Review of the current organisation of the business week of the Northern Ireland Assembly
Date: 29 April 2014
Reference: NIA 175/11-15
Mandate Number: Mandate 2011/15 Third Report
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This report marks the completion of the Committee on Procedures’ review of the current organisation of the business week in the Northern Ireland Assembly, which it agreed to undertake on 24 September 2013.
The review aimed to establish whether any opportunity existed to not only enhance Assembly effectiveness but also further its family friendly aspirations through better use of time during the normal business week.
To inform itself on these issues, the Committee considered written submissions from the Speaker, the House of Commons, the Houses of the Oireachtas, the National Assembly for Wales, the Scottish Parliament, the Business Committee, the Alliance Party, the Democratic Unionist Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the United Kingdom Independence Party, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Executive Committee. Sinn Féin and individual Members gave their views orally at the meetings. Comparative research was also commissioned into scheduling of business in UK legislatures and the Dáil.
Members considered the views of stakeholders on current arrangements and examples of best practice. Every Parliament or Assembly operates within its own unique set of circumstances. The current arrangements for the Assembly of two plenary days, one of which should end at 6.00pm, combined with two committee days and one constituency day works well for Members and has become an established routine that allows Members to plan ahead and make best use of their time. The Committee therefore agreed that the existing model of the business week in the Northern Ireland Assembly is fit for purpose and therefore recommended that no changes be made to the current organisation of the business week within the Assembly.
Summary of Recommendations
1. The Committee agreed that trying to predict when and how the business week should be amended to meet plenary variations was undesirable and therefore recommended that a standard business week be set for the duration of a mandate with no attempt to try and predict fluctuations.
2. The Committee recommended that while the scheduling of committee meetings during plenary time is not ideal and should be discouraged, changing the structure of the business week to accommodate extra time for committee meetings would not be desirable.
3. The Committee concluded that the current organisation of the business week is fit for purpose and recommended that no changes be made to the current organisation of the business week within the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Introduction and Background
1. At the start of the 2011/15 mandate, the Committee on Procedures (the Committee) agreed to gather data on the duration of committee and plenary proceedings. This was done on foot of its predecessor’s legacy report, with a view to monitoring late sittings and the impact of these on family friendly aspirations of the Assembly. This was ongoing in September 2013.
2. At its meeting of 24 September 2013, the Committee considered a letter from the Director of Clerking and Reporting, highlighting an Assembly and Executive Review Committee (AERC) report that had issued following that Committee’s review of the Number of Members in the Assembly in 20121. The AERC had undertaken this review as part of a programme of Parliamentary reform.
3. Among other findings the report noted that, “in relation to plenary business, it was apparent from evidence considered (when comparing the Assembly to other legislatures) that there was some variety of practice in the scheduling of parliamentarians’ business. The AERC therefore concluded that there may be opportunities to enhance Assembly effectiveness in this regard”.
4. After considering the correspondence, research papers prepared as part of the AERC review2 and a further research paper drafted to bring findings up to date3, the Committee agreed it would undertake a review of the current structure of the business week. It also agreed that it would be appropriate for this inquiry to include both the outstanding AERC issue and its own work in relation to family friendly aspirations.
5. The Committee was clear from the start that this inquiry would not include any aspect relating to the scheduling of business, which, under Standing Order 10(2)4, is clearly a matter for the Business Committee.
6. At its meeting on 22 October 2013, the Committee agreed an outline timeframe, an outline work programme and the following terms of reference:
i. To set out the current organisation of the business week of the Northern Ireland Assembly;
ii. To identify the key strengths and constraining factors of current arrangements;
iii. To examine the models used in other legislatures for achieving balance between the competing pressures of the business week including plenary, committees and Members’ party and constituency commitments;
iv. To propose alternative models designed to meet the specific needs of the Assembly, taking into account any wider implications of proposals as well as any potential for increasing flexibility, effectiveness and family friendly considerations; and
v. To make recommendations.
7. The Committee noted that, in common with other UK legislatures, some reference to the organisation of the business week was made in Standing Orders (SOs). However, by and large, this focussed on the timing of plenary proceedings, rather than the timing of committee meetings, which was commonly determined by convention and adapted in response to business needs.
8. The Committee further noted that the Belfast Agreement and Northern Ireland Act 1998 specified certain requirements for the establishment of committees and the need for these to be codified in SOs5. However, there was no reference to timing or frequency of meetings. Having established the background, the Committee was content that changes to the organisation of the business week could be considered without the need to consider amendments to existing legislation.
9. It was agreed that the starting point for any review of the organisation of the Assembly business week is a recognition of the competing demands that constituency, party, plenary and committee responsibilities make on Members’ time and a realisation that the emphasis placed on each of these priorities may vary from Member to Member.
10. As a result, the Committee agreed that trying to identify a model that met all individual Members’ priorities would be virtually impossible, particularly as these would likely change between one mandate and the next. The Committee therefore agreed that it would be more appropriate to seek party views and to use these, together with other stakeholder responses, as a basis for its review.
11. The Committee agreed to place a public notice on the website and to invite written submissions from other legislatures, the Executive Committee, the parties represented in the Assembly and the Speaker/Business Committee.
12. In response to its call for evidence, the Committee received twelve submissions. These were from the Scottish Parliament, the Houses of the Oireachtas, the National Assembly for Wales (NAW), the House of Commons Procedure Committee (HOC), the Speaker, the Business Committee, the Alliance Party, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Executive Committee (the Executive). Sinn Féin and individual Members gave their views orally at the meetings.
13. To complement this evidence the Committee also considered comparative research on scheduling of business in other UK legislatures and the Dáil.
Consideration of Key Issues
The current organisation of the business week of the Assembly
14. In order to facilitate examination of strengths and constraining factors of the Assembly model of the business week, the Committee considered the day-to-day activities of a typical week6.
15. The Committee noted that the current arrangement indicated equal importance attached to plenary and committee business, with two days being set aside weekly to each.
16. This model facilitated at least one full day for constituency work (potentially more depending on Members’ committee commitments) while at the same time allowing a segment on Monday mornings up to noon, during which party meetings are currently scheduled.
17. In terms of family friendly practices the Committee noted two points. First, that by codifying a “normal” finishing time in Standing Orders (6.00pm on Monday7) family friendly aspirations were formalised. The Committee considered whether the finishing time on Tuesday should be subject to the same provision in Standing Orders as Monday sittings, namely, that a motion must be agreed to allow the sitting to be extended into the evening. The Committee considered data on adjournment times after 6.00pm in the last mandate and the current mandate, and concluded that as there were only a few really late sittings, there should be no change to the current arrangements for Tuesday finishing times. Second, having no plenary or Committee business scheduled for Monday mornings or Fridays meant that travel time from outlying constituencies was facilitated without the need to cut into weekends.
18. As a final point, the Committee noted that the inclusion of a break in plenary sittings at lunch time on Tuesdays allowed Members to conduct other business in Parliament Buildings (although it is worth noting that plenary could finish earlier if there is no lunch break). The SDLP8 highlighted this as a useful inclusion in the model noting it permitted time during the working day for engagement and All Party Groups.
Models used in other legislatures
19. The Committee looked at information relating to the structure of the business week operating in other legislatures9. This approach provided a useful basis for comparison with the Assembly model described previously.
20.The Committee examined these models and noted, as stated in the AERC report, that all the models differed from that operating in the Assembly. The Committee also noted that the models differed from each other and that in each case the model had been devised in response to specific requirements in that legislature. Interestingly, none were hailed by the respective legislatures as a perfect solution, with various shortcomings identifiable in each case.
21. In the DUP’s submission10 to the Committee it was suggested that the unique landscape in which the NIA operated would necessitate a unique arrangement of the business week, suggesting that models in other legislatures were unlikely to be appropriate in their entirety, but should rather be examined for examples of best practice only. Having examined the models operating in the other legislatures and how they had been formulated, the Committee agreed.
22. Having reached this conclusion, the Committee then went on to examine the other legislative models for examples of best practice that had potential to be applied in the local context.
House of Commons
23. Arrangements within the HOC have been reviewed recently11, and three issues were highlighted as drivers for undertaking this work. These were the increasing constituency caseload for Members, the increasing pressure being put on the Backbench Business Committee on the time it is given by Government and a desire to sustain the current amount of business passing through the House.
24. The HOC model shows concurrent sittings of plenary and committee throughout the business week, which usually runs from 2.30pm on Monday afternoons to Thursday evening, with late sittings a frequent occurrence. The HOC response notes that there are thirteen Friday sittings during each session, which are used to consider Private Members’ Business.
25. A major constraint identified was commuting time, hence the limited use of Monday mornings and Fridays for scheduled parliamentary business.
26. The HOC review recognised the difficulties involved in effectively combining the many and varied roles of a Member into a “9 to 5” working day, but also acknowledged that extending sitting hours excessively could have a detrimental impact on inclusivity.
27. The report concluded that the current balance provides an effective balance since there is a demonstrable inclusion of a wide variety of people from all walks of life and circumstances who have entered parliament under these arrangements. It therefore recommended that any radical change to sitting hours is undesirable, suggesting it may have perverse and unforeseen consequences.
28. The review also explored the suggestion that providing greater certainty of when Members were required to be present in the House may be helpful in this regard, and examined the option of greater use of deferred voting as a possible solution. Ultimately however, it recommended that this should not be done before looking at the matter separately, in more detail.
29. Interestingly, instead of suggesting the greater use of deferred voting, the review recommends “urging the Government to redouble its efforts to provide Members with accurate and timely information about the business which is to be taken in the Chamber”; a theme that was highlighted by the Speaker of the Assembly in his response to the Committee’s inquiry.
30. Having examined the HOC model and response, the Committee concluded that while suitable for the UK Parliament with its larger geographical area, greater travelling times and unique requirements, the NIA model would not be enhanced by including any further aspects of the HOC model.
The Houses of the Oireachtas
31. The model applied in the Dáil is in some ways similar to that applied in the HOC, with concurrent plenary and committee sittings throughout the business week. In contrast though, the Dáil business week typically runs from Tuesday afternoon to Thursday evening with limited business taken every second Friday (four hour session in the morning intended for the debate of Private Members’ Bills and committee reports). No business is conducted on Monday or after Friday lunchtime.
32. The driver highlighted for formulating the current model was to allow Members time in their constituencies from Friday to Monday, with Tuesday morning and Thursday evening being used for travelling.
33. The Dáil response notes that while the model generally works, there are issues around the Friday sittings and the fact that plenary and committee sit concurrently. This, it says, requires that Members frequently have to choose between attending committee or a relevant plenary session. The response notes that consideration has been given to having a “Committee week” once a month to alleviate this problem, but that this would bring its own problems, given that committees still need to meet more frequently than once a month. Transferring Friday sittings to Tuesday morning was also mooted, but again not adopted.
34. Having examined the Dáil model and taken account of details provided in its response, the Committee concluded that while it was effective in a jurisdiction with a larger geographical area and greater travelling times than Northern Ireland, the NIA model would not be enhanced by including any aspects of the Dáil model.
National Assembly for Wales
35. The NAW response notes that the model operating in that jurisdiction was devised to facilitate dual legislative and policy scrutiny committees with specific attention being paid to avoiding committee membership clashes and, as far as possible, avoiding committee and plenary meeting at the same time. Other objectives highlighted are allowing sufficient plenary time to meet legislative deadlines and to facilitate travelling time for Members from outlying constituencies, while still allowing time for recess and meetings of political groups.
36. The NAW model sets aside Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays for committee meetings, with plenary on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons, meaning that concurrent sittings must be facilitated. Mondays and Fridays are left for constituency business and travelling time, with only exceptional committee business scheduled on Monday afternoons if required.
37. The Committee was interested to note that the NAW had codified its family friendly aspirations in NAW Standing Order 11.10. This states that the Assembly timetable “must have regard to the family and constituency or electoral responsibilities of Members and their likely travel arrangements, and should normally seek to avoid timetabling business before 9.00am or after 6.00pm on any working day”. However, the respondent pointed out that legislative business obviously takes priority and it has become common for plenary business to be scheduled for after 6.00pm, and later finishes are becoming more common.
38. The Committee agreed that while it was commendable to codify aspirations in such detail, it was obvious that in reality they had limited value and suggested that inclusion of any such detail in NIA Standing Orders would not provide added value.
39. The Scottish Parliament response highlighted its report on the remodelling of the business week published on 21 December 2011 and noted two main changes resulting from the review. These were the introduction of a new Topical Question Time at the start of the first day of plenary business each week and, of greater interest, a reorganisation of plenary time to facilitate sittings each Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoon. Morning sessions on the same days were allocated to committee business and no business was scheduled for Monday or Friday.
40. The report highlighted its objectives in devising this new model as being to protect the parity of esteem given to Chamber and committee business and, second, to protect time for engagement with civic Scotland.
41. The review recognised that although some reduction of the time available for committee meetings would be introduced by this model, it was vital that concurrent sittings of plenary and committee be avoided as far as possible. Family friendly aspirations were achieved by defining a “normal” sitting day, which could be extended by laying a motion, rather than extending sitting times as a standard arrangement.
42. The changes that were introduced in September 2012 have been reviewed recently12, and the conclusion of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee report was that, overall, the reforms have been successful in creating a more responsive and agile Parliament.
43. Having examined the Scottish model and response, the Committee concluded that while suitable for the Parliament with its larger geographical area, greater travelling times and unique objectives, the NIA model would not be enhanced by including any aspects of the Scottish model.
Strengths and constraints of the current arrangements
44. Having examined other models, the Committee moved on to examine the model of the Assembly business week in conjunction with stakeholder submissions in order to identify strengths and constraining factors of current arrangements.
45. Of the twelve responses received from stakeholders, the four received from the other legislatures focussed on arrangements and models in operation in those organisations rather than strengths and constraints of the current Assembly arrangements. For this reason, input to this section of the review was limited.
46. The Committee was interested to note that in the remaining six responses a clear view was expressed that there was no compelling case for change in respect of current arrangements. This supported the Committee’s emerging view, after examining models of other legislatures, that although each was effective in its own setting, there was nothing to be gained by mirroring any aspects in the NIA model.
47. The DUP stated specifically13 that the current arrangement is effective and that the balance is correct. The Executive14 response explains further, stating that there is general consensus that the current model is effective and provides an appropriate balance for Ministers and Members, and for the balance of plenary, committee, departmental and constituency business.
48. In addition to the general structure of the business week, the Committee also examined views on family friendly aspirations with a view to ensuring arrangements were as inclusive as possible. It noted that among the six main respondents considered in this section, there was consensus that family friendly considerations were important and should be taken into account wherever possible.
49. The Committee noted, with interest, the Executive view that the current structure of the business week is already broadly in accordance with family friendly aspirations and went as far as to suggest that changes were more likely to impact negatively on such practices rather than adding to them. The Committee noted that this view mirrored that expressed in the report by the HOC, highlighted above.
50. In addition to this general agreement in respect of the suitability of the existing model, the Committee noted points raised in stakeholder responses, which it was suggested may enhance existing arrangements. These were:
a. Varying the business week over a mandate
The Alliance Party15 and the Executive suggested there may be value in varying the structure of the business week over the course of a mandate to make it more responsive to the peaks and troughs in plenary business.
However, the Committee noted the Speaker’s16 response, which suggests the opposite. He suggests that it is better to ensure sufficient flexibility in standard arrangements to facilitate fluctuations in business over the course of a mandate rather than trying to predict peaks and troughs. The Speaker suggests that the real issue is the lack of a legislative programme for government which would ensure a more managed work flow programme for the Assembly. The Committee considered whether Standing Orders should include a provision requiring a debate on the Executive’s proposed legislative programme at the start of each session, however it was not in favour of proposing such an amendment.
Having considered the conflicting proposals, the Committee agreed that trying to predict when and how the business week should be amended to meet plenary variations was undesirable and therefore recommended that a standard business week be set for the duration of a mandate with no attempt to try and predict fluctuations.
b. Greater use of deferred voting
The Alliance Party suggested that greater use of deferred voting in plenary had the potential to enhance the current model of business. The Committee noted that this deferral of all votes to a specific day, or until a specific time at the end of a business day could be considered, but agreed it would be more appropriate to take this forward as a separate issue as it did not affect the structure of the business week and was therefore strictly outside the remit of this review.
c. Prevention of concurrent scheduling of committee and plenary business
In its response the SDLP suggests that the practice of scheduling committee meetings during plenary time, particularly during Question Times should be stopped entirely.
The Committee examined the current model to determine the extent to which this occurs at present, and noted that such scheduling only affects three committees. Of these only one (Agriculture and Rural Development) meets weekly. The AERC meets every two weeks, not during Question Time, and the Audit Committee only meets four times a year.
The Committee recommended that while the scheduling of committee meetings during plenary time is not ideal and should be discouraged, changing the structure of the business week to accommodate extra time for committee meetings would not be desirable.
d. Sharing emerging findings with the Clerk/Chief Executive
The Committee noted the Speaker’s suggestion that the ramifications of any changes to the NIA business week as a result of this review had the potential to impact on more than just Members. The Speaker suggested that the Committee consider sharing emerging findings with the Clerk/Chief Executive of the Assembly so that an impact assessment and resource implications can be considered.
An email cover note received together with the HOC response had also highlighted the impact changes to the structure of the business week could have, detailing how the HOC decision to shorten a single sitting day had also impacted on catering services (a 58% fall in sales on that day) and retail opportunities for visitors with earlier closing times in shops.
The Committee recognised the importance of this issue and agreed to share all emerging findings with the Clerk/Chief Executive in a timely manner.
51. On the basis of the evidence presented, the Committee concluded that the discharge of core tasks and the effectiveness of plenary and committee work is challenged by the time and capacity of Members and the support and resources available to them. Evidence provided by parties and other stakeholders recognised this, but the overwhelming indication was that the current organisation of the business week is fit for purpose and the Committee therefore recommended that no changes be made to the current organisation of the business week within the NIA.
1 AERC Committee report NIA 52/11-15
2 Scheduling Parliamentary Time – NIAR 229-12 (12 April 2012); Further Information on plenary and committee business in the NI Assembly and other legislatures – NIAR 274-12 (3 May 2012)
3 Further information on scheduling parliamentary time – NIAR 679-13 (18 September 2013)
4 NI Assembly Standing Orders
5 Section 29 of Northern Ireland Act 1998 – Statutory committees; Schedule 6 (4) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 – Standing Orders: Further Provision; Paragraphs 8 and 10 of Strand One of the Belfast Agreement; Section 60 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and Section 66 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
6 Diagram 1 – included at Appendix 3
7 Northern Ireland Assembly Standing Order 10(2)
8 Stakeholder response included at Appendix 2
9 Diagram 2 – included at Appendix 3
10 Stakeholder response included at Appendix 2
11 HOC Procedure Committee Report – Sitting Hours and the Parliamentary Calendar (First Report of Session 2012-13)
12 Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee Report – Review of Parliamentary Reform – 1st Report, 2014 (Session 4)
13 Stakeholder response included at Appendix 2
14 Stakeholder response included at Appendix 2
15 Stakeholder response included at Appendix 2
16 Stakeholder response included at Appendix 2