Minutes of Proceedings
Session: Session currently unavailable
Date: 10 June 2019
Meeting Venue: Room 106, Parliament Buildings
Meeting date: Monday 10 June 2019
Meeting Time: 1.00pm
Mr Alex Maskey MLA
Mr Robin Swann MLA
Mr Stewart Dickson MLA
Mr Jim Wells MLA
Mrs Lesley Hogg, Ms Tara Caul, Mr Richard Stewart, Mr Robin Ramsey, Ms Frances Leneghan and Mrs Janet Hughes
Others in attendance:
Mr Jonathan McMillen, Head of Legal Services
The meeting commenced at 12.00pm.
An apology was received from Jim Wells MLA, who provided views to be recorded in relation to agenda item 5.
2. DECLARATION OF INTERESTS
There were no declarations of interest.
3. MINUTES OF PREVIOUS MEETING
Draft minutes from the Assembly Commission meeting on 3 June 2019 were issued to Members on 7 June 2019 for consideration. These were agreed.
4. CHAIRPERSON’S BUSINESS
The Speaker returned to the Chairperson’s Business from the meeting on 3 June 2019, regarding the vacancy in Commission Membership following Alex Attwood’s resignation. Robin Ramsey, Adviser to the Speaker/Head of Corporate Support, presented his advice paper.
He advised that while the resignation took the membership of the Assembly Commission below the five members required to be appointed by the Northern Ireland Act 1998, this did not stop the Assembly Commission from continuing to operate. However, he noted that it would be prudent to place added emphasis on the practice of seeking to make decisions by consensus in these circumstances.
Mr Attwood’s resignation also meant that under the weighted voting procedures in the Assembly Commission Handbook, the votes of SDLP MLAs, would no longer be allocated automatically to a Member on the Assembly Commission.
MLAs from the smaller parties and the independent MLA (who were not represented on the Assembly Commission) were yet to be contacted to allocate their votes as this is normally done after each Assembly appoints successor Assembly Commission Members. Mr Ramsey noted that it would be sensible to write to this group of MLAs and each SDLP MLA now to see if they wished to allocate their vote to any of the remaining Assembly Commission Members. Mr Ramsey stressed however that a focus on consensus meant that formal voting would continue to be rare on the Assembly Commission.
In relation to Mr Attwood’s request to invite an SDLP MLA to attend future Assembly Commission meetings, Mr Ramsey noted that while this was largely a political decision, the Assembly Commission is a statutory body. Mr Ramsey explained that he had therefore considered how an SDLP MLA could attend meetings in compliance with the provisions governing the Assembly Commission and presented a draft protocol for the Commission’s consideration.
Mr Ramsey proposed that the protocol be a temporary arrangement to deal with vacancies in the membership of the Assembly Commission which cannot be filled because the Assembly is not conducting normal plenary business. He highlighted that the protocol proposed that an invitation to attend Assembly Commission meetings would only be extended to another MLA from the same party from which the vacancy arose. It also proposed that the invite would only apply to a single MLA and outlined the procedures the MLA would have to observe along with restrictions in participation, such as voting as they were not an Assembly Commission Member.
Following discussion, Members agreed that it was important that the MLA complied with the same obligations on Commission Members including confidentiality, the handling of papers and speaking to the media. Members were content for the Chairperson to write to the SDLP to invite an MLA to attend meetings, on the basis of the proposed protocol which was agreed, until such time as new Assembly Commission Members can be appointed.
Action: Speaker to write to the SDLP to invite an MLA to attend Assembly Commission meetings, on the basis of the agreed protocol, until such time as a new Commission Member can be appointed.
Action: Mr Ramsey to meet with the SDLP MLA and brief him/her on the Assembly Commission’s procedures and the agreed protocol.
Action: Mr Ramsey to write to all SDLP MLAs, the MLAs from the smaller parties and the Independent MLA to ask if they wanted to allocate their votes to a Member of the Assembly Commission.
Jonathan McMillen joined the meeting at 1.11pm for agenda item 4.
5. APPOINTMENT OF A NORTHERN IRELAND PUBLIC SERVICES OMBUDSMAN
As noted at the meeting on 3 June 2019, the responsibility for identifying a candidate for nomination to the office of Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO) lies with the Assembly Commission. Following initial discussion on 3 June, Members agreed to return to the issue to allow for detailed consideration of the paper and consultation with their parties.
The Speaker noted that Mr Stewart’s paper referred to a number of issues and recommendations.
Following consideration, Members noted that the situation had arisen due to the decision of the Secretary of State (SoS) to appoint the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman to the office of Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. Members also noted that it was the Assembly’s responsibility to nominate a candidate as Ombudsman or Acting Ombudsman. Members agreed that it would be preferable to appoint an Acting Ombudsman for up to 12 months from the date of vacancy in the anticipation that the Assembly would return to normal business in time to nominate an Ombudsman.
Members agreed that the Speaker should write to the SoS asking her to bring forward the necessary legislation to allow for the nomination of an Acting Ombudsman, but also for the nomination of an Ombudsman should that be necessary. The Commission agreed that it should retain its responsibility for the identification of a suitable candidate.
Action: Speaker to write the SoS asking that she bring forward the necessary legislation to allow for the appointment of both an Acting Ombudsman and an Ombudsman.
Action: Richard Stewart (Director of Corporate Services) to make preparations for a process to allow the Assembly Commission to identify a suitable candidate for nomination as Acting Ombudsman.
The issue of other appointments nominated by the Assembly was also highlighted by Mr Stewart. Members agreed that they should focus on the Ombudsman’s post given the imminent vacancy and its impact on the functions of that office.
Members agreed that a separate letter could be sent to the SoS to note that a vacancy existed in the Assembly Commission which could not be filled.
Action: Speaker to write to the SoS advising of the vacancy which exists in the Assembly Commission.
Mr Stewart advised that the Assembly Commission should formally write to the Ombudsman to explain that the Commission has no ability to appoint an Acting Ombudsman or an Ombudsman, that it intends to write to the SoS requesting that she introduce the necessary legislation, that the NIPSO be advised that it is likely that there will be a period when no Ombudsman is in office and that she may want to take steps to ensure that appropriate governance arrangements are in place (such as the appointment of an Acting Accounting Officer) to manage the organisation in the absence of an Ombudsman.
Action: Speaker to write to the current Ombudsman to suggest that she put appropriate governance arrangements in place until an Ombudsman or Acting Ombudsman is appointed.
Mr Stewart referred Members to the discussion regarding a salary matter relevant to the Ombudsman at the April 2019 Assembly Commission meeting and it was agreed that this should be returned to at the next meeting.
Action: Further discussion of the salary matter relevant to the Ombudsman to be discussed at the 24 June meeting.
Jonathan McMillen left the meeting at 1.39pm.
There was no other business.
7. DATE OF NEXT MEETING
Monday, 24 June 2019 at 1pm.
The meeting concluded at 1.39pm.