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Council calls for Minister’s decision to end hybrid working as ‘anti-family’ and ‘undemocratic’

A Northern Ireland council is to challenge an order from the Department for Communities for councillors to get back into chambers as an “anti-family” and “undemocratic” policy.

A hybrid working system has been put in place since the Covid pandemic, which allows for elected reps to attend meetings via online video links from home as well as attend in person.

Newry, Mourne and Down District Council (NMDDC) is now seeking DUP Minister Gordon Lyons to reverse a decision to end the hybrid system this week, following a letter from his office to all council chiefs winding up the remote working conditions.

Local authority CEO Marie Ward said: “What this effectively does is bring to an end the legislation that has enabled and facilitated hybrid working.

“So, from Wednesday (March 6) this is our last hybrid statutory meeting of council.

“This was landed on us as councils on Friday (March 1). I have to say, you have to be in physical attendance from Wednesday when the legislation falls.”

In recent months NMDDC and other NI councils have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds upgrading their camera systems in order to continue remote meetings.

The hybrid system legislation has previously run out during the collapse of Stormont, though it had been restarted on those occasions for an extended amount of time.

However, the DfC letter states that Minister Lyons now beleives there is “no justification” to extend the hybrid legislation.

Rowallane Alliance rep, Tierna Kelly brought forward a proposal, saying: “Given that hybrid meetings benefit a lot of us, particularly those on parental leave, caring responsibilities and people who are unwell or long term sick.

“This will significantly disadvantage particularly, I feel women as they tend to be the main carers of families and children.

“I propose that we write to the minister to outline these issues and ask if he does intend to bring in regulations or legislation to continue hybrid meetings, what would they be and what would the timeline of that be.”

Currently NMDDC operates out of two HQs, one in Newry and the other in Downpatick with councillors stretched across an area of 1,634 square kilometres, which is largley rural.

Downpatrick Sinn Fein cllr, Oonagh Hanlon added: “I think the minister has acted very quickly here and he hasn’t really listened to the consultation that was carried out previously.

“Certainly it is always better to be in the chamber, to be present to debate amongst each other.

“But, we all have very busy lives and we all have a lot of other commitments particularly for carers and those with dependants as well as those working full time.

“Hybrid allows us to continue our work as elected reps with a degree of flexibility.

“So, I do think the need to go back and reconsider the removal of hybrid completely and take another look at it

“The last thing we want is to be undemocratic, where people can’t go to meetings, just for very simple reasons.”

Mournes SDLP rep Laura Devlin said: “As someone who had two young children prior to the introduction of the new regulations and not being able to drive for a good three to four months, I missed out attending any meeting at that stage.

“Your constituents aren’t being represented. I think this really is anti-family as well, we want to be supporting women.”

Support for continuing the hybrid system was unanimous at the full council meeting.

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