Minutes of Proceedings
Session: Session currently unavailable
Date: 14 June 2020
Meeting Venue: Meeting via Microsoft Teams
Meeting date: Monday 15 June 2020
Meeting Time: 4.00pm
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
Mr Paul Stitt, Private Secretary to the Speaker
Mrs Janet Hughes, Clerical Supervisor
Others in attendance:
Mr Jonathan McMillen, Head of Legal Services (Items 2 and 3)
The meeting commenced at 4.05pm.
There were no apologies.
Jonathan McMillen joined the meeting at 4.05pm for items 2 and 3.
2. TRANSFER OF CERTAIN FUNCTIONS OF THE INDEPENDENT FINANCIAL REVIEW PANEL – CONFIRMATION OF DRAFTING INSTRUCTIONS
Members restated their instructions that a body should be retained to independently determine the salaries that are paid to MLAs, and the pensions paid to former MLAs, and former office holders. Members agreed that determinations on allowances payable to MLAs to support their work in the
Assembly and their constituencies, including ensuring that terms and conditions of Members’ staff are in line with good practice, be made by the Assembly Commission.
Tara Caul presented a paper on the transfer of certain functions of the Independent Financial Review Panel (IFRP), identifying areas of consensus in relation to potential legislative reform, summarised from returns to the short summary questionnaire issued to Members on 15 May 2020.
The paper also identified specific areas where clear direction was required from the Members to allow for drafting of a bill to implement the agreed legislative reforms and confirmation of drafting instructions was sought.
Members agreed on the following provisions to be included in the draft legislation, amending the Assembly Members (Independent Financial Review and Standards) Act (NI) 2011 (“the 2011 Act”).
(a) that the name of the body determining MLAs’ salaries and pensions should be changed to ‘The Remuneration Board’;
(b) that the body should be required to consult with the Assembly Commission and the appropriate Assembly Committee before deciding that exceptional circumstances require a further determination;
(c) that provision should be made in the Bill for the body to publish and consult on draft determinations. Provision should be made in the Bill mandating the body to consult specifically with Members of the Assembly, the Assembly Commission and (in respect of a determination relating to pensions) the Trustees of the Northern Ireland Assembly Members’ Pension Fund on any determination it proposes to make. However, Members wished to review the list of potential consultees once the draft Bill is prepared;
(d) that the body should be required to make a determination not less than 12 months before an election;
(e) that the membership of the body would remain at 3 persons;
(f) that former Members of the Assembly should no longer be disqualified from being appointed as, or serving as, members of the body. It would not, however, be mandatory for such a person to be included on the body. Schedule 1 of the 2011 Act should be amended to reflect this; and
(g) that temporary appointments could be made to the body as required.
Members were content to defer consideration of handling and timescale matters until a copy of the draft Bill was available for discussion.
3. DETERMINATION OF ALLOWANCES PAYABLE TO MEMBERS INCLUDING COVID-19 FINANCIAL SUPPORT
Richard Stewart presented a paper on the legal process for the Assembly to confer a function on the Assembly Commission to determine the allowances payable to MLAs. Members noted that conferring this function required approval of a motion by the Assembly and that legal advice had clarified that a resolution for this motion was by simple majority.
It was also noted that amendments could be tabled. Members further noted that such a motion could be tabled in the Business Office for consideration by the Business Committee, as soon as practicable, and was not tied to the timescale for enacting legislation to reform the IFRP.
Members therefore agreed to table a motion at the earliest opportunity to seek the Assembly’s agreement to confer this function on the Assembly Commission under section 47 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
Action: Motion conferring a function on the Assembly Commission to determine the allowances payable to MLAs to be tabled in the Business Office as soon as practicable, to enable it to be scheduled for plenary debate before the summer recess.
Members also discussed whether the Motion should require Assembly approval for any determinations made by the Assembly Commission. It was noted that before the establishment of the IFRP the Assembly had approved determinations made by the Assembly Commission. Having considered this matter, it was agreed that the Assembly Commission should not seek Assembly approval for any determinations it made and that this would not be part of the Motion.
In particular, Members noted the pressing desire to seek to address concerns raised by MLAs seeking financial support to proceed with health and safety mitigation measures in their constituency offices to deal with the current public health crisis; and for an urgent review of the existing terms and conditions of constituency staff. It was recognised that the Assembly Commission could commence the development of a determination, pending approval of the Assembly motion.
Mr Stewart agreed to provide a guidance document to Members relating to financial support measures during the current public health crisis.
Action: Mr Stewart to issue guidance to Assembly Commission Members on financial support measures during the current public health crisis.
In response to a question from John Blair MLA, Mr Stewart advised Members that MLA party offices in Parliament Buildings were cleaned daily, in line with the practice for all other offices in the building. Furthermore, he stated that the situation was kept under regular review and that further cleaning arrangements would be put in place should building usage increase during the current public health crisis.
4. ANY OTHER BUSINESS
1. Appointment process for Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman
Lesley Hogg advised Members that following an interview process a preferred candidate had been identified. She advised that Members would be notified of the candidate, to be appointed through Assembly resolution of a motion, once pre-employment checks had been completed.
Members agreed that the Selection Panel could determine the terms and conditions of the appointment without needing to bring the matter to the Assembly Commission for approval.
2. Appointment process for Commissioner for Standards
Mrs Hogg updated Members on the position in relation to the appointment of a Commissioner for Standards.
3. Update on the Starleaf Video Conferencing system
Gareth McGrath updated Members that positive feedback had been received from Assembly Committees following implementation of the Starleaf. He advised that given this feedback, Starleaf would now be rolled out to allow up to three committees to use it simultaneously.
5. DATE OF NEXT MEETING
Members noted that officials would be in contact to schedule a meeting in late June/early July.
The meeting concluded at 5.42pm.