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Minutes of Proceedings

Session: Session currently unavailable

Date: 12 May 2020

Meeting Venue: Meeting via Microsoft Teams  
Meeting date: Tuesday 12 May 2020
Meeting Time: 2.30pm

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
Mr Paul Stitt, Acting Private Secretary to the Speaker
Mrs Janet Hughes, Clerical Supervisor

Others in attendance:

Mr Jim Brooks, Secretariat Audit and Risk Committee (SARC) Chairperson
Mr Jonathan McMillen, Head of Legal Services (Item 10)
Mr Peter Hall, Assembly Clerk (Item 12)
Mr Simon Burrowes, Head of Official Report and Public Engagement (Item 12)

 

The meeting commenced at 2.38pm.

 

1. APOLOGIES

There were no apologies.

 

2. DECLARATION OF INTERESTS

None.

 

3. CHAIRPERSON’S BUSINESS

3.1 The Speaker advised that two Members from the smaller parties and independents had allocated their votes to an Assembly Commission Member.

 

4. MINUTES AND NOTES OF PREVIOUS MEETINGS

Minutes from the Assembly Commission meeting on 19 February 2020 were approved for publication.

Notes from informal meetings on 16 and 18 March 2020 were also approved.

 

5. MATTERS ARISING

None.

 

6. ASSEMBLY COMMISSION ACTIONS

Members noted the status of actions.

 

7. CORRESPONDENCE

7.1 Members noted correspondence from the Chair of the Committee on Procedures dated 31 March 2020 regarding remote access to committee meetings. Members also noted the response from the Speaker to the Chair dated 4 May 2020.

 

8. CLERK/CHIEF EXECUTIVE UPDATE REPORT

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

 

Staffing Update - May 2020

Mrs Hogg advised Members that the Staff in Post (SiP) figure as at 1 May 2020 was 325.6 Full Time Equivalents (FTE) against a complement of 375.3 FTE.

Mrs Hogg noted the negative impact of the current public health crisis on the process of filling the number of outstanding vacancies. Members were advised that consideration was being given to how recruitment competitions could be reinstated, in line with public health advice, to fill vacancies as per the agreed recruitment schedule.

Mrs Hogg confirmed the Assembly Commission was complying with COVID-19 guidance and Regulations in relation to home-working and that only a small number of staff were now present on site in order to undertake essential business.

Mrs Hogg advised that the HR Office closely monitored the impact of COVID-19 on staff. It was noted that there had been no confirmed cases of coronavirus amongst staff.

 

Management Accounts

Mrs Hogg advised Members that the provisional outturn for 2019/20 was £35.222m for Non Ring-Fenced Resource DEL, which was £1.100m below the Spring Supplementary Estimate (SSE) position and £646k lower than previous forecasts; and that the provisional outturn for Capital was £153k against an SSE position of £262k.

Mrs Hogg stated that a significant reason for the underspend was due to COVID-19 and the associated restrictions on activities, particularly with regard to staffing and administration costs. She also indicated that a significant underspend was related to costs associated with MLAs and MLAs’ support staff costs.

Mrs Hogg noted that the extension of the period for Members to submit claims for the 2019/20 financial year to 8 May was likely to reduce the underspend.

 

Annual Report and Accounts for 2019/20

Mrs Hogg advised Members that the Department of Finance had notified public sector entities that the administrative deadline for the production of the Annual Report and Accounts for 2019/20 had been relaxed by 2 months, with a revised deadline for submission of our Accounts to the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) of 3 August 2020.

 

Budget for 2020/21

Mrs Hogg updated Members that the Audit Committee had considered the Assembly Commission’s budget on 4 March 2020 and that the Assembly had given its approval to that budget in Plenary on 19 March 2020. It was noted that the budget figures were then subsequently incorporated into the budget for 2020/21 as presented by the Finance Minister to the Assembly.

 

Virtual Committee Meetings via Video Conferencing

Mrs Hogg advised Members that extensive efforts had been taken to explore a number of technical solutions for facilitating virtual committee meetings and that the ‘Starleaf’ system best met the needs of the Assembly. She explained that it was being rolled out to committees and that this was being overseen by the Chairpersons’ Liaison Group (CLG).

Members raised the issue of poor audio quality at previous hybrid virtual meetings and sought reassurance that use of the ‘Starleaf’ system would resolve these issues.

Mrs Hogg noted the issues raised and advised Members that a lot of testing would be carried out over the next few weeks to ensure delivery of a professional system.

 

RHI Inquiry Report Recommendation on Strengthening the Scrutiny Role of Assembly Committees

Mrs Hogg advised that CLG had considered the findings of the Report of the Independent Public Inquiry into the Non-domestic Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) Scheme and had noted the recommendations around strengthening the scrutiny role of Assembly Committees.

Mrs Hogg stated that as a result of CLG’s consideration, CLG had agreed Terms of Reference for a review of the effectiveness and resourcing of Assembly committee scrutiny. Members were asked to note that recommendations arising from CLG’s review could have financial implications for the Assembly Commission.

Mrs Hogg further noted that the Assembly Commission’s Corporate Plan for 2019/23 contained an action to undertake a peer review to develop proposals to strengthen the Assembly oversight role. She stated that close co-ordination and collaboration would take place between the Director of Parliamentary Services and the Clerk to the CLG to avoid duplication.

 

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)

Mrs Hogg updated Members on the tendering exercise for a new telephony system. Members noted that the contract had been awarded at the end of March but that commencement of the project had been paused as a result of COVID-19. Mrs Hogg confirmed that following a review at the end of April, the project had commenced given that the initial stages of the project could be carried out remotely.

Mrs Hogg noted that the situation would be kept under review and all COVID-19 Regulations and guidance would be adhered to.

 

Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO)

Mrs Hogg advised Members that following a pause in commencement of the NIPSO recruitment competition due to COVID-19, the recruitment panel had met on 4 May 2020 and agreed that the competition would launch on 14 May 2020, to facilitate the bringing of a motion to the Assembly nominating the successful candidate, before summer recess.

Mrs Hogg confirmed that the recruitment process would adhere to social distancing requirements.

 

Northern Ireland Assembly Commissioner for Standards

Mrs Hogg advised Members that progression of the appointment had been paused due to COVID-19 and that it was her intention to return to this matter shortly.

 

Litigation Update

Mrs Hogg advised Members that an annual update was provided to Members summarising any actual or potential litigation to which the Assembly Commission was a named party. She stated that the only matter was that related to ‘holiday pay’, as discussed at its last meeting. It was noted that resolution of this matter would be strongly determined by the pending ruling of the Supreme Court in regard to PSNI holiday pay.

Mrs Hogg also updated Members regarding the recovery of rent and rates expenses from a former MLA, in which the Assembly Commission was a potential claimant.

 

Secretariat Corporate Risk Register

Mrs Hogg advised Members that additional information had been added to Corporate Risk 2 “Major Incident / Breakdown (including security incident)” to reflect the measures put in place by the Assembly Commission in response to COVID-19.

Members raised concerns regarding the difficulties that would face MLAs in re- opening their constituency offices and the financial costs associated with providing a safe environment for their staff to work in. They highlighted that these would include the provision of Perspex screens and other health and safety measures. Members asked for this to be considered and added as a risk to the Secretariat Corporate Risk Register. Members also noted the ongoing issue of a lack of security measures in offices.

Richard Stewart confirmed that guidance was being prepared for all Members in relation to the management of risks relating to health and safety issues in constituency offices associated with COVID-19 and it was intended that this would issue in the coming weeks.

Mrs Hogg agreed to consider the appropriateness of recording COVID-19 health and safety risks associated with constituency offices on the Corporate Risk Register given that MLAs were responsible for their own constituency office and that they were the employers of their constituency staff.

Action: Mrs Hogg to consider the request from Members to record COVID-19 health and safety risks associated with constituency offices on the Corporate Risk Register.

 

Pre-action correspondence from the Equality Commission

Mrs Hogg informed Members that she had received pre-action correspondence from the Equality Commission relating to a complaint raised by an MLA and advised that she would issue a response in due course.

 

9. SALARY OF THE NORTHERN IRELAND PUBLIC SERVICES OMBUDSMAN

Mr Stewart updated Members on the key points of his paper and sought approval to amend the salary of the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO) by statutory rule.

Members were content to lay a statutory rule in the Assembly to alter the Ombudsman’s salary in line with the revalorisation of Assembly Commission staff salary scales as at 1 August 2019. Members also agreed that the statutory rule should include a provision for a yearly revalorisation of the Ombudsman’s salary in line with the revalorisation of the salary scales for Assembly Commission staff.

Action: Statutory Rule to be laid to reflect the Assembly Commission’s agreed position regarding the NIPSO salary.

Jonathan McMillen joined the meeting at 3.19pm for agenda item 10.

 

10. TRANSFER OF CERTAIN FUNCTIONS OF THE INDEPENDENT FINANCIAL REVIEW PANEL (IFRP)

Jonathan McMillen provided an overview of the main issues contained in his paper, which was prepared following the informal meeting of Members and party representatives on 18 March 2020. Mr McMillen sought the agreement of Members to provide further instructions in relation to this matter by completing the table included in his paper.

Members queried how quickly new arrangements could be put in place, the process of public consultation on a draft bill and how quickly the Assembly Commission could issue a new determination.

Mr McMillen clarified that it could take up to a year to undertake the necessary legal processes to enact any changes to the current IFRP legislation, depending upon the exact nature and extent of the changes sought by Members. Members indicated that they were not content with the indicated timeline and asked that the process be expedited as quickly as possible.

Mr McMillen clarified that the drafting of a new determination on allowances and expenses could be taken forward in parallel with the drafting of a bill so that it was ready to publish once the legislation had been enacted to amend the current IFRP legislation.

It was agreed that Members would complete the table accompanying the paper and return this to Legal Services by 19 May 2020 and that Mr McMillen would be available to attend one-to-one meetings with Members/party representatives (if requested) to discuss any further issues in the completion of the table returns.

Jonathan McMillen left the meeting at 3.46pm.

 

11. SUPPORT FOR MEMBERS WITH YOUNG CHILDREN / FAMILIES – LEGISLATIVE COMPARISON

Members noted the paper.

It was also agreed that support for MLAs would be considered by the Assembly Commission at a future meeting.

Peter Hall and Simon Burrowes joined the meeting at 3.47pm for agenda item 12.

 

12. PROPOSAL FOR AN ASSEMBLY COMMISSION-SUPPORTED YOUTH ASSEMBLY

Gareth McGrath provided an overview of this paper.

Members noted that the issue of establishing a Youth Assembly had been an important and longstanding matter which had previously proven problematic to deliver.

Members raised queries regarding whether the Assembly Commission had the necessary budgetary cover available to support the establishment of the Youth Assembly. Dr McGrath confirmed that the budget was in place for the current financial year.

Members also raised queries regarding the process of selecting the proposed 54 representatives from across the 18 parliamentary constituencies as well as the 36 representatives from key sectoral stakeholders.

Members further raised queries regarding how any vacancies would be managed to ensure that full representation was maintained in the Youth Assembly during the course of its mandate.

Following these discussions, Members agreed to proceed with the proposed Commission-supported Youth Assembly as outlined in the paper. Members noted the anticipated annual running costs and that two of the Assembly Education Officers had expressed an interest in taking up the role of Manager of the Youth Assembly on a job sharing basis.

Members also agreed that officials would work with the Speaker to plan an official public/media announcement to mark this development.

Peter Hall and Simon Burrowes left the meeting at 4.05pm.

Action: Officials to work with the Speaker to plan an official public/media announcement to mark the establishment of an Assembly Commission-supported Youth Assembly.

 

13. ASSEMBLY COMMISSION CORPORATE PLAN 2019/20 END-YEAR PERFORMANCE REPORT

Members noted that the impact of the current public health crises had delayed the preparation of the end year performance report.

Action: Assembly Commission Corporate Plan 2019/20 End-Year Performance Report to be circulated to Members by written procedure in the following few days.

 

14. GOOD RELATIONS ACTION PLAN 2016-21: MARCH 2020 ANNUAL UPDATE

Members noted the Good Relations Action Plan update as presented. John O’Dowd MLA asked for additional time to consider the paper.

Mr Stewart clarified that the Good Relations Action Plan was a subset of the Assembly Commission’s Equality Scheme.

Action: Good Relations Action Plan 2016-21 to be re-circulated to Members for further consideration.

 

15. GENDER ACTION PLAN UPDATE: MARCH 2020

Members noted the Gender Action Plan update as presented.

 

16. COMPLAINTS POLICY AND PROCEDURE REPORT FOR 2019-20

Members noted the Complaints Policy and Procedure Report as presented.

 

17. PAPERS ISSUED VIA CORRESPONDENCE

Members noted that the Final Budget submission to the Audit Committee had been issued to Members via correspondence following the last meeting.

 

18. DECISIONS MADE VIA CORRESPONDENCE

Members noted the following decisions made via correspondence since the last meeting:

Request to light Parliament Buildings to mark European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Terrorism. Declined.

Motion – Assembly Commission Budget for 2020/21. Approved.

Motion – Appointment of a new Pension Trustee. Approved.

Request to light Parliament Buildings to mark the Clap for Carers Campaign. Approved.

Request to light Parliament Buildings to mark International Workers Day. Approved.

Request to light Parliament Buildings to mark International Nurses Day. Approved.

 

19. AOB

None

 

20. DATE OF NEXT MEETING

The Speaker proposed holding the next meeting in June 2020. Officials to contact Members to agree a suitable date.

The meeting concluded at 4.10pm.

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