Thank you very much. Today I seek the Assembly's approval for the Coronavirus Act 2020 (Extension of Provisions Relating to Local Authority Meetings) Order (NI) 2022. The order extends the provision of section 78 of the Coronavirus Act 2020, which is due to expire on 24 March of this year. Section 78 provided the Department with an enabling power to make regulations to give councils across the North the ability to hold meetings remotely or by hybrid means during the coronavirus emergency. The extension of the provision will permit the arrangements introduced under the 2020 Act to continue to be used until 24 September of this year. I welcome the support expressed by the Communities Committee at its meeting of 16 March 2022. In considering the order, the Committee indicated that it was content to recommend that the order be approved by the Assembly.
The extension will not impose any restrictions on councils or the public; rather, it will continue to provide councils with the flexibility to hold meetings by remote or hybrid means. The extension is an interim measure until such time as permanent legislation can be made. As you will recall, last year I introduced the Local Government (Meetings and Performance) Bill, which, amongst other things, provided my Department with the ability to make further regulations for councils to continue to meet remotely or in hybrid form. Members' comments during the debates on that Bill indicated that there was support for continuing the flexibility for remote working for council meetings post pandemic in certain circumstances. Allowing councils the flexibility to hold meetings by remote means has proven beneficial in terms of inclusivity, allowing those with caring responsibilities or disabilities and those from rural areas to participate more fully. I also received representations from councils and local government representative groups, including NILGA and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE), asking that the provisions on remote meetings be extended or made permanent.
As part of the development of new regulations, which will be subject to the draft affirmative procedure in the Assembly, a call for evidence was issued to gather views on how remote meetings had operated so far. Initial findings from the call for evidence have indicated generally strong support for the introduction of a permanent provision for councils to have the flexibility to hold remote or hybrid meetings. However, a number of disadvantages were also highlighted and will require further exploration. For example, some respondents raised the issue that some members had expressed the view that meetings are more effective when held physically on-site, given the opportunity for more informal interactions and the opportunities for relationships to be built and for better communication in complex and nuanced debates; that it can be difficult to provide effective opposition and scrutiny through remote meetings; and that there is less opportunity for local residents to speak or to ask questions. When the Local Government (Meetings and Performance) Bill was considered by the Assembly, the issue was also raised that there is a need to ensure that councillors have the same voting, speaking and participation rights whether they attend in person or remotely.
As you can see, there is clearly a need to engage further with the local government sector on those important issues, particularly in developing future regulations. The extension of the current arrangements will give the Department time to do that. I therefore commend the order to the Assembly.
The Committee considered the statutory rule (SR) at its meeting of 16 March 2022 and understands that it is to be made under section 92 of the Coronavirus Act 2020. The regulations will extend the expiry date of section 78 of that Act — "Local authority meetings" — by six months. Section 78 includes an enabling power for the Department to make regulations regarding remote hybrid council meetings. The statutory rule will make provision for a further six months, extending that until 24 September 2022, to continue to provide local authorities with the flexibility to hold meetings remotely or by hybrid means.
At the Committee's meeting on 16 March, members noted the change of name of the regulations to the Coronavirus Act 2020 (Extension of Provisions Relating to Local Authority Meetings) Order (Northern Ireland) 2022 but were content that there had been no changes to the policy since the SL1 was agreed. Although the Committee noted the need for the regulations to be extended, members discussed the pros and cons of hybrid meetings going forward into the new mandate and the need for more permanent and fit-for-purpose legislation. When the Committee considered the SL1, it wrote to the Department to ask whether there were plans to enable councils to have the option of permanently conducting hybrid meetings in the future. We understand that the enabling power in the Local Government (Meetings and Performance) Act (Northern Ireland) 2021 will, indeed, allow for such regulations. We welcome the fact that further engagement is taking place between officials and the local government sector. Although the Committee supports the extension, members look forward to further consultation and discussion on those matters.
The Committee agreed to recommend that the Coronavirus Act 2020 (Extension of Provisions Relating to Local Authority Meetings) Order (NI) 2022 be confirmed by the Assembly.
As the DUP's spokesperson on — I was going to say DSD, but it is not that — communities, I will just say that we are disappointed that we are having to further progress the Coronavirus Act 2020 in order for those meetings to continue to take place. As I said, it would be much better if a more permanent arrangement were in place. I am encouraged by what the Minister said in her opening speech about the consultation and its results, and I would hope that a more permanent arrangement could be found. As the Minister said, it has been a lifeline for many people to be able to come in virtually and through hybrid meetings, whether they were people who were vulnerable during coronavirus or some of the many people who had caring responsibilities. It has enabled them to continue to do the job that they love and want to do. Looking at that more permanent model is most definitely something that the Assembly needs to get a grasp of in the new mandate. Other than that, although we wish that the permanent arrangement were in place now, we understand why that has not happened.
I take the chance to say this to the Committee Chair: Paula, I will miss you. You have been a fantastic Chair and a friend. It will be sad coming back here without you being here, Paula. Thank you so much for all your time. You have been patient with some of us who were, perhaps, a bit wet behind the ears.
The Chair summarised the legislation well. It extends until September 2022 the period for hybrid meetings for our council colleagues and councils across Northern Ireland. I absolutely support that, going forward. I have a word of caution, however: we hear from many quarters that, after the Assembly election in May 2022, there may be a period of negotiation. My concern is that, in September 2022, following a summer recess, there may not be an Executive to take that hybrid model forward for councils and councillors. At this stage, we are coming out of COVID, thank goodness. I hope that we have no further outbreaks. However, as the Minister mentioned, there have been many benefits of the legislation in that parents, rural dwellers and other people have been able to take part in meetings for which they may have, otherwise, needed to give an apology. I am keen that we do not lose sight of the bigger picture in the longer term. We need more permanent legislation to take that forward for councillors in the future.
It is clear to me, having listened to the Minister, that, although the proposal is being brought under the guise of COVID, it is not, of necessity, any longer COVID-driven. It is now being driven by a desire to bridge time so that the Department might bring in longer-term provisions that are nothing to do with COVID but give remote attendance at council meetings a permanency. That is not a good idea, because the idea of electing a council is so that it meets collectively as a council for discussions and decision-making.
One thing that concerns me most about the operation of some of the existing rules is that there have been instances where an aggressive chair has overstretched their authority and, when someone was making a point that they did not like, has switched them off. That sort of process allows that sort of behaviour, whereas, if it were in the chamber, there would be a lot more exchange, which would curb that sort of activity.
That is a retrograde step that will take away a lot of the presence, impact and, indeed, status of councils if they can simply meet remotely and not have the appearance of meeting as a council, as they should, which lends credence to what they are doing.
I am not convinced that this is anything but a guise under COVID, when it is not COVID-required, to simply bridge the gap to when the Department hopes to bring some permanency for other reasons. I do not think that that is the right way to proceed. To that extent, the proposal is unworthy.
I thank the Chair and members of the Committee for Communities and those who contributed to the debate today. Obviously, we need more time to look at a permanent change, if that is what the House agrees going forward, so it would not be prudent to rush through a permanent change now without that work being done.
I issued a call for evidence in December, and the vast majority of respondents were strongly in favour of a change to having the flexibility of remote and hybrid meetings in certain circumstances, but Members raised a number of issues in this debate and in previous debates. Councils and others have also raised those issues. It is clear that we need more engagement with councils to inform what the drafting of regulations will look like.
I have not been hiding the fact that we are looking at a flexible model, but the request for that is coming from councils and councillors. There will be those who are completely opposed to that, and there will be those in the Chamber who are completely opposed to that, but it will be down to those who are elected on 5 May and come back to the Chamber, if they do come back, to have that vote and make a decision on the way forward.
It is clear, however, that having some level of flexibility around meetings allows such flexibilities to be included, notwithstanding the fact that we need to ensure that we mitigate abuses of that and build in protections. That is why, at this point, I am asking only for the order to be extended under the existing Act to allow that much-needed work to be done. I commend the motion to the House.