Minutes of Proceedings
Session: Session currently unavailable
Date: 28 May 2020
Meeting Venue: Meeting via Microsoft Teams
Meeting date: Thursday 28 May 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, Acting Private Secretary to the Speaker
Mrs Janet Hughes, Clerical Supervisor
The meeting commenced at 4.21 pm.
There were no apologies.
2. POSSIBLE REVISION OF ASSEMBLY RECESS DATES
Gareth McGrath presented a paper on the issues for consideration by the Assembly Commission, particularly in relation to staff, prior to the Business Committee undertaking a formal review of the previously agreed dates for summer recess of the Assembly.
Dr McGrath outlined the following three areas for consideration:
(i) Staffing considerations – Assembly Commission staff in areas which support plenary and committee business are restricted to using their leave when the Assembly is in recess. Members were updated that many staff have also built up significant hours as a result of the work required to support the resumption of normal Assembly business in January and that there were limited opportunities for leave during the Easter period. Dr McGrath highlighted that given that the level of business would continue to increase until the end of the mandate, there would be no alternative windows to facilitate staff leave. Members noted that there would also be childcare implications if there was no recess during the school holidays.
(ii) MLA related considerations – Members noted that most issues related to the duty of care to Assembly Commission staff, including childcare needs, also applied to MLAs, MLAs’ staff and party staff who would be equally affected if Assembly business continued throughout July and August.
Dr McGrath stated that it was normal that during recess periods, work was scheduled which could only be undertaken in the absence of the usual routine of Assembly business when there were less people in Parliament Buildings.
Following discussion, while Members understood the need of the Business Committee to review the previously agreed recess dates, they agreed that the preferred outcome would be:
- For the Assembly to be in recess throughout August.
- That any change to the recess dates in July should only be considered if there was essential business to be done (the Assembly Commission noted that the Speaker, in his capacity as Chairperson of the Business Committee, had written to the Executive on this matter to inform the Business Committee’s deliberations).
- That the existing provisions which allow Assembly business to be done urgently during a recess could be used, if required.
Members also agreed to forward their views to the Chairpersons’ Liaison Group, recognising that Assembly committees determine the conduct of their own business, including how and when they meet. However, Members saw the merit in encouraging Assembly committees to be mindful of the wider implications, particularly on staff, of the level of business they planned to do throughout July and August.
Members agreed that any public announcement regarding changes to summer recess would require careful messaging to ensure that it was clear that the Assembly could meet as and when required in order to manage public confidence in political processes, particularly during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
3. COVID-19 UPDATE
(a) BRIEFING NOTE ON THE RECOVERY OF EXPENDITURE INCURRED BY MLAS ON COVID-19 MITIGATION MEASURES
Richard Stewart presented a briefing note on a range of factors to be considered to enable MLAs to recover additional costs that might arise from implementing COVID-19 mitigation measures in constituency offices.
He stated that if Members wished to treat COVID-19 mitigation measures as an allowance under section 47 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, then the Assembly would need to resolve by simple majority, to make provision conferring functions on the Assembly Commission to make a Determination under section 47 to pay such an allowance to MLAs; and that the Assembly Commission would then need to make a determination to give legal effect to the provision of an allowance to MLAs to assist in re-opening offices.
The items that might be included under that allowance and the limit of the allowance were discussed and the need to issue guidance on what costs would be admissible/not admissible was noted.
Mr Stewart advised Members that each MLA would need to undertake an individual risk assessment for her or his constituency office and that Guidance on the requirements placed on MLAs would be issued.
Action: Mr Stewart to provide guidance to assist MLAs with the health and safety considerations that they would need to address prior to re- opening their constituency offices.
Members agreed on the need for financial support to assist Members in implementing COVID-19 mitigation measures in constituency offices, but noted that, at present, there was no legal ability to provide this. Members noted the need to ensure that MLAs’ constituency offices could reopen safely, but that they were also mindful of the use of public money for this purpose at this time.
Members enquired whether the Assembly Commission could award a contract to a company to undertake COVID-19 mitigation measures in constituency offices.
Lesley Hogg noted that this approach would take a longer period to put in place, thus delaying the opening of constituency offices and that there was a risk that such a contract would not provide the flexibility to address the specific needs of up to 90 constituency offices.
Members agreed that a paper should be prepared setting out the options for the delivery of COVID-19 mitigation measures in constituency offices.
Action: Mr Stewart to prepare a paper setting out options for the delivery of COVID-19 mitigation measures in constituency offices.
(a) Access to Parliament Buildings for the public
The Speaker reminded Members that the Assembly Commission took the decision on 16 March 2020 to close the building to the public.
Members agreed that it was appropriate to maintain this situation given the current status of the Coronavirus pandemic, but would keep the position under review as further easements were made to the lockdown.
Mrs Hogg advised Members that the current arrangements, whereby the majority of staff were working from home for the majority of the time, was working well and that she saw no reason for changing this situation in the short to medium term. Mrs Hogg also advised that it was unlikely that Parliament Buildings would be opened to the public prior to reaching Step 5 on the
Executive’s proposed Recovery Plan.
(b) Related Party Disclosures
The Speaker asked Members to submit their related party disclosures forms, which were required for the Annual Accounts.
(c) Independent Financial Review Panel (IFRP) Options Questionnaire
The Speaker noted that Questionnaires from two Members remained outstanding and requested that these be submitted as soon as possible.
The Speaker advised that it was his intention to contact Members on an individual basis to discuss next steps, on taking forward changes to the current IFRP arrangements, in advance of convening an Assembly Commission meeting to formally discuss this matter.
(d) Good Relations Action Plan
The Speaker reminded Members that the Good Relations Action Plan 2016-21: March 2020 Update, which was on the agenda at the last meeting, had been re- circulated on 15 May with a request that any comments/queries be submitted by 29 May.
(e) Other items via written correspondence
The Speaker advised Members that a number of other items of business would be circulated in due course by written procedure.
(f) Coronavirus testing
Mrs Hogg updated Members that the Department of Health had not responded to the Assembly Commission on the issue of testing for staff and that the Assembly Commission’s position, requiring an assurance that permitting MLAs’ staff and Assembly staff to be tested for the coronavirus would have no impact on the availability of testing for those from healthcare and frontline workers, may be an obstacle.
Members discussed this issue and agreed that the caveat outlined above should be removed for both MLAs’ staff and Assembly staff for the purposes of facilitating access for testing for those displaying symptoms.
It was agreed to retain this caveat in relation to MLAs.
5. DATE OF NEXT MEETING
The next meeting will be held in June, date to be agreed.
The meeting concluded at 5.24 pm.