Minutes of Proceedings
Session: Session currently unavailable
Date: 29 September 2020
Meeting Venue: Members’ Dining Room
Meeting date: Wednesday 30 September 2020
Meeting Time: 2.00pm
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
Mrs Janet Hughes, Clerical Supervisor
Others in attendance:
Mr Derek Martin, Independent Member of Secretariat Audit and Risk Committee (SARC)
Mr Jonathan McMillen, Head of Legal Services (Item 10)
Mr Ken Eccles, Head of Security (Item 14)
The meeting commenced at 2.03pm.
Apologies were received from Jim Brooks, Chairperson of SARC.
2. DECLARATION OF INTERESTS
3. CHAIRPERSON’S BUSINESS
The Speaker noted that in the last few months the Assembly Commission had had a number of items of plenary business in the Assembly Chamber including
Assembly Commission Questions and thanked Members and officials for their assistance.
The Speaker informed Members that he would be meeting with the Chairperson and Clerk of the Committee on Standards and Privileges on 22 October 2020 in relation to the development of a policy on Unacceptable Behaviours.
4. MINUTES OF PREVIOUS MEETINGS
Minutes from the Assembly Commission meetings on 29 July 2020 and 25 August 2020 were approved for publication.
5. MATTERS ARISING
The Speaker reminded Members that at its meeting on 29 July 2020, Members had noted the draft Annual Equality Progress Report 2019-2020 and agreed to contact officials if they had any follow-up issues with it. The Speaker confirmed that Members were content for the Annual Equality Progress Report 2019-2020 to be submitted to the Equality Commission.
Action: Richard Stewart to forward the Annual Equality Progress Report 2019-2020 to the Equality Commission.
6. ASSEMBLY COMMISSION ACTIONS
Lesley Hogg explained that the majority of overdue actions, were delayed due to the impact of COVID-19.
In relation to the Assembly Commission’s decision to bring forward a motion regarding the commissioning of an independent review of the Statement of Entitlements for an Official Opposition, Mrs Hogg advised that a draft motion would be circulated for agreement by the end of the week and that it would be tabled with the Business Committee on Tuesday 6 October 2020.
Members noted that the Speaker had written to former Assembly Commission Member Jim Wells MLA, to thank him for representing the Assembly Commission on SARC and for his positive contribution to the work of SARC.
8. CLERK/CHIEF EXECUTIVE UPDATE REPORT
Mrs Hogg provided Members with an update on the key issues, which had arisen since the last Assembly Commission meeting, namely:
Staffing Update – September 2020
Mrs Hogg advised Members that the number of Staff in Post (SIP) as at 1 September 2020, including agency and inward seconded staff was 336.2 Full Time Equivalents (FTE) against an agreed staff complement (including complement plus) of 383.8 FTE and that there was an intensive programme of external recruitment and the appointment of agency staff to fill the large number of vacancies.
Mrs Hogg clarified that the vast majority of staff, were working on a hybrid basis between Parliament Buildings and home, when it was possible for their work to be undertaken remotely.
Responding to EU Exit-related Assembly Business Pressures
Mrs Hogg informed Members that due to the substantial amount of additional business for the Assembly in relation to EU Exit, the Secretariat Management Group (SMG) had taken the decision to allocate additional staff resources to Clerking and the Examiner of Statutory Rules.
Management Accounts – August 2020
Mrs Hogg advised Members that the current forecast for expenditure for 2020/21 was £47.652m for Resource DEL and £1.241m for Capital DEL. It was also noted that £1.75m was surrendered from Resource DEL in the June Monitoring Round, and that this mainly related to Secretariat salaries and administration costs.
Mrs Hogg informed Members that the ongoing extremely low footfall in Parliament Buildings, as well as the impact of the Summer Parliamentary break, had resulted in a significant increase in the Support Services contract cost and that this was being kept under review. She advised that the increase in cost was partially offset by a reduction in rates.
Audit Committee Briefing on the Assembly Commission’s Budget for 2020/21
Mrs Hogg referred to her attendance along with the Director of Corporate Services at the Audit Committee meeting on 16 September 2020, where an update was provided to the Committee on the costs that could arise from The Assembly Members (Salaries and Expenses) (Amendment) Determination (Northern Ireland) 2020 (2020 Determination), published on 27 August 2020.
It was noted that the Audit Committee had indicated at the meeting that it may write to the Assembly Commission in relation to how value for money was considered in relation to the 2020 Determination. Mrs Hogg confirmed that as yet no letter had been received.
Mrs Hogg also stated that the Audit Committee had noted that the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Assembly Commission and the Audit Committee referred to the codification of the Assembly Commission’s interaction with the Audit Committee in relation to the Assembly Commission’s budget setting methodology and that it intended to progress this.
Mrs Hogg reminded Members that the Speaker had written to the Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures regarding the matter and that Mr Stewart was going to provide draft Standing Orders for the Committee to consider. She therefore advised that Mr Stewart would coordinate with the clerks on both the Committee on Procedures and the Audit Committee to avoid duplication.
Action: Mr Stewart to coordinate with the clerks on both the Committee on Procedures and the Audit Committee and provide draft Standing Orders for the Committee on Procedures to consider.
Correspondence from the Audit Committee regarding the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO) in relation to a Complaints Standards Authority
Mrs Hogg informed Members that she had received a letter from the Audit Committee, in relation to the commencement of Part 3 of the Public Services Ombudsman Act (Northern Ireland) 2016 (NIPSO Act), which dealt with the publication of model complaints handling procedures by NIPSO.
It was noted that the letter stated that the Ombudsman would make a formal submission to the Assembly Commission, regarding commencement of Part 3 of the NIPSO Act and that the Audit Committee had indicated its support for commencement of the legislative process. Members agreed to consider any formal submission received from NIPSO.
Printing of Legislative Documents
Mrs Hogg advised that the printing of Bill Office documents had resumed following the temporary cessation in March 2020, as one of the COVID-19 mitigation measures put in place to minimise the number of staff who were required to work in the building.
Voice of Internet Protocol (VoIP)
Mrs Hogg advised Members that the VoIP project was progressing well, with a pilot phase to introduce the new technology and handsets due to commence in October 2020.
Peer review of the Northern Ireland Assembly against the benchmarks set out in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s (CPA)
‘Recommended Benchmarks for Democratic Legislatures’
Mrs Hogg advised Members that consideration was being given to engaging an independent parliamentary governance expert, to carry out the peer review included in the Assembly Commission’s Corporate Plan 2019-2023 and that this would dovetail with the work of the Chairpersons’ Liaison Group’s (CLG) consideration of the Renewable Heat Incentive’s report and the recommendation for strengthening the scrutiny role of Assembly committees.
She reiterated, that as stated previously, close co-ordination and collaboration would take place between the Director of Parliamentary Services and the Clerk to CLG to avoid duplication.
Members discussed the need to proceed with the delivery of Member development activities. Mrs Hogg clarified that the delay was a consequence of COVID-19 on some activities. Gareth McGrath informed Members that a paper proposing the planned activities would be tabled at the next meeting.
Action: Dr McGrath to present a draft Interim Member Development Plan at the next Assembly Commission meeting.
Proposal to Light Parliament Buildings for ‘Earth Hour’
Mrs Hogg informed Members that as part of the annual environmental management review, the Sustainable Development Office had been considering ways to highlight the commitment of the Assembly Commission and Parliament Buildings, to improve the environment and raise awareness of these issues with staff, building users and the wider public.
She explained that one proposal was that ‘Earth Hour’ be added to the Assembly Commission’s designated lighting days for Parliament Buildings in the Special Lighting Policy and that as part of the worldwide initiative, the lights of Parliament Buildings would be extinguished from 8.30pm to 9.30pm on 28 March each year.
Mrs Hogg noted that item 12 on the agenda, related to agreeing a package of designated lighting days in the Special Lighting Policy and proposed that the inclusion of ‘Earth Hour’ as an Assembly Commission designated lighting day could be considered in those discussions. Members were content with Mrs Hogg’s proposal.
Mrs Hogg provided Members with an update on litigation.
9. COVID-19 PLANNING
Mr Stewart provided an update on how the impact of COVID-19 was being managed within Parliament Buildings. He covered a range of issues within the context of the obligations falling on the Assembly Commission in its role as employer, current restrictions, the continuing risk of infection and the developing situation.
Mr Stewart stated that since 18 March 2020, the Assembly Commission had implemented a comprehensive range of measures to mitigate the risk of the spread of COVID-19 infection in Parliament Buildings.
Members also noted the more recent actions that had been taken as a result of the update to Regulations issued by the Department of Health in late July 2020. Mr Stewart also spoke about the issue of the continuing restriction on public access to Parliament Buildings and sought Members views on a recommendation, to continue to restrict public access to the building until after the Christmas recess, with a further review to take place at that time.
Members agreed that the closure of Parliament Buildings to the public should continue until Christmas and be reviewed in the New Year. Members noted that access to the building should only be for the conduct of Assembly business.
Action: The Assembly Commission to review the closure of Parliament Buildings to the public in January 2021.
Dolores Kelly MLA noted that there were limited options for MLAs to meet outside of their offices and proposed that the closure of the Members’ Bar be reviewed. Members were content with a suggestion from Mrs Hogg that this should be explored without incurring costs and agreed that it would be acceptable for the Members’ Bar to be open as a meeting space and for MLAs to bring tea/coffee from other venues in the building.
Action: Mr Stewart to explore the opening of the Members’ Bar as a meeting space without catering provision.
John Blair MLA suggested that clearer guidance was needed on the definition of “essential Assembly business” to ensure consistency between all MLAs on the nature of the meetings, that could be held within Parliament Buildings. The Speaker proposed that Mr Stewart meet with Members to seek their views on defining essential Assembly business.
Action: Mr Stewart to meet with Members to seek their views on defining essential Assembly business for the purposes of accessing the building.
John O’Dowd MLA queried whether allowing for two metres social distancing in meeting rooms was adequate as a consideration alone given the time some committee members spent in committee meetings and whether ventilation should also be a consideration. He also asked for consideration to be given to providing hand soap at all kitchen points and the installation of dispensers for paper towels.
Mr Stewart acknowledged that good ventilation was recommended in COVID- 19 guidance and that windows could be opened in meeting rooms to improve this. Mr Stewart said he would follow-up the soap and paper towels issue.
Action: Mr Stewart to explore the provision of hand soap at all kitchen points and the installation of paper towel dispensers in all washrooms.
11. PAY CLAIM 2020
The Speaker suggested making a slight change to the order on the agenda and moved to agenda item 11 with the agreement of Members.
Mr Stewart updated Members on the initial 2020 pay claim received from Trade Union Side (TUS) and sought the view of Members on the following five key elements:
- An above inflation consolidated increase on all pay points;
- To address the pay gap between grades;
- Pay recovery to further address pay loss since 2010;
- Annual leave entitlement increased to 30 days on entry, rising to 33 days after 5 years; and
- An increase of maternity pay provision from 18 to 26 weeks at full pay.
Members sought information on how these matters were being handled in other legislatures and noted that other public sector bodies locally offered a better comparator.
Members agreed to the Speaker’s proposal that Members should take this matter away to consider their views and return to it again at the next meeting. In the interim, the Speaker suggested that Members contact Mr Stewart directly for any further information, particularly on budgetary implications.
Jonathan McMillen joined the meeting at 2.48pm for agenda item 10.
10. INDEPENDENT FINANCIAL REVIEW PANEL (IFRP) REFORM BILL
The Speaker returned to the previous item on the agenda.
The Speaker stated that whilst the Assembly Commission had taken a motion through the House to give responsibility for determining MLAs’ allowances to the Assembly Commission, it was still necessary to return to the matter of legislative reform, to limit the scope of an independent body to determining MLAs’ salaries and pensions.
Jonathan McMillen therefore presented a draft Bill, to take forward the Assembly Commission’s previous instructions to amend the nature and remit of the current IFRP and discussed a number of key points with Members:
- Members agreed to change the title of the Bill to Assembly Members (Remuneration Board) Bill;
- Members agreed that while the disqualification in relation to a former MLA serving on the Board should be removed, no more than one former MLA should be allowed to serve on the Board at one time and that there should be no mandatory requirement that a former MLA had to be appointed;
- Members confirmed that they were content with the proposed list of statutory consultees namely Members of the Assembly, the Assembly Commission, the Trustees of the Northern Ireland Assembly Members’ Pension Fund and the discretion for the Board to consult such other persons as it considered appropriate;
- Members were content that it was appropriate to require the Board to consult the Assembly Commission before making an exceptional determination and that it was not necessary to consult any committee in that regard;
- Members confirmed they were content that provision would be made in the Bill for a Determination to be made not less than six months before the election poll for the Assembly to which it related.
- Members agreed that given the technical nature of the legislation, and the limited impact of the Bill on the public that no public consultation was required on the Bill at this stage.
- Members discussed the timing of when the Bill should be introduced to the Assembly and agreed that it should be introduced following approval of the final draft of the Bill by the Assembly Commission.
- It was confirmed that once the Bill had completed its Second Stage in the Assembly, an Ad Hoc Committee would be formed to consider it and that any matters of public concern could be appropriately addressed at that stage.
Jonathan McMillen left the meeting at 3.19pm.
12. CONSIDERATION OF EXTENDING THE ASSEMBLY COMMISSION’S ANNUAL DATES FOR THE LIGHTING OF PARLIAMENT BUILDINGS
The Speaker introduced the paper, which had been tabled by Robin Ramsey, to consider extending the annual days on which the Assembly Commission agreed to light Parliament Buildings under the Special Lighting Policy.
The Speaker outlined that the basis of the proposal was that a wider package of dates might provide a way to deal with proposals that might be difficult to get political consensus on individually and would allow all parties to accept that the inclusion of dates which they were more supportive of would require the inclusion of dates which were more meaningful to other parties.
The Speaker emphasised that the detail of any final package of dates was a matter for political input and agreement and that he was seeking the agreement of Members to explore whether a final package could be reached.
Members agreed that this could be a useful initiative.
The Speaker therefore proposed that Members should engage with each other to try to build a political consensus and should engage with Mr Ramsey as necessary to reach an agreement. The Speaker asked parties to conduct the discussions on a confidential basis without prejudice to supporting any final package.
Action: Members to engage with each other and Mr Ramsey as necessary, to develop a potential extended list of annual dates to light Parliament Buildings for consideration and agreement.
13. UPDATE ON PROGRESS TOWARDS THE IMPLEMENTATION OF ‘NEW DECADE, NEW APPROACH’ - SEPTEMBER 2020
Dr McGrath provided an update to Members on commitments within the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ Deal (NDNA) actions which had an impact on the responsibilities of the Assembly Commission.
Members noted that the impact of COVID-19 on the Executive’s legislative programme would put pressure on the Assembly timetable in the remainder of the mandate. Dr McGrath advised that twenty-nine Private Members’ Bill proposals had been submitted.
The Speaker reminded Members that some NDNA matters went beyond the remit of the Assembly Commission, that they would involve the Assembly and that he intended to engage with others on some of those matters in his role as Speaker.
The Speaker also advised that he had been in regular contact with the Executive in relation to the management of business going through the Assembly.
Ken Eccles joined the meeting at 3.27pm for agenda item 14.
14. LETTER FROM NIPSA REGARDING PROPOSED PARTIAL ELECTRONIC ACCESS CONTROL (EAC) SYSTEM IN PARLIAMENT BUILDINGS
The Speaker introduced the next item by making clear that a decision was not necessarily required at this meeting and that, if required, Members might find it helpful to arrange for officials to do a walkthrough of what the proposals would mean in practice.
Ken Eccles advised that the proposal to install an EAC system at Parliament Buildings had been considered by the Assembly Commission on several occasions since 2012, most recently at meetings on 5 November 2019 and 16 December 2019. He stated that at that time, the former Assembly Commission decided not to take the proposals forward, but agreed to revisit the matter on resumption of normal Assembly business.
Mr Eccles subsequently referred to a letter received from NIPSA, requesting that the proposal to install a partial EAC system in Parliament Buildings be brought back to the Assembly Commission for consideration.
Mr Eccles stated that whilst a full EAC system within Parliament Buildings was the desired and optimum position, the installation of a partial system would be a positive and welcomed measure and would go a significant way towards improving security within the building without hindering normal business.
Mr Eccles also stated that ideally, any new EAC system would be installed and integrated into the Parliament Buildings Security System (PBSS) project, meaning that work on both could be carried out simultaneously.
The estimated whole life cost of a standalone partial EAC system was noted, although Mr Eccles indicated that some savings might be achievable if it was integrated with the PBSS project.
Mr Eccles also advised Members that all other legislatures within the UK and Republic of Ireland had installed either a full or partial EAC system.
Members discussed the cost implications of the proposals and Mrs Hogg clarified that while there were some upfront costs, the estimate was for a period of 10 years and that the project was split between capital and maintenance costs. She also reiterated that if the project was integrated with the PBSS, it was possible that savings could be made.
Members also enquired about how disability access would be taken account of. Mr Eccles outlined that the design of the system would incorporate an override system and work alongside personal evacuation plans.
Robbie Butler MLA asked whether the Assembly Commission had engaged with the Fire and Rescue Service in recent years to have a full emergency exercise conducted. Mr Eccles advised that a full emergency exercise had not been conducted in recent years but agreed to explore this.
Action: Officials to explore conducting a full emergency exercise with the Fire and Rescue Service in relation to Parliament Buildings.
Mrs Hogg made clear that it was her strong recommendation that an EAC system was required and while management would recommend that a full EAC system be introduced, the introduction of a partial EAC system would be a significant step towards improving the safety of the building. Members noted that the installation of an EAC system had been discussed for a number of years, that some previous incidents could have been prevented by the system and the fact that many civil service buildings had EAC systems.
Members agreed to the installation of a partial EAC system as outlined in the paper.
The Speaker reminded Members that they could contact officials if they required further detail.
Ken Eccles left the meeting at 3.45pm.
15. BUSINESS CASE FOR THE FUTURE PROVISION OF TEMPORARY WORKERS FOR THE NORTHERN IRELAND ASSEMBLY COMMISSION
Mr Stewart outlined the paper and sought Members approval of the business case and the procurement of a contract for the future provision of temporary workers.
He stated that the supply of temporary workers provided the Assembly Commission with flexibility to temporarily fill vacancies to meet business need while recruitment competitions were undertaken, or to cover short term absences such as maternity leave.
Mr Stewart outlined the anticipated annual number and cost of temporary workers, and recommended a 3-year contract with two optional 1-year extensions.
Members approved the business case and the procurement of a contract for the future provision of temporary workers.
16. SECRETARIAT AUDIT AND RISK COMMITTEE (SARC) ANNUAL REPORT 2019-20
Derek Martin provided an overview of the Secretariat and Audit Risk Committee Annual Report. He joined the Assembly Commission in recognising the service Jim Wells MLA had given to SARC and underlined how valuable it was for the independent Members of SARC to be able to attend Assembly Commission meetings.
Mr Martin said that the annual report reflected how successful the Assembly Commission’s focus on retaining readiness had been when the Assembly was not meeting. He also highlighted that particular attention had been given to whistleblowing, cyber-security and risk management measures and that there was a significant culture of continuous improvement.
Mr Martin advised that SARC had received regular updates from the Acting Head of Internal Audit regarding output and progress against the 2019/20 Internal Audit Plan. He highlighted, that the Internal Audit Unit had been adversely affected by unanticipated staff resource shortage for the final quarter of the year and that the Internal Audit Plan had been amended with the approval of the Clerk/Chief Executive and ratification of SARC.
Mr Martin confirmed that SARC was content that the amended plan provided sufficient scope and coverage to allow the provision of meaningful assurance at the end of the year.
Mr Martin also stated that SARC had completed a self-assessment exercise for the year ended 31 March 2020 and that the findings had confirmed that it was fully compliant with best practice.
Dolores Kelly left the meeting at 3.57pm.
Mr Martin recorded his thanks to the former and current Assembly Commission for their support and for allowing the SARC Chairperson, or the Independent Member, to attend Assembly Commission meetings and to contribute to its discussions throughout the year. He also thanked the Clerk/Chief Executive and the staff of the Assembly Secretariat for their ongoing support to SARC in the achievement of its objectives.
Members noted the report.
17. PAPERS ISSUED VIA CORRESPONDENCE
Members noted the Audit Committee Briefing Paper, which had been issued via correspondence.
18. DECISIONS MADE VIA CORRESPONDENCE
Members noted the following decisions that had been made via correspondence.
- Request to light Parliament Buildings to mark Organ Donation Week. Approved
- Request to light Parliament Buildings to mark the first day of Recycle Week Campaign. Declined
- Request to light Parliament Buildings to mark World Cerebral Palsy Day. Declined
- Request to light Parliament Buildings to mark the 75th Anniversary of the United Nations. Approved
- Request to light Parliament Buildings to mark World Stroke Day. Declined
Financial Assistance for Political Parties (FAPP)
Mr Blair MLA asked whether a review of the FAPP scheme was planned, given that the 2020 Determination created the potential for party staff to be on lower pay scales than constituency staff.
Mrs Hogg confirmed that a review was normally undertaken in respect of each mandate, but that as an independent review of the Statement of Entitlements and funding for an Official Opposition would be commencing, and that the Assembly Commission would be required to take account of any recommendations, it would be sensible to wait until this was completed.
Starleaf and Annunciator
Mrs Kelly MLA enquired whether there was a limit on access to Starleaf during committee meetings, as she had been informed that members of the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (AERA) Committee had been asked to join by teleconferencing rather than Starleaf. Dr McGrath stated that he was not aware of the issue but would look into it.
Action: Dr McGrath to investigate why AERA Committee Members had been unable to use Starleaf.
Mrs Kelly MLA also asked if there was a problem with the annunciator screens as some were not working and they were helpful in keeping up-to-date with the progress of business. Dr McGrath advised that the current system needed replaced but that the previous Assembly Commission had not wanted to proceed with the capital investment while the Assembly was not meeting. He said that the business case would come back to the Assembly Commission for decision in the immediate future.
20. DATE OF NEXT MEETING
The Speaker proposed holding a further meeting in October 2020, to formally approve the final draft of the Bill on IFRP reform, but that an earlier meeting would be held if required. He said that officials would 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 4.03pm.
The Speaker asked Members to stay for a closed session with Mr Martin on the SARC Report.