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Minutes of Proceedings

Session: Session currently unavailable

Date: 29 July 2020

Meeting Venue:        Meeting via Microsoft Teams

Meeting date:            Wednesday 29 July 2020

Meeting Time:           10.00am

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 Jonathan McMillen, Head of Legal Services (Items 10 and 11)

Mrs Alice McKelvey, Legal Advisor (Item 10)

The meeting commenced at 10.18am.

1. APOLOGIES

There were no apologies.

2. DECLARATION OF INTERESTS 

None.

3. CHAIRPERSON’S BUSINESS

3.1       The Speaker reminded Members that the Assembly Commission was a corporate body rather than a Committee which sought to do as much business as possible by consensus.  It was noted that it was difficult to make progress through consensus if there was no confidence that any agreements made would be followed through. 

The Speaker also noted that as a corporate body, the Assembly Commission held closed meetings and expressed his regret that the details of discussions at a meeting to reach consensus around matters relating to Independent Financial Reform Panel (IFRP) reform were commented on, both in the Chamber and in the media by one party.  The Speaker noted that all parties had had to compromise on their original position to reach agreement and that it was important that the Assembly Commission retained the conditions necessary to facilitate such consensus building. 

3.2       The Speaker also noted with regret, that details of the Assembly Commission’s confidential discussion the previous week in relation to the nomination of a Commissioner for Standards had been reported in a media article.  The Speaker advised Members that any reporting of discussions that took place should only come via formal notification to the media from the Assembly Communications Office and reflected an agreed corporate position.

3.3       The Speaker updated Members on the positive response, particularly across social media platforms, to the recent announcement of an Assembly Commission supported Youth Assembly.  The significant uptake of interest from young people was noted along with the offers of support from a number of organisations to assist with this process.  Members were thanked for their contribution to the short video to promote the Youth Assembly and were encouraged to promote this initiative through contacts within their respective constituencies.

4. MINUTES OF PREVIOUS MEETINGS

Minutes from the Assembly Commission meetings on 12 May 2020, 28 May 2020 and 15 June 2020 were approved for publication.

5. MATTERS ARISING

There were no matters arising.

6. ASSEMBLY COMMISSION ACTIONS

Members noted the status of actions.

7. CORRESPONDENCE

Members noted the following items of correspondence:

7.1       A letter from the Chair of the Standards and Privileges Committee dated 24 February 2020 regarding policies around inappropriate behaviours and a response dated 9 June 2020;

7.2       A letter from the leader of the SDLP dated 30 June 2020, in relation to the proposed changes to the mechanism for determining the pay and conditions of Assembly constituency office staff;

7.3       A thank you letter from the Chairman of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RFI) Inquiry dated 2 July 2020; and

7.4       A response to the Chair of the Committee on Procedures dated 24 July 2020 in relation to codification of the role of the Audit Committee in the Assembly Commission’s budget setting methodology.

8. CLERK/CHIEF EXECUTIVE UPDATE REPORT

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

Staffing Update – July 2020

Mrs Hogg advised Members that the Staff in Post (SiP) figure as at 1 July 2020 was 324.9 Full Time Equivalents (FTE) against a complement of 375.3 FTE which left a figure of 50.4 FTE vacancies across the Secretariat. 

Mrs Hogg updated Members on the current staffing arrangements in light of the ongoing public health crisis, noting that many staff were still working from home with only a small number working in Parliament Buildings to directly support Assembly business as required. 

Management Accounts – June 2020

Mrs Hogg advised Members that the current forecast for expenditure for 2020/21 was £43.385m for Resource DEL.  It was noted that this reflected an underspend of £1.463m less than the opening budget as agreed by the Audit Committee.  In relation to Capital DEL the forecast was £1.144m which reflected an overspend of £51k compared to the opening budget position.  Mrs Hogg stated that it was anticipated that the additional Capital requirement could be met from within the current allocated Capital envelope.

Mrs Hogg informed Members that a surrender of £1.745m from Resource DEL had been made during the June Monitoring Round, that included an amount for increased income of £633k relating to a new Department of Finance (DoF) policy to charge Departments for the cost of ministerial salaries.  Mrs Hogg advised Members that DoF had subsequently reversed this policy decision and would re-allocate the monies in the next formal Monitoring round.  Mrs Hogg proposed that any surplus monies could be used to meet any increase in expenditure, within the current financial year, arising from an interim Assembly Commission determination on MLAs allowances and expenses should this proceed.

COVID-19 Response Update – July 2020

Mrs Hogg outlined to Members the current risk based approach to the management of the Assembly Commission’s COVID-19 response and advised that this approach would adapt to reflect any further relaxation of restrictions in the general population, and in the workplace, likely to arise over the remainder of the year.  It was stressed that any decisions taken by the COVID-19 Response Group would be based on the Regulations and guidance that applied at that time. 

Mrs Hogg noted, based on figures provided by the Human Resources Office who monitor the impact of COVID-19 on staff, that as at 23 July 2020, there were no staff self-isolating as a result of being symptomatic or due to household symptoms, no confirmed cases reported amongst staff and that 20 staff remained in the vulnerable group.

Members agreed that Parliament Buildings would remain closed to the public and that the position would be reconsidered again in September 2020.  It was noted that no unnecessary risks should be taken which would increase the risk of exposure to staff, MLAs and MLAs’ support staff, particularly given the importance of the work of the Assembly, the already limited capacity of experienced staff due to the high number of vacancies and the likely increase in volume of work anticipated in the autumn as a result of EU Exit.

Jim Brooks left the meeting for the next item.

Secretariat Audit and Risk Committee (SARC) Chair and Independent Member Appointments

Mrs Hogg informed Members that the Chairperson and Independent Member of the Secretariat Audit and Risk Committee commenced their appointments on 1 December 2016 for a fixed period of three years, with the option of two, one-year extensions.  At its meeting in May 2019, the Assembly Commission agreed to exercise the first extension, which extended the current term of both individuals to 30 November 2020.

Members agreed that the final extension option be exercised and noted that both the Chairperson and Independent Member were content for their appointments to be extended to 30 November 2021.

Jim Brooks returned to the meeting.

Complaint to Equality Commission for Northern Ireland

Mrs Hogg updated Members on the status of pre-action correspondence received from the Equality Commission relating to a complaint raised by an MLA in May 2020.  Mrs Hogg confirmed that there had been extensive communication and correspondence with the Equality Commission and the MLA over a two-month period and the matter had been satisfactorily resolved on 7 July 2020.

Extension to Loan of Artefacts – Office of Arms Exhibition at Dublin Castle

Mrs Hogg advised Members that at its meeting on 24 June 2019, the Assembly Commission approved the loan of the painting “State Opening of Parliament”, by William Conor, for an exhibition in Dublin Castle titled The Office of Arms: Splendour, Scandal and Survival at Dublin Castle, which was scheduled to run from 16 March 2020 to 16 August 2020.  The loan of the Ulster Tabard to the same exhibition was subsequently requested and approved.

Members noted that while the exhibition had been installed in time for its intended opening on 16 March 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic Dublin Castle was closed to the public until 29 June 2020 and the exhibition had effectively been in storage.

In light of this, Members agreed to a request from the Curator from the Office of Public Works to extend the loans until January 2021.

Corporate Risk Register

Mrs Hogg advised Members that the majority of changes to the Risk Register, since it was last reviewed by the Assembly Commission, were updates to the risk responses in relation to the current public health crisis. 

Mrs Hogg highlighted that an additional action had been included in relation to the provision of advice and guidance to MLAs to help them manage the risks associated with COVID-19 in their constituency offices and in meeting their responsibilities to their staff.  She added that a further action had been added to give consideration to concerns raised by Members in relation to measures required regarding potential security issues in their constituency offices.

Mrs Hogg clarified that while the issues arising in relation to the operation of constituency offices did not present a risk to the Assembly Commission, ways to address this issue were being considered through potential changes to the determination of allowances payable to MLAs.

Staff Briefing and Charity Event

Mrs Hogg informed Members that she had held a virtual staff briefing event on 26 June 2020, with a large number of staff participating remotely, and that an associated charity event had raised £1,300 for the Northern Ireland Children’s Hospice.

Staff Survey 2019

Mrs Hogg advised Members that the biennial Staff Survey had been carried out in October 2019 and that the findings and recommendations had been presented to SMG by the Acting Chair of the Internal Communications Group in April 2020.  She explained that although she and Directors had had and initial meeting to discuss the recommendations, further detailed consideration was delayed due to the extensive actions and decisions that were required to deal with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mrs Hogg confirmed that the findings and recommendations would be considered further in due course.

9. POTENTIAL RECOVERY OF RENT AND RATES COSTS

Richard Stewart presented a paper which outlined compliance issues with office signage.

Members noted the paper and agreed to reflect on the outcome of IFRP Determination paper at item 11, before reaching a decision on this matter.

Alice McKelvey joined the meeting at 10.37am for agenda item 10.

Jonathan McMillen joined the meeting at 10.37am for agenda items 10 and 11.

10. PROPOSED LITIGATION

Alice McKelvey presented a paper to Members on the legal issues relating to monies owed to the Assembly Commission by a former Member. 

Members agreed to reflect on the outcome of the IFRP Determination paper at item 11, before reaching a decision on this matter.

Alice McKelvey left the meeting at 10.43am.

11. DEVELOPMENT OF A REVISED DETERMINATION OF THE ALLOWANCES PAYABLE TO MEMBERS

Mr Stewart presented a paper which reflected discussions with individual Assembly Commission Members, regarding possible changes to the allowances payable to MLAs that were presently contained in the Assembly Members (Salaries and Expenses) Determination (Northern Ireland) 2016 in order to provide officials with direction in drafting a new interim Determination. 

It was noted that the primary focus of Members at this stage was to ensure that the terms and conditions of MLAs’ support staff were brought into line with wider public sector norms.

Mr Stewart emphasised the fact that all Members had stated that a new Determination must not reduce or dilute the existing governance arrangements and transparency around the payment of expenses, as this remained an essential element to retain public trust and accountability.

Members considered the paper and following detailed discussions agreed that the following should be contained in an interim Determination:

(a)  General criteria for recovery of expenses

Members agreed to remove the restriction, at 7(2) of the 2016 Determination, which limited MLAs to the recovery of expenses in respect of one constituency office, in order to enable MLAs to operate satellite surgeries should they wish to do so.

(b)  Payments outside the European Union

Members agreed to remove paragraph 10 of the 2016 Determination which limited MLAs’ ability to recover expenditure only if the supplier was registered in the EU, otherwise MLAs would be unable to recover expenditure to UK suppliers at the end of the implementation period for the UK’s exit from the EU.

(c)   Rental payment limits

Mr Stewart advised Members that analysis of the limited availability of reliable data in regard to commercial property market rental values did not demonstrate empirical evidence of a clear rise in rents since 2016, but that there was a variation between different geographical locations. 

Members agreed to retain the current limit of £8,500 and defer consideration of the issue until more detailed work could be undertaken to develop a new Determination for the next Assembly mandate. 

(d)   Rates

Members agreed to remove the limit for the recovery of rates for a constituency office, noting that if an MLA’s rent was at or below the approved limit then the rates bill would be paid in full.  Members also agreed that where the rental payments as set out in the lease for the office exceeded the approved limit, a proportionate element of the rates would be paid based on the relationship between the maximum rental that could be recovered and the actual rent in payment.

(e)  Signage provision

Members agreed to remove the requirement, at 13(7) of the 2016 Determination, to provide details of opening hours and contact details for an office in order to recover the cost of rent and rates, as this appeared to serve no useful purpose.

Members agreed to include the phone number and email address of the office and/or the MLA as permitted items on office signage, at 14(4) of the 2016 Determination, as the current restrictions on these details were felt to be counter-intuitive.

Members agreed to clarify that the restriction, at 14(7) of the 2016 Determination, should cover “materials that encourage

the public to vote for any candidate or for any political party”.

Members agreed to remove the restriction, at 14(8) of the 2016 Determination, on the use of a Party logo or name on the frontage of the office. 

Members agreed that the changes to paragraph 14 of the 2016 Determination would apply from the initial effective date of 6 August 2016.  In light of this change Members noted that no breach would have been deemed to occur in items 9 and 10 above and no recovery of costs would be necessary.

The meeting suspended at 11.17am.

The meeting resumed at 11.23 am.

(f)   Constituency Office expenses

Members agreed that mobile phone expenses should be included in the Constituency Office Operating Expenses (COOE) category rather than a standalone category.

Members agreed to increase the limit of COOE in the interim Determination to £7,000 per annum, having noted that there had been no increase since the 2016 Determination was published and the need for MLAs to invest in security, bio-security, health and safety and disability access measures.  Members further agreed to review this issue when considering a new Determination for the next mandate.

Members agreed, in respect of Constituency Office Establishment Expenses in paragraph 17 of the 2016 Determination, that it would be helpful to explicitly include renewal costs in the Determination given the allowance covered the entire mandate, and that equipment, maintenance costs and health and safety, security and disability measures should also be explicitly included.

Members agreed that the limit for Establishment Expenses should be increased to £4,000 over the course of a mandate.

(g)  Staff costs

Members agreed to allow MLAs to use the services of a temporary work agency to engage temporary workers when, for example, a member of staff was absent due to illness or maternity. Members also agreed to establish a new category of cost for replacement staff.

Members discussed their views on the appropriate number of staff required in a constituency office, the salary scales that staff should be paid and the mix of grades that should be employed.  It was noted that the staffing requirements for individual MLAs varied considerably and that a ‘one size fits all’ approach would not be an appropriate. 

Following discussion, Members agreed to a limit of £80,000 for staff costs and to remove the limit of 74 staff hours and the restriction on employing only one member of staff at grade 3.  Members noted that this would enable MLAs some additional staff capacity to deliver services necessary to carry out their constituency and parliamentary responsibilities, and bring in short term employees to deliver specific pieces of work or to provide cover for short periods of staff absence.

Members agreed to amend paragraph 39(1) of the 2016 Determination, to provide for a member of staff who was previously employed by another MLA to be paid at the same pay point as they were paid by the previous, typically former, MLA.  Members noted, however, if the member of staff had received a redundancy payment from the previous MLA (and, that under employment law, this should happen), the employee must be appointed at pay point 1 for the relevant grade.

Members agreed to amend paragraph 39(3) of the 2016 Determination to introduce a requirement that an employee must be in post for 7 months before 1 April in order to receive an incremental uplift to salary. Members noted that this period mirrored the approach taken in the Assembly Secretariat, in the Northern Ireland Civil Service and elsewhere.

Members agreed to amend paragraph 39(6) to include an annual uprating for MLAs’ support staff salaries to match the uplift in Secretariat staff salaries and that it would be applied from 1 April each year.

(h)  Staff travel allowances

Members agreed to introduce staff travel allowances as set out in the paper and that further detailed work would be undertaken to review this provision for the new Determination for the next mandate.  Mr Stewart reminded Members that MLAs would be required to approve and verify constituency staff travel claims in line with HRMC guidance and regulations.

(i)    Pensions contributions

Members agreed to reset the permitted level of employer pension contributions to 10%, which had been reduced to 5% in the 2016 Determination. Members noted that this would also align the Assembly with the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments.

(j)    Cost of Replacement Staff

Members agreed to the insertion of a new paragraph (41A) which provided for the cost of replacement staff to be met.

(k)  Sickness absence

Members agreed that staff on sick leave would receive 6 months’ full pay and then 6 months half pay, to be paid out of category 1 staff salary.  Members noted that this provision aligned MLAs’ staff with employees from other public bodies.

(l)    Contractual Maternity Leave and Pay

Members agreed that the provision for MLAs’ staff in respect of contractual maternity leave and pay would mirror that of Assembly Secretariat staff and that those meeting all the qualifying conditions would be contractually entitled to 18 weeks’ full maternity pay, with the remainder as statutory maternity leave if there were an entitlement to statutory maternity pay. 

Members agreed that this contractual provision was not available for staff who were employed on a temporary contract, on a fixed-term contract of less than two years or on a fixed-term contract whose unexpired portion was not sufficiently long to enable a return to work after the period of maternity leave (and pay).

Members agreed that continuity of service for contractual maternity leave and pay would be recognised for those circumstances where an employee moved from the employment of one MLA to the employment of another MLA provided there was no more than a three month gap in employment.

Members agreed that contractual maternity pay would not be provided for the staff of an MLA who stood down where the staff member did not take up employment with another MLA. 

(m)Annual Leave

Members agreed to amend the 2016 Determination to permit staff to 28 days’ annual leave in addition to the usual statutory days (Bank Holidays and public holidays).

(n)  Consultation process

Members agreed that MLAs not represented on the Assembly Commission would be notified of the new Determination in advance of publication. 

(o)  Provision of HR support for MLAs

Members agreed to progress HR support for MLAs separately as it was not  a feature of the Determination and that there was already an action for Mr Stewart to bring forward a proposal for consideration.

(p)  Audit recommendation

Mr Stewart reminded Members of a Northern Ireland Audit Office recommendation, that arose from the audit of the Assembly Commission’s accounts for 2015/16 in relation to a co-opted MLA paying a former MLA for equipment claimed by the former MLA as constituency office expenditure. 

Members considered the recommendation regarding ownership of assets but agreed to maintain the status quo for a number of reasons.  These included the fact that all expenditure on assets was generally funded from Establishment Expenses which must be approved in advance; that expenditure funded by the Determination was included on an MLA’s tax return and that requiring the return of assets to the Assembly Commission could lead to a need for an MLA to restate their tax return; that assets were generally given to a successor MLA; and the practical implications for the Assembly Commission of dealing with second hand equipment.

(q)  Cost of Changes

Mr Stewart advised Members that the additional annual cost to implement the provisions agreed was approximately £4.1million. 

(r)   Effective date

Members agreed that the changes would apply retrospectively from 1 April 2020, other than the changes to paragraph 14 of the 2016 Determination which it had been agreed would be effective from 6 August 2016.

Action: Officials to arrange for the drafting and publication of a Determination to give effect to the agreed changes.  In addition, officials to produce an accompanying communications plan.

Jonathan McMillen left the meeting at 1.37pm.

The meeting suspended at 1.37pm

The meeting reconvened at 1.47pm

12. IMPLEMENTATION OF ‘NEW DECADE, NEW APPROACH’

Gareth McGrath presented a paper to Members providing an update in relation to the implementation of paragraph 3.7 of ‘New Decade, New Approach’ (NDNA) which made reference to funding for an opposition and to the Statement of Entitlements for an Official Opposition.

Dr McGrath reminded Members that at its previous meeting on 19 February 2020, the Assembly Commission agreed that officials 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 action.

Dr McGrath advised that the AERC had considered this matter at its meeting on 24 June 2020 and noted that a formal referral from the Assembly under Standing Order 59(3)(b) would be appropriate.

Members agreed to bring a resolution to the House under Standing Order 59(3)(b) to formally refer the commissioning of a review of the adequacy and effectiveness of the Statement of Entitlements for an Official Opposition (as set out in paragraph 3.7 of NDNA) to the AERC.

Action: Dr McGrath to draft an AssemblyCommission motion regarding the commissioning of a review in relation to para 3.7 of NDNA by the AERC Committee and that this would be tabled for plenary debate once agreed by the Assembly Commission.

13. CONSIDERATION OF EXTENDING THE ASSEMBLY COMMISSION’S ANNUAL DATES FOR THE LIGHTING OF PARLIAMENT BUILDINGS

Members agreed to consider a proposal to extend the number of occasions on which the Assembly Commission itself lights Parliament Buildings and to return to discuss this matter at a future meeting of the Assembly Commission.

14. ANNUAL EQUALITY PROGRESS REPORT TO THE EQUALITY COMMISSION 2019-2020

Members noted the report and agreed to meet with Mr Stewart to discuss any follow-up issues, if required.  Subject to any follow-up issues being satisfactorily resolved, Members approved the submission of the Report to the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.

15. ASSEMBLY COMMISSION CORPORATE PLAN 2019-2020 END-YEAR PERFORMANCE REPORT

Members noted the report, recognising the impact on targets contained within the Corporate Plan, given the significant changes that had occurred during the year, following the resumption of Assembly business in January 2020 and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. 

16. SECRETARIAT AUDIT AND RISK COMMITTEE (SARC) ANNUAL REPORT 2019-2020

Members noted the SARC Annual Report for 2019-2020.

The contribution of the former Assembly Commission representative, Jim Wells MLA, to the work of SARC was noted with appreciation and a welcome extended to Keith Buchanan MLA in taking up this role.

Jim Brooks agreed to defer the closed session with Members on the SARC Annual Report for 2019-20 until the next meeting to allow more time for discussion. 

Action: Letter to issue to Jim Wells MLA to acknowledge the positive contribution he had made to the work of SARC.

17. DECISIONS MADE VIA CORRESPONDENCE

Request to light Parliament Buildings to mark World Stroke Day. Declined
Request to light Parliament Buildings in support of Black Lives Matter Movement. Approved
Request to light Parliament Buildings to mark Children’s Hospice Week. Approved
Request to light Parliament Buildings to mark the 72nd Birthday of the NHS. Approved

18. AOB

None.

19. DATE OF NEXT MEETING

The Speaker proposed holding the next meeting in September 2020 unless a need arose to hold an earlier meeting. Officials to contact Members to agree a suitable date.

Action: Officials to liaise with Members to agree a suitable date for the next Assembly Commission meeting.

The meeting concluded at 1.54pm.

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