children,” she said.

“I propose that we write to the minister to outline these issues.”

Downpatrick Sinn Féin rep Oonagh Hanlon added: “I think the minister has acted very quickly here and he hasn’t really listened to the consultation that was carried out previously.

“Certainly it is always better to be in the chamber, to be present to debate amongst each other.

“But, we all have very busy lives and we all have a lot of other commitments, particularly for carers and those with dependants as well as those working full-time.

“Hybrid allows us to continue our work as elected reps with a degree of flexibility.”

She added: “The last thing we want is to be undemocratic, where people can’t go to meetings, just for very simple reasons.”

Mournes SDLP councillor Laura Devlin said: “As someone who had two young children prior to the introduction of the new regulations and not being able to drive for a good three to four months, I missed out attending any meeting at that stage.

She added: “I think this really is anti-family as well; we want to be supporting women.”