Minutes of Proceedings
Session: Session currently unavailable
Date: 05 November 2019
Meeting Venue: Room 106, Parliament Buildings
Meeting date: Tuesday 5 November 2019
Meeting Time: 2.00pm
Assembly Commission Members:
Mr Jim Wells MLA
Mr Alex Maskey MLA
Mr Colin McGrath MLA
Mr Robin Swann MLA
Mr Stewart Dickson MLA
Mrs Lesley Hogg, Ms Tara Caul, Dr Gareth McGrath, Mr Richard Stewart, Mr Robin Ramsey, Ms Frances Leneghan and Mrs Janet Hughes
Others in attendance:
Mr Derek Martin, Independent Member of Secretariat Audit and Risk Committee (SARC)
Mr Jonathan McMillen, Head of Legal Services (Items 12 and 13)
Mr Ken Eccles, Head of Security (Item 14)
Mr Simon Burrowes, Head of Official Report and Public Engagement (Item 17)
The meeting commenced at 2.05pm.
No apologies were received.
2. DECLARATION OF INTERESTS
There were no declarations of interest.
3. CHAIRPERSON’S BUSINESS
The Speaker noted that Robin Ramsey, Adviser to the Speaker/Head Corporate Support, had written to MLAs whose votes are currently unallocated on the Assembly Commission in July, to see if they wished to allocate their vote in accordance with the Assembly Commission Handbook.
Mr Ramsey advised that three responses had been received, that Mr Jim Allister MLA had requested that his vote be allocated to Mr Jim Wells MLA and that Mr Steven Agnew MLA and Ms Clare Bailey MLA had stated that they did not wish to allocate their votes at this time. As Mr Agnew has since resigned from the position of MLA, Mr Ramsey confirmed that he had written to his successor, Rachel Woods MLA, seeking her response on the matter.
Mr Ramsey confirmed that while the Handbook allowed for the allocation of votes, Members were not required to do so and that as the Assembly Commission sought to reach decisions by consensus, voting was infrequent.
The Speaker also informed Members that Colin McGrath MLA, had notified him of a matter that he would like to raise in relation to constituency office security and it was agreed that this would be considered under AOB.
4. MINUTES OF PREVIOUS MEETING
Draft minutes from the Assembly Commission meeting on 5 September 2019 were issued to Members on 1 October 2019 for consideration. These were agreed.
5. MATTERS ARISING
There were no matters arising.
6. ASSEMBLY COMMISSION ACTIONS
Members noted the status of actions.
7.1 Members noted the Speaker’s response to the Chair of Politics Plus in relation to his letter on the future strategic direction of Politics Plus, which followed the meeting between the Assembly Commission and Board of Politics Plus.
The Speaker advised Members that officials had prepared a paper for consideration in relation to this issue and confirmed that it would be dealt with under agenda item 10.
7.2 The Speaker drew attention to his response to the Northern Ireland Youth Forum (NIYF) in relation to its letter on the launch of its youth assembly. The Speaker noted that the issue of a sitting of the NIYF’s youth assembly being held in the Chamber was one for him in his capacity as Speaker rather than being an Assembly Commission matter, but that he wanted to make the Assembly Commission aware of NIYF’s continuing interest in the development of a youth assembly.
Mr McGrath MLA declared his involvement in advising NIYF on the development of its youth assembly. He also queried the time being taken to establish a Commission-supported Northern Ireland Youth Assembly and the impact that it was having on holding other events in the interim.
Mr Ramsey reminded Members that the Assembly Commission had agreed in June 2019 that it was not credible to establish a Northern Ireland Youth Assembly when the Assembly itself was not sitting. He noted that, as also agreed at the Assembly Commission meeting in June 2019, work was continuing on the preparation of a detailed paper on the preferred option for a Northern Ireland Youth Assembly, namely one which would be directly supported by the Assembly Commission.
Mr Ramsey added that, given the interest amongst a range of youth groups in supporting the development of a Northern Ireland Youth Assembly, the Speaker was conscious of avoiding doing anything, including granting use of the Chamber to specific organisations who have expressed an interest in leading a Northern Ireland Youth Assembly in the future, due to potential or perceived conflicts of interest.
However, it was noted that the Speaker intended to review the matter again early in 2020 if the wider political situation had not changed and the implementation of a Northern Ireland Youth Assembly by the Assembly Commission was therefore further delayed.
Mr Jim Wells MLA joined the meeting at 2.13pm and confirmed that he had no interests to declare.
The Speaker proposed that Mr McGrath MLA could consider whether it would be useful to seek an update from officials on the work that has previously been undertaken to develop a Northern Ireland Youth Assembly.
Action: Mr McGrath MLA to advise officials if he wishes to receive an update on the work that has previously been undertaken by the Assembly Commission to develop a Youth Assembly.
7.3 Members noted the Speaker’s response to the Chair of the Northern Ireland Assembly Women’s Caucus regarding potential reform of the Independent Financial Review Panel, following the previous Assembly Commission meeting.
7.4 Members noted correspondence from Ms Kellie Armstrong MLA in relation to broadband speeds in the Long Gallery.
The Speaker advised Members that officials had investigated this matter and that the Clerk/Chief Executive would cover this in her Report to the Assembly Commission at agenda item 8.
7.5 Members noted correspondence from the Chair of Politics Plus in relation to activities and outcomes for 2018.
The Speaker advised Members that this would be considered under agenda item 9.
7.6 Members noted the Speaker’s letter to the Secretary of State (SoS) advising that the Assembly Commission had identified a suitable candidate for nomination as Acting Ombudsman, advising of the Assembly Commission’s concerns that the Office of the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman has been vacant since 16 July 2019 and requesting an indication on the SoS’s thinking on the need for legislation to confer the power of nomination of an Ombudsman or Acting Ombudsman on a body other than the Assembly.
7.7 Members noted correspondence from the Chair of the Northern Ireland Assembly Women’s Caucus in relation to the Independent Financial Review Panel Determination and media coverage.
The Speaker noted that the issues raised were perhaps more related to journalistic decisions than to Assembly Commission matters and Members were content for the Speaker to take advice from officials before replying to the Caucus.
Action: Speaker to seek advice from officials and issue a reply to the Chair of the Northern Ireland Assembly Women’s Caucus.
7.8 Members noted further correspondence from the Chair of the Northern Ireland Assembly Women’s Caucus in relation to a Gender Survey.
Members were content for the Speaker to reply to the Caucus stating that the Assembly Commission was supportive of this work.
Action: Speaker to issue a reply to the Chair of the Northern Ireland Assembly Women’s Caucus.
7.9 Members noted correspondence from the Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association seeking a meeting with the Assembly Commission about the role of the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman in relation to councillors’ conduct and, a review of the Code of Conduct for Councillors.
The Speaker noted that the Code of Conduct for Councillors was not within the remit of the Assembly Commission nor related to its limited responsibilities towards the Ombudsman. Members were content for the Speaker to reply on this basis and to include an update on the action taken in relation to the vacancy in the Office of the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman.
Action: Speaker to issue a reply to the Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association.
7.10 Finally, Members noted correspondence from the Chair of the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman Audit and Risk Committee to the SoS, urging for a mechanism to be put in place to enable the appointment of an Acting Ombudsman as soon as possible.
Action: Speaker to issue an acknowledgement to the Chair of the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman Audit and Risk Committee.
8. CLERK/CHIEF EXECUTIVE UDPATE REPORT
Lesley Hogg, Clerk/Chief Executive provided Members with an update on the key issues, which had arisen since the June Assembly Commission meeting, namely:
Mrs Hogg advised Members that the Staff in Post (SiP) figure on 1 October 2019 was 303.5 Full Time Equivalents (FTE) against a complement of 353.4 FTE. Due to the level of FTE vacancies that now exist, Mrs Hogg informed Members that this was likely to have an impact on the Assembly Commission’s readiness to return to normal Assembly business at short notice.
Members also noted that in keeping with the principle of Retaining Readiness, work had commenced on three external recruitment competitions for permanent positions within the IS Office and a small number of internal temporary positions.
Mrs Hogg referred Members to the Management Accounts for September 2019 and advised that these reflected the September monitoring exercise.
Mrs Hogg confirmed that the full year forecast had been prepared on the basis that there would not be a return to full Assembly business during the remainder of this financial year and that when there were confirmed plans for a return to normal Assembly business, the budget would have to be reforecast and the Department of Finance informed of the required additional resources. It was also noted that a further monitoring exercise would be carried out in December.
Draft Corporate Plan 2019-23
Mrs Hogg confirmed that a significant amount of work had been carried out to develop a draft Corporate Plan for 2019-23 that would accompany the draft Corporate Strategy 2018-23. She advised that feedback on the draft Plan following consultation with staff was being considered and that it would be presented to the Assembly Commission at its December meeting alongside a draft Annual Plan for 2019-20. She noted that once the draft Corporate Plan 2019-23 was approved, it would enable Annual Plans and budgets to be developed and agreed in tandem.
Action: Draft Corporate Plan 2019-23 and draft Annual Plan 2019-20 to be presented to the Assembly Commission at its December meeting.
Update on Inappropriate Behaviours
Mrs Hogg advised Members that officials had been continuing work on the development of an ‘Inappropriate Behaviours Policy’ and ‘Behaviour Code for those working in or visiting Parliament Buildings’. She explained the difficulty in developing such a Policy in the absence of a co-ordinated approach between the Assembly Commission and a yet to be established Committee on Standards and Privileges.
Mrs Hogg also advised that the approach being taken in other legislatures was continuing to evolve on the basis of practical application and that officials were planning to visit the House of Commons and House of Lords to discuss their potential future developments.
Mrs Hogg confirmed that a further update would be provided to the Assembly Commission at its December meeting following the visit to Westminster.
Action: Mrs Hogg to provide a further update on Inappropriate Behaviours at the December Assembly Commission meeting.
Mrs Hogg informed Members of a potential Iitigation case in relation to a ‘holiday pay’ claim.
Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)
Mrs Hogg provided Members with an update on the tendering exercise to replace the current telephone system in Parliament Buildings and confirmed that it was launched on 24 September 2019.
It was noted that once the evaluation of bids was completed a further paper would be brought to the Assembly Commission for consideration prior to award of any contract.
Mrs Hogg confirmed that a new system was required, regardless of the use of the building, as the current system had reached the end of its life and was no longer being supported by the manufacturer or maintenance company.
Request for Loan of Assembly Artefact
Mrs Hogg informed Members that loan requests had been received in respect of the Ulster Tabard and the Chair of the State Throne. In line with the Assembly Commission’s previously agreed policy, that a loan of artefacts that are not on display in Parliament Buildings could be approved by the Clerk/ Chief Executive and the Speaker, she advised that she and the Speaker had approved these temporary loans for short-term exhibitions
Ms Kellie Armstrong MLA Broadband Complaint
Mrs Hogg outlined a complaint received from Ms Armstrong in correspondence to the Speaker’s Office regarding broadband speeds in the Long Gallery, Room 29 and Room 30 when videos were required to be accessed via the internet. Ms Armstrong advised that it was a formal complaint and requested that an independent, external organisation, compare the provision of internet provision with that of an external company.
Mrs Hogg advised that the Speaker had asked officials to investigate the complaint.
Mrs Hogg confirmed that the IS Office had investigated this complaint and outlined the findings of a comprehensive report on the matter. The key conclusions were that the main problem was not the general speed of the Wi-Fi in the rooms concerned but that the event organiser had not given notice of their needs in advance and was instead using the open Wi-Fi network, which is not designed for such purposes. Mrs Hogg informed Members that the IS Office had set up a new dedicated Wi-Fi network specifically for events and that written guidance for MLAs and guests sponsoring or attending events was being developed.
Members were content that the issue had been dealt with and that an external investigation was not required. It was agreed that the Speaker would respond to Ms Armstrong based on the findings of the investigation and that he would remind Ms Armstrong that operational issues are better raised with officials at the time of the issue so that it can be resolved, rather than seeking to bring every issue to the Assembly Commission.
Action: Speaker to issue a reply to Ms Armstrong.
Exploration of Potential Childcare Provision on the Stormont Estate
Mrs Hogg advised Members that the feasibility of opening a pre-school childcare facility on the Stormont Estate for use by MLAs, MLA’s staff, Secretariat staff and Northern Ireland Civil Service staff working on the Estate was being explored. It was noted that discussions were at a very early stage and that a considerable amount of work still needed to be done. Mrs Hogg confirmed that a proposal would be brought to the Assembly Commission for consideration at a later date.
Use of Resources during a General Election
Mrs Hogg informed Members that in light of the upcoming General Election guidance would issue to MLAs on the use of resources funded by the Assembly Commission during an election campaign.
9. POLITICS PLUS REPORT ON 2018 ACTIVITY
Members noted the annual report from Politics Plus on its activities during 2018.
Action: Speaker to issue a reply to the Chair of Politics Plus.
10. TRANSITION OF DELIVERY OF MEMBER DEVELOPMENT AND SUPPORT FOR THE ASSEMBLY WOMEN’S CAUCUS FROM POLITICS PLUS TO THE ASSEMBLY COMMISSION
Gareth McGrath, Director of Parliamentary Services referred Members to previous papers on this matter during the last year. He advised that the purpose of this paper was to set out a proposed approach whereby delivery of Member development and support for the Assembly Women’s Caucus would be transitioned from Politics Plus to the Assembly Commission.
Dr McGrath outlined the phases of the proposed transition process and advised that in order to aid the transition he had been appointed to the Board of Politics Plus. Following consideration, Members were content for transition to proceed as proposed.
11. INCIDENTAL COSTS OF PARLIAMENTARY TRAVEL FOR MEMBERS
Richard Stewart, Director of Corporate Services advised that this paper was an update to previous papers on this issue, the most recent of which was presented at the Assembly Commission on 24 June 2019. Mr Stewart explained that at that meeting Members requested that a schedule of future British-Irish Parliamentary Association (BIPA) meetings be provided to help inform their decision.
Mr Stewart outlined the BIPA events planned for the remainder of 2019 and 2020 and following consideration, Members agreed that it was appropriate to classify incidental expenses incurred by MLAs on Parliamentary travel as falling within the services provided to the Assembly under section 40(4) of the 1988 Act.
Action: Mr Stewart to arrange for the proposed framework to be implemented.
Jonathan McMillen, Head of Legal Services joined the meeting at 2.51pm for agenda items 12 and 13.
12. RECOUPMENT OF RENT AND RATES
Mr Stewart presented this paper, which was prepared following a request by Mr Wells MLA at the 24 June 2019 Assembly Commission meeting. In presenting his paper, Mr Stewart advised Members that his paper addressed the recoupment of constituency office rent and rates in general terms and did not deal with any individual MLA specific issues.
Mr Stewart summarised the provisions of the 2016 Determination in relation to rent and rates. He then highlighted the Accounting Officer’s role under ‘Managing Public Money Northern Ireland’ (MPMNI) which is to assume personal responsibility for the regularity of the public resources that are provided to the Assembly Commission, and also MPMNI’s principle that public sector organisations should always pursue recovery of overpayments, irrespective of how they came to be made.
The Speaker re-iterated the fact that the Assembly Commission had, on a number of occasions, re-iterated its position that decisions on the payment of expenses to MLAs was delegated to the Clerk/Chief Executive so that decisions were taken independently from the elected representatives on the Assembly Commission.
A detailed discussion took place in relation to the provisions of the Independent Financial Review Panel 2016 Determination. Members expressed frustration at the impact on MLAs, their staff and their constituency responsibilities. Members expressed a view that the financial impact on MLAs was often disproportionate to issues of non-compliance identified, but recognised that officials had no discretion in implementing the Determination.
Mr Stewart proposed issuing a further reminder to all MLAs setting out the conditions for the recovery of constituency office rent or rates costs that are contained in paragraph 14 of the 2016 Determination. Members were content with this proposal.
Action: Mr Stewart to issue a reminder to all MLAs on the conditions for the recovery of constituency office rent or rates costs.
13. PROPOSED MEDIATION
Mr McMillen stated that the purpose of this paper was to seek Members views on how to proceed with resolving a dispute that had arisen between the Assembly Commission and a former MLA.
Mr McMillen outlined a number of options, which could be pursued in relation to this matter and authority was sought from the Assembly Commission to proceed with certain options.
Following discussion of the options, Members agreed that officials had authority to seek to settle the matter by use of mediation as outlined in the paper.
Action: Legal Services to seek to settle the matter by the use of mediation.
Jonathan McMillen left the meeting at 3.54pm.
Ken Eccles, Head of Security joined the meeting at 3.54pm for agenda item 14.
14. PROPOSED PARTIAL ELECTRONIC ACCESS CONTROL (EAC) SYSTEM – PARLIAMENT BUILDINGS
Ken Eccles, Head of Security, stated that the issue of an EAC system had been considered by the Assembly Commission on a number of occasions.
Mr Eccles drew Members’ attention to a number of security incidents over the years. He also advised that there had been a marked increase in the number of persons entering unauthorised areas of Parliament Buildings, due to the steady increase in the number of visitors, the greater access now afforded to visitors to view portraits and avail of dining facilities and the automation of doors in certain corridors. Mr Eccles stated that it remained the view of senior management that it was essential to have some form of EAC.
Mr Eccles stated that the Assembly Commission’s continued reliance upon Ushering and other accredited staff to identify and challenge unauthorised building users did not provide a satisfactory or sufficiently robust solution to the problem of unauthorised access.
Mr Eccles also advised Members of the current positon regarding EAC within other legislatures and he stated that the proposed partial system outlined would not only be a positive step to improving security within Parliament Buildings but could also assist with the wider public engagement efforts in Parliament Buildings.
Members agreed that consultation with their political parties was required on this matter and agreed to return to the issue again at the December Assembly Commission meeting.
Robin Swann MLA requested copies of the floor plans outlining the proposed positioning of the partial EAC system to allow Members to discuss this matter with their party colleagues.
Action: Assembly Commission Office to issue copies of the outline floor plans of the proposed partial EAC system to Members to enable them to discuss the proposal with their Parties.
Action: Mr Stewart to bring the paper back to the December Assembly Commission meeting.
Ken Eccles left the meeting at 4.02pm.
15. SYSTEMS REVIEW PROJECT
Mr Stewart explained that in line with the Clerk/Chief Executive’s delegation from the Assembly Commission, the Assembly Commission must be consulted before approval is given for ICT and consultancy projects costing more than £50,000. Therefore, Mr Stewart advised that this paper was the means of the required consultation. He advised Members that the proposed expenditure related to the need to re-tender for a wide range of corporate support systems including those used by the HR, Payroll, Finance and Procurement functions.
Mr Stewart confirmed that the review would look wider than just tendering for replacement systems, as it would also include a review of current processes to deliver more integrated, effective systems that will better meet the needs of the Assembly Commission.
Following consideration, Members agreed that the proposed expenditure was reasonable and approved the request. Mr Stewart confirmed that approval of any subsequent expenditure would be sought in line with the delegated authority guidelines in place within the Assembly Commission and that further updates would be provided to the Assembly Commission as the project progressed.
Action: Mr Stewart to bring a detailed Business Case to a future Assembly Commission meeting.
16. SECRETARIAT AUDIT AND RISK COMMITTEE (SARC) TERMS OF REFERENCE
Mrs Hogg outlined the key changes made by SARC to its Terms of Reference (ToR) from the version approved by the Assembly Commission in May 2009.
She advised Members that SARC’s ToR had been subject to a significant review in October 2016 following the publication of new HM Treasury guidance dated April 2016. Mrs Hogg further confirmed that they had also been reviewed to reflect good practice as set out in the Department of Finance Audit and Risk Assurance Committee Handbook dated April 2018.
Members were content to approve the presented version of the SARC ToR.
Simon Burrowes, Head of Official Report and Public Engagement joined the meeting at 4.14pm for agenda item 17.
17. REQUEST FOR EXTERNAL LIGHTING OF PARLIAMENT BUILDINGS TO MARK UN UNIVERSAL CHIILDREN’S DAY
Simon Burrowes presented a paper outlining a request that had been received from the Press Office, Department for Communities to illuminate Parliament Buildings in blue to mark UN Universal Children’s Day.
Members noted the advice that the request should be declined because it fell outside the scope of the policy. While Members were sympathetic to the importance of the cause, consensus was reached that the request should be declined to be consistent with the decision taken in relation to other recent requests, and in the context that a review of the policy was to be considered at the December meeting.
Members noted that work was continuing on the drafting of a revised Lighting Policy and following discussion Members expressed the view that the Policy should be more permissive in relation to applications such as this. Mr Burrowes confirmed that a revised Lighting Policy would be brought to the December Assembly Commission meeting for consideration.
Action: Mr Burrowes to notify the Department for Communities that its request to light Parliament Buildings had not been agreed.
Action: Revised Lighting Policy for Parliament Buildings to be presented at the December Assembly Commission meeting.
Simon Burrowes left the meeting at 4.22pm.
Mr McGrath MLA stated that a number of MLAs had asked him to raise an issue in relation to security at constituency offices and concerns for staff safety. He noted the limits on security provision within the Independent Financial Review Panel 2016 Determination and asked if it was possible to write to the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) to request funding for basic door security. Mrs Hogg confirmed that the NIO only dealt with personal security issues and that it would need to be a letter to the SoS asking for an amendment to the Determination. Given previous correspondence to the NIO on 2016 Determination matters, she thought it unlikely that such an amendment would be supported on this matter.
All other Members agreed that this was also a concern for them and Mr Wells MLA asked if funds could be used from the £2,000 allowance for establishment expenses to improve security measures. Mrs Hogg confirmed that monies could be used from this allowance but that approval of any expenditure would need to be sought in advance from the Finance Office.
Mrs Hogg stated that she understood that training would be developed and offered through the Member Development Programme for MLAs and their staff on this issue next year and proposed that in the meantime, officials would draft guidance setting out provisions in the 2016 Determination in relation to security measures along with the types of security measures that could be put in place taking into account those adopted by other MLAs or other devolved legislatures. She also confirmed that officials would look at the legal basis for further payments to cover such expenditure.
Action: Mr Stewart to draft guidance on provisions in the 2016 Determination in relation to security measures along with the types of security measures that could be put in place in constituency offices and also look at the legal basis for further payments to cover such expenditure.
There was no other business.
19. DATE OF NEXT MEETING
The afternoon of Monday, 16 December was proposed as the date for the next meeting. Officials to confirm this with Members.
The meeting concluded at 4.37pm.