Minutes of Proceedings
Session: Session currently unavailable
Date: 12 May 2021
Meeting Venue: Meeting via Microsoft Teams
Meeting date: Wednesday 12 May 2021
Meeting Time: 2.00 pm
Assembly Commission Members:
Mr Keith Buchanan MLA
Mr John O’Dowd MLA
Mrs Dolores Kelly MLA
Mr Robbie Butler MLA
Mr John Blair MLA
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 Jim Brooks, Secretariat Audit and Risk Committee (SARC) Chairperson
Mr Jonathan McMillen, Head of Legal Services (Item 10)
Mr Simon Burrowes, Head of Official Report and Public Engagement (Item 14)
The meeting commenced at 2.05 pm.
There were no apologies.
The Speaker welcomed Jim Brooks to the meeting.
2. DECLARATIONS OF INTEREST
3. CHAIRPERSON’S BUSINESS
Independent Review into the Entitlements of an Opposition
The Speaker advised that, in his capacity as both Speaker and Chair of the Assembly Commission, he had met Trevor Reaney who is conducting the independent review into the entitlements of an opposition for the Assembly and Executive Review Committee (AERC), following the motion brought to the Assembly by the Assembly Commission in October 2020.
It was noted that Mr Reaney had offered as a courtesy to meet with the Assembly Commission before he completed his review. However, following consultation, there was broad agreement that Members would engage with the review in their party capacity and that the Assembly Commission would corporately consider any issues that it had to deal with once Mr Reaney’s report had been considered by the AERC and the Assembly.
Meeting with the Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures
The Speaker advised that he had met with the Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures on 21 April 2021, again in his capacity as both Speaker and Chair of the Assembly Commission, on the issue of the Committee’s consideration of the commitments within ‘New Decade, New Approach’ in relation to providing for simultaneous translation in Assembly business.
The Speaker stated that he had advised that the Assembly Commission needed authority and direction from the Assembly in relation to the details of the provision that would be required, in order to implement it.
The Speaker advised that the Committee on Procedures had received a briefing from Assembly Commission officials and that it was anticipated that the Committee on Procedures would forward a motion to the Assembly to give the Assembly Commission the necessary authority.
The meeting went into closed session from 2.09 pm until 2.14 pm.
Death of HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh
The Speaker recorded his thanks to Assembly Commission Members, parties
and Assembly Commission staff for their cooperation in making the arrangements for the Assembly to pay its condolences to the Duke of Edinburgh.
4. NOTE AND MINUTES OF PREVIOUS MEETINGS
A note of the informal meeting on 18 March 2021 with the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO), in relation to the Complaints Standard Authority role for NIPSO, was approved.
Minutes from the Assembly Commission meetings on 17 February 2021 and 18 March 2021 were approved for publication.
5. MATTERS ARISING
There were no matters arising.
6. ASSEMBLY COMMISSION ACTIONS
Members noted the status of actions.
Members noted the following items of correspondence, two of which, the Speaker advised required agreement on how to proceed:
A letter dated 25 March 2021 from Gordon Lyons MLA and Pam Cameron MLA, regarding the engagement of the Assembly and individual MLAs with the deaf community and the Speaker’s response dated 7 May 2021, which outlined the work that was currently being carried out by officials in this regard.
The Speaker acknowledged that this was an important area of work and noted that a paper outlining proposals to address the issues raised would be brought forward for Members to consider at a future Assembly Commission meeting.
Members were content with the approach outlined.
Action: Gareth McGrath to prepare a paper outlining proposals to enable engagement of the deaf community with Assembly business, for consideration at a future Assembly Commission meeting.
Letters dated 26 March 2021 from the Speaker to Ms Margaret Kelly, NIPSO, the Chairperson of the Audit Committee and the Chairperson of the Committee for the Executive Office, regarding the commencement of Part 3 of the Public Services Ombudsman Act (Northern Ireland) 2016.
A letter from the Speaker dated 1 April 2021 to the Chairperson of the Audit Committee regarding a further breakdown of the non-ring fenced resource DEL for the Assembly Commission.
A letter dated 15 April 2021 from the Chairperson of the Committee for the Executive Office, regarding commencement of Part 3 of the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman Act (Northern Ireland) 2016. The Speaker advised that the Commencement Order had been published for the Complaints Standard Authority role for NIPSO to come into effect on 24 May 2021.
A letter dated 7 May 2021 from the Chairperson of the Assembly Women’s Caucus, highlighting the Caucus’ aspiration to establish a permanent piece of artwork within Parliament Buildings that would display images of current, and future, women MLAs. The Speaker suggested that this could be incorporated within both the centenary exhibition and the artefacts project, previously agreed by the Assembly Commission, Members were content with the approach outlined.
Action: Speaker to reply to the Chairperson of the Assembly Women’s Caucus in line with the approach agreed by Members.
8. CLERK/CHIEF EXECUTIVE UPDATE
Lesley Hogg noted that her report provided Members with an update on the key issues, which had arisen since the last Assembly Commission meeting, and that in view of the heavy agenda she would only highlight a few key points.
Mrs Hogg advised Members that the provisional outturn for 2020/21 was
£42.438m for Resource DEL, and £0.929m for Capital and highlighted key underspends.
Restrictions on Public Access to Parliament Buildings
Mrs Hogg noted that at its meeting on 17 February 2021, the Assembly Commission had agreed that the current restrictions on access to Parliament Buildings would remain in place until the end of April 2021, with a further review to be carried out at that time.
Mrs Hogg stated that whilst there was an ongoing easing of Coronavirus restrictions, restrictions relating to public buildings, indoor events and meetings and social distancing remained unchanged, and she was therefore recommending that the current prohibition on visitors to, and events in, Parliament Buildings should continue until the end of June 2021, with a further review at that stage, unless relevant restrictions changed significantly in the interim.
Members were content with the recommendation outlined.
Recess Arrangements and Staffing
Mrs Hogg noted that every planned Assembly recess since Easter 2020 had either been reduced or significantly interrupted by multiple Assembly recalls or meetings of the Ad Hoc Committee on the COVID-19 Response and she highlighted the impact this had had on staff in relation to being able to avail of annual leave and staff welfare and morale.
Mrs Hogg stated that the Speaker would be confirming the summer recess arrangements with the Business Committee and that he was considering a number of related procedural matters which might assist with addressing these issues.
Commission Project to Review the Display of Artefacts in Parliament Buildings
Mrs Hogg noted that at its meeting on 17 February 2021, the Assembly Commission had approved a paper regarding a review of the display of artefacts within Parliament Buildings.
Mrs Hogg confirmed that a working group of officials would be taking this work forward and that Dr Eamon Phoenix had agreed to assist the project by providing expertise and guidance on a consultancy basis. It was noted that a meeting between the Assembly Commission and Dr Phoenix would be arranged.
Mrs Hogg also stated that at the February meeting, it was suggested that one of the principles proposed to guide the display of artefacts and items within Parliament Buildings be amended, to ensure gender representation was considered. Revised wording for Principle 6 of was therefore proposed and subsequently approved by Members, as follows:
‘In reflecting parliamentary history, items displayed should seek to reflect a range of perspectives and take account of all sections of the community including political opinion and gender’.
Mrs Hogg advised Members that the terms of the Chairperson and Independent Member of SARC would end on 30 November 2021 and that a recruitment competition would therefore need to commence in advance of that. Mrs Hogg stated that previously either one or two Assembly Commission Members had been part of the recruitment panel and she would therefore be seeking nominations. It was agreed that Mrs Hogg would contact Members individually in relation to this matter.
Action: Mrs Hogg to contact Members in relation to taking part in the SARC recruitment panel.
9. ASSEMBLY COMMISSION CORPORATE PLAN 2020-21 YEAR-END PERFORMANCE REPORT
This paper was deferred to the next meeting.
Jonathan McMillen joined the meeting at 2.33 pm for agenda item 10.
10. POTENTIAL RESCHEDULING OF THE ASSEMBLY MEMBERS (REMUNERATION BOARD) BILL
It was noted that this paper and the following paper on the consideration of the publication of a revised Determination were inter-connected and it was agreed that officials would present both papers and then consideration would be given by Members on both issues in an effort to reach an agreed position.
It was noted that this paper had been discussed at the Assembly Commission meeting on 17 February 2021, at which time Members provided initial views but agreed to give the matter further consideration and return to it at the meeting following the Easter Recess.
Tara Caul highlighted the main issues within the paper and stated that the preferred course of action from a legal and governance perspective was for the Assembly Commission to move the Second Stage of the Bill, and for the legal position to be regularised during this mandate.
The Speaker proposed that discussion on this matter would continue after presentation of the next item given the connection between the issues.
Jonathan McMillen left the meeting at 2.39 pm.
11. CONSIDERATION OF THE PUBLICATION OF A REVISED DETERMINATION
Richard Stewart presented a paper, asking Members to consider whether a further Determination in respect of MLAs’ allowances should be issued in the current Assembly Mandate.
It was noted that consideration should be informed by whether or not the Assembly Members (Remuneration Board) Bill progressed in this mandate.
Mr Stewart noted that the Assembly Commission had agreed to return to two issues identified during the consultation phase of the 2020 Determination which had not been addressed in the 2020 Determination, namely constituency office rental expenses and the travel costs that are payable to MLAs.
It was also noted that issues related to maternity, paternity and adoption provisions had previously been raised with the Speaker in a letter from Nichola Mallon MLA.
Mrs Hogg strongly recommended, in her capacity as Accounting Officer and Clerk/Chief Executive, that Members should only consider making a further Determination if they also decided to progress the Assembly Members (Remuneration Board) Bill.
Members discussed the need to address the current legislative gap and the absence of a panel, against the question of whether it was appropriate to have a focus on issues relating to MLA salaries in the context of the COVID-19 recovery. Officials confirmed that it was for the Assembly Commission to decide when to proceed with the process to appoint a new Remuneration Board, once the Bill had been enacted.
Members noted that there was a particular desire to address the issue related to maternity, paternity and adoption provisions in advance of the next election, as it might influence whether women in particular were willing to seek a nomination to stand.
Members agreed that it would be helpful for officials to provide further advice on the measures in relation to maternity, paternity and adoption which were within the remit of the Assembly Commission and the actions it could take.
It was agreed that Members would consider advice on this issue at its next meeting and then return to the potential re-scheduling of the Bill and a potential further determination.
Action: Mr Stewart to provide further advice on the measures in relation to maternity, paternity and adoption, at the next Assembly Commission meeting.
John Blair MLA left the meeting at 3.11 pm.
12. LEGAL EXPENSES INSURANCE COVER FOR MEMBERS
Mr Stewart noted that this paper had initially been discussed at the Assembly Commission meeting on 17 February 2021, when Members agreed to give the matter of procuring legal expenses coverage to assist MLAs with employment disputes, further consideration and return to it at the next meeting.
Mr Stewart then highlighted the main elements of the paper.
John Blair re-joined the meeting at 3.16 pm.
Members approved the procurement of a Legal Expenses Insurance policy on behalf of all MLAs.
13. PROVISION OF HUMAN RESOURCE SERVICES TO MEMBERS
Mr Stewart noted that this paper had initially been discussed at the Assembly Commission meeting on 17 February 2021, when Members agreed to give the proposal of providing additional Human Resource (HR) services to MLAs to support them in their role as an employer, further consideration and return to it at the next meeting.
Mr Stewart then highlighted the two aspects of the proposed HR service, namely, the development of policies and procedures and template forms for MLAs to use in their role as an employer; and the provision of advice and guidance to MLAs in relation to a range of HR matters.
Mr Stewart also advised that if Members wished to provide such a service to MLAs, it was proposed that a temporary HR Manager post would be created at AG6 on a pilot basis for a period of one to two years.
Members approved the proposed approach to providing the new HR service to Members to support them in their role as an employer, as outlined in the paper.
Simon Burrowes joined the meeting at 3.23 pm for agenda item 14.
14. REVIEW OF PARLIAMENT BUILDINGS: SPECIAL LIGHTING POLICY
Simon Burrowes advised that the Special Lighting Policy had been approved by the former Assembly Commission on 16 December 2019, with a request that a review be undertaken after 12 months.
Mr Burrowes noted that the Special Lighting Policy had been amended to reflect the former Assembly Commission’s decision and that the current Assembly Commission had subsequently confirmed the amended policy, including the decision-making process therein, at its meeting on 19 February 2020.
Mr Burrowes confirmed that officials had reviewed the application of the Special Lighting Policy following the resumption of normal Assembly business in January 2020 and noted that while some individual applications had been the subject of attention, the policy was broadly operating well.
Members views were subsequently sought on whether the current arrangement, whereby all requests for special lighting continued to be referred to the Assembly Commission, was to be retained or whether decision making should revert solely to officials, other than when the request was of a novel, contentious or politically sensitive nature.
Members agreed to retain the current arrangements for handling requests.
It was noted that the Assembly Commission may return at a later date to the discussion about extending the number of days on which it decided annually to light Parliament Buildings.
Simon Burrowes left the meeting at 3.32 pm.
15. UPDATE ON DESIGNATED DAYS FOR FLYING THE UNION FLAG AT PARLIAMENT BUILDINGS
Mr Stewart stated that the current arrangements, agreed by the Assembly Commission at its meeting on 17 June 2015, for flying the Union flag at Parliament Buildings, followed the designated days as defined by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and that the decision followed an extensive process including an Equality Impact Assessment.
Mr Stewart referred to recent comment on changes to guidance on the flying of the Union flag from government buildings, but confirmed that it remained the case that there was a list of designated days defined by DCMS; that the list of designated days had not changed; and that no changes were proposed to the Assembly Commission’s policy on the flying of the Union flag from Parliament Buildings.
Keith Buchanan MLA requested a copy of the minutes from the June 2015 Assembly Commission meeting.
Action: Assembly Commission Office to provide Mr Buchanan MLA with a copy of the Assembly Commission minutes for the meeting on 17 June 2015.
Members noted the position.
16. SERVICE LEVEL AGREEMENT (SLA) BETWEEN THE POLICE SERVICE OF NORTHERN IRELAND (PSNI) AND THE ASSEMBLY COMMISSION
Mr Stewart sought Members approval for a proposed new Service Level Agreement in respect of the continued provision of policing at Parliament Buildings for the period 1 April 2021 to 31 March 2024, as the level of expenditure exceeded the Clerk/Chief Executive’s delegated authority.
Members approved the proposed new Service Level Agreement for the period 1 April 2021 to 31 March 2024.
17. GOOD RELATIONS ACTION PLAN 2016-21: MARCH 2021 UPDATE
Members noted the Good Relations Action Plan update as presented.
18. GENDER ACTION PLAN: MARCH 2021 UPDATE
Members noted the Gender Action Plan update as presented.
19. NORTHERN IRELAND ASSEMBLY COMMISSION COMPLAINTS POLICY AND PROCEDURES REPORT FOR 2020-21
Members noted the Complaints Policy and Procedure Report as presented.
20. DECISIONS MADE VIA CORRESPONDENCE
Members noted the following decisions made via correspondence since the last meeting:
Extension of Assembly Commission Lighting Days – No consensus and issue may be re-visited at a later date.
Proposal for a Centenary Stone – Declined on the basis of no consensus.
European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Terrorism – Declined on the basis of no consensus.
World Down Syndrome Day – Declined on the basis of no consensus.
Marie Curie National Day of Reflection – Declined on the basis of no consensus.
Census Day – Approved.
World Fairtrade Day – Approved.
International Nurse’s Day – Approved.
Foster Carers Fortnight – Declined.
Lecture on Unionist and Loyalist Perspective: Carson and Craig, the 1920 Act and the Establishment of Northern Ireland, 1912-1930
The Speaker reminded Members of the lecture taking place that evening as part of the Assembly Commission’s programme of centenary events.
COVID-19 Workforce Testing
John Blair MLA referred to the Department of Health’s Asymptomatic Testing Programme, and asked that officials give consideration as to whether its use would be beneficial for Assembly Commission staff.
Action: Officials to give consideration to the Department of Health’s Asymptomatic Testing Programme in relation to Assembly Commission staff.
Dolores Kelly MLA noted that the range of menu choice in the canteen may have been impacted by the numbers currently in the building but asked if this could be reviewed.
Action: Mr Stewart to raise this with the contractor.
Assembly Chamber COVID-19 Restrictions
Mr Buchanan MLA asked when the restriction on the number of MLAs currently permitted in the Assembly Chamber would be reviewed.
Mrs Hogg confirmed that numbers would be reviewed and increased following any easing of current restrictions by the Executive.
22. DATE OF NEXT MEETING
The next meeting was scheduled for 30 June 2021.
The meeting ended at 3.53 pm.