ARGUMENTS around the distribution of vouchers through the Council's hardship fund dominated the first Belfast City Council meeting of 2023.

Councillors also spent close to an hour on official announcements which included a lengthy discussion on the safety of women and girls following the murders of Natalie McNally and Bruna Fonseca over the festive period.

Councillor Áine McCabe sent condolences on behalf of Sinn Féin to the families of both women and People Before Profit’s Cllr Fiona Ferguson described the murders as "despicable, tragic and violent".

Ulster Unionist Alderman Sonia Copeland raised the failure of the Assembly to deliver a strategy to end violence against women and girls.

"How many more women have to die before they get up off their ass and do something?” she asked.

Cllr Séamas De Faoite recalled his own friendship with Natalie McNally and said that the onus is on men to push back against misogyny.

Cllr De Faoite also welcomed the appointment of the new US Economic Envoy to the North, Joe Kennedy.

SDLP Councillor Donal Lyons proposed the appointment of Cllr John Kyle as High Sheriff of Belfast.

Sinn Féin Councillor Séanna Walsh paid tribute to Gaeilgeoir, author and educationalist Diarmuid Ó Tuama who died last week and asked the Lord Mayor to write to his family offering the sympathy of the council.

Meanwhile, Cllr JJ Magee from Sinn Féin offered his condolences to the family of the late Bobby Lavery, a former Sinn Féin councillor who died after Christmas.

Councillors agreed to receive a number of deputations including speeches from Kellie Turtle and Claire Mullaly on the detention of pregnant women in Larne House; as well as Chris Eisenstadt from the BookTrust who discussed their work on improving the literacy of children.

When it came to discussing the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee, Cllr John Kyle (UUP) raised the issue of the distribution of hardship vouchers as agreed by the Council the previous month.

Cllr Kyle said that the eligibility criteria was “flawed” and said that the £60,000 household income threshold undermined the purpose of the fund.

Alliance Councillor Sam Nelson agreed with Cllr Kyle saying that a robust process should be put in place. Cllr Nelson also called for an independent financial audit to be conducted.

When discussing the distribution, Cllr Carl Whyte (SDLP) told councillors that in North Belfast there is confusion because people don't know what ward they live in and there is difficulty associated with how different organisations are distributing the funds.

He said that Council should have asked energy companies to top up the fund and that it shouldn't be allocated on first come, first served basis.

The DUP’s Dean McCullough thanked councillors for their input and said that he would agree with Councillor Beattie (SF) that £40,000 was too low to set the threshold.

People Before Profit’s Matt Collins pointed to what he described as a “carve up” between the DUP and Sinn Féin and said that the West Belfast strategic partner had been distributing vouchers before the information had been published on the Council website and that they had run out of vouchers.

While discussing the People and Communities Committee minutes, Cllr Séamas de Faoite proposed that the Council end its partnership with East Belfast Football Club which forced the meeting into restricted session while the issue was discussed.

Returning to the meeting, Cllr Róis-Máire Donnelly (SF) welcomed the agreement to install storage facilities at Belfast Celtic and Sally Gardens.

The city-wide issue of missed bin collections also saw discussion with Cllr Carl Whyte questioning how the Council had an overspend when they couldn’t manage to empty bins.

Cllr Whyte proposed that the People and Communities Committee return to holding meetings to discuss bins as had been the case prior to the pandemic.

A number of councillors raised how they had first heard there was an issue with bin collections from constituents and that they hadn’t been informed by Council staff.

Cllr Beattie proposed that plans are put in place early ahead of the next festive season.

The minutes of the City Growth and Regeneration Committee alongside the Licensing Committee, Planning Committee, Climate and City Resilience Committee and Standards and Business Committee were proposed and agreed without debate.