Minutes of Proceedings
Session: Session currently unavailable
Date: 17 February 2021
Meeting Venue: Meeting via Microsoft Teams
Meeting date: Wednesday 17 February 2021
Meeting Time: 2.45pm
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 Derek Martin, Independent Member of Secretariat Audit and Risk Committee (SARC)
The meeting commenced at 2.45pm.
Apologies were received from Jim Brooks, Chairperson of SARC.
2. DECLARATIONS OF INTEREST
3. CHAIRPERSON’S BUSINESS
The Speaker informed Members that Oral Questions to the Assembly Commission were scheduled for 23 March 2021 and that questions would be issued to Members following receipt from the Business Office on 11 March 2021.
The Speaker also advised that a Behaviour Code for Parliament Buildings, previously agreed by Members, would be launched in the next few days.
4. MINUTES OF PREVIOUS MEETINGS
Minutes from the Assembly Commission meetings on 9 December 2020 and 20 January 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:
A letter dated 9 December 2020 from the Speaker to Assembly Commission Members regarding the Assembly Members (Remuneration Board) Bill;
A letter dated 15 December 2020 from the Chairperson of the Audit Committee, referenced at the January 2021 Assembly Commission meeting, regarding an urgent update on roof issues in Parliament Buildings and the Speaker’s response dated 18 January 2021;
Speaker’s response dated 16 December 2020, to a letter of 23 November 2020 from the Chairperson of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee which was noted at the December 2020 meeting, regarding the independent review of the adequacy and effectiveness of the Statement of Entitlement for an Official Opposition;
Speaker’s initial response dated 16 December 2020, to a letter of 4 December 2020 from the Chairperson of the Chairpersons’ Liaison Group (CLG) which was noted at the December 2020 meeting, regarding additional meeting space and broadcasting capacity for committees. The Speaker confirmed that this matter was being progressed and that officials had prepared a paper on the issues raised for consideration by CLG at its next meeting. On the basis of CLG’s preferred option, it was noted that a paper would then be brought to the Assembly Commission for approval;
A letter dated 6 January 2021 from the Rt Hon Arlene Foster MLA, Dr Steve Aiken OBE MLA and Mr Jim Allister QC MLA, regarding the erection of a centenary stone within the curtilage of Parliament Buildings and the Speaker’s response dated 12 January 2021. Members noted that this issue would be considered under agenda item 12;
A letter dated 21 January 2021 from the Audit Committee regarding correspondence from the Minister of Finance on Enterprise Shared Services and the Speaker’s response dated 5 February 2021;
A letter dated 22 January 2021 from the Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures regarding Hybrid Proceedings;
A letter dated 26 January 2021 from the Chairperson of the Audit Committee regarding the Budget 2021-22 Independent Bodies Pay Pressures and the Speaker’s response dated 5 February 2021;
A letter dated 12 February 2021 from the Chairperson of the Audit Committee regarding the Assembly Commission Budget 2021-22;
A letter dated 29 January 2021 from the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance regarding video conferencing for committee meetings and the Speaker’s response dated 17 February 2021;
A letter dated 11 February 2021 from Ms Nicola Mallon MLA regarding statutory maternity protections for Ministers and MLAs and the Speaker’s response dated 16 February 2021;
A letter dated 11 February 2021 from the Chairperson of the Audit Committee regarding potential implications for the draft Budget 2021-2022 arising from roof issues in Parliament Buildings;
A letter dated 11 February 2021 from the Chairperson of the Audit Committee regarding Commencement of Part 3 of the Public Services Ombudsman Act (NI) 2016; and
A letter dated 15 February 2021 from the Chairperson of the Audit Committee regarding a further breakdown of the non ring-fenced resource DEL for the Assembly Commission.
The Speaker noted further to the discussion at the last meeting, the number of exchanges in correspondence with the Audit Committee.
In relation to the correspondence from Nichola Mallon, Dolores Kelly MLA noted that there may have been a misunderstanding of what Ms Mallon was seeking and asked that a paper on the issue of statutory maternity protections for MLAs be prepared for the next meeting. Members agreed, although the Speaker noted that this paper would also have to consider the role of the Independent Financial Review Panel or its successor body.
Action: Richard Stewart to prepare a paper on maternity protections for MLAs for the next Assembly Commission meeting.
8. CLERK/CHIEF EXECUTIVE UPDATE REPORT
Mrs 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.
Financial Assistance to Political Parties Scheme (FAPP)
Lesley Hogg noted that at the Assembly Commission meeting on 9 December 2020, Members agreed that officials should prepare a paper in relation to a review of the current FAPP Scheme.
In order to move forward with the review of the FAPP Scheme, Mrs Hogg proposed that Richard Stewart would in the first instance, liaise with each Member to ascertain their expectations of what a revised Scheme might include, and then if necessary arrange an informal meeting with all Members to discuss proposals, in advance of a revised Scheme being brought to the Assembly Commission for consideration. Members were content with this approach.
Action: Mr Stewart to liaise with Assembly Commission Members individually to discuss proposed revisions to the FAPP Scheme, and if necessary arrange an informal meeting with all Members to discuss proposals.
Assembly Commission Budget 2021-22
Mrs Hogg advised that the Assembly Commission’s budget for 2021-22 had been considered and agreed by the Audit Committee at its meeting on 14 December 2020.
It was noted that a motion in the name of the Assembly Commission was required to seek the Assembly’s approval for the Assembly Commission’s budget, prior to its inclusion in the final “Executive” budget that would be brought to the Assembly by the Finance Minister.
Mrs Hogg recommended that the motion be scheduled for week commencing 1 March 2021 and noted that she would be seeking Members to move and wind the debate in due course.
Additional Committee Broadcasting Capability
Mrs Hogg noted that at its meeting on 9 December 2020, the Assembly Commission considered a letter from the Chair of CLG, requesting that the Assembly Commission scope out the practicalities and costs of establishing an additional committee room, equipped with StarLeaf and video broadcasting capability, to enable the meeting to be broadcast simultaneously with committee meetings in Rooms 29, 30 and the Senate.
Mrs Hogg confirmed that officials had considered the request and that the completion of a feasibility study had concluded that a temporary solution could be installed in Room 21.
As noted under correspondence, she stated that an options paper would be presented to CLG at its next meeting and on the basis of CLG’s preferred option, a paper would be brought to the Assembly Commission for approval.
Restrictions on Public Access to Parliament Buildings
It was noted that at its meeting on 9 December 2020, the Assembly Commission had agreed that the current restrictions regarding access to Parliament Buildings were to remain in place until the end of February 2021, with a further review to be carried out at that time.
Mrs Hogg stated that given that the current Coronavirus restrictions extend to 5 March 2021 and that further restrictions were likely to remain in place beyond that, her recommendation was that the current prohibition on visitors to, and events in, Parliament Buildings should continue until the end of April 2021 and that a further review would be undertaken at that time.
Members were content with the recommendation outlined.
Secretariat Audit and Risk Committee (SARC) Member
Mrs Hogg advised Members that Keith Buchanan MLA had represented the Assembly Commission at SARC meetings for the last year and that as it had been agreed to rotate this role annually among Members, an alternative Member was now being sought.
John O’Dowd MLA agreed to take on the role for the next year.
Mrs Hogg confirmed that a Members’ Survey was currently being conducted and she asked that Members encourage their party colleagues to respond.
Annual Section 75 Progress Report
Mrs Hogg advised Members that the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland had responded very positively to the Assembly Commission’s recently submitted Annual Section 75 Progress Report.
9. POTENTIAL RESCHEDULING OF THE ASSEMBLY MEMBERS (REMUNERATION BOARD) BILL
The Speaker noted that at the meeting on 20 January 2021, Members had agreed to pause moving the Second Stage of the Assembly Members (Remuneration Board) Bill and asked that a paper be prepared for consideration on the legal implications of potentially rescheduling the passage of the Bill.
Tara Caul presented a paper addressing the legal implications of pausing the Bill.
Ms Caul advised Members of the Assembly Commission’s current policy position as outlined in the Explanatory Financial Memorandum (EFM) which accompanies the Bill. It was noted that there were three elements to this policy and that the intention was that these three elements would be progressed together. Ms Caul subsequently outlined the effects of pausing the Bill either on a short-term or longer-term basis.
In relation to pausing the Second Stage of the Bill on a short-term basis, to immediately after the Easter Recess, as discussed at the last Assembly Commission meeting, Ms Caul stated that it would still be possible for the Bill to receive Royal Assent and be passed before the end of the current mandate.
In relation to pausing the Bill on a longer-term basis to October 2021, Ms Caul advised that this was not recommended, as there was a risk that unforeseen factors could lead to the Bill not reaching Final Stage before the end of the current mandate. A longer pause until the next mandate was also not recommended as this could give rise to the legal implications outlined in the paper. It was noted that it would be preferable if the legal position was regularised during this mandate.
Mrs Hogg reiterated the need to regularise the legal position. She advised that it would be possible to progress the Bill during this mandate and appoint the new Board at the beginning of the next mandate.
Ms Caul advised Members that from a legal and governance perspective, the preferred course of action was to proceed to move Second Stage of the Bill immediately. She recognised, however, that Members were mindful of the need to prioritise business in light of the current Coronavirus restrictions and that Members may want to consider a short-term pause and seek to introduce the Bill after the Easter Recess in accordance with the revised timeline provided.
Members instructions were sought on whether a short-term or long-term pause in the progress of the Bill was required and if, in the event that the Bill did not proceed, a new Panel was to be appointed on the basis of the provisions of the 2011 Act as currently enacted or not.
Members provided initial views but agreed to give the matter more consideration and return to it at the meeting following the Easter Recess.
10. PROPOSALS FOR NEXT STEPS ON WORK IN RELATION TO THE DISPLAYING OF ASSEMBLY COMMISSION ARTEFACTS
The Speaker referred to the December 2020 Assembly Commission meeting, when it was noted that he had written to Dr Eamon Phoenix in relation to identifying artefacts which could be added to those owned by the Assembly Commission, to reflect a balance of the entire Assembly. He confirmed that officials had subsequently had an initial discussion with Dr Phoenix and that Robin Ramsey had produced some proposals for consideration. The Speaker thanked everyone for their participation thus far and asked that Mr Ramsey present his paper.
Mr Ramsey noted that the issue of achieving balance in the artefacts on display in Parliament Buildings was a long running issue and that progress had never been made on this matter.
For that reason, Mr Ramsey proposed adopting a more strategic approach, by seeking to develop a narrative of the key historical events and figures which might be of educational interest to visitors to the building and that Assembly Commission or other artefacts could be used to help illustrate that history.
Mr Ramsey proposed a set of principles to guide this work and stated the importance of having historical expertise to develop a factually accurate narrative. He therefore proposed seeking assistance from Dr Phoenix.
Mr Ramsey noted that practical measures around how and where items were displayed within Parliament Buildings would also have to be considered. He then outlined the stages to take this work forward.
Following discussion, Members were content to move forward on the basis of the proposals within the paper.
11. UPDATE ON CONSIDERATION OF EXTENDING THE ASSEMBLY COMMISSION’S ANNUAL DATES FOR LIGHTING OF PARLIAMENT BUILDINGS
It was noted that the issue of extending the Assembly Commission’s annual dates for lighting of Parliament Buildings had been discussed a number of times since July 2020 and the Speaker thanked Members and officials for the time they had devoted to it.
Mr Ramsey presented a revised draft list of extended Commission lighting days following the most recent informal discussion with Members. Members provided their views on the draft list.
In the absence of agreement, the Speaker said that he would contact Members individually to see if a resolution could be reached.
Action: Speaker to contact Assembly Commission Members to discuss potential additional Commission lighting days.
Mr Ramsey also advised that the Head of Public Engagement would be bringing a report on the implementation of the lighting policy to the next meeting as agreed previously by the Assembly Commission.
12. OVERVIEW OF ACTIVITIES AND EVENTS AT PARLIAMENT BUILDINGS IN 2021
Mr Ramsey referred to the December 2020 Assembly Commission meeting when Members discussed initial proposals for marking the centenary events in 2021 and agreed to have a further informal discussion to help progress this matter.
It was noted that an informal discussion had taken place on 10 February 2021, when the proposals tabled at the December 2020 Assembly Commission meeting were further discussed along with a proposal that had been received from the leaders of the three unionist parties in the Assembly for the erection of a “centenary stone”.
Mr Ramsey presented a further paper which took account of the recent discussion with Members.
Following discussion, Members agreed to implement the list of proposed activities and events set out in the paper.
In relation to the request for the erection of a “centenary stone”, it was noted that consensus had not been reached and the Speaker asked Members to give the request some further consideration with a view to reaching a final decision within the next few of weeks. The Speaker said that he would contact Members regarding this issue.
13. GRADING AND PAY BENCHMARKING REVIEW
Richard Stewart advised that a Pay and Grading Project had previously taken place in 2010 and that on conclusion of that project, the Assembly Commission at that time, had agreed to a further review of pay and grading in the future.
He said that in response to elements of various pay claims and following the receipt of a Salary Benchmarking Review Report in 2018, the Assembly Commission determined at its meeting on 11 October 2018 that a comprehensive Grading and Pay Benchmarking Review should be carried out.
Mr Stewart therefore sought agreement from Members to proceed with the Grading and Pay Benchmarking Review along with the procurement of an external provider with the requisite knowledge and experience to carry out a number of key activities of the review. Mr Stewart also advised that any proposals to alter salary scales would be brought back to the Assembly Commission for its consideration.
Members were content to proceed with the Grading and Pay Benchmarking Review and the appointment of an external provider as outlined in the paper.
Mr Stewart outlined the anticipated budget required to procure the services of an external provider, noted that this was in excess of the Clerk/Chief
Executive’s delegated authority for consultancy expenditure, and therefore sought budget approval from the Speaker. The Speaker approved the budget outlined in the paper.
14. LEGAL EXPENSES INSURANCE COVER FOR MEMBERS
Mr Stewart informed Members that in late 2016, officials had undertaken a significant amount work in relation to the possibility of procuring an additional insurance policy to assist MLAs in defending claims relating to employment practices, but that it was not progressed while the Assembly was not conducting normal business. Mr Stewart presented a sample Policy, which provided MLAs with cover for legal costs and offered support in the event of employment disputes.
Mrs Kelly MLA noted that steps should be taken to ensure that any policy procured was not used to mitigate poor employment practices by MLAs and asked if training could be delivered to all MLAs as a pre-condition for availing of any insurance cover.
Following discussion, Members agreed to give the matter further consideration and to return to it again at the next Assembly Commission meeting.
15. PROVISION OF HUMAN RESOURCE SERVICES TO MEMBERS
Mr Stewart explained that at its meeting on May 2018, the former Assembly Commission had agreed that officials should explore the possibility of providing additional Human Resource (HR) services to MLAs, to support them in their role as an employer.
Mr Stewart advised Members that the Assembly’s HR Office provided some formal support to MLAs in relation to recruitment and selection and redundancy, but noted that wider HR advice and guidance was not provided on a formal basis.
Mr Stewart provided details of the HR services provided by the other UK legislatures and the Oireachtas and suggested a number of guiding principles in relation to any proposed HR service to MLAs. He then outlined the two aspects to 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.
With regards resourcing the proposed HR service, Mr Stewart noted that it was difficult to determine the level of use that might be made of the service by MLAs, particularly in light of the possible introduction of a Legal Expenses Insurance Policy, but proposed that a post at Assembly Grade 6 be created on a temporary basis for a period of one to two years.
Members sought more time to give the proposal some further consideration and agreed to return to it again at the next Assembly Commission meeting.
16. PROPOSAL TO INCREASE THE APPROVED LIMIT FOR THE CURRENT TEMPORARY WORKERS CONTRACT BUSINESS CASE
Mr Stewart sought Members’ approval to increase the approved limit for the current Temporary Workers Contract business case.
Mr Stewart advised Members that in September 2016, the Assembly Commission approved a business case for the current Temporary Worker Contract with an anticipated contract value.
It was noted, however, that since resumption of normal Assembly business in January 2020 and pending the recruitment to fill a large number of vacancies that had arisen during the period when the Assembly was not carrying out its normal business, it had been necessary to utilise a much higher number of temporary workers than was envisaged in the business case, thus leading to an increase in the anticipated value of the contract.
Mr Stewart stated that although the value of the contract had increased, it was an internal governance issue, as budget cover for the costs of temporary workers was already available within the agreed staffing budget.
Following discussion, Members approved the increase to the approved limit for the current Temporary Workers Contract business case as outlined in the paper.
17. DECISIONS MADE VIA CORRESPONDENCE
Members noted the following decisions that had been made via correspondence:
- Request to light Parliament Buildings to mark Donor’s Day. Declined
- Request to light Parliament Buildings to mark World Encephalitis Day. Declined
There was no other business.
19. DATE OF NEXT MEETING
The next meeting was proposed for late March/early April and officials will liaise with Members to agree a suitable date.
The meeting concluded at 5.10pm.