Session: 2013/2014

Date: 01 October 2013

Reference: NIA 135/11-15

Mandate Number: Mandate 2011/2015 First Report

NIA-135-11-15.pdf (1.75 mb)

Executive Summary

This Review came about following a recommendation by the Assembly and Executive Review Committee (AERC) that it would be

“..prudent for the Assembly to make an early start to a review of the Assembly’s committee system and that the Chairpersons’ Liaison Group (CLG) should have an important role in this review.”

The terms of reference were agreed by CLG and it was decided that the review should be undertaken by a Committee Review Group (CRG) comprising one chairperson from each of the political parties represented on CLG and three external members who were appointed for their experience and expertise of parliamentary systems (Appendix 1).

While previous committee reviews have been undertaken, this was the first review to take an integrated approach across all aspects of the NI Assembly committee system in terms of its roles, structures and processes with the aim of identifying new ways of improving the capacity and effectiveness of committees in delivering their policy development, scrutiny and legislative roles.

CRG agreed a high level vision that

“The Assembly should have an outstanding, progressive and resourced system that enhances the capacity and effectiveness of statutory and standing committees in delivering their statutory and other functions.”

Early discussions at CRG concluded that chairpersons are largely content with the overall architecture of the current committee system. In coming to this conclusion, members of CRG note that statutory committees have a wide remit, with powers to call ministers and departments to account, hold inquiries and shape legislation. Informally, committees have significant influence in their relevant sphere of policy.

CRG is mindful of the prevailing political and constitutional climate as part of which there has been considerable debate about proposals to reduce the number of Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) and reorganise and reduce the number of NI departments. CRG agrees that this could have clear implications for the committee structure.

Within this context, CRG concludes that it would not be prudent at this stage to propose any fundamental changes to the committee system but that this should be reviewed in 2015 in advance of the anticipated changes in 2016.

CRG further recommends that the link between each Executive department and a single statutory committee should be retained as this is regarded as a key strength of the system and underpins a committee’s capacity to conduct focused and effective scrutiny. In maintaining this structure, CRG recognises that this consequently places some limits on the scope and extent of other proposals that it can recommend at this time.

CRG notes that the current composition of committees is in broad proportion to party strengths in the Assembly. CRG therefore recommends that statutory committee membership should be retained at 11.

While concluding that membership should be retained at 11, CRG recommends that committee membership should be reviewed as part of the wider discussions about the number of MLAs and departments.

CRG considered whether any aspect of committee work would benefit from the creation of additional powers but has concluded that committees are equipped with adequate powers. With regard to extending committee powers to amend legislation, CRG is content that committees are generally involved in significant scrutiny prior to the introduction of Bills. CRG concludes that there is no value in extending committee powers to amend legislation. CRG however recommends that committees should seek to ensure that potential amendments are fully discussed and considered at Committee Stage and reported to the Assembly.

Whilst acknowledging that committees have sufficient powers, CRG notes that a key constraining factor to more effective and strategic working is that committees face too many demands with limited resources and capacity to fully utilise their powers.

A number of measures have been discussed to address how to make the best use of committee powers and resources. This includes recommendations to improve the operation of meetings and attendance; strengthening existing protocols between the Executive and the Assembly to improve the quality and timeliness of information to committees by departments; and for the Assembly to initiate a dialogue with the Executive on protocols to improve appropriate access to officials and/or ministers.

Members’ knowledge and expertise is also viewed as a critical resource for committees. Acknowledging the delivery of training by ‘PoliticsPlus’, CRG recommends that members’ training and continuing professional needs should be periodically reviewed and appropriate training for new and existing members delivered.

The input of professional staff, research and expertise is regarded as critical to the effectiveness of committees. CRG recommends that committees make better use of specialist and standing advisers, and participate to a greater extent in the Knowledge Exchange Seminar Series (KESS).

A key theme running through this review has been the need for committees to apply a more strategic and systematic approach to their work. To this end, CRG recommends that a set of core tasks should be developed to guide committees’ forward work programmes. CRG agrees that each committee should develop a strategic plan that sets out its key priorities, objectives, targets and planned outputs within the core task framework.

However while CRG sees the benefit of standard procedures and adopting best practice, it is also keen to maintain the autonomy of each committee in determining its own forward work programme and priorities.

CRG recommends expanding the role of the Chairpersons’ Liaison Group but does not consider it necessary for CLG to be formalised through Standing Orders at this time. CRG agrees that its placing in Standing Orders should be revisited when the committee system is next reviewed.

Although not part of the terms of reference of this review, concerns have been expressed by a number of chairpersons about the operation of All Party Groups (APGs) at the Assembly. CRG recommends that the issue of the number and governance of APGs and their secretariats, including their role and appointment process, should be referred to the Committee for Standards and Privileges, responsible for overseeing the registration of APGs.

In relation to the organisation or merger of some of the six standing committees, CRG concludes that there is insufficient secretariat resource to be released from merging any two of these committees. CRG also agrees that the separate and distinct remits of the six standing committees do not lend themselves to merger. CRG however does see merit in expanding the role of the Audit Committee to take account of the new scrutiny responsibilities that might come about if a committee of the Assembly was empowered to scrutinise the budget of the Assembly Commission and the proposed Northern Ireland Public Service Ombudsman. CRG therefore recommends that a single committee be established to undertake the present duties of the Audit Committee and the additional scrutiny responsibilities outlined above.

Finally, the review has identified public engagement as a key strength of the committee system of the Assembly. CRG acknowledges that committees are already doing much to engage with the public, demonstrated by the number of external meetings, online broadcasting and access, stakeholder events and the increasing use of social networking sites. CRG, however, has identified a need for committees to maximise the use of new and existing technologies to engage, to an even greater extent, with the wider public and ‘hard to reach’ groups.

Summary of Recommendations

Committee Vision

The CRG vision is

“..that the Assembly should have an outstanding, progressive and resourced system that enhances the capacity and effectiveness of statutory and standing committees in delivering their statutory and other functions.”

Underpinning this vision, committees should adhere to seven guiding principles and strive to be accountable; open; accessible and inclusive; strategic; systematic; innovative, flexible; and resourceful.

The Committee Structure

CRG is largely content with the overall architecture of the current committee system. Mindful of the prevailing political and constitutional climate about proposals to reduce the number of MLAs and reorganise and reduce the number of NI departments, CRG has concluded that it would not be prudent at this stage to propose any fundamental changes to the committee system but that this should be reviewed in 2015 in advance of the anticipated changes in 2016.

CRG recommends that the link between each Executive department and a single statutory committee should be retained. In maintaining this structure, CRG recognises that this consequently places some limits on the scope and extent of other proposals that it can recommend at this time.

Chairpersons note that the current composition of committees is in broad proportion to party strengths in the Assembly. CRG therefore recommends that statutory committee membership should be retained at 11.

While concluding that membership should be retained at 11, CRG recommends that committee membership should be reviewed as part of the wider discussions about the number of MLAs and departments.

Committee Powers

Having considered whether there is a need to extend committee powers to amend legislation; CRG is satisfied with the current arrangements for the Committee Stage of Bills. However CRG recognises that there may be value in examining innovations in legislative procedure as part of a wider review into the Assembly’s legislative process.

CRG recommends, however that committees should seek to ensure that potential amendments are fully discussed and considered at Committee Stage during clause-by-clause scrutiny and that the report to the Assembly fully reflects committee consideration of potential amendments.

CRG recommends that CLG should strengthen the protocols between the Executive and the Assembly to ensure the quality and timeliness of information provided to committees by departments.

CRG notes that committees are often reluctant to delay evidence sessions affected by late papers, as it can cause disruption to scheduled proceedings and out of a desire to maintain good relationships with officials and ministers. However, CRG recommends that chairpersons consider carefully, whether in some instances, the delay and associated disruption to proceedings is preferable to a scrutiny session taking place without members having the opportunity to receive expert advice and analysis on the relevant information.

CRG recognises that it is normally appropriate for ministers to determine who should represent them at committees. However, it will be necessary from time to time for committees to request and, if necessary, insist on the attendance of specific officials or indeed ministers to assist them with their inquiries.

CRG recommends that the Assembly initiates a dialogue with the Executive in order to agree protocols about appropriate access to officials and/or ministers in pursuit of full accountability.

Committee Resources

CRG recommends that committee agendas include indicative timings and chairpersons, with support from members, adhere to these timings to minimise the overrun of business.

CRG recommends that committees agree protocols relating to conduct during committee meetings, which, in particular, discourage members from leaving, other than in exceptional circumstances, after an evidence session or briefing has commenced.

In noting the high turnover rates on Assembly committees, CRG does not see merit in making changes to the system, such as reducing the overall number of committee places, to maximise the number of members who remain on committees for a significant period. However, CRG recommends that whips consider turnover rates at least annually and that whips seek to maximise constancy on committees whilst dealing with the inevitable need for changes in membership.

CRG supports the planned review by the Committee on Procedures into business scheduling.

Access to Knowledge and Expertise

CRG recommends that members’ training needs are periodically reviewed and that a programme of training, to meet the needs of new members as well as the continuing professional development needs of existing members, is prepared annually for consideration by CLG.

CRG recommends that committees consider the need for the appointment of specialist and standing advisers as part of their strategic planning and that clerks provide options in relation to the appointment of specialist advisers in papers relating to the proposed terms of reference.

CRG recommends that committees should participate and engage in KESS which relate to their committee’s remit.

Strategic Planning

CRG recommends that CLG should define a set of core tasks to assist with strategic and systematic planning.

CRG recommends that scrutiny of the Programme for Government (PfG) should be included in the list of committee core tasks and that detailed preparation and evidence gathering on PfG delivery plans is considered, at least annually, and the findings reported to the minister and, where appropriate, to the Assembly.

CRG agrees that inquiries should be linked to strategic plans and demonstrate how they relate to the core tasks, and what they aim to achieve.

Post-legislative scrutiny should also be seen as an important core task.

CRG recommends that each committee should develop a strategic plan that sets out its key priorities, objectives, targets and planned outputs within the core tasks framework.

In deciding on priorities, committees should consider areas where they can have greatest impact and where they can make best use of limited resources.

Strategic plans should be informed by stakeholder engagement and analysis and by ‘foresight’ work such as horizon scanning and long-term research.

CRG recommends that committees should evaluate and report against the strategic plan to assess their performance against key priorities, objectives, targets and planned outputs. Committees should regularly monitor, review and evaluate achievements against strategic priorities and reprioritise as necessary. End of Session reports should continue to be used not only to report annually on committee outputs and outcomes but also to report on against the strategic plan and core tasks.

CRG recommends that planning day(s) should be held to inform the strategic approach of the committee at the start of each Assembly session (early September). Plans should be updated annually and reviewed mid-term against objectives, outputs and targets.

All Party Groups

CRG recommends that the issue of the number and governance of APGs and their secretariats, including their role and appointment process, is referred to the Committee for Standards and Privileges.

The Role of Chairpersons’ Liaison Group

CRG recommends expanding the role of the Chairpersons’ Liaison Group but does not consider it necessary for CLG to be formalised through Standing Orders at this time. CRG agrees that its placing in Standing Orders should be revisited when the committee system is next reviewed.

Expanding the Role of the Audit Committee

CRG recommends that a single committee be established to undertake the duties of the Audit Committee and to scrutinise the budget of the Assembly and the Public Service Ombudsman.

CRG notes that although some additional secretariat resource may be required within the current Audit Committee team, this should be managed within existing secretariat resources.

Public Engagement and the Use of New Technology

CRG recommends that a strategic balance needs to be struck between facilitating as many stakeholder meetings as possible and ensuring that maximum value is extracted from each one in the interests of both members and the public. The need for this balance should be considered as part of each committee’s strategic plan and the work programme that results.

CRG recommends that committees seek to identify their target audiences, particularly among ‘hard to reach’ groups, as part of the strategic planning process each year and report at the conclusion of each session as to the extent to which such targeted engagement has been realised.

Consideration should also be given to greater use of online forums by committees to engage the public in issues of legislative and policy interest. These could be via online forums run by the Assembly itself, or by seeking a platform for a committee’s work via an external third party online forum with a relevant policy interest.

CRG recommends that committees move quickly towards ceasing the publication of reports in hard copy, other than full colour executive summaries. Committees should also move towards the publication of online reports that use full colour, hyperlink references and visualisation of data. Given the savings which would be achieved by ceasing to print hard copy publications, the net gain to the printing costs of the Clerking and Reporting budget would be approximately £4,000.

In the long-term committees will need to provide ready access to topical themed content, packaged to people’s interests, and offer a greater variety of ‘glance-able’ content in the form of graphics, pictures and video designed to garner people’s attention.

Responsive design techniques should render committee material suitable for a variety of platforms and screen sizes, including the tablet. CRG recommends that attention be paid to the way in which information and news about committee work and reports is packaged so that it can be easily shared. Here, rich in-house audio visual content will be ever more vital to populate committee website pages and to disseminate to a variety of interested audiences.

Download the full report here.

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