Derry & Strabane elected reps told they must attend meetings in person as Coronavirus Act expires

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Derry City and Strabane District Council is to contact the Communities Minister and argue for the extension of hybrid Council meeting attendance after legislation allowing them to join remotely during the pandemic came to an end.

At a Governance and Strategic Planning Committee meeting on Tuesday, the Council’s solicitor, Philip Kingston, said the 2020 Coronavirus Act, which allowed for councillors to attend meetings remotely, would expire on Wednesday of this week.

Mr Kingston said Northern Ireland’s Communities Minister, Gordon Lyons, has since asked the Department for Communities to proceed on regulations under the Local Government (Meetings and Performance) Act 2021 instead and, while there is no time-line for its implementation, the drafting is “already well-advanced”.

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However, until the new legislation is in place members must attend all full council and committee meetings in person if they wish to vote or participate in them.

Most Council meetings are held in the chamber in the Guildhall in Derry.Most Council meetings are held in the chamber in the Guildhall in Derry.
Most Council meetings are held in the chamber in the Guildhall in Derry.

Sinn Féin councillor Christopher Jackson argued that many councillors lived in rural areas and have caring responsibilities, and that Councils should be “removing barriers to participation, rather than putting theme in the way”.

“It would help if we understood the time-frame in relation to the legislation,” he added. “Because that process can be long and protracted.”

Mr Kingston reiterated that the drafting was well-advanced, but warned that previous regulations from as early as 2015 still haven’t been actioned, as they can get “buried in the Assembly”.

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SDLP councillor Brian Tierney proposed writing to the Communities Minister, Gordon Lyons, and “ensuring he knows the benefits of hybrid meetings to councillors and officers”.

He also proposed writing to the other ten District Councils in Northern Ireland to “inform them of this action and encourage them to do the same”.

“I’m not going to go over the reason why it’s important to have hybrid meetings,” Colr. Tierney added. “It’s a benefit for councillors, officers and the public as well, so I think it’s worth writing to the Minister.”

DUP Alderman Keith Kerrigan said the Communities Minister was “well aware” of the benefits of hybrid meetings, and was “content” that the legislation was “far advanced”.

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Alderman Kerrigan said: “There’s no difficulty with a letter from the council, but I’d say those members of council who have party colleagues in the Assembly should mention to those members about getting this fast-tracked.”

People Before Profit Councillor Shaun Harkin said he was “astonished” by the news as, during Covid, councillors often discussed the benefits of hybrid meetings.

“A hybrid option should be available. Even from a climate point of view, if someone doesn’t have to drive in from Castlederg to Derry, that’s a positive thing.

“I think we can agree that coming to meetings is a better experience, even if there’s debate, disagreement, and people you don’t want to see.”

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Colr. Jackson said councillors were given less than a week’s notice about the change, which was “disgusting and shows a complete disregard for local councils”.

He added: “This is the Minister we’re asking to understand the pressures we’re under, that we’re lobbying to understand the importance of the Rates Support Group, so for him to show complete disregard is extremely disappointing.”

Andrew Balfour,

Local Democracy Reporter.