Local Government (Meetings and Performance) Bill: Second Stage

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 22 June 2021.

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Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin 2:45, 22 June 2021

I beg to move

That the Second Stage of the Local Government (Meetings and Performance) Bill [NIA 26/17-22] be agreed.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

In accordance with convention, the Business Committee has not allocated any time limits on the debate.

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

We seek the legislative extension because of the impact of the pandemic and its continued impact on local government and the delivery of services. The Bill is necessary for the local government legislation that is required as a direct consequence of that. The Bill includes provisions relating to two areas: remote meetings of councils and local government performance improvement and arrangements.

On remote meetings, in April last year, we moved to extend the legislation to ensure that remote meetings could take place and that local government could continue its business, particularly in responding to the pandemic and working with the Department on the ground. The meetings regulations make provision to enable councils to hold meetings remotely and make provisions about remote access to such meetings, including access by the public. However, section 78 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 contained a restriction that meant that the regulations would cease to have effect on 6 May 2021. As I have just stated, prior to that, we had hoped that the extension could proceed through the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, but, at the last moment, due to Westminster timetabling of legislation, that was changed, and that left us in the predicament of having to move it through in this manner and under urgent procedure.

Although the COVID situation is improving, it is considered prudent to extend the provisions to allow remote meetings to take place. That has been reiterated not just by NILGA but by councils and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE). We have received numerous representations to that effect, as, I know, individual Members have.

I turn to the local government performance improvement arrangements. The Local Government Act 2014 places duties on councils in respect of performance improvement, and, as a direct consequence of the COVID-19 emergency and restrictions, concerns were raised by the local government sector about the difficulties that councils would face in delivering performance improvement duties in 2021-22 and, potentially, in subsequent years. As a result of those concerns and to provide councils with some initial relief, I agreed to set aside a number of performance improvement duties for the 2020-21 year. That allowed councils to concentrate on switching to providing essential services and supporting communities during the pandemic and to take on, it must be said, extra responsibilities in working with central government around food distribution and other measures around supporting businesses.

It may be useful to spend a few minutes talking about the detail of the scope of the Bill. As I have referenced, the sole focus of the Bill is to create local government legislation in the areas of remote meetings and performance improvement, which have been impacted by the pandemic. The Bill contains five substantive clauses and two technical clauses. The explanatory and financial memorandum (EFM) published alongside the Bill provides a detailed explanation of the Bill, but I will briefly outline some of the main impacts of the five substantive clauses.

Clause 1 will extend provisions in respect of remote meetings beyond 6 May 2021. It will ensure that the Local Government (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of District Council Meetings) Regulations (NI) 2020, made under the Coronavirus Act, will continue to have effect until the expiry date of the Coronavirus Act in March 2022. That will enable district councils to hold remote meetings, including by telephone conferencing, videoconferencing, live webcast and interactive streaming. That will allow for remote access to council meetings by members of the public. In addition, information that generally has to be made available at council offices will be made publicly available on council websites. That will apply to councils and council meetings, including committee or subcommittee meetings, executive meetings and meetings of joint committees of two or more councils.

As I said, clause 2 provides an enabling power to extend that further, but I have already stated that I will remove that clause.

Clause 3 will amend sections 93, 94 and 95 of Part 12 of the Local Government Act 2014 in relation to performance improvement. The amendment will allow the Department to determine annually, after consultation with the local government auditor, the councils for which a section 93 audit or section 94 assessment must be completed. Section 95 of the 2014 Act already provides that the Department, in consultation with the local government auditor, must determine the councils for which the auditor will issue an audit assessment report each year. Therefore, the amendment to sections 93 and 94 will bring those sections into line and provide the same flexibility to the approach as is already included in section 95.

Clause 4 will regularise my decision to set aside the relevant performance duties for 2020-21. As you will recall, those were set aside to allow councils to concentrate on delivering essential services at the height of the pandemic.

Finally, clause 5 will create an enabling power to allow subordinate legislation to be introduced to modify council performance and improvement duties for 2021-22 and 2022-23, should they be necessary due to the potential future impacts of the pandemic. My officials will continue to engage with local government on any changes to the performance improvement arrangements that should be put in place over the next few years.

I am happy to deal with any other points of principle that Members may have on the Bill.

Photo of Paula Bradley Paula Bradley DUP

Having supported the Bill's accelerated passage, I now welcome the Second Stage of the Bill on behalf of the Committee. The Committee is supportive of the principles of the Bill and accepts that it is required in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions and the effect that they have had on the local government sector. My comments will focus on Part 1 of the Bill, relating to meetings and performance.

As I stated earlier, the Committee was supportive of the regulations made under the Coronavirus Act 2020 to allow district councils the flexibility to hold meetings by remote means and to provide for remote access to those meetings. However, earlier this year, as Members heard from councils and local government officials, the Committee became increasingly concerned that the regulations would cease to have effect on 6 May 2021 and there was no extension in place. The Committee recognised that that would limit the ability of councils to fully function and could lead to delays in council business and prevent councillors participating in democratic local government. At its meeting on 15 April 2021, the Committee considered the matter further and subsequently wrote to the Department for clarification of the issue and how it was to be remedied. The Department alerted the Committee that this could be done only by way of primary legislation, and so we welcome the Bill to take that forward and remove the situation whereby councils have to incur costs in order to have the space to adhere to social distancing regulations, particularly with many AGMs being held at this time of the year.

The Committee welcomes clause 1, which will provide a solution to the issue, will remove the end date of 7 May 2021 in relation to councils' ability to hold remote meetings and further provides that regulations will continue to operate as if they had never been subject to the date restriction. We understand that that means that they will continue to have effect until the Coronavirus Act expires in March 2022 or until section 78 is suspended, if that happens earlier.

I will not speak to clause 2, as the Minister has informed us that it will be removed in its entirety.

The Committee has engaged with SOLACE on a number of occasions since the start of the pandemic to receive updates on the financial and service delivery impacts of the pandemic on councils and their staff. The Committee has supported the need for substantial funding to ensure that councils can play a full role in the recovery of local areas in economic, social and environmental terms. In that regard, the Committee understands the concerns that were raised about the difficulties that councils would face in delivering performance improvement duties and continuous improvement in the context of the impact of the pandemic.

The Committee is supportive, therefore, of the decision to set aside a number of statutory performance improvement duties for the 2020-21 year in order to allow councils to concentrate on providing essential services and support for their communities during the emergency. The Committee understands that clause 4 would make provisions to regularise that decision, as not to do so would leave the Department and councils open to potential legal challenge.

The Committee recognises that the recovery to normal, then future, enhanced performance will take time, and it therefore notes clause 5. That would create an enabling power allowing the Department for Communities, by regulations, to amend or set aside performance improvement for the 2021-22 and 2022-23 years should that prove necessary during the period of recovery from the pandemic. Any regulations made under the clause would be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, and the need for that set-aside of performance for additional years would be scrutinised by the Committee in due course. Also with regard to performance, the Committee notes that the Bill would extend flexibility to potential exemption from yearly audit and assessment by the local government auditor.

Clause 3 would amend sections 93 and 94 of Part 12 of the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 2014 in order to make it clear that they are subject to a similar flexibility regarding audit to that found in section 95. The Committee understands that, in section 95, there is flexibility for the Department to determine each year, after consulting with the local government auditor, on which councils the auditor must perform a section 93 audit, a section 94 assessment or both.

The Bill would provide for where a section 95 audit and an assessment report is required. The report would note any use of exemptions of section 93 or 94 in order to make it clear that flexibility was used. The Committee accepts the need for those flexibilities, but, as the process of audit is a key tool in risk management and good governance, we should naturally expect those and other performance flexibilities to be used with care and prudence.

I will finish by highlighting that the Committee was concerned about the gap between 7 May and the date of the passing of the legislation in terms of cost to councils, and it sought assurances from the Minister on that. Councils are having to rent suitably sized venues for meetings and AGMs in order to adhere to COVID restrictions. The Committee wrote to the Department in April to seek assurance of financial support for councils for that. The Minister advised us that there was an unspent balance of £35·8 million from the Executive allocation to alleviate financial losses in councils. That resource was allocated to council reserves in March 2021. The Minister advised that the money could be used by councils to enable them to meet in person until the issues with remote meetings were resolved.

The Committee is supportive of the principles of the Bill and looks forward to its remaining stages.

I would like to say a few words as a member of the Committee and a member of my party. I understand that, by the removal of clause 2, we may expect to see further amendments to clause 1 that would allow for remote meetings in other circumstances. Ms Armstrong will certainly want to talk about that.

I know from speaking to our Committee Clerk that departmental officials will appear before the Committee on Thursday. I will say to Committee members that we might be meeting at 8.00 am for what are now five briefings on Thursday. Departmental officials are going to make themselves available on Thursday for further discussions on the Bill.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 3:00, 22 June 2021

Could we have Fra McCann on our screens?

[Long Pause.]

Just be patient for a little bit more. I call Fra McCann.

[Long Pause.]

Can you hear us? Fra, are you with us?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Hello, Fra? Can you hear us? We can hear you.

[Long Pause.]

I think that we will go back to Fra in a few moments. I call Mark Durkan.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

My God.


Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

This year has forced us all to rapidly adapt and adjust how we work and live. There has been a massive effort from all quarters to alter working environments, grapple with technology and, ultimately, ensure that people can continue business as normal or as close to normal as possible. Our local councils have been no different in that regard. The outworkings of the Local Government (Meetings and Performance) Bill would ensure that local authorities can set up procedures to hold meetings virtually, deliver for their — and our — communities and continue work with developers, preventing their local economies from stalling completely.

It is not just unfortunate — Mr Allister made this point in the earlier debate — but unacceptable that primary legislation has not been brought forward before now. From 7 May, due to the failure to extend this legislation, councils here have been left without the protections provided therein. On the face of things, that may appear to be a minor issue, but, once those regulations ended, it meant that any member attending virtually was not officially regarded as being present, which could have had, or could yet have, far-reaching implications for any decisions that were taken during that period. Scotland was able to develop its own primary legislation and has seemingly been unaffected by that issue. As such, there is no excuse as to why we here could not have implemented the Bill sooner. Evidently, getting anything done — I am not blaming any one Department or individual — here seems to be marred by delay, but we should not accept that. We, collectively, have to strive for better.

We now find ourselves in the position where the Assembly is having to scramble to push through not just this legislation but other crucially important Bills before the fast-approaching summer recess. Not having this legislation in place poses serious barriers to getting council business done. After speaking with council colleagues from across parties and NILGA, it is clear that they are keen to retain that ability beyond COVID and into the future. Hopefully, we will have a future beyond COVID.

Maintaining the ability to host hybrid meetings is just common sense. The pandemic has forced councils to modernise and embrace technology. I argue that it makes, on occasion, for more-effective working. In affording flexibility, it has proven beneficial for members with young families, caring duties, illness or those living in rural areas who usually have to travel long distances, and be paid for doing so, to partake in meetings. In essence, the Bill should make for better representation and uphold greater levels of democracy.

I acknowledge that making those temporary regulations a permanent fixture for local authorities is a discussion for a later date. The priority now is getting this legislation through as quickly as possible, but the Bill should not disempower councils. We need more time, and I look forward to hearing from and speaking to officials at Committee on Thursday about what else the Bill contains and why. I do not doubt the intent. I, like the Chair, certainly support the legislation in principle, but the unintended consequences — at least, I hope that they are unintended — of some aspects of the Bill require closer examination and will, undoubtedly, be the subject of further and more-forensic debate next week. I look forward to that, but, for now, I support the Bill.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

I begin by paying tribute to the Minister and her team and to all our councillors who kept communities going through the pandemic. The swift action of councils, helped by the money that the Minister managed to get out to them, provided sustenance, support and a safe space for people as we tried to make our way through the pandemic.

As others have said, we need to support our councils. The Alliance Party supported the progress of the Bill by way of accelerated passage because we recognised from our colleagues, whether from our party or from others, the necessity of hybrid meetings. We have them in the Assembly: sometimes they work, and sometimes they do not, but, most of the time, they make provision for people who are unable to come to the Chamber or they allow for social distancing so that we can attend the Chamber safely.

When the Bill came forward, we received the papers very late, which gave us only a very short period in which to consider them. I thank the Minister for signalling her intent to remove clause 2. I have a concern that removing clause 2 may remove the intent behind what we were trying to do, which is to allow councils to continue to have hybrid meetings after the deadline passes. We know that Westminster did not come through for us, and it is a pity that we were not able to get our own legislation in place for 7 May so that councils and councillors would not have had to take the alternative actions that they had to.

In considering any future amendments to the Bill or to what will replace clause 2, I ask the Minister to think about how we can take a consistent approach to hybrid meetings across all councils. I want to support the Minister in ensuring a fair and effective democracy and to enable that to be followed across Northern Ireland. No councillor, irrespective of their political opinion, must be prevented from voting, nor should we prevent their voices from being heard. Some councils have limited access to speaking rights and have muted councillors, preventing points of order being made. I would like to see that situation improved as we move forward.

Hybrid meetings will be with us for the long term. They are something to consider when it comes to reducing carbon emissions. They help with road safety: many councillors work full-time during the day and have to drive to council meetings at night, which is outside the scope of road safety for driving at work, so it helps with that. Nevertheless, we have to be aware of governance and ensure that councillors, who are democratically elected, have a voice. The economy is also a consideration. There are concerns about how some committees meet and whether fair and open access is provided for the public. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about that.

Clause 1 is out at the moment, but the Committee will be happy to work with the Minister to ensure that hybrid meetings can continue. As we look to the future, the Committee on Procedures is looking at how hybrid meetings could be used for people who are on parental leave or who are experiencing a long-term illness. There are many options and opportunities that we could create for councillors by maintaining such meetings.

I would like the Minister to give us an update on clause 3, which has raised concerns. It will allow flexibility when it comes to audits, but I have a concern about clause 3(2), where it says:

"But no audit under this section is to be carried out in relation to a council in respect of a financial year if the Department determines, after consulting the local government auditor, that the council is to be exempt from the application of this section".

The provision to grant an exemption from an audit is concerning. I appreciate that the Minister has said that it would be in consultation with the local government auditor, but if there is one thing that we have learned over this last period, it is that audits are crucial in ensuring that public money is spent appropriately. Our councils go out of their way to do that. I understand the rationale behind the provision in clause 3, but we need flexibility. Dear love the council teams: the guys who set the rates and bring forward the financial packages. Most of us in the House have been councillors before, so we understand that. However, an exemption is a significant step.

I would also appreciate it — if others do not bring it up — if the Minister could talk us through clause 5(2), which states:

"The Department for Communities may by regulations disapply or modify, with respect to financial year 2022/23, any provision in Part 12 of the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 2014."

What impact will that have?

I know that it specifically refers to the financial year 2022-23, but does that apply to other years?

On the accelerated passage point, we said in Committee that the Bill absolutely needed to come forward, because we know that our councils need us to get a move on with this. I appreciate that there has been a bit of toing and froing about clauses today, but will the Minister confirm her thoughts on how the removal of clause 2 will work and on how we can ensure that hybrid meetings will be in place? I ask her to clarify that part of clause 3 and also clause 5.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 3:15, 22 June 2021

I believe that Fra McCann is back with us again.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Sorry about that. I do not know what happened.

I thank the Minister for bringing the legislation to the House in such a timely manner, and I assure her of our full support for it. She explained the necessity of asking for accelerated passage, and I believe that the Committee was supportive of the Minister's explanation of the need to forgo the usual procedure for Committee scrutiny of the legislation.

Although the lapse of the measures is regrettable, I understand that the Department has engaged meaningfully with councils to lessen any potential impacts. This is a prudent and reasonable step to allow our councillors to fulfil their roles safely and in line with public health advice. Our local government elected representatives have worked throughout the ongoing pandemic, and many have been involved in community outreach such as the delivery of food parcels. They have been a great resource for and help to their communities.

I commend the Minister and her Department for the manner in which they rose to the occasion to ensure that financial resources and additional practical support were made available to local government in order for it to take the lead in providing leadership to the communities that it represents. That has clearly had a huge impact on people across the North, and it showed both levels of government working together for the betterment of their communities. I hope that that has put a marker down for future relationship building at regional and local government level.

This legislation is the correct move. Extending provisions to allow councillors to attend meetings remotely can only enhance politics and make it more accessible. While I hope that that does not have to be the case in the long term, given the current environment, it is essential that we have a fully functioning local government sector. Extension of remote attendance and voting rights makes politics more accessible and allows councillors to adhere to social distancing and public health advice — a practical and prudent approach by the Minister.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I do not have any difficulty with the portions of the Bill that directly relate to the COVID crisis, but, as I indicated earlier, I strongly object to the initial attempt, under that guise, to bring in other amendments. I welcome the fact that the Minister will desist in that regard in respect of clause 2. Now that I have had time to study clause 3, I have to say that it is in the same category. It is a change to be made permanently. It is not COVID-related. It is making a strategic change to the Local Government (Northern Ireland) Act that the House passed in 2014. It particularly seeks to clip the wings of sections 93 and 94 of that Act.

When you look at the Local Government Act of 2014, you see that the pivotal starting point for all that is section 84, which creates a general duty on a council to:

"secure continuous improvement in the exercise of its functions."

In discharging its duty, the Act says, the council:

"must have regard in particular to the need to improve the exercise of its functions in terms of— (a) strategic effectiveness; (b) service quality; (c) service availability; (d) fairness; (e) sustainability; (f) efficiency; and (g) innovation."

Linked to that is section 92, which is very important. It says:

"The council must make arrangements for the publication of— (a)the council's assessment of its performance during a financial year— (i)in discharging its duty under section 84".

I have just read a large part of section 84. Then, in section 93, we have the situation where the Audit Office, particularly on the financial side, must carry out an audit each year to determine whether the council is discharging that function in section 92. In section 94, the Audit Office must do likewise in respect of improvement assessments. That covers such things as efficiencies. The Audit Office, given that efficiency is one of the tests, will carry out an audit to see whether a council is performing its functions efficiently and making efficiencies. In other words, is a council giving good value for money to the ratepayers who pay its way?

The Minister told us — indeed, the explanatory and financial memorandum also tells us — that all that clause 3 does is to tidy up to make an alignment between sections 93, 94 and 95. I respectfully disagree. Section 95 is about a different thing; it is about the publishing of audit findings. Sections 93 and 94 are about the conduct of the audits. At the moment, in section 95(1), we have this provision:

"Each financial year, the Department, after consultation with the local government auditor, must determine which councils are to be councils in respect of which subsection (2) applies in that financial year."

Subsection (2) says:

"Each financial year, the local government auditor must issue a report or reports in respect of each council to which this subsection applies in that financial year— (a)certifying that the local government auditor has carried out an audit under section 93".

However, sections 93 and 94 are about the carrying out of the audit; section 95 is about the publicising, if something is found. There is not the alignment that is suggested, I respectfully suggest, between sections 93, 94 and 95. The effect of clause 3 is to remove permanently the need for the Audit Office to annually audit councils in regard to the standards of sections 92 and 84. That is a big step. It is not a step, I respectfully suggest, to be taken in rushed legislation.

If clause 2 is to come out, with a view to returning to it on a more timely occasion, equally, I suggest that clause 3 should come out, on the basis that the House needs time to consider whether it wants to make the changes that clause 3 suggests. I say that not least in the context that, frankly, there are occasions when the auditory processes in local government do not build confidence. That arises in part because the local government auditor appoints a staff member who is embedded in a council for five years. Frankly, in my experience, the relationship becomes far too cosy.

I have had experience in my area, and the Minister has made some directions in respect of the council that I refer to, where special audits have been ordered as necessary. That arose only because of the too cosy relationship, I believe, between the member of Audit Office staff and that council. If we are to diminish it further, whereby there does not even have to be an annual audit, that is not a safe or proper direction of travel. I say to the House that, if, properly, we are taking clause 2 out of the Bill, with a view to future legislation, equally, we should take out clause 3 so that it can be sifted and assessed adequately and completely, rather than rushed through, because it is a permanent change.

It is not a COVID-related change but a permanent change to the Local Government Act, and I do not think that we should amend the Local Government Act in such a permanent way through rushed legislation.

That brings me on to clause 5(2). I am not convinced of the need, nor do I see the need, to extend to the end of the 2022-23 financial year the possible disapplication of large sections of the Local Government Act. Clause 5(2) would disapply Part 12. Part 12 of the Local Government Act has 19 sections, and they are significant sections. Those are the sections that we have been talking about: section 84 right through to section 102. I understand that there may be some need to disapply them up until the end of the current emergency, but why would we want to disapply until the end of the 2022-23 financial year the key protective measures that lie in Part 12 of the Local Government Act? That seems to me more than is warranted by the current COVID emergency, and it is a detriment that the House should not embrace. I have equally serious concerns about clause 5(2).

The rest of the Bill is COVID-related and, on that basis, has a justification for moving forward swiftly. I am content with that but not with the issues that I have identified.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

There is clearly an urgent need for legislation on local government in the area that has been outlined. The current situation, whereby councils are operating through a system of delegated authority, with council management and chief executives effectively rubber-stamping decisions made by elected reps, is a dangerous one and sets a bad precedent during a time of crisis and emergency. No one doubts the difficult problems of the past year of the pandemic that have arisen for Governments, Administrations and councils, but it is ridiculous and unacceptable that it has got to this stage and that only now are we seeing legislation on the matter.

That said, my party and I have serious concerns about clause 2. Even though the Minister gave a welcome commitment to remove the clause, I will underscore some of the concerns and ask some questions about it. It is one thing to legislate to allow councils to continue to have remote meetings, but I see no good reason that we should grant the Department or the Minister the power to decide such things as the timing and frequency of council and committee meetings; the place at which meetings must be held; who may be allowed to attend; who can speak and vote in meetings; public admission; and the documents to be accessed. Those powers should lie firmly with councils. The proposals run the risk of allowing the abuse of the democratic process in local government, which is a serious concern. I welcome the Minister's comments that she will remove the clause. I think that I missed this, as I was on my way down the stairs, so I ask whether she intends to remove the clause through an amendment at the next stage.

Finally, similar to Ms Armstrong, my understanding is that there is no legislation that allows for hybrid meetings to take place. That may explain why clause 2, even though it is badly drafted, was inserted in the first instance. I want to get some clarity on hybrid meetings. Was clause 2 included to facilitated hybrid meetings? If that is the case, does the Minister intend to table amendments or to introduce other legislation to allow for hybrid meetings to take place?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

I thank the Committee Chair, the Committee and all Members who have spoken here today. If the legislation, in whichever iteration, is passed, it will ensure that councils are afforded the best opportunity to function fully in order to deliver important services and to continue to work on recovery over the next few years. Everyone recognises that, once the virus is gone, councils will not just go back to the position that they were in January 2020. There will be ongoing issues.

We are trying to ensure that there is flexibility and that we can work with councils so that, of course, we are still managing risk, but that we do not constrain them so much that they cannot respond to the new needs that may emerge as a result of the pandemic. We know that there are new economic and social needs to which councils will have to respond. There will be a Consideration Stage, and amendments may be tabled then. There will also be discussion at the Committee on Thursday, when the Bill will be an extra item on the agenda.

I will respond to some of the comments that were made. As regards the delay, I do not want to be in this position. The reason that I attempted initially to take it through the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government was that that had been identified as the quickest route. At the last minute, that was changed because of the scheduling at Westminster, which threw us into the situation that we are in now. That is hugely unfortunate. I make no excuses for that. We are now trying to progress it as quickly as possible. I thank everybody in the Chamber for the fact that, even with the negotiation outside, we were able to agree to accelerated passage to get this done.

I have been working with councils. It is not as though councils and NILGA have just been left. There has been engagement on the issues, as was referenced by the Chair of the Committee. There are resources and funding to ensure that councils are not negatively impacted financially through the support that we have given. It is important that we have worked closely with local government, particularly during the pandemic. Over £85·3 million has been given in financial support. I secured an additional £10 million in COVID money from the Executive at our meeting on 20 May to continue to work with councils. We put in £12 million for revitalisation to allow councils to work with business and the wider community to revitalise town and city centres. We worked to deliver over £9·5 million through the vital community support fund, which was about getting out into grassroots communities and providing a safety net for them at the height of the pandemic. We want to continue to work with them to deliver on all those commitments and to make sure that we do that as quickly as possible.

People have raised the need for a more permanent change or hybrid solution. I have discussed that with NILGA and the Association of Councillors, with whom the issue was raised recently, and with Ministers at the Executive meeting where we brought this through. My Department wants to look at that proactively and work with councils. However, it was not the correct course to take it through this legislation. That is why it is not in it. As it has rightly been said, the Bill will proceed with accelerated passage. We want to give time to consider any unintended consequences of something that may seem to be a good idea. Again, there are differences between urban and rural settings. All that needs to be worked out and assessed. We need to engage with and consult people and try to find a co-design approach on what a future amendment to the legislation would look like. Through my engagement with the Association of Councillors and others, I have committed to working with councils and, ultimately, the Assembly as we move through that.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I appreciate the Minister's remarks. Can that be brought forward as an SR or in a different piece of legislation? The Minister says that it cannot be incorporated into the Bill: is that correct?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

It could be incorporated: I am saying that people do not want to rush it. There needs to be careful consideration of the points that people have raised about clause 2. I did not feel that it was appropriate to bring it through under the current draft legislation, because this responds to the pandemic and does not look at the wider issues that have rightly been raised, for example, about women, parents or carers attending council meetings. Work needs to be done to ensure that there is flexibility for councillors on the ground for whom it is not a full-time job — I say that as a former councillor — so that they can participate fully in meetings and that the regulations allow them to do that. Consistency of approach across councils has also been raised. All those issues will have to be taken in the round, but it will not be done through this Bill.

There is a commitment that we start to look at that and that we work with councils and the Association of Councillors to do that in the time ahead. I am due to meet them again in the autumn to touch base on those issues.

Issues have been raised around audit, and it is crucial to have a key tool for risk management. There is no doubt about that. Issues have been raised to do with sections 93 and 94. There will be further discussion of it at the Committee, but, at the outset, the amendment was identified when consideration was being given to the performance improvement duties that should have been set aside due to the impact of the pandemic. The move to a more risk-based approach was originally raised at the Committee Stage of the Local Government Act in 2014. At that time, the amendment was made to section 95 so that the Department, after consulting the local government auditor, could determine, on an annual basis, the councils for which the audit would be required and issue an audit assessment. The original amendment to section 95 covered only audit reports and did not modify the audit requirements under section 93 and the assessment requirements under section 94. The changes to sections 93 and 94 in the Bill are to provide similar flexibility as in section 95, when that is deemed appropriate in the future, and to clarify the position relating to a risk-based audit approach.

As with clause 2, I have recognised that it is a difficulty for people, and it is being removed. Between now and next week, we need to look at whether there will be a further amendment to make sure that there are no unintended consequences based on where we are here and now. Again, my officials and I are more than happy to engage not just with the Committee but with individual Members who want to have a direct conversation with me or the officials. We can facilitate that ahead of moving to the next stage next week. Members may table amendments as well, and that is fair enough.

I am keen to move to the next stage to make sure that we have the engagement. There will a briefing at the Committee on Thursday. I commend the Bill to the Assembly.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That the Second Stage of the Local Government (Meetings and Performance) Bill [NIA 26/17-22] be agreed.

Adjourned at 3.37 pm.