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Minutes of Proceedings

Session: Session currently unavailable

Date: 11 November 2020

Meeting Venue: Members’ Dining Room

Meeting date: Wednesday 11 November 2020

Meeting Time: 2.00pm

Assembly Commission Members:
The Speaker
Mr Keith Buchanan MLA
Mr John O’Dowd MLA
Mrs Dolores Kelly MLA
Mr Robbie Butler MLA
Mr John Blair MLA

Apologies: None

Officials present:
Mrs Lesley Hogg, Clerk/Chief Executive
Ms Tara Caul, Director of Legal, Governance and Research Services
Dr Gareth McGrath, Director of Parliamentary Services
Mr Richard Stewart, Director of Corporate Services
Mr Robin Ramsey, Adviser to the Speaker/Head of Corporate Support
Mrs Janet Hughes, Clerical Supervisor

Others in attendance:
Mr Derek Martin, Independent Member of Secretariat Audit and Risk Committee (SARC)
Mr Jonathan McMillen, Head of Legal Services (Item 9)

The meeting commenced at 2.04pm.

1. APOLOGIES

Apologies were received from Jim Brooks, Chairperson of SARC.

2. DECLARATION OF INTERESTS

None.

3. CHAIRPERSON’S BUSINESS

The Speaker advised Members that since the last Assembly Commission meeting, he had met with the Chairperson of the Standards and Privileges committee and Party Whips, in relation to forming a working group to develop an unacceptable behaviours policy. He confirmed that a working group had now been established that reflected a balance between the Assembly Commission and the Committee, a gender balance and representation from each of the main parties. The Speaker thanked parties for their cooperation on progressing this matter.

The Speaker also informed Members that Oral Questions to the Assembly Commission were scheduled for 8 December 2020 and that questions would be issued to Members following receipt from the Business Office on 26 November 2020.

4. MINUTES OF PREVIOUS MEETING

Minutes from the Assembly Commission meetings on 30 September 2020 were approved for publication.

5. MATTERS ARISING

The Speaker referred Members to Robin Ramsey’s paper on ‘Extending the Assembly Commission’s Annual Dates for the Lighting of Parliament Buildings’ which was presented at the meeting in September 2020. He noted that Members had agreed to engage with each other to try to build a political consensus and with Mr Ramsey as necessary, to reach an agreement on a final package of dates. The Speaker sought an update from Mr Ramsey on this matter.

Mr Ramsey advised that some Members had contacted him following discussion at the September meeting, but there had yet to be any detailed engagement. Mr Ramsey indicated that he was happy to meet parties informally either individually or as a group and would assist parties in whatever way was helpful. The Speaker proposed that Mr Ramsey prepare a further paper for consideration at the next Assembly Commission meeting. He again, suggested that Members engage with each other ahead of the next meeting and with Mr Ramsey as necessary, in order to produce a list of dates for consideration at the next meeting. Members were content with this approach.

Action: Members to engage with Mr Ramsey with views and suggestions to produce a further list of proposed lighting days.

Action: Mr Ramsey to prepare a further paper on ‘Extending the Assembly
Commission’s Annual Dates for the Lighting of Parliament Buildings’ for presentation at the December Assembly Commission meeting.

6. ASSEMBLY COMMISSION ACTIONS

Members noted the status of actions.

Lesley Hogg commented on some of the overdue actions. She sought approval from Members to extend the completion date for an action to identify the cost of responding to Freedom of Information requests, from October 2020 to June

2021, as there had not been a sufficient sample of requests to accurately identify the costs. Members agreed to this request.

Mr Ramsey agreed to provide more detail on the action in relation to artefacts under agenda item 14.

7. CORRESPONDENCE

Members noted correspondence from the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (the Ombudsman), requesting that the Assembly Commission move to commence Part 3 of the Public Service Ombudsman Act (Northern Ireland) 2016 to enable the Ombudsman’s office to undertake the function of a complaints standards authority.

The Speaker advised Members that officials had prepared a paper for consideration in relation to this issue and confirmed that it would be dealt with under agenda item 12.

Members also noted two further pieces of correspondence from the Speaker to the Chairperson of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, that related to the establishment of a working group to develop an unacceptable behaviours policy.

Members were content to note the correspondence.

8. CLERK/CHIEF EXECUTIVE UPDATE REPORT

Mrs Hogg provided Members with an update on the key issues, which had arisen since the last Assembly Commission meeting, namely:

Staffing Update – November 2020

Mrs Hogg advised Members that an intensive recruitment programme was well underway to fill the remaining vacant posts.

Mrs Hogg stated that the ‘Staffing Update’ had been added to her report during the period when the Assembly was not conducting normal business, in order to update Members on temporary staff redeployments and the level of vacancies across the Secretariat. She explained that as normal business had resumed and the recruitment programme was progressing as planned, she proposed to
stop providing such an update in her future monthly reports to the Assembly Commission. Members were content with this proposal.

Mrs Hogg also advised Members, that a process for notification of COVID-19 symptoms or a positive test result, had recently issued to Secretariat staff and other building users.

Management Accounts

Mrs Hogg referred Members to the Management Accounts for September 2020.

Mrs Hogg advised Members that the current forecast for expenditure for
2020/21 was £45.964m for Resource DEL and £0.9 for Capital DEL.

Update on the Youth Assembly

Mrs Hogg advised Members that the aim was, COVID-19 permitting, to have the first meeting of the Youth Assembly before next summer. It was noted that two Educations Officers were leading the project on a full-time basis, supported by two Youth Assembly Participation Officers who would be joining them on 30 November 2020.

Mrs Hogg also advised Members that a Speaker’s Advisory Group was being established to provide advice and guidance.

It was noted that a young person’s Youth Assembly Co-design Panel was also being established to help co-design some of the practicalities relating to the Youth Assembly, notably around recruitment and selection options. The Speaker advised that he was meeting with potential Members of the Advisory Group over the incoming weeks.

Member Development Update

Mrs Hogg advised Members that the Clerking and Members’ Support Office had consulted with Party Whips’ offices, in order to identify MLA development requirements and that a Working Group on MLA and MLAs’ staff development would be established early in the new year.

It was noted that a draft Interim Plan covering the period November 2020 to June 2021 would be presented to the Assembly Commission for consideration at its December 2020 meeting.

Mrs Hogg also advised Members that the Assembly Commission used an online learning platform, that provided access to e-learning modules on a range of subjects, some of which may be of benefit to MLAs and their staff, and that the Assembly Commission was extending its license to make this platform available to MLAs and their staff.

Impact of COVID-19 on Committee Business

Mrs Hogg advised Members of the increasing workload of Assembly committees and the subsequent need for additional meeting space.

Following a request from the Chairpersons’ Liaison Group (CLG) for additional meeting space, it was noted that the Speaker had approved the limited use of the Assembly Chamber for committee meetings.

Mrs Hogg also advised Members that a committee chair had indicated that Starleaf would still be necessary even if committee meetings were to be held in the Chamber. Mrs Hogg added that, whilst the Speaker had not received a request from CLG to have access to StarLeaf in the Assembly Chamber, officials were currently investigating the technical and financial implications of
doing so.

Dolores Kelly MLA asked, due to the restrictions on the number of MLAs allowed in the Assembly Chamber as a result of social distancing, if it was possible for MLAs to use the Public Gallery to participate in or observe plenary sittings. Members agreed that this might be beneficial but that there would be issues to consider for the Speaker and Deputy Speakers in managing a sitting and that a risk assessment should be conducted to ensure that the presence of additional MLAs did not create any public health issues. Mrs Hogg confirmed that officials had considered this when restrictions were first implemented and the Speaker noted that there had been no support expressed from parties for this option at that time.

Action: Officials to investigate the possibility of MLAs using the Public Gallery in the Chamber to participate in or observe plenaries, whilst complying with social distancing regulations, including conducting a risk assessment and considering issues for the Speaker and Deputy Speakers.

John Blair MLA noted that he had previously raised the issue of allowing remote participation in plenary sittings through Starleaf and asked whether this issue could be revisited. The Speaker reminded Members that if the Committee on Procedures brought forward changes in Standing Orders which were agreed by the Assembly, the Assembly Commission would put the necessary
arrangements in place.

The Speaker advised that the Committee on Procedures had agreed to consider the matter again and had written to him to seek to engage with Commission officials to understand the practical issues involved. The Speaker said that he had responded positively and also set out a number of issues to which the Committee might give consideration.

The Speaker noted that he had discussed the issue with the Speakers and Presiding Officers in the other institutions and that it was a complex issue.

Secretariat Audit and Risk Committee (SARC) – Terms of Reference

Members noted that no substantive changes were made to SARC’s Terms of Reference, following review at its meeting on 14 October 2020. Members were
content to approve SARC’s updated Terms of Reference. 

Corporate Systems Review Project

Mrs Hogg advised Members that a project was ongoing to replace a number of corporate systems currently in use throughout the Assembly and noted that an important part of the project was to consider more efficient and effective ways for MLAs to submit expenses claims. She explained that stakeholder engagement was key to the success of the project and asked Members to
encourage party staff participation in the project workshops.

Mrs Kelly revisited the issue of facilities being available for MLAs during long sitting days outside of their own offices. Mrs Hogg confirmed that the Members’ Bar and Coffee Lounge had been reopened as a meeting space, although no catering provision was in place. Members agreed that these issues could be revisited when reviewing public access to Parliament Buildings before the
Christmas recess.

Jonathan McMillen joined the meeting at 2.42pm for agenda item 9.

9. ASSEMBLY MEMBERS (REMUNERATION BOARD) BILL

Jonathan McMillen presented a revised Bill and supporting documents, following consideration of an initial draft Bill and supporting documents at the Assembly Commission’s September 2020 meeting.Mr McMillen outlined the changes made, as agreed at the September meeting and sought approval of the revised Bill and supporting documents. Following consideration, Members approved the revised Bill and supporting documents and were content for the draft Bill and Explanatory Financial Memorandum to be sent to the Speaker, with a request for introduction in the
Assembly as soon as possible

Action: Commission and Clerk/Chief Executive’s Office to arrange for a letter signed by each of the Members (with the exception of the Speaker), submitting the final text of the Bill to the Speaker for introduction.

Jonathan McMillen left the meeting at 2.52pm.

10. PAY CLAIM 2020

Richard Stewart referred Members to the discussion at the 30 September 2020 meeting on the 2020 Pay Claim, when it was agreed that Members would consider their views on the five elements of the claim and return to it again at the current meeting.

It was also noted, as requested at the last meeting, that comparative information in relation to other legislatures and NICS, had issued to Members on 10 November 2020.

Mr Stewart reminded Members of the five elements of the initial pay claim.

Following consideration, Members requested that Mr Stewart engage with TUS in relation to the element of ‘an above inflation consolidated increase on all pay points’, in order to seek to reach an agreed position on a percentage uplift for all pay points, and bring this proposal to the Assembly Commission’s December meeting for consideration. In relation to the other four elements of the pay claim, Members provided direction on each to Mr Stewart.

Action: Mr Stewart to engage with TUS to reach an agreed position on a percentage uplift for all pay points and bring this proposal to the Assembly Commission’s December meeting for consideration.

11. DEVELOPMENT OF A BEHAVIOUR CODE FOR THE NORTHERN IRELAND ASSEMBLY

Mr Stewart sought Members approval of a Northern Ireland Assembly Behaviour Code, which had been developed as part of the Assembly Commission’s ongoing work to address unacceptable behaviours.

He confirmed that the purpose of the Behaviour Code was to inform visitors and all those working in Parliament Buildings how they should expect to be treated and how they should treat others. Members noted that the process was not a substitute for complaints against MLAs and that these must continue to be submitted to the Commissioner for Standards.

Following consideration, Members approved the Behaviour Code as presented.

12. COMMENCEMENT OF PART 3 OF THE PUBLIC SERVICES OMBUDSMAN ACT (NORTHERN IRELAND) 2016 - COMPLAINTS STANDARDS AUTHORITY ROLE FOR THE NORTHERN IRELAND PUBLIC SERVICES OMBUDSMAN

Mr Ramsey referred to the correspondence received by the Speaker from the Ombudsman, requesting that the Assembly Commission move to commence Part 3 of the Public Service Ombudsman Act (Northern Ireland) 2016, to enable the Ombudsman’s office to undertake the function of a complaints standards authority.

Mr Ramsey reminded Members of a discussion at the 30 September 2020 meeting, when the Clerk/Chief Executive notified Members that she had received a letter from the Audit Committee, expressing support for the Ombudsman’s functions as a complaints standards authority to be commenced and advising that the Ombudsman would make a formal submission to the Assembly Commission and that Members had agreed to consider any formal submission subsequently received from the Ombudsman.

Mr Ramsey provided Members with background on the issue and noted that the Assembly Commission had limited specific responsibilities for the Ombudsman’s Office. Mr Ramsey acknowledged that as this was a statutory function, the Assembly Commission would wish to exercise due diligence before reaching a decision on whether this was the appropriate time to lay a
statutory rule to commence Part 3 of the 2016 Act.

Mr Ramsey suggested that Members might wish to meet with the Ombudsman; to write to the Committee for the Executive Office to seek its views; and to write to the Audit Committee as it had responsibility for scrutinising the Ombudsman’s budget.

Action: The Speaker to reply to the Ombudsman’s letter to seek a meeting.

Action: The Speaker to write to the Committee for the Executive Office and the Audit Committee seeking their views.

13. POLITICS PLUS REPORT ON 2019 ACTIVITY

Members noted the 2019 annual report from Politics Plus, together with the audited financial statements for the year ended 31 December 2019.

Gareth McGrath reminded Members that in June 2019 the Board of Politics Plus had agreed to wind up its activities, and to transfer the delivery of MLA development and support for the Assembly Women’s Caucus to the Assembly Commission. Dr McGrath confirmed that responsibility for MLA development had transferred to the Assembly Commission from 1 July 2020 and that responsibility for the Assembly Women’s Caucus would transfer to the Assembly Commission from 1 January 2021.

Dr McGrath informed Members that the activities of Politics Plus would be fully wound up by 31 March 2021 and that a methodology for transferring the assets and liabilities of Politics Plus to the Assembly Commission would need to be determined. He advised that this would be the subject of a future paper, for consideration by the Assembly Commission.

Action: Dr McGrath to prepare a paper for consideration by the Assembly Commission at a future meeting, on the methodology for transferring the assets and liabilities of Politics Plus to theAssembly Commission.

14. OVERVIEW OF ARRANGEMENTS AND PLANNING FOR UPCOMING
ASSEMBLY COMMMISSION CENTENARY EVENTS

Mr Ramsey advised Members that the former Assembly Commission, at its meeting on 11 October 2018, had agreed three centenaries to be marked in the current mandate, namely, the ‘Government of Ireland Act’ in 2020, the ‘Creation of Northern Ireland/Partition’ and the ‘First Sitting of the Northern Ireland Parliament’ in 2021.

Mr Ramsey reminded Members, that at the Assembly Commission meeting in February 2020, it was agreed the event to commemorate the centenary of the Government of Ireland Act would follow the pattern of previous events in the “Perspectives On…” series. He explained that in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, that a physical event in Parliament Buildings was not possible, and
arrangements had therefore been put in place for the event to take place virtually. Mr Ramsey also confirmed that Dr Eamon Phoenix had accepted an
invitation from the Speaker to deliver a virtual lecture at the event, which was scheduled to take place on 2 December 2020 and that invites would issue shortly. In relation to the two events to be marked in 2021, Mr Ramsey informed Members that he would be bringing forward a paper with proposals to the

Assembly Commission meeting in December. He recognised that there may be different expectations across the Assembly in relation to how the centenaries in 2021 might be marked and sought initial views from Members.

Mr Ramsey noted that a number of the Assembly Commission’s agreed principles provided for these circumstances, including the requirements for events to be inclusive, respectful of our shared history and of a measured and sensitive tone, which avoided divisiveness, controversy and confrontation. Mr Ramsey outlined that the proposals for the events in 2021 would adhere to
those principles and, as with the other events, would recognise that the historic developments behind the centenaries had a significant role in shaping society, politics and relationships and the Assembly itself. Mr Ramsey shared some initial thoughts on ways in which these events might be approached. Members indicated that they were open to considering a range of options in relation to the centenaries in 2021 and asked Mr Ramsey to bring forward proposals on the basis of his paper.

Action: Mr Ramsey to prepare a paper for presentation at the December 2020 Assembly Commission meeting, outlining options for marking the centenaries of the Creation of Northern Ireland/Partition and the First Sitting of the Northern Ireland Parliament, in line with the Assembly Commission’s agreed principles.

Mr Ramsey then returned to the issue of artefacts and concerns raised by John O’Dowd MLA, about progress on seeking to achieve a balanced display of artefacts in Parliament Buildings.
Mr Ramsey outlined that the Assembly Commission had previously considered a request for a permanent display of the Assembly Commission’s artefacts which were held in storage and had asked officials to explore whether there were artefacts available for loan from other places which would add balance to ensure that any display reflected the entire community. Mr Ramsey said that
initial contact had been made with the Houses of the Oireachtas but the material available was more documentary.

Mr Ramsey advised that while work had been paused to prioritise support for the return of the Assembly and during the COVID-19 pandemic, he intended to return to the project and that he would be contacting a wider range of organisations to identify items that might be available.

15. DECISIONS MADE VIA CORRESPONDENCE

Members noted that the request to light Parliament Buildings on 18 October 2020 to mark Anti-Slavery Day had been approved via correspondence.

16. AOB

Parliament Buildings Roof

The Speaker noted that there had been a number of written questions in recent weeks to the Assembly Commission in relation to the roof of Parliament Buildings. Mr Stewart provided a detailed update on the issues involved and the ways in which they were being taken forward.

Wi-Fi

Keith Buchanan MLA raised an issue with Wi-Fi reception in offices when participating in virtual meetings.

Dr McGrath stated that he was aware of the problem and that to resolve it, web cams, speakers and mics would be installed in all MLA offices in Parliament Buildings.

17. DATE OF NEXT MEETING

Members agreed that the next meeting would take place on 9 December 2020.

The meeting concluded at 3.57pm.

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