Northern Ireland councils in the dark over extension of law on virtual meetings

Legislation allowing councils in Northern Ireland to meet virtually due to the Covid pandemic is set to expire in three weeks, sparking concerns it cannot be extended in time – leaving the status of future meetings up in the air.

t has led to calls for action to rectify the situation before time runs out.

Back in March last year when the pandemic took hold, the Coronavirus Act 2020 was given Royal Assent and under Section 78 of the legislation councils here were permitted to meet virtually, via apps like Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

The legislation is time-limited, however, and expires on May 7. It is understood officials are scrambling to get clarity on whether there is time, or if it is possible, to extend it and what will happen if the date passes with no resolution.

Under the Executive’s plans for exiting lockdown, by this date there will still be significant restrictions on indoor gatherings.

Stormont’s Department for Communities (DfC) is responsible for supporting local councils.

Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong, deputy chair of the Communities Committee, said her party supports extending the legislation, but the situation is unclear.

“The department recently stated at the Communities Committee that it may be able to progress through a UK legislative vehicle but this remains uncertain,” she said.

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“It could be done via an amendment to the Local Government Amendment Bill, which would go through via accelerated passage, which I would encourage the department to look at.

“Most councils are without meeting rooms which can accommodate socially distanced councillors, staff and others. We must ensure we do all we can to ensure they follow the Executive’s guidance, which remains work from home if possible.”

DfC said the action needed to extend this legislation is “currently being progressed”.

Belfast City Council (BCC) -Northern Ireland’s largest council – said: “The option to extend the legislation is currently being considered by the Department for Communities. Council is considering options for other arrangements during the interim period should the updated legislation be delayed.”

The situation also applies to councils in England. Westminster junior local government minister Luke Hall, however, wrote to councils’ local authorities there last month making it clear that the ministry will not seek to extend the powers.

Donal Lyons, SDLP group leader on BCC, told the Belfast Telegraph: “While we’re in a much better position now than in comparison to recent months but that’s no reason for pretending like the last year didn’t happen and rushing back to business as usual.

“We need to follow the public health advice, keep social distancing and find the right balance as we come out of lockdown. Remote meetings are certainly going to be part of that balance.

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“The Executive have been taking a different approach from London for a while now so it’s reasonable to have expected the Department for Communities to have made preparations for this. There’s certainly no rationale that I can see for the fact that a few weeks out we have no timeframe or even assurances. Somebody’s dropped the ball on this.”

He added that issues that will need to be addressed as people start moving about more and the weather improves can already be anticipated.

“Overcrowding in parks, retail and trading hours, antisocial behaviour like in the Holyland, these are all issues we’re going to see re-emerge and we need to be able to respond quickly as a council.”

“We can’t address these effectively if there’s basic questions outstanding about how decisions are to be taken.”

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