The Northern Ireland Assembly was dissolved at 00:01 on Thursday 26 January, 2017. The elections will take place on Thursday 2 March, 2017.

Minutes of Proceedings

Session: Session currently unavailable

Date: 17 February 2016

Venue: Room 144

Commission Members:                  

The Speaker

Ms Paula Bradley MLA

Ms Caitríona Ruane MLA

Mrs Karen McKevitt MLA

Mr Sam Gardiner MBE JP MLA

Mrs Judith Cochrane MLA

Apologies:

None

Officials present:                 

Mr T Reaney, Ms T Caul, Dr G McGrath, Mr R Stewart, Mr J Gilsenan and Mrs J Hughes

Others in attendance:

Mr Colm McKenna, SARC Representative

Ms Susie Brown, Head of Communications and Outreach

The meeting commenced at 1.07pm.

1. APOLOGIES

None

2. DECLARATION OF INTERESTS

It was noted that Members had an interest in the item of business under discussion at the meeting.

3. CHAIRPERSON’S BUSINESS

The Speaker thanked Members for attending at short notice and informed Members that today’s single item meeting had been called to consider issues arising from media coverage in recent days regarding the MLAs’ expenses regime.

The Speaker acknowledged that the current and ongoing comment regarding MLAs’ expenses had been damaging to the whole Assembly. However, it was unfortunate that factual inaccuracies in the recent coverage had created a misleading perception of a culture of our MLAs failing to comply with the expenses system and standards in public life.    

The Speaker also stated that a lot of the commentary had confused a range of different issues, specifically, the role of the Assembly Commission and Secretariat corporately and the elected Members of the Commission. The Speaker made it clear that as elected MLAs there has been no involvement in reviewing, appealing or approving claims for any individual MLA by individual Commission members or by the Commission as a body.

The Speaker acknowledged that the Commission had a serious responsibility to deal with any concerns and as such members would be asked to consider actions around recent issues. However, the Speaker wanted to restate the steps the Commission had taken in recent years. It was the Assembly Commission which brought forward the proposal and legislation for an Independent Financial Review Panel.  The Commission had been reviewing what improvements might be brought about in the system going forward. That has included considering best practice from other institutions and considering the practical and cost implications of a range of options.

Importantly, the Commission itself had also approved the Clerk/ Chief Executive’s proposal to invite the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) to do the peer review of the current system which had been the subject of media reports. That fact along with the positive elements of the IPSA report had been lost in recent days. The report from IPSA was issued to the Commission with the papers for the 4 November 2015 meeting. On the basis of the recommendations in the IPSA report, officials have been working on amendments to the Members Handbook to be considered alongside changes required to implement the next determination of the Independent Financial Review Panel which had not come forward as quickly as anticipated. At the January Commission meeting, it was agreed to bring forward three legislative reforms to strengthen the effectiveness of the Independent Financial Review Panel. Those will be coming to the new Assembly Commission following the May election.

The Speaker noted the Independent Financial Review Panel of course had a right to raise concerns, but that it was unfortunate that these issues had featured in the media at the same time as the panel were raising issues with Assembly management through the formal liaison meetings. The Speaker noted that it was important for the meeting to agree some actions going forward on a solid and accurate basis to try to restore some confidence in the system. 

Mrs Ruane left the meeting at 1.10pm and returned at 1.11pm

4. EXPENSES REGIME UPDATE

Richard Stewart, Director of Corporate Services, spoke to his paper providing a commentary on the recent media coverage regarding Members’ expenses and an update on action already taken by the Commission. The paper covered the three areas of recent and ongoing comment: Issues relating to claims made in the 2012-13 financial year; the appeal mechanism for MLAs wishing to query decisions by officials on the appropriateness, or otherwise, of claims submitted; and governance issues more generally.

The Clerk / Chief Executive noted that differences remained between the Independent Financial Review Panel (IFRP) and the Secretariat on the interpretation of the March 2012 Determination. He advised Members that dialogue with IFRP had taken place in 2012 and he assumed that the Exceptional Determination issued by IFRP in December 2012 was informed by that dialogue.

Mrs Cochrane stated her belief that ambiguity around the contracting of services remained in the December 2012 Determination.

Mr Stewart noted that the December 2012 Determination made a distinction between research and admin type services (which must be delivered through a contract of employment) while the provision of incidental (typically specialist) services could be legitimately claimed for under a contract for services.

Ms Ruane left the meeting 1.34pm and returned at 1.35pm

On the subject of appeals mechanisms, Mr Stewart informed Members that the suggestion that a ‘secret’ appeals process existed for MLAs was erroneous. The appeals mechanism in place is in the current Members’ Handbook (Section 2.8), which IFRP have previously reviewed.

Mrs Bradley commended the professionalism of officials in the Finance Office, and added that she had experience of claims being queried and rejected by officials.

Work on a revised Members’ Handbook is currently underway. Whilst recommendations made following the IPSA peer review have been included, the revised version cannot be completed until the IFRP publishes its 2016 Determination.  Officials are awaiting confirmation of the expected date for publication.

Mr McKenna added that he had met with the IFRP in September 2015. He added that he was satisfied that the IFRP, SARC and the Commission had appropriate and discrete roles in the governance system in place at the Assembly.

Ms Ruane stressed the need for the Assembly to uphold the highest of standards going forward and for the Assembly to ensure that access to information published regarding its processes was readily accessible.

Mrs McKevitt reiterated the need for the Commission to ensure its processes were as transparent as possible and thanked officials for the advice and guidance she has received as an elected representative.

Agreed:

Invite the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) to review and update its Peer Review Report in the light of recent media comments;

Assembly officials to finalise amendments to the Members’ Handbook arising from the IPSA report. These will be introduced alongside any amendments arising from the Independent Financial Review Panel’s (IFRP) forthcoming determination.

Request that IPSA quality assure the new Financial Support for Members’ Handbook before it is approved by the Assembly Commission;

Reaffirm its position that no elected MLA (including Commission Members) should have any role in the claims review process; and

Confirm its January 2016 decision that Assembly officials should develop legislative proposals to strengthen the effectiveness of the IFRP for consideration by the Assembly Commission following the election.

Actions:

Assembly officials to continue developing amendments to the Members’ Handbook arising from the IPSA report and the Independent Financial Review Panel’s (IFRP) forthcoming 2016 determination.

Officials to request that IPSA quality assure the new Financial Support for Members’ Handbook before it is approved by the Assembly Commission.

Officials to indicate to OFMdFM decisions reached at today’s meeting.

The Assembly website to be updated to include a Frequently Asked Questions section to assist the public understanding of the roles and responsibilities of Assembly bodies and MLAs.

5. PRESS STATEMENT

Members agreed that the Speaker would issue a press release following the meeting.

6. DATE OF NEXT MEETING

The next meeting will take place on Thursday 3 March 2016 at 6pm in Room   106.         

The meeting ended at 2.50pm

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