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Minutes of Proceedings

Session: Session currently unavailable

Date: 19 February 2020

Meeting Venue: Room 106, Parliament Buildings

Meeting date: Wednesday 19 February 2020

Meeting Time: 1.00pm

 

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 Brian Devlin, Head of IS Office (Item 12)
Mr Simon Burrowes, Head of Official Report and Public Engagement (Item 17)

 

The meeting commenced at 1.09pm.

 

1. APOLOGIES

There were no apologies.

 

2. DECLARATION OF INTERESTS

None.

 

3. CHAIRPERSON’S BUSINESS

3.1 The Speaker welcomed Members to the first formal Assembly Commission meeting since resumption of Assembly business on 11 January 2020.

3.2 Members agreed to schedule future meetings of the Assembly Commission on Wednesday afternoons and that these meetings should commence no earlier than 1.15pm to facilitate those Members attending morning Committee sessions.

3.3 The Speaker stated his desire to develop good working relationships amongst colleagues in the Assembly Commission, and reminded Members of the provisions in the Assembly Commission Handbook that business be conducted, as much as possible, on a consensus basis.

3.4 The Speaker advised Members, following the establishment of a new Assembly Commission, that he would be instructing officials to make contact with those MLAs not currently represented on the Assembly Commission to determine if, and to whom, they intended their voting rights to be allocated among Members.

 

4. MINUTES OF LAST MEETING – FOR INFORMATION

Minutes from the Assembly Commission meeting on 16 December 2019 were cleared by correspondence and included for information.

 

5. MATTERS ARISING

There were no matters arising.

 

6. ASSEMBLY COMMISSION ACTIONS

Members noted the status of actions.

 

7. CORRESPONDENCE

7.1 Members noted correspondence from the former Chair of the Assembly Commission, dated 23 December 2019, to the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in relation to Post-EU Exit Implications for the Independent Financial Review Panel’s 2016 Determination.

Lesley Hogg noted the paper issued to Members by correspondence on 30 January 2020 and included in the pack, and advised Members that while there was no current impact during the exit transition period, this issue would have to be resolved before the transition period expired on 31 December 2020.

7.2 Members noted correspondence from the Chair of the Audit Committee, dated 18 February 2020, to the Speaker as Chair of the Commission, requesting a timetable for the recruitment and appointment of the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman.

Mrs Hogg outlined the indicative timeline for the recruitment competition and the urgency for it.

The Assembly Commission agreed that an open recruitment competition should be publicly advertised, to allow sufficient time to undertake a recruitment process, so that a suitable nomination for the post could be agreed by Assembly resolution before summer recess.

It was noted that the proposed timetable for this process reflected that the appointment of the current Acting Ombudsman would last no longer than the first anniversary of the vacancy of Ombudsman i.e. 15 July 2020.

The Assembly Commission agreed the membership of the recruitment panel as follows:

  • Mr John O’Dowd MLA (Commission representative)
  • Mr Robbie Butler MLA (Commission representative)
  • Mrs Lesley Hogg (Clerk/Chief Executive)
  • Ombudsman (from another jurisdiction)

The Assembly Commission also agreed that Mrs Hogg would liaise with Mr O’Dowd and Mr Butler to identify an Ombudsman to participate in the recruitment panel.

Action: Mrs Hogg to liaise with Mr O’Dowd and Mr Butler to identify an Ombudsman to participate in the recruitment panel.

 

8.  CLERK/CHIEF EXECUTIVE UPDATE REPORT

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

Staffing Update

Mrs Hogg advised Members that the Staff in Post (SiP) figure as at 12 February 2020 was 311.1 Full Time Equivalents (FTE) against a complement of 353.4 FTE which left a figure of 42.3 FTE vacancies across the Secretariat.

Mrs Hogg stated that following resumption of Assembly business on 11 January 2020, staff had been re-prioritised to areas that directly supported the work of MLAs, either in Plenary or in Committees. Given the number of vacancies that remained across the secretariat, Mrs Hogg confirmed that the focus in the short term was to continue to use temporary staffing resources while at the same time commencing a programme of planned recruitment.

It was noted that around 15-20 agency workers were currently in post and that this number would rise over coming weeks given the time taken to recruit permanent staff.

Mrs Hogg highlighted that New Decade, New Approach set out a series of issues, including the creation of new Committees, that would have a direct impact on staffing levels and that the financial implications were reflected in the Budget 2020-21 paper.

Management Accounts

Mrs Hogg advised Members that the current outturn forecast for 2019/20 was £36.3m for Resource DEL and £262k for Capital.

It was noted that the Assembly Commission had included an estimate of the costs to allow for an anticipated resumption of Assembly business, in its bid under the Spring Supplementary Estimate (SSE) for 2019/20 and that this should be sufficient to avoid an Excess Vote for the Assembly Commission’s budget this year.

Rollout of Tablet Computers

Mrs Hogg advised Members that following her consultation with Assembly Commission Members, 160 Surface Pro 7 tablets had been procured for MLAs and Secretariat Staff. She stated that the roll out and training was well under way and should be completed by the end of February 2020.

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)

Mrs Hogg updated Members on the tendering exercise for a new telephony system, and advised that a preferred supplier had been identified and that the cost fell within the agreed budget figure. The Assembly Commission agreed it was content for a contract to be awarded once all procurement formalities had been completed.

Secretariat Audit and Risk Committee (SARC) Member

Mrs Hogg advised that it was a requirement for a Member to represent the Assembly Commission on the Secretariat Audit and Risk Committee. Following discussion, it was agreed to appoint Mr Keith Buchanan MLA.

It was noted that the role was generally rotated on an annual basis.

Publication Scheme/Disclosure Log

Mrs Hogg advised Members that the Assembly Publication Scheme had recently been updated and published on the website.

Mrs Hogg drew Members’ attention to the fact that the Secretariat Management Group had agreed that a Disclosure Log should operate in addition to the Scheme. She explained that the Disclosure Log would provide a brief summary of Freedom of Information (FoI) requests received and a link to the anonymised responses.

Tara Caul clarified that charges were generally not levied when responding to a request under FoI. She explained that a threshold was applied which may result in requestors being asked to refine their requests within the appropriate costs limits, or to the requests being rejected where the cost of supplying the information exceeds the appropriate limit.

Members acknowledged the cost of responding to FoI requests and Mr Blair MLA asked officials to identify this.

Action: Ms Caul to identify the cost of responding to FoI requests.

Calculation of Holiday Pay

Mrs Hogg summarised the issue of calculating holiday pay and whether overtime should be included and advised Members that a paper had been presented to the former Assembly Commission at its meeting on 24 June 2019. She provided an update on the current position regarding the Assembly Commission and advised that the UK Supreme Court would be considering the period for which arrears could be recovered and that this would inform negotiations with Trade Union Side.

Corporate Risk Register

Mrs Hogg provided Members with a copy of the December 2019 Corporate Risk Register. It was noted that the Corporate Risk Register was reviewed on a quarterly basis and that this version had been agreed by the Secretariat Management Group on 17 December 2019 and noted by the Secretariat Audit and Risk Committee on 5 February 2020.

Mrs Hogg advised that the next review would be substantial in nature to reflect the change in risks following the resumption of Assembly business. She explained that such risks would include, for example, the loss of institutional knowledge following the departure of experienced staff during the period when the Assembly was not conducting normal business and contingency planning for emerging issues, such as the coronavirus outbreak.

Mrs Hogg praised the extraordinary work of staff and contractors in facilitating a return to normal Assembly business at extremely short notice and with almost 50 vacancies. This was strongly endorsed by the SARC Chairperson and Members of the Assembly Commission. The Speaker also thanked senior management for planning so successfully.

 

9. DRAFT CORPORATE STRATEGY 2018-23 AND DRAFT CORPORATE PLAN 2019-23

Robin Ramsey presented a paper on the Draft Corporate Strategy 2018-23 and Draft Corporate Plan 2019-23.  Members were advised that the documents were intended to take a high level and strategic approach rather than incorporating a detailed breakdown of business as usual activities. It was noted that the draft Strategy was developed to take account of those areas which the Assembly Commission and Assembly Secretariat can directly control and influence.

During discussion, Members queried whether constituency office staff could participate in Secretariat training outlined in the Learning and Development section of the Strategy.

Mrs Hogg explained that much of the training was Secretariat specific but that this could be considered particularly in relation to some of the online training modules that the Assembly Commission availed of.

In addition, Members noted the difficulties and challenges faced, particularly by newly elected MLAs, in setting up a constituency office and ensuring that all appropriate policies were being implemented and followed. Members indicated that a policy and procedures manual would be very helpful for MLAs.

Gareth McGrath outlined the process whereby officials engage with MLAs and party whips prior to the start of each year, to identify the training needs of MLAs and constituency staff, and said that he would pass Members’ comments to the Clerking and Member Support Team which is responsible for co-ordinating MLAs’ development needs.

Action: Dr McGrath to inform Clerking and Member Support Team of the training needs identified by Members and constituency staff.

Action: Richard Stewart to consider whether those training modules that would be relevant to MLAs’ staff could be made available to them.

Action: Mr Stewart to consider the development of a policies and procedures manual for MLAs.

Members were content to approve the Draft Corporate Strategy 2018-23 and Draft Corporate Plan 2019-23.

 

10.  IMPLEMENTATION OF ‘NEW DECADE, NEW APPROACH’

Dr McGrath presented a paper on the ‘New Decade, New Approach (NDNA)’ document. He highlighted that the NDNA did not have an associated implementation plan but that there was an implicit assumption in the document that the Assembly and the Assembly Commission would progress a number of actions. Dr McGrath therefore informed Members that the purpose of his paper was to assist in identifying the proposals which fell to the Assembly Commission (and Assembly) to deliver and how the implementation of these would be monitored.

Dr McGrath highlighted the requirement for up to three additional Assembly Committees to be established under NDNA and the associated staffing implications.

Dr McGrath stated that NDNA included a commitment for the ‘relevant Assembly Authorities’ to review funding to be made available to parties who form an Opposition and to review the ‘Statement of Entitlement’ contained in the ‘Fresh Start’ Agreement. It was agreed by Members that Dr McGrath would liaise with the Assembly and Executive Review Committee (AERC) to consider a joint approach and joint Terms of Reference between the Assembly Commission and AERC to facilitate implementation of this proposal.

Action: Dr McGrath to liaise with the AERC to consider a joint approach and joint Terms of Reference between the Assembly Commission and AERC to facilitate implementation of this proposal.

 

11. SUPPORT FOR PRIVATE MEMBERS’ BILLS

Dr McGrath advised Members of the impact on the Bill Office workload following resumption of normal Assembly business on 11 January 2020 and that fact that it was almost at the start of the fourth year of the mandate. He outlined the anticipated increased demand arising from the usual end of mandate pressures in relation to the volume of Executive legislation, as well as the likely additional demand for support in developing non-Executive Bills (Private Members’ Bills and committee bills).

While it was noted that the procedural aspects were for the Speaker to determine, Members were asked to note and agree the increase to the Bill Office staff complement that would be required to deal with these pressures. Members agreed that the outlined resource requirements and costs should be incorporated into the Assembly Commission’s budget for 2020/21.

Dr McGrath asked Members to encourage their party colleagues to introduce any proposed Private Members’ Bills at the earliest opportunity, given the number of steps and length of time taken to develop these.

Brian Devlin joined the meeting at 2.13pm for agenda item 12.

 

12. BUSINESS CASE – VIRTUALISATION SOLUTION (HYPER-V) UPGRADE

Brian Devlin presented the business case for the replacement of the IT infrastructure that hosts the Assembly Commission’s virtualised IT services.

It was noted that the current infrastructure needed to be replaced due to ageing hardware and lack of support for the current storage system.

Mr Devlin outlined a number of options on how to proceed and following consideration, Members were content to agree with the recommendation that Option 3 be approved, namely to replace the virtualisation solution by upgrading the existing software and hardware to the latest supported versions.

Brian Devlin left the meeting at 2.24pm.

 

13. DRAFT BUDGET FOR 2020/21

Mr Stewart presented the draft Budget for 2020/21 for approval by the Assembly Commission, prior to submission to the Audit Committee at its meeting on 4 March 2020.

Members noted the projected income that the Assembly Commission was expected to receive in 2020/21, along with the forecast expenditure.

Following detailed consideration, Members approved the draft budget for 2020/21 and agreed that this should be submitted to the Audit Committee, subject to the inclusion of comments to reflect the special circumstances facing the Northern Ireland Assembly in comparison to other devolved legislatures.

Mr Stewart highlighted that the Memorandum of Understanding between the Assembly Commission and the Department of Finance in relation to the Assembly Commission’s budget process referred to interaction with the Audit Committee being via an agreed mechanism such as Standing Orders and proposed the Assembly Commission should consider writing to the Committee on Procedures. This was agreed and it was also agreed that the Speaker would write to the Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures.

Action: Mr Stewart to update the paper as discussed and re-circulate to Members.

Action: Speaker to write to the Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures, in relation to reviewing Standing Orders, to make provision for the agreed methodology for setting the Commission’s budget.

 

14. INDEPENDENT FINANCIAL REVIEW PANEL REFORM CONSULTATION UPDATE

Ms Caul provided a verbal update on the Independent Financial Review Panel (IFRP) Reform consultation.

It was noted that two responses had been received and Ms Caul proposed a single item working meeting to consider the key issues in detail in order to move the process forward. Ms Caul advised Members that it was within the remit of the Assembly Commission to establish a new Panel, under the previous arrangements, prior to any legislative reform. Ms Caul outlined to Members, that should they wish to reform the workings of the Panel, there were a range of major, moderate and minor reforms which could be taken forward by the Assembly Commission.

The Speaker endorsed the proposal for a single item working meeting to consider and obtain consensus on key issues.

Members were content with the approach as proposed but requested that a paper outlining a range of options be prepared to aid discussion at the meeting.

Action: Corporate Support Unit to liaise with Members and officials to agree a meeting date at the earliest convenience.

Action: Ms Caul to prepare a paper outlining a range of options for potential reform of the system for Determination and payment of MLAs’ Salaries, expenses/allowances and pensions for discussion at the working meeting.

Dolores Kelly MLA requested a comparison of the terms and conditions offered to the staff of Members of the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales against those provided to the staff of Members in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Action: Ms Caul to provide a comparison of the terms and conditions offered to the staff of Members of the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales, with those provided to the staff of Members in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

John Blair left the meeting at 3.17pm.

15. APPOINTMENT OF A NORTHERN IRELAND ASSEMBLY COMMISSIONER FOR STANDARDS

Mr Stewart presented a paper seeking agreement on the way forward, regarding the appointment of a Northern Ireland Assembly Commissioner for Standards.

Mr Stewart outlined two options for consideration by Members, with a recommendation to proceed with the option to appoint from the merit list created in the 2017 recruitment competition. He also confirmed that consultation had taken place with the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, in relation to extending the term of the existing merit list to allow appointment.

Following deliberations, Members agreed that while the merit list was created in June 2017, there were pragmatic reasons for proceeding to appoint from the existing merit list. These included that:

  • The post of Assembly Commissioner for Standards had been vacant since September 2017;
  • The merit list was created through fair and open competition, and in accordance with the principles set out in the Code of Practice of the Commissioner for Public Appointments;
  • The cost and time taken to run the 2017 competition and that any new competition would incur further public expenditure;
  • That those who participated in the recruitment competition had a legitimate expectation that an appointment would be made;
  • Commencing a further competition would lead to a further period of vacancy in the post; and
  • The remit of the role has not changed.

It was noted that Mrs Hogg had consulted with the Commissioner for Public Appointments regarding the options.

Action: Speaker to write to the Chairperson of the Committee on Standards and Privileges to advise of the Assembly Commission’s decision to proceed with the appointment of a Northern Ireland Assembly Commissioner for Standards from the existing merit list.

 

16. ASSEMBLY MEMBERS’ SUPPORT STAFF PENSION SCHEME – REPLACEMENT OF THE MERCER (ELECT) PENSION SCHEME

Mr Stewart presented a paper informing Members that the contract for the provision of a central pension scheme for MLAs’ support staff would end in May 2020 and that new pension arrangements needed to be in place by that date.

He also highlighted that retaining the current provision was not an option as the pension scheme was no longer available.

In light of this, Mr Stewart outlined three options that had been identified for the provision of new pension arrangements and sought approval to proceed with the recommend option, namely NEST (the Government’s pension solution for auto enrolment).

Following consideration, Members approved the use of NEST as the central pension scheme for use by MLAs’ staff from May 2020.

Simon Burrowes, joined the meeting at 3.53pm for agenda item 17.

 

17. PARLIAMENT BUILDINGS: SPECIAL LIGHTING POLICY

Simon Burrowes presented an updated paper on the Special Lighting Policy for Parliament Buildings. He explained that the Policy had previously been agreed by the former Assembly Commission, at its meeting in December 2019, subject to an amendment to the process for considering and approving or declining requests for special lighting.

Mr Burrowes stated that, given the timing and appointment of the new Assembly Commission, the amended policy was being presented to the new Assembly Commission to ensure that it was content.

Consideration was also given to agreeing a package of further dates, to reflect significant anniversaries, on which Parliament Buildings would be colour washed. It was agreed that officials would compile a proposed list of additional dates for consideration by Members.

Action: Corporate Support Unit to compile a list of proposed additional dates on which to colour wash Parliament Buildings, for Members to consider.

Following consideration, Members were content to approve the Special Lighting Policy as amended.

Mr Burrowes subsequently informed Members of a lighting request that had been received in relation to lighting the building on 6 March 2020, to mark European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Terrorism, and stated that it needed to be considered in accordance with the amended Special Lighting Policy.

It was agreed that the request would be emailed to Members together with the advice of officials on whether it meets the policy, for their consideration and response within 48 hours.

Action: Corporate Support Unit to issue a copy of the lighting request received, to Members for consideration, together with the advice of officials on whether it meets the policy.

Simon Burrowes left the meeting at 4.12pm.

 

18. DELIVERY OF COMMISSION APPROACH TO DECADE OF CENTENARY EVENTS: 2020 EVENT

Mr Ramsey presented a paper outlining the Assembly Commission’s agreed approach to marking centenaries in Parliament Buildings, together with details on the agreed package of centenaries for the mandate.

In line with the agreed approach outlined, Mr Ramsey sought agreement for a proposal to mark the centenary of the Government of Ireland Act in Parliament Buildings in December 2020 in line with the format of previous events.

Members approved the proposal.

 

19. SUPPORT FOR MEMBERS WITH YOUNG CHILDREN/FAMILIES

Mr Stewart presented this paper, updating Members on the support that is currently available for MLAs with young children/families.

Robbie Butler left the meeting at 4.16pm.

Members were also referred to a recommendation made by the Assembly and Executive Review Committee (AERC) in its Report on Women in Politics and the Northern Ireland Assembly, in relation to carrying out a gender survey. Mr Stewart confirmed that the Women’s Caucus had agreed at its October 2019 meeting, to undertake a gender survey across all MLAs.

Mr O’Dowd MLA noted that the issue of sitting times was a matter for the Business Committee rather than the Assembly Commission and that any new Independent Financial Review Panel would have to consider the issue of childcare for MLAs. He proposed therefore that the Assembly Commission note the paper and return to the issues at a later point.

Mrs Kelly MLA requested details of the childcare support provided by other legislatures.

Action: Mr Stewart to prepare a further paper detailing childcare support provided by other legislatures.

 

20. PAPERS ISSUED VIA CORRESPONDENCE

Business Case for the tablet Computer Replacement Project (Approved)

Acting Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman Nomination (Approved)

Post-EU Exit Implications for the Independent Financial Review Panel’s 2016 Determination (Noted)

 

21. AOB

Keith Buchanan MLA noted the status update to the action from the June 2019 Assembly Commission meeting, on the issue of lone working in constituency offices and the security measures that could be put in place, and sought assurances on how this matter was going to be dealt with.

Mrs Hogg confirmed that the PSNI would be liaising with the Assembly’s Member Development Team.

Mrs Kelly MLA requested that further consideration be given to the protection of MLAs’ staff in constituency offices.

Action: Mr Stewart to consider any additional assistance that the Assembly Commission could provide to MLAs’ staff in respect of their personal safety when working in constituency offices.

 

22. DATE OF NEXT MEETING

The Speaker proposed holding the next regular meeting before Easter. Officials to contact Members to agree a suitable date.

 

The meeting concluded at 4.30pm.

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