Minutes of Proceedings

Session: Session currently unavailable

Date: 05 February 2019

Meeting Venue: Room 106, Parliament Buildings

Meeting date: Tuesday 5 February 2019

Meeting Time: 10.00am

Commission Members:
The Speaker
Mr Jim Wells MLA 
Mr Alex Maskey MLA 
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Robin Swann MLA 
Mr Stewart Dickson MLA

Officials present:
Mrs Lesley Hogg, Ms Tara Caul, Mr Richard Stewart, Mr Robin Ramsey, Ms Frances Leneghan and Mrs Janet Hughes

Others in attendance:
Mr Jim Brooks, Secretariat Audit and Risk Committee (SARC) Chairperson
Mrs Paula McClintock, Head of Finance
Mr Simon Burrowes, Head of Public Engagement

The meeting commenced at 10.08am.

 

1. APOLOGIES

No apologies were received.

2. DECLARATION OF INTERESTS

Jim Wells MLA declared an interest in item 7.5.

3. CHAIRPERSON’S BUSINESS

There was no Chair’s business.

4. DRAFT MINUTES FROM PREVIOUS MEETINGS

Draft minutes from the Commission meeting on 19 December 2019 were issued to Members on 25 January 2019. Members were advised of a date change in relation to the accounts referenced under Management Account in the minutes since issue. Members were content to agree the minutes.

Draft minutes from the Commission meeting on 22 January 2019 were agreed.

5. MATTERS ARISING

Mr Wells recorded his congratulations to the Speaker and Secretariat staff for arranging the excellent event held in Parliament Buildings to mark the Centenary of the First Sitting of Dáil Éireann.

Alex Attwood asked if Trade Union Side (TUS) had replied to the Commission’s agreed position on the 2018/19 Secretariat staff pay deal. Richard Stewart, Director of Corporate Services advised that a letter had been received from TUS, that he had replied to that letter and that a further letter had arrived the previous week.  He would copy all correspondence to Members for information.

Action: Mr Stewart to arrange for a copy of correspondence to and from TUS in response to the Commission’s position on the pay deal for 2018/19 to be issued to Members.

6. COMMISSION ACTIONS

Members noted the completed actions.

Lesley Hogg, Clerk/Chief Executive, drew Members attention to the status update on the action in relation to Inappropriate Behaviours, advising that the additional work involved will delay completion until the Spring.

7. CORRESPONDENCE

The Speaker advised Members that a number of pieces of correspondence had been received since the meeting in December.

7.1 & 7.2 Members noted two pieces of correspondence from the Northern Ireland Assembly Women’s Caucus.

7.3 Members noted correspondence from Jim Allister MLA regarding sundry expenses. The Speaker proposed that the Finance Office reply to Mr Allister in line with the Commission’s long standing decision to delegate the administration of Members’ salaries and allowances to officials so that they are dealt with independently from elected representatives.

Action: Speaker to issue a holding response to Mr Allister.

Action: Finance Office to reply to Mr Allister’s letter.

Stewart Dickson MLA expressed disquiet at recent correspondence sent to MLAs and proposed it would be useful for Members to have an opportunity for a short discussion without officials before considering Item 15 on the agenda.

The Speaker noted that the proposal could be returned to before Item 15 and Mr Dickson said he was content.

7.4 The Commission noted a holding response issued to Marie Anderson, Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman in respect of her letter dated 29 November.

The Speaker advised Members that officials had prepared a paper for consideration in relation to the NIPSO’s letter and confirmed that it would be dealt with under agenda item 12.

7.5 The Commission noted one final piece of correspondence from Party Whips in relation to the Independent Financial Review Panel’s (IFRP) Determination.

The Speaker advised Members that officials had prepared a paper on the issues raised by Party Whips and confirmed that it would be dealt with under agenda item 15.

8. CLERK/CHIEF EXECUTIVE UPDATE REPORT

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

Staffing Update

Mrs Hogg advised Members that the Staff in Post (SiP) figure at 30 January was 309.6 Full Time Equivalents (FTE) against a staff complement of 349.4 FTE. Members noted that there are now 39.8 FTE vacancies. Mrs Hogg stated that this is likely to have an impact of the Assembly Commission’s readiness to return to normal Assembly business at short notice but confirmed that work has already been undertaken to ensure that recruitment activity to fill the vacant posts can commence as soon as a return to normal Assembly business is envisaged.

Mr Dickson noted that after two years of the Assembly not doing normal business, the Commission may have to reconsider its principle of “Retaining Readiness” for a return to Assembly sittings. After discussion, Members agreed that while the Commission may have to consider other scenarios in the future, “Retaining Readiness” remained the appropriate approach at this time and that the Commission should be prepared for the possibility of political agreement.

Robin Swann MLA joined the meeting at 10.28am.

Unacceptable Behaviour

Mrs Hogg provided Members with a copy of the report from Inspire Knowledge and Leadership which was commissioned by the Unacceptable Behaviours Working Group (the Working Group). She explained that the Working Group had been set up to review the findings of the 2017 Staff Survey in relation to unacceptable behaviours in the workplace.

Mrs Hogg advised Members that the review explored three areas, through focus groups and one to one meetings and reported six key recommendations which had been accepted by the Working Group and SMG. These will be implemented over the coming months.

Members asked about outstanding complaints against MLAs and the process for dealing with these in the absence of a Commissioner for Standards.

Members were advised of the functions of the Commission in relation to the appointment of the Commissioner and the administrative and other support for the Commissioner’s work, but that details of any complaints made to the Commissioner are not a matter for the Commission.

The Speaker and Members agreed that addressing unacceptable behaviours was a priority area of work and that the Clerk/Chief Executive had the Commission’s full support in implementing the recommendations from the Inspire Knowledge and Leadership report.

Management Accounts

Mrs Hogg referred Members to the Management Accounts summary as at 31 December 2018. She stated that the full year spending forecast of £34.787m is based on the assumption that the current political situation will continue until the end of the financial year.

EU Exit – Impact on Determination

Mrs Hogg referred Members to paragraph 10 of the 2016 Determination issued by the IFRP in March 2016 which provides that “A member is not entitled to recover an expense in respect of a payment to a person resident or registered at a place outside the European Union”. She advised Members that the impact of this in relation to the impending exit of the UK from the EU would be discussed in more detail at agenda item 15.

Event to Mark the Centenary of the First Sitting of Dáil Éireann

Mrs Hogg advised Members that the Speaker’s event held on 20 January to Mark the Centenary of the First Sitting of Dáil Éireann, consisting of a lecture by Dr Eamon Phoenix had been very well received.

External Lighting Policy: proposed dates for lighting Parliament Buildings

Mrs Hogg sought agreement from Members, in line with the Assembly’s

External Lighting Policy at Parliament Buildings (2014) which stipulates that ‘the Commission will schedule up to 4 days (consecutive or not) during a calendar year for events(s) of its choice in line with the policy’  to light the building for the following four days in the 2019 calendar year:

International Women’s Day - Purple

St Patrick’s Day - Green

12th July - Orange

11th November - Red

Agreed: Members were content to light the building on the four days proposed for 2019.

9. CORPORATE PLAN 2018/19: REPORTING FOR APRIL – DECEMBER 2018

Robin Ramsey, Adviser to the Speaker/Head of Corporate Support, presented a report on the progress against Corporate Plan 2018/19 targets for the period April to December 2018.

Mr Ramsey informed Members that over 90% of the corporate plan actions were either achieved or on course to be delivered.

He advised that a full report against the actions identified in the Plan for 2018/19 will be presented to the Commission following the end of the financial year.

Paula McClintock, Head of Finance, joined the meeting at 11:14am for agenda item 10.

10. HMRC EMPLOYER’S TAX COMPLIANCE REVIEW

Paula McClintock presented the findings of the HMRC Employer’s Tax Compliance Review.

Mrs McClintock advised Members that the review was part of a larger project to appraise all aspects of tax compliance which commenced in 2011. She explained that a number of areas had been investigated by HMRC and that all but four had been closed with HMRC being satisfied that full compliance had been achieved.

In relation to the four remaining areas that were assessed as non-compliant, Mrs McClintock advised Members that one had since been closed as the assessment of liability had been deemed trivial by HMRC. With regards the other three areas, Mrs McClintock provided background for each and advised Members of the liabilities for historic tax and national insurance contributions now due.

Members noted and were content with a proposal to formally appeal one of the three HMRC non-compliance assessments and agreed the liability payment in respect of the other two.

Action: Mrs McClintock to appeal HMRC’s ruling in relation to one of the non-compliance assessments and update the Commission accordingly.

Paula McClintock left the meeting at 11:33am.

11. FUTURE INVESTMENT IN POLITICS PLUS

Mrs Hogg presented an updated paper on the future investment in Politics Plus following initial discussion at the December Commission meeting.

Mrs Hogg advised Members of a number of reputational risks that may arise from the Assembly Commission’s relationship with Politics Plus and outlined three recommendations for consideration.

Following discussion, it was agreed that Mrs Hogg would prepare a further paper for the next meeting to address the issues raised by Members, including the deliverables from Politics Plus in 2019, the value of retaining any relationship with Politics Plus and how other models could ensure that MLAs had a role in determining their development needs.

Action: Mrs Hogg to prepare a further paper for consideration at the March meeting.

Robin Swann left the meeting at 11.59am.

12. ADVICE NOTE ON THE ASSEMBLY COMMISSON’S RELATIONSHIP WITH THE NORTHERN IRELAND PUBLIC SERVICES OMBUDSMAN (OMBUDSMAN)

Mr Ramsey reminded Members of the Commission’s specific responsibilities towards the Ombudsman, outlined the roles of other Assembly bodies in relation to the Ombudsman and highlighted that the Commission was one of the bodies which the Ombudsman can investigate. He noted that the Commission did not have a role in relation to overseeing and scrutinising the work of the Ombudsman.

Mr Ramsey also outlined two areas of Commission responsibility which were impacted by the Assembly not doing normal business – the Ombudsman’s salary and the commencement of powers relating to complaint handling procedures under the Public Services Ombudsman Act (NI) 2016. He advised Members that a further paper would be presented to the next meeting in relation to the Commission’s responsibilities for setting the Ombudsman’s salary. Mr Ramsey indicated that the need for a more detailed paper in relation to the commencement of the additional powers could be considered after the meeting with the Ombudsman.

In relation to the letter received from the Ombudsman dated 29 November 2018 and noted by Members at the December meeting, Members were content for the Speaker to reply to the Ombudsman noting the Commission’s responsibilities and for officials to pursue options for a meeting with the Ombudsman.

Robin Swann re-joined the meeting at 12.05pm.

Action: Mr Ramsey to agree a suitable date for Members to meet with the Ombudsman.

13. ASSEMBLY ARTEFACTS – PERMANENT EXHIBITION AND/OR LOANS TO EXTERNAL ORGANISATIONS

Mr Stewart advised Members that this paper had been prepared following discussion at the December meeting when Members requested officials provide options for consideration on a way forward, regarding the display of Assembly artefacts currently held in storage.

Mr Stewart stated that it was important to assess if there was consensus with Members to have an exhibition of Assembly artefacts either on a permanent or temporary basis and either in Parliament Buildings or elsewhere.

Mr Wells view was that artefacts should be displayed and suggested placing a small number (changed on a regular basis) in glass cabinets, similar to those used to display gifts presented to the Speaker.  He proposed in the short term, if the Speaker was in agreement, to use one of the Speaker’s existing cabinets.

Alex Maskey MLA stated that he was not opposed to a small number of artefacts being displayed on a short-term basis but was against a permanent display due to the imbalance of artefacts in the building.

Mr Swann proposed approaching other institutions regarding the possible loan of artefacts, in order to balance the artefacts displayed.

Mr Dickson MLA asked if the artefacts had been removed from the First Minister’s office and placed in appropriate storage. Mr Stewart advised that the artefacts remained stored in the First Minister’s office as the First Minister and deputy First Minister’s offices were currently under the control of the Assembly Commission. Mr Dickson expressed the view that the First Minister’s office should be cleared and the artefacts placed in storage.

In light of the views of Members, the Speaker proposed that a further paper be prepared for a future meeting giving consideration to ways of addressing the balance of artefacts to be displayed, should Members agree to a permanent exhibition.

Action: Mr Stewart to prepare a further paper for consideration at a future Commission meeting.

Simon Burrowes, Head of Public Engagement, joined the meeting at 12.23pm for agenda item 14.

14. REQUEST FOR EXTERNAL LIGHTING OF PARLIAMENT BUILDINGS TO MARK THE EUROPEAN DAY FOR VICTIMS OF TERRORISM

Simon Burrowes provided an update on the position of a request considered at the Commission meeting on 22 January 2019 to light Parliament Buildings to mark European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Terrorism.

Members noted that a request to light the building on that day had now been received from the South East Fermanagh Foundation (SEFF).

The Speaker reminded Members that the lighting policy required a decision on this request to be taken by consensus.

Following consideration, Members were content that the request from the SEFF was within the scope of the policy given the significance of the 15th anniversary of the Madrid bombings, approved the request to light the building on 11 March 2019.

Action: Mr Burrowes to inform the SEFF that their lighting request has been approved.

Members also noted that a review of the lighting policy was to be undertaken by officials.

Simon Burrowes left the meeting at 12.33pm.

Before moving to Item 15, the Speaker returned to Mr Dickson’s earlier proposal and sought clarification as to whether he was proposing that the formal meeting should continue without officials or whether he was seeking a short break to give an opportunity for Commission Members to engage informally. Mr Dickson confirmed that an opportunity for an informal discussion between Members would be helpful. There being no objection from other Members, the meeting was adjourned.

The meeting adjourned at 12.33pm and resumed at 12.58pm.

15. REVIEW OF IFRP DETERMINATION

Mr Stewart advised Members that both he and the Clerk/Chief Executive, Mrs Hogg had met with Party Whips on 30 January 2019 to discuss concerns relating to aspects of the Assembly Members (Salaries and Expenses) Determination (Northern Ireland) 2016 as outlined in their correspondence to the Speaker.

Members noted the issues raised by Whips. Mr Maskey acknowledged the work that officials were doing in relation to the EU issue raised under agenda item 8 (EU Exit – Impact on Determination). He also acknowledged the long established position that Commission Members should not be involved in decisions regarding the administration of Members’ salaries and allowances and that the Commission could not interfere with the Determination. In view of the fact that all parties had expressed concerns, he proposed that it might be

appropriate for the Clerk/Chief Executive to write to the SoS regarding the EU issue and at the same time communicate the concerns of all parties in relation to MLAs’ staff terms and conditions.

Consensus was received from Members to follow the approach as proposed by Mr Maskey.

Action: Mrs Hogg to write to the SoS regarding the EU issue and at the same time communicate the concerns raised by all parties

in relation to MLAs’ staff terms and conditions.

16. AOB

Mr Attwood asked for an update on the Pay and Grading Review to be provided at the March meeting.

Action: Mr Stewart to provide an update on the Pay and Grading Review at the March Commission meeting.

17. DATE OF NEXT MEETING

The next meeting is scheduled for 28 March 2019 at 10am.

The meeting concluded at 1.15pm.

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