I welcome the opportunity to address the Assembly on this matter. Accelerated passage is not a route that we would normally take, but I am sure that Members will understand the circumstances in which we use it. I know that there has been some discussion about it outside the Chamber. As Members are aware, under Standing Order 42(4), when a Bill is being progressed by way of accelerated passage, the Member in charge of the Bill will explain the reasons for it and its consequences when moving the motion for accelerated passage in the Assembly.
In April 2020, my Department made the Local Government (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of District Council Meetings) Regulations 2020 under the powers in the Coronavirus Act 2020. However, because of the restrictions included in the Act, the legislation permitting the holding of remote meetings ceased to have effect in May 2021. Extending that will require primary legislation. Until the Local Government (Meetings and Performance) Bill comes into effect, there will be a gap in legislative cover in respect of council meetings that are held remotely. Even with the COVID situation improving, it is considered prudent to extend those provisions to allow councils to hold meetings by remote means. I have also received representations from the local government sector asking for the provisions to be extended. The Bill will remove the restrictions in the Coronavirus Act 2020, thereby ensuring that the provisions are extended until 6 March 2022.
I now want to alert the House to the fact that, as we move to the next stage beyond accelerated passage, I will give a commitment to remove clause 2 from the Bill. The Bill will enable councillors to follow public health advice on social distancing while continuing to participate in democratic local government programmes. It will also extend the provisions on the manner in which persons may attend, speak, vote or otherwise participate in meetings. We are also aware that councils have put a number of contingency arrangements in place in the meantime to enable council decision-making to continue.
NILGA has helpfully collated information on the contingency arrangements that each council has put in place. However, those arrangements are suitable only for a short interim period. Therefore, accelerated passage of the Bill, extending the existing regulations, which run out at the end of May, until March 2022 and taking out clause 2 will be needed in the time ahead.
The Committee was, of course, aware that, in April 2020, the Department had made regulations under powers in the Coronavirus Act 2020. Those regulations had allowed councils in Northern Ireland to hold their meetings remotely and to allow remote access to meetings, which included access for the public.
Earlier this year, Committee members became increasingly concerned when we realised that the regulations would cease to have effect on 6 May 2021. Although the COVID-19 situation is improving, we know that councils may not be able to resume full public meetings for some time to come. At its meeting on 15 April 2021, the Committee considered the matter further and subsequently wrote to the Department for clarification on how the issue was to be remedied. The Department's response to the Committee was that it had received legal advice that indicated that the changes could be made only by way of primary legislation and that it intended to bring forward legislation at the earliest opportunity to ensure that powers to operate remotely were extended by way of provisions in a local government amendment Bill.
Towards the end of April, the Committee wrote again to the Department requesting information on the detail of the Bill and querying the financial support for councils to enable them to meet in person in venues large enough for social distancing until the issue of remote meetings is resolved. In the middle of May, the Committee received a response from the Department outlining the provisions of the Bill. The Department highlighted the fact that the timescale might require the use of accelerated passage and that, even then, the Bill would not receive Royal Assent by 7 May.
That need for accelerated passage has come to pass. On 20 May, the Committee was briefed by the Minister on why the Bill was required to proceed under accelerated passage. Committee members accepted that it was necessary for legislation to be in place as soon as possible to allow councils to legally resume remote meetings. The Committee noted that the Bill also proposed to set aside three key statutory duties of the local government performance improvement framework for 2020-21 and to provide an enabling power to allow council performance improvement duties for 2021-22 and 2022-23 to be modified to aid recovery, should that be necessary. I will go into more detail on some of that at the next stage.
While accelerated passage is never the procedure of choice, the Committee, in this instance, supports the motion. As the Bill is proceeding under accelerated passage, we received it in our pigeonholes only yesterday. On further examination of the Bill, we had some discussions.
I cannot speak on behalf of the Committee, but I thank the Minister for deciding to remove clause 2, because, as a party, we could not have supported it. I will speak further about that at the next stage.
I am on record here many times expressing my concerns about the use of accelerated passage. The Committee was aware of the intent of the Bill and of the urgency required. At the time, I again expressed reservations about the use of accelerated passage, but the Committee reluctantly accepted the need for it in this instance.
The Committee was not aware of the full contents of the Bill until members received it, as the Chair said, in their pigeonholes yesterday. This procedure has almost gone beyond accelerated passage and become turbocharged passage. As we looked at the detail, it became clear that many parties are not happy with it. However, I thank the Minister for swiftly responding to those concerns in the foyer outside the Chamber. As I do not believe that they are insurmountable, I will support accelerated passage with the proviso that clause 2 is removed, as the Minister has pledged.
I echo the words of the Member across the Chamber. Accelerated passage has been talked about, probably by all parties, and, at times, there is fear that we do not have the time to scrutinise legislation and ensure that it is fit for purpose. We have to be mindful that, whilst the motion is a reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, with regard to some of the measures in the Bill, when we need to put the brakes on and come to an arrangement about what to do about the Bill, we need to be mature enough to do that.
The Ulster Unionist Party certainly has a few issues with clauses 2 and 3. We feel that those can be amended and worked with, and I thank the Minister for not moving clause 2. We intend to speak on the Bill in the coming weeks to ensure that there is provision for the good and effective use of local government at council level. We know that local government, which is very much at the interface with our communities, provides an essential function. We need to ensure that we empower our local government institutions to deliver on their mandate and their promises. That is not in any way to put a spoke in their wheel, but we have oversight to make sure that any legislation that we enact is fit for purpose, that it is given time to be scrutinised and that it adds value rather than taking it away.
We will support accelerated passage only for the parts of the Bill that are appropriate.
Any legislature should feel averse to the very concept of accelerated passage.
A matter that further troubles me is that I have heard no explanation of why this was left to be rushed. Why, when it was known that the regulations had an expiry date in May, was action not taken sooner? Why was it left until the last minute? Who was asleep at the wheel? The House is due a proper explanation of why the matter evolved in this manner.
Clause 2 could not be permitted by any self-respecting House to pass on accelerated passage. It is a shameless power grab that, from what I listened to, does not even seem to have been foreshadowed to the Committee. The Committee seems to have been advised that the legislation was necessary for the COVID situation, yet, cloaked within it, we have a shameless power grab in clause 2. I will also say more about that later.
Clause 5(2) also concerns me. Right up until the end of the financial year 2022-23, we will give powers to remove Part 12 of the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 2014. Part 12 has some critical powers. It has the power in section 98 of special inspections of councils. It has the power in section 100 to issue directions to councils. Under the cloak of COVID, there is a severe danger that there will be much corner-cutting by some councils. The Department should not surrender powers way into the future to hold councils to account on those things.
I am glad that the Minister has accepted that she will not move clause 2, but I would like to know why we ever got to a position of having to progress this legislation in such haste in the first place.
Thank you, Minister, for your swift reaction today. To be clear, while the accelerated passage process is being brought to the House today, that does not mean that we do not scrutinise and review the legislation. As other Members have said, we got the legislation very late, and, in looking at the detail, we could see that it was not satisfactory. We know, however, the impact that delaying any of the Bill will have on our councils. Again, as others have said, the councils have not been able to use their hybrid digital online meeting places since 7 May. While some councils have put some helpful considerations into place to allow them to continue to meet safely, in line with the COVID rules, we want something that is a lot more fixed and permanent. We can do it here in the House, so we should do it for our councils
I am glad that clause 2 will be removed. I ask the Minister this, however: if clause 2 is removed, what does that mean for hybrid working? Our councils need hybrid working, and that is why accelerated passage was requested. There are concerns with other parts of the Bill. Thank you for coming to the Committee on Thursday, Minister. There is a lot in the Bill to be discussed. It is a detailed Bill. Although it is proceeding by way of accelerated passage, there needs to be time to talk about it. I ask the Minister to clarify what happens, when clause 2 is removed, to hybrid meetings for our councillors across Northern Ireland, who have been doing sterling work throughout COVID.
The Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.00 pm. I therefore propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business when we return will be Question Time. This debate will continue after Question Time.
The debate stood suspended. The sitting was suspended at 12.59 pm.
On resuming —