Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 22 February 1999
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (the Initial Presiding Officer (The Lord Alderdice of Knock) in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
At the last sitting, one Member referred to a matter which was currently before the courts. To protect the due process of law, other legislatures routinely resolve not to refer to such matters in the course of their proceedings. Though it has not yet been agreed by the Committee on Standing Orders, I expect that the Assembly will, in due course, find that there is a proposal for a Standing Order on sub judice matters which addresses this. Until then I seek the co-operation of Members to avoid any action or statement which is likely to bring the Assembly into disrepute.
In this case I have spoken to the Member involved, and I am content that there was no intention whatsoever to undermine the work of the court.
Mr McCartney (page 67, Volume 2 of Hansard) and Dr Ian Paisley (page 68) raised the question of corrections to Hansard, and I undertook to address the matter. I have discussed this with the Editor of the Official Report, and the following advice has been issued.
With a view to having the preparations for the Hansard bound volumes completed as early as possible, Members are asked, by way of an amended corrections note on the inside of the front cover of the daily part, to submit future corrections within two weeks of a sitting. This means, for example, that corrections in respect of the last sitting — 15 and 16 February — should be received by 1 and 2 March respectively.
Corrections for Volume 1, of which the book of 1 February 1999 was the last daily part, should be received by the Editor no later than 5 March 1999. In other words, any corrections relating to any editions of Hansard dating from the first sitting through until the sitting on 1 February should be submitted by 5 March, as that volume is now complete and will shortly be going for binding.
In the future, there will be a two-week period during which Members will be able to submit corrections. In addition, as I mentioned before, it will be possible for Members to make corrections to their speeches after a period of two hours, by which time their speeches should be well into the Hansard system. So there is a period from two hours after a speech is made until two weeks after it is made for corrections to be submitted.
During the last sitting Mr McLaughlin asked me to give a ruling on comments made earlier in the debate by Mr Poots. I asked him to clarify exactly which comments he meant, as I myself had earlier made reference to comments made by Mr Poots. Mr McLaughlin said that the comments to which he referred had been made in relation to groups which might be represented on the Civic Forum. Specifically, he asked if it was an abuse of privilege for a Member to raise questions about whether representatives on the Civic Forum might have paramilitary connections — the word used was "infiltrated".
I have looked into the matter. Comments of this kind have been made outside the House on a number of occasions, and this has not led to legal action. We can have little doubt that the remarks used were disparaging, but the question is whether the Member was abusing the privilege of the House by making them. It does not seem to me that the protection of privilege was required, as similar statements have been made outside the House without their leading to legal proceedings. In any case, it seems unlikely that legal action would be taken in that regard.
Members will recall, however, that, at the time, I made reference to some other comments made by Mr Poots. As I have before, I always study Hansard to check that it is a satisfactory record. I would like to return to this matter. I refer to page 94 of the Official Report — specifically to Mr Poots’s comments:
"Not only are we having anti-partitionists as members of the Stormont Government, but we are going to have anti-partitionists who engaged in terrorism to achieve their aims in that same Stormont Cabinet."
These are very specific remarks, and I have met Mr Poots to discuss them. We know that there will be a certain number of members from each party on any Executive that is set up. It is clear that this was a reference to Sinn Féin, which is likely to have two members on such an Executive under the d’Hondt system. I do not think that I am breaching any confidences by saying that. Therefore the remarks referred to a very small number of people, and there has been sufficient debate — I cannot say whether it has been informed debate or not — about who those two Members might be.
This changes the issue, and means that reference is being made to specific people, as opposed to a party as a whole. I have no doubt that if the arithmetic were slightly different, if the d’Hondt process were going to allocate only one place to that party, and if the name of the person likely to take that place were widely publicly known, these comments would have been unparliamentary. They would have constituted an accusation of criminal activity.
In such a case there might be clear evidence of criminal activity, including charges and convictions. That would be a different matter. However, to my knowledge, at least some of the Members from Sinn Féin whose names have been mentioned in this context have neither charges nor convictions against them. Therefore it seems to me that the Member was at least at the edge of what is reasonable in the context of parliamentary speech.
I have to advise that Member — indeed, all Members — that were remarks to be made with this degree of definiteness in the future, I would have to intervene. I would, I suppose, be intervening on two questions, the first of which is whether the Member had evidence for his accusations. If he did not have evidence of criminal behaviour, but accusations of criminal activity were being made against another Member — and it might be on completely different matters in the future — such an allegation would be an abuse of the privilege of the House if it were specific to a Member, or very closely identified with a very small number of Members, as in this case.
On the other hand, if the Member had evidence of criminal activity, that would not be a matter for me, but, had he not brought it to the attention of the RUC, it might be that jeopardy had come from another quarter. Therefore I would caution Members. I suppose that many Members have found that they have been able to speak freely politically in the past, and that their comments have not gone on the record with quite the definiteness that is the case in Hansard. They must now become aware that when they make comments in the House, or indeed in Committees where Hansard is present, their remarks go on the record, and that there is a gravity to that that perhaps they were less acquainted with in their previous political life.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
Further to that ruling, Sir. I find some of the things that you have said to be quite amazing and, of course, I will study them in Hansard. It points to the fact that the Assembly should have a Committee of Privileges, to which these matters should be put, and then there could be a full and free debate among Members on the particular matters.
There was an exchange in the House at the last sitting between my Colleague Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness. Mr Robinson quoted from a responsible Nationalist and Republican broadsheet, namely ‘the Irish News’, in which there was an admission by that Member that he was associated. For any Member to stand up in the House and say that people from the other side have not been associated with, active in, and holding office in the IRA is absolutely ridiculous. I will submit to no gag in this House from you or anyone else occupying the Chair, that would not allow me to state what is in evidence in the country.
I think that there is now an attempt by IRA/Sinn Féin to cloak over this matter. Every Member must be free, and if the Chair wants to throw Members out of this House because they state the facts, then let the Chair do it and take the responsibility. The Assembly should appoint a Committee on Privileges so that matters could be handled in the proper way, as happens in another place.
In another place I have heard these remarks concerning the Member for West Belfast. He is a Member of the House although he has not taken his seat, and there has been no ruling whatever from the Chair about what has been said concerning him. Why should Members here now adopt this attitude in trying to cover over what is absolute fact — that these people have been engaged in, and with, violence?
The Initial Presiding Officer:
First of all, in respect of the proposition for a Committee on Standards and Privileges, I wholly agree with what the Member says. The sooner that that Committee is established and has the backing of Standing Orders, the better — not just for matters of this kind, but also for other important matters, such as the Register of Members’ Interests.
Members should be quite clear about what I am ruling on. It is not on any comments by Mr Robinson. I did not raise questions about them at the time, because Mr Robinson is an experienced parliamentarian and is well acquainted, as is Dr Paisley, with what is possible and proper. I am referring specifically to the speech of another of his Colleagues, Mr Poots, where he — Mr Poots — could not have been referring only to the matters to which the Member refers.
My point is that in relation to some of the Members to whom he could only have been regarded as making reference, given the publicity about the question of the formation of the Executive in previous times, he would undoubtedly be seen in the public mind as making reference to Members who not only had no convictions but had not been arraigned on any charge, and had made no such comments as the ones that you ascribed to Mr McGuinness.
It is on that specific issue that I was raising the question, making the point and giving a ruling. It was not on the position that had been taken by Mr Robinson, but on the speech by Mr Poots — not in respect of the speech by Mr Poots on the things that he thought I was talking about (that is to say, the other Member’s election literature of the past) but on the specific references he made. I have given guidance that that is right on the edge of what is acceptable, and if the matter were to be repeated I would have to intervene in the way that I have described.
Mr P Robinson:
Further to that ruling, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. I should like to make two points. First, perhaps there is confusion in some people’s minds in relation to privilege. Privilege covers Members of the Assembly in relation to what they may say about people outside. References to people inside this Assembly are a different issue. Even though one might know that someone in the Assembly is a murderer, one would not be entitled to say it in here because that would be a breach of another rule.
However, the issue in question in relation to Mr Poots’s comments was not about any specific Member who is known. If Mr Poots had indicated that two specific Members of Sinn Féin had convictions, or were terrorists, you, Mr Initial Presiding Officer, would be entitled to make the remarks that you have.
You have made some assumptions about what might be in the public mind about what Sinn Féin might do when they come to a point some time in the future. I do not think that you are entitled to make all those assumptions. The public mind may have many things in it, some of which might be in line with what you are suggesting, but unless a Member makes a specific accusation against specific Members he is not out of order.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
In many ways, you are simply reiterating, though with a somewhat different spin, what I have already said, which is that had Mr Poots been even slightly more specific in what he said, he would undoubtedly have fallen foul. That is why I said that he was on the very edge of what was acceptable. It is not mere idle speculation out of no knowledge on the question of who may or may not come forward.
There are clear implications. That is why I said — I repeat it, and it is my ruling — that it was on the very edge of privilege. However, the Member’s other comments on the question of privilege, with which he is familiar but with which many other Members understandably may not be, are helpful and illuminating for Members.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
Is it not the case that if the Members that you are speculating about, who may or may not be in the Cabinet, want to fully distance themselves from such accusations they can do so by simply agreeing to a test? Do they condemn violence emanating from the Republican IRA? If they are not prepared to condemn such violence is it not fair for a Member to draw a conclusion that their links with the IRA are inextricable?
The Initial Presiding Officer:
It is a fundamental tenet of the law in this country that people are innocent until demonstrated to be guilty. The Member is coming dangerously close to suggesting that Members should have to defend themselves against accusations even if there is no evidence of guilt. I believe that it would be an abuse of the privilege of the House, or of any other such place, for accusations to be made without evidence, so that Members would be put in the position of having to justify themselves. That would be flying in the face of a fundamental tenet of law.
In general terms, the problem with your ruling is that it is contributing to an issue that has been absolutely crucial to this so-called peace process — the use of language to obscure political reality. The reality —
The Initial Presiding Officer:
Order. I must intervene — and this is not for myself. Members must understand that when a ruling is given, it is not susceptible to challenge on the Floor of the House. I believe that is why the proposition from Dr Paisley — that if such matters are to be considered, it should be by a Committee on Standards and Privileges away from the Floor of the House, where it can be done properly — is such a wise one.
However, I must make it clear — and this is not a question of wanting to defend myself — that for the propriety of the House and the dignity of the Chair challenges to the Speaker’s ruling are out of order on the Floor of the House. I have been more than generous in allowing such questions to be raised — perhaps more generous than I ought to have been.
On a point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. Further to your rulings, I refer you to page 105 of Hansard of 16 February and ask you to pursue, with the same vigour, comments by Mr McLaughlin about the Orange Order and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The Member referred to the Royal Ulster Constabulary as the armed wing of the Orange Order, engaged in the intimidation of Nationalists. I ask you to investigate evidence of criminal activity. Some Members are in the Orange Order, and in the public mind this could be seen to be directed at them.
They are very serious allegations of criminal activity, not only against Members of the House but also against members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. These are scurrilous and dangerous remarks, and I ask you to investigate them thoroughly.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
I have always made it clear that when Members ask me to look at matters I will look at them. However, my immediate response is that Members from the Gentleman’s own side of the House were recently accused of using unparliamentary language when they, by implication, made certain links between Sinn Féin and IRA. I made it clear that whatever one thought about such remarks, they were not unparliamentary and not a breach of privilege. The remarks referred to a group of people and not to individuals. The burden of my earlier ruling was that the precision that was created by the small number of people referred to made it almost specific.
I shall look at the matter that has been raised by the Member, but it seems to me that if we apply the rule that was applied in my previous ruling, it is likely that it was not an abuse of privilege or a breach of parliamentary language. One may disparage or agree with the remarks, but that is not the point at issue for me.
Further to your ruling, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. Is it appropriate for me to comment on it as distinct from challenging it?
The Initial Presiding Officer:
If you are raising a point of order, that is what it is. To comment on my ruling is not acceptable because it is not a point of order.
The Committee to Advise the Presiding Officer has agreed that the Easter recess will be from the close of business on 1 April until 19 April, when the Assembly will resume. The summer recess will be from the close of business on 9 July until 13 September, on which date Committees will begin. Sittings of the House will resume on 20 September.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
We shall now proceed to the report from the Shadow Assembly Commission.
The Commission has had several meetings and has produced a report which has been circulated to Members. The Commission has asked one of its members, Mr Peter Robinson, to present the report by way of a statement similar to those that were made by Minister McFall and Minister Murphy. Mr Robinson will then answer questions.
Members who have questions in respect of the report should give their names to the Clerks in the usual way. Mr Robinson will respond to four or five questions at a time. There will then be a motion to approve the report. As Members will see from the Order Paper, the motion is jointly proposed by Mr John Fee and Mrs Eileen Bell, who are also members of the Commission. There will be an opportunity to debate it in the usual way. The winding-up speeches will be followed by a vote. Thereafter there will be a debate on a proposition that the Senior Salaries Review Body report — not just the upcoming one but future SSRB reports — be accepted by the Assembly. This will be jointly proposed by Mr Robert Coulter and Mr Francie Molloy. Again, the matter may be debated if the Assembly so wishes. After the winding-up speeches there will be a decision, and we will proceed with the rest of the business on the Order Paper.
For the sake of clarity I repeat that questions may be put to Mr Robinson and that that will be followed by a debate on the report in the usual fashion. There is also the possibility of a debate on the acceptance of the upcoming and future SSRB reports.
Mr P Robinson:
My task is to present to the Assembly the first report of the Shadow Commission covering the progress that has been made on its terms of reference. At the end of my statement, there will be an opportunity for questions. Members are under no compulsion to ask questions — I am not issuing a challenge. Two business motions will be moved later by other Commission members.
The presentation of this report establishes a precedent, as the Northern Ireland Act confers on the Commission, as a body corporate, the legal competence to make determinations on pensions, salaries and other matters. However, the Shadow Commission has resolved that it would not want to operate outside the will of the Assembly and sees this debate as part of an ongoing dialogue with the Assembly on substantial matters.
Members have had sight of the report, which was issued on time on Thursday. It is important to reflect on the work that has already been done and to alert Members to the many challenges that still need to be addressed in preparation for devolution. I should like to speak about the Shadow Commission’s background, how it has operated over the past five months, the context in which it has operated and on specific progress on its remit as tasked by the Assembly. This will lead me to the estimates for the next financial year, the work that is still to be progressed and the key recommendations that the Assembly is being asked to endorse.
The Northern Ireland Act makes provision for the establishment of a Commission that will be the corporate body responsible for the property, staff and services of the Assembly. On 18 September, the Assembly established the Shadow Commission to assist, during the transitional period leading to devolution, in preparations for the effective functioning of the Assembly.
The Shadow Commission has met 17 times, sometimes for all-day meetings. It has also had meetings with the Assembly’s Board of Management, and all that represents a substantial personal investment in time by Commission members. In the past 10 days, the Shadow Commission spent two days at Westminster and afterwards had four separate meetings to progress the major issues that are contained in the report.
The Shadow Commission is not about individual Commissioners advancing party agendas; it is about representing and meeting the needs of this institution and its 108 Members. I am pleased to report that the Shadow Commission has been faithful to that objective.
Early in the Shadow Commission’s deliberations, it became evident that the task of providing the necessary property, staff, and resources could be effectively achieved only by the staff of the Commission and Assembly working in close partnership. For that reason the Shadow Commission decided to restructure the Assembly Secretariat and establish a Board of Management comprising the heads of the five Assembly Directorates: Clerk Assistant, Editor of Debates, Keeper of the House, Director of Research and Information, and Director of Finance and Personnel.
Individual commissioners are linked to each of the Board of Management directors, and that has provided Members with a direct knowledge and insight into the development of the Assembly infrastructure.
I should like to pay a personal tribute to Nigel Carson, the Deputy Clerk, who has made a massive contribution to the establishment of the Shadow Assembly. He was previously head of the Secretariat to the Northern Ireland Forum. As head of the team, Nigel carried the burden of responsibility for the arrangements to establish the Shadow Assembly and has continued to support the Commission in developing the facilities and resources that will be required for the appointed day.
Many weeks ago Nigel asked to return to the Northern Ireland Civil Service to take on a new challenge, and he is in the process of moving to do so. I am sure that I can speak for everyone in this Chamber in wishing him every success in his new post and wishing him well in his career in the public service. I know that he will invest the same level of commitment, enthusiasm and skill that was so evident during his time in Parliament Buildings.
Assembly Members often take decisions, both here and in Committees, and expect them to be implemented. We spend little time thinking of the effort that is expended in meeting our demands. Nigel, the Board of Management and the entire Assembly staff often have to work late into the evenings, early in the mornings and at weekends, to meet our timetable. Therefore it would be remiss of me not to mention all the Assembly staff who have worked tirelessly since July to ensure that Members have the right level and standard of support.
I hope that I speak on behalf of the Assembly when I say that we are grateful to our staff for their professionalism, willingness and patience. I also express our appreciation of the efforts of the Commission Clerk, Tom Evans. The heavy burden that he has to endure is made easier only by virtue of the kindly disposition, tolerance and patience of Commission members.
The Shadow Commission has now set up regular meetings with the Board of Management, and we are working closely with its members. We have been impressed by the commitment of the Assembly department heads, and I hope that they find the new arrangements beneficial.
One of the key challenges for the Shadow Commission is to understand the full extent of the requirements of the Assembly. To that end, we visited Westminster, and it proved to be a watershed in developing the Commission’s thinking on what needs to be put in place in readiness for devolution. The Shadow Commission also met members of the Scottish Consultative Steering Group on the Scottish Parliament, which was helpful in assuring the Commission that we have most of the building blocks in place. We also encouraged Assembly staff to visit the Dáil, Westminster and the Scottish and Welsh Offices, and such visits have provided further insights into the resources and structures that will be required.
No one in the Chamber needs to be reminded that we are participating in a Shadow Assembly, but Members may not be aware of the limitation that this places on the Shadow Commission. To illustrate the point, it may be helpful to reflect on the powers that will pass to the Commission on the appointed day. The Commission will be able to appoint staff and determine terms and conditions, including pension arrangements. It will be able to hold property, enter into contracts, and charge for goods and services. However, while we continue in shadow form we must depend upon the Department of Finance and Personnel to be our agent on financial, staffing and contractual issues, and upon the Department of the Environment for accommodation and other matters relating to this building.
Our transitional phase has been further complicated by the political uncertainty that has been an ever-present factor throughout the life of the Assembly. I shall give some examples of how the Shadow Commission has been constrained. The Clerk to the Assembly post, as Members will know, has never been filled. The Commission has agreed the job description, assessment criteria and recruitment methodology but has stopped short of going out to public advertisement. The same can be said for the Deputy Clerk, the Head of Administration and other Assembly posts. There is no political edge to my comments on this matter. It is for the Shadow Commission a straightforward practical consideration as to when it should advertise such posts.
Another area in which we have experienced difficulty is that of capital expenditure. The Shadow Commission has advanced plans to refurbish the press conference facilities and the basement area, but given the prevailing political uncertainty, it did not feel disposed to initiate a tendering process.
Probably the most frustrating aspect of operating in shadow form is that the Commission does not have its own dedicated budget and is constantly going cap in hand to the Department of Finance and Personnel for additional resources to fund priorities that were not included in the original estimates.
The Assembly should not conclude from my remarks that the Commission’s relationship with the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Department of the Environment has been anything other than agreeable. My purpose in setting out the context is only to ensure that Members are clear about the environment in which the Assembly Commission has been operating.
Before moving to next year’s estimate, I should like to set out the progress that the Shadow Commission has made in meeting its terms of reference. On 14 September 1998 the Assembly asked the Shadow Commission to consider matters relevant to providing the Assembly with the property, staff and resources that are required for the Assembly’s purposes. We believed that the Assembly intended that we should accord a liberal interpretation to that remit. Accordingly, the Shadow Commission has performed a dual role, first in meeting the growing needs of the Shadow Assembly and secondly, projecting what would be required post-devolution.
The report goes into some detail on the work that the Shadow Commission has taken forward. Members can read that at their leisure but perhaps not for their leisure.
By the time the Shadow Commission first met, more than 130 staff were employed. These are civil servants, seconded to the Assembly. The Shadow Commission set about finding out how many staff would be required to support a fully functioning Assembly. By visiting Westminster and talking to people in the Dáil, the Scottish and the Welsh offices, the Shadow Commission soon realised that the early staffing projections could never cope with the demands of a fully and professionally functioning parliamentary legislative Assembly.
The Shadow Commission asked the members of the Board of Management to reconsider their staffing requirements based on assumptions that we had arrived at following our contacts with other bodies. This identified major deficiencies in the original assessment.
No provision had been made for research. The original staffing assessment was based on 10 departmental Committees and did not take account of the need for other Assembly Committees, the Commission itself or the House Committees. The procedural side of the Assembly was not even recognised in the original estimates.
A second but equally important issue for the Commission was how the additional staff should be recruited and what their status would be. After a great deal of deliberation, the Shadow Commission unanimously agreed that all recruitment would be based on the following principle:
"promotion of commitment to equality of opportunity and fair treatment in all its recruitment procedures;"
"a commitment to public advertisement for all its vacancies."
The Shadow Commission intends to establish a cadre of Assembly staff who feel part of the Assembly and are not seen as simply an offshoot of the Civil Service. The creation of the post of Doorkeepers, who fulfil such an important role, is a case in point. They were originally employed as Civil Service messengers, and the change of role has certainly increased their self-esteem and acknowledged their valuable service. The Shadow Commission is fully committed to going out to public advertisement for every post. However, during the transitional period, it will be necessary to fill some posts very quickly, and the Shadow Commission proposes to continue using temporary secondments from the Northern Ireland Civil Service as a fall-back arrangement.
The Assembly will become the most public body in Northern Ireland, and to ensure it is above reproach the Shadow Commission is putting in place a code of practice for equal opportunities and appropriate monitoring arrangements to ensure compliance with equality legislation. We do not yet have responsibility in this area, but we are already informing ourselves of the present complexion of our staff in equality terms in order to be the best placed to take the issue forward when devolution occurs.
The matter of the management of Parliament Buildings and the Stormont Estate has featured in every meeting of the Shadow Commission. At early meetings we were conscious that Members were crowded into limited accommodation. We have made good progress on that front, expediting the Department of Finance and Personnel’s move out of Parliament Buildings and putting in train the necessary refurbishment of the building. All Members should now be adequately accommodated.
The Shadow Commission continues to plan for devolution. Offices have been set aside for Ministers and Chairmen, and two Committee Rooms have been wired for recording purposes. The Commission is presently considering how the procedural side of the Assembly can best be accommodated. We are looking into the creation of a Bills Office and a Business Office, recognising the need for those offices to be close to the Chamber.
The Shadow Commission has taken over the management of Parliament Buildings, and we now have a dedicated events co-ordination unit. The Commission has also spent a great deal of time in negotiation with the Secretary of State about the use of the Stormont Estate. Legally, the Secretary of State can decide how the Estate is used, but she has agreed to consult the Commission on any proposals, and this arrangement is working well.
Last Friday the Commission met the local Stormont residents’ group to take the views of its members on the development of the Estate, including its use as a concert venue. It was a useful meeting, and we expect to maintain contact with our neighbours and with other users of the Estate.
The Shadow Commission has been conscious of the need to develop services to address the Assembly’s requirements when it is fully operational. I shall refer briefly to three services in which the Commission has taken a particular interest. The first is the catering and hospitality services provided by Mount Charles. The original contract was negotiated by the Department of Finance and Personnel to meet its needs as a Government Department. The Shadow Commission has been working closely with Mount Charles to ensure that the requirements of the Assembly are being met, and I believe that the service has developed positively.
One of the Commission members, Mr Bob Coulter, although not specifically tasked to perform this onerous duty, has felt a personal obligation to do so. Frequently and in great measure, he satisfies himself on the standards of cuisine offered in each restaurant. In his spare time he checks the Coffee Lounge. He has set about this task with great energy, diligence and enthusiasm, and the Assembly is indebted to him for this selfless sacrifice.
Secondly, the provision of information technology will continue to be a high priority for the Shadow Commission. To date, Members have been provided with standard IT hardware and consumables, access to the Internet and modular based training. The Commission intends to provide a fully networked system offering access to the range of information systems that are currently available at Westminster.
Members will be pleased to know that we shall soon have POLIS in the Assembly. Before any Members rush to a safe house, I should explain that POLIS is the Parliamentary On-Line Information System, rather than a Belfast pronunciation of "police". This is a valuable asset at the fingertips of elected representatives. We hope also to have access to the European network.
The original estimates did not mention research services. The Shadow Commission realised that the Assembly could never function without access to high quality research, and Stephen Donnelly was seconded from the Northern Ireland Statistical Research Agency. He has examined the services that are available at Westminster and the proposals for Scotland and Wales and has recommended the establishment of a dedicated research unit in Parliament Buildings. That will require a significant number of staff, but the benefits of this type of facility have already been demonstrated. Mr Donnelly recently produced some excellent research on the Port of Belfast for the Ad Hoc Committee, and he has been since been inundated with requests for other research.
Access to information and expert research are fundamental requirements for the professional operation of the Assembly. If Members are to do their jobs well, all the necessary advice and information must be at hand. Our output will suffer if we do not have quality material available, and it would be a false economy to skimp in this area.
The 1999-2000 estimate of £36 million has attracted some public attention and it is important that the Assembly understands the basis for this figure, particularly since the figure of £14·3 million was placed in the public domain by the Secretary of State when the Bill was going through the House of Commons. Indeed, that figure was mentioned here last week by the Deputy First Minister (Designate).
The £14·3 million estimate was prepared by the Department of Finance and Personnel in August 1998 when it was difficult to project with any accuracy what the Assembly might require. The original estimate was devised by officials following the false scent of the deliberative Northern Ireland Forum, and it made little or no provision for the key functions of a legislative assembly.
Some of the additional elements that make up the £36 million estimate for 1999-2000 arise from the transfer of items of expenditure from other Government Departments to our own. Those additions are not therefore a net increase in the Northern Ireland block. Obvious examples of these transferred elements are the improvements, maintenance and repairs to this building and to part of the grounds for which we shall take responsibility.
Other additional elements are non-recurring and arise either as start-up costs or as part of the Assembly’s transitional programme, while others are at a higher level this year than may be expected in subsequent years. Training is a good example, but in the provision of IT equipment and furnishings, for instance, it is clear that much reduced demands may be expected in later years.
Moreover, we have costed the Assembly on the basis of its operating at full steam for the complete financial year. If that does not come about, or if it goes up through the gears gradually, there will be savings on the 12-month figures that we have produced.
I stress again that the Commission is not charged to make judgements on the framework of the Assembly. It is required clinically to cost the structure that has been designed. The Shadow Commission has urged the Assembly to commit itself to accepting the recommendation of the Senior Salaries Review Body on Members’ salaries and other costs. This would be a commitment to accept the SSRB recommendation unseen not just for the report that we expect to be published within the next week, but for the remainder of the lifetime of the Assembly. Subsequent Assemblies can, of course, decide whether to follow this practice.
I have had 20 years’ experience at Westminster, and I have watched Colleagues there grapple with this issue and I strongly urge Members not to indulge in the profanity of setting their own wages. We have the power to do so, but rectitude and probity suggest a different direction. At the commencement of the life of the Assembly we have an opportunity to leave it to an expert and qualified body to make a judgement on these matters.
The business motion would make acceptance of SSRB recommendations on salaries and office costs almost automatic. If Members have views on the level of their salaries, they can meet the SSRB to express them. If members of the public believe that Members are getting too much, they can contact the SSRB and make their case. Equally, but less likely, if members of the public feel that Members are not receiving sufficient return for their efforts, they can petition the SSRB, and if they present a convincing argument that sways the SSRB, I am sure that Members will obediently and reluctantly accept the outcome.
The Shadow Commission feels that it has made significant progress while recognising that there is much work yet to be done. Paragraph 33 of our report sets out the future priorities for that. I should like to flag up four that I feel are central to the development of the Assembly. First, we must secure the Assembly Vote from the Northern Ireland block. Secondly, we need to prepare a Pensions Bill and submit a formal motion on Members’ salaries. Thirdly, we have to appoint the Clerk to the Assembly, the Deputy Clerk and the Head of Administration. Fourthly, and urgently, we need to establish printing, publication and distribution arrangements that will meet the needs of the Assembly post-devolution.
I commend the report to the Assembly, and I am happy to take questions.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
I have not received any applications for questions. However, I have been asked to draw two points to Members’ attention. There are typographical errors in the Commission’s report. The first one is on page three, paragraph six, line six: "contacts" should read "contracts". The second is on page six, paragraph 11, the last line: "recurring costs" should read "non-recurring costs". The Clerk to the Commission is arranging for a corrigendum to be issued.
On a point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. You said that no names had been submitted. I have already submitted names.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
May I clarify that. The list of names that was submitted was headed "Report", indicating that they were the names of Members who wanted to speak in the debate on the report. If there has been some misunderstanding regarding that, it is simple to resolve, and I will proceed to accept those names as the names of Members who want to ask questions. Is that fair enough?
Mr S Wilson:
I have two questions. The first is on the use of Parliament Buildings and its surroundings, and the second is on the future of the building itself. I refer to paragraphs 20 to 22. Mr Robinson said that considerable concern had been expressed by residents around the Stormont Estate about past events.
The Commission has now established consultation with the Department of the Environment and the Secretary of State about the use of the Estate. An amendment was tabled to have responsibility for the Estate conferred on the Commission. Has that been withdrawn? Is Mr Robinson happy that the consultation is working? Will the final say rest with the Commission if a controversial application is made for the use of the grounds? If not, are there plans for these powers to be given to the Commission?
I am perturbed by the last sentence in paragraph 22 of the report, which refers to accommodation in Parliament Buildings:
"Ultimately the facilities at Parliament Buildings may not be able to accommodate the needs of the Assembly."
As a Member for East Belfast, I hope that it will be confirmed that the Commission has no intention of removing the function of the seat of government from this building.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
I propose, as when other statements have been made, to take four to five questions and then to ask for a response. Whips may have given me the names of those Members who wish to raise a matter. If they wish to ask questions at this point, they should advise me now.
Go raibh maith agat.
I welcome the consensus in the report. It is a positive development and shows that all parties can work together when required. The Commission’s report is about housekeeping matters in the Assembly and represents further movement towards transfer of powers.
Sinn Féin welcomes the placing of decisions on the rates of salary with the SSRB. We believe it makes for a more transparent and accountable system of government, and it is preferable to Assembly Members deciding their own pay.
Paragraph 17 of the report states
"The Shadow Commission will also be developing its own code of practice on equality of opportunity, similar to the arrangements operated by the … Civil Service and other public sector organisations."
It is widely recognised that the make-up of the Civil Service in the North of Ireland has presented its own problems. A 1997 report by the Fair Employment Commission, which profiled senior staff in that body, highlighted the unsatisfactory nature, ethos and policies of the Civil Service. Rather than develop a code of practice similar to that which is operated by the Civil Service, a code of practice should be developed in conjunction with the new and more independent Equality Commission that is to be created.
A necessary first step is the putting in place of monitoring arrangements that will ensure compliance with the equality legislation. Such evaluations must be strictly complied with, and all the equality constituents, as set out in the PAFT guidelines, must benefit from their implementation. Inequality in all its forms has been a source of contention, and only by complying strictly with the equality legislation, which ensures both equality of opportunity and equality of outcome, will the endemic inequalities which have existed be eradicated.
The new dispensation, which the political process and the Assembly represents, gives each Member an opportunity to ensure that non-discriminatory employment practices are adopted. The Assembly, through this report, has the potential — [Interruption]
Mr Paisley Jnr:
On a point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. This is not a question but a statement of IRA/Sinn Féin’s intent. It is not for Mr P Robinson to give an opinion on the Member’s statement. The Member should either ask a question or allow other Members to do so.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
The Member may have misunderstood the situation. This is an opportunity to ask questions for clarification of the report. If a Member wishes to make a wider comment on the report — and I think that Ms O’Hagan was taking up a number of issues for comment — that is more properly done in the debate on the motion.
Sir Reg Empey:
We are all indebted to the Commission for its work over the past few months. I am somewhat shocked at the scale of the estimate, considering that the figure that was in the public domain was substantially different. The scale of the discrepancy has surprised a number of Members. Mr Robinson said that some costs that were included in the estimate are being incurred by other parts of the public service. For instance, Parliament Buildings, its upkeep and so on are costs that have to be borne by some Government Department in any event.
Can we have some indication of the total cost of the other recurring costs so we can find out the net additional estimate that has to be provided for? In pure arithmetical terms it seems to be in the region of £18 million or £19 million. That figure does not take into account the non-recurring costs and costs that are currently met through the Northern Ireland block, but under different hats. I should be very interested to know the current estimate of the net additional cost, and I should also like to be able to assess the impact of this expenditure on the Northern Ireland block. What has to be taken from the other services in order to provide for this expenditure?
Provision was made in the old Assembly for the library service, for instance, to provide a research facility for the wider Government service. I presume that such costs have already been provided for in other estimates. If so, have any other costs relating to the remnants of the old Assembly been built into the budget for the next financial year so that they can be recycled when the estimates are finally approved?
Paragraphs 28 and 29 deal with the information and research resources that would be available to the Assembly. There is no mention of our gaining access to the vast research resources of the European Parliament and European Commission. Therefore I was pleased to hear Mr Robinson refer to our gaining access to the European network, and I presume that that was what he meant. Have approaches been made to the European Commission and to the authorities of the European Parliament, and when is the Assembly likely to gain access to those resources?
Mr P Robinson:
First, I shall respond to the questions relating to the use of the grounds at Parliament Buildings. The Initial Presiding Officer, in another capacity, tabled an amendment in the House of Lords which he would have been prepared to put to the vote had it not been for the fact that the Government were prepared to speak to him and to give certain undertakings. To date, those undertakings have been fulfilled. In every instance the Northern Ireland Office consults with the Assembly in the true sense of that word, allowing it, in effect, to determine issues relating to the grounds. I have found the working relationship very satisfactory, and I hope that it continues to be so.
After devolution the operation of the grounds of Parliament Buildings, outside its immediate curtilage, will be the responsibility of the Department of the Environment, so it comes closer to us. The Minister for the Environment will be answerable to the Assembly if there is any breakdown in that relationship.
Mr Sammy Wilson’s second question concerned the ability of these buildings to cope with future accommodation needs. Members will see from the report that we expect to need to increase the current staffing of 130 to about 400. That is a massive increase and would cause some accommodation difficulties within these premises. There would also be further staffing requirements for a functional Executive. There are already pressures in relation to the staff of the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate) because they cannot currently be housed elsewhere. There are considerable pressures on this building.
Nothing in the report was intended to convey the impression that the Commission recommended a move from Stormont. That would be a matter entirely for the Assembly. Again I emphasise that the Commission does not have any political axe to grind. It clinically provides simply for what the Assembly determines it requires. No decision has been taken to move from this building. It might be recognised, however, that some aspects of work could be moved from Parliament Buildings to somewhere else. It might even be determined that some form of extension be considered, though I hope — and I see some Members grimacing — that that would be fairly far down the line.
Some Members asked about equality. The Northern Ireland Civil Service code of practice is based on the Fair Employment Commission’s recommendations. Of course, the FEC would consult widely, and with any equality body that were set up in terms of its code of practice, as indeed it would want to consult with the Assembly. Every Member has representation in one form or another on the Commission and would be kept informed of progress in that respect.
On behalf of the Commission I thank Sir Reginald Empey for his kind remarks. We also share his shock at the size of the estimate. Again — and this is not a matter of my washing my hands of it — the people who devised the structures are the architects. We are simply the quantity surveyors pricing the plans that others have drawn up. Those who are unhappy about the size of the estimate should speak to the architects, not to the quantity surveyors.
Of course, there are areas where there could be cuts, but only after we have been in operation for a full 12 months — perhaps more — will we be able properly to determine where it would be safe to make such cuts. There are certainly some areas in which it would be dangerous for us to start to skimp.
The Library, which was in existence before the Assembly, could not be described as a research-and-information facility. It has a reading room and a lending facility. I suspect that most Departments have sent their officials there to provide Ministers and others with the necessary research material. It is clearly necessary to put a proper research facility for Members in place. We have spoken to others about this, and it has become clear that we need a massive increase to the number of staff in that area. An enormous number of requests have been received by the Library’s research-and-information facility, not only from Members but from Departments, other elected bodies and the general public.
The easy answer to the question on the effect on the Northern Ireland block is arithmetical. It was originally determined that the cost would be £14·3 million. Now we know that it will be £36·8 million, so there is a shortfall of £22·5 million. Some part of that, at least £3 million, will come from the Department of the Environment’s budget because it has the budget for the maintenance of Parliament Buildings. That will have to be taken into account by any future Executive and, particularly, by the Minister who will be responsible for the Department of Finance and Personnel.
Mr Haughey asked about the Intranet, the Internet and the various networks that would be made available. Contacts have already been made with Westminster, the Dáil, the various bodies taking forward work on the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assemblies and the European Union. All the bodies that we have spoken to are willing to share information, and they are as keen to get access to what we have as we are to get access from them. I hope that there will be good working relationships. Certainly the contacts that have been made by our staff have been very promising.
Rev William McCrea:
In response to Mr Empey's question concerning costs Mr Robinson said that the members of the Commission were just the quantity surveyors. Who are the architects? Will he give us the name of the firm of architects? Would the word "Yes" come into the name? How does the cost of this Assembly compare with the costs of other parliaments and assemblies?
Mr Robinson mentioned the Shadow Commission's visit to Westminster. Can he confirm that the Member for Mid Ulster, Francie Molloy of Sinn Féin, also went on that trip? Is that not at variance with the statement by his Colleague from West Tyrone, Mr McElduff, who, in the same week, condemned the decision by the House's Gift Shop Committee to go to Westminster to see how similar facilities are organised? Can we conclude that Mr Molloy is less concerned about school patrolmen than Mr McElduff?
Mr J Kelly:
I welcome the report. Is this the correct time to make a statement on it?
The Initial Presiding Officer:
No. This stage is for questions only. You will have an opportunity to make a statement later.
Like Rev William McCrea, I should like to ask about the expense involved. If my calculations are correct, it seems that out of this sum of nearly £37 million, we shall spend over £300,000 per Member. It is not clear what is included in this expenditure. We must look at the opportunity costs involved. This £36 million out of the block grant could be spent in other ways.
I agree that adequate research facilities should be available. Some £2 million has been set aside for that. However, it seems that, in addition, Members can use their expenses to pay research assistants and that money is available to each of the parties which can also be used for this purpose. That is in addition to the £2 million. While it is a crucial area, much money will be floating around and we will not know how to assess whether it is being spent profitably.
Page 14 of the report refers to areas for development, one of which is childcare provision. What are the plans for that? The Assembly will employ a large number of people and we should set an example to the Parliament in Scotland and the Assembly in Wales in this regard. What are the plans for innovations such as homework clubs and créche facilities? The Women's Coalition is disappointed that this matter has not been dealt with more urgently.
Mr Robinson is to be congratulated on the clarity and humour with which he presented the report, but I should like to echo Sir Reg Empey's question about cost. The Northern Ireland electorate will be aghast at the sum of over £36 million which the Commission proposes to spend, regardless of how it is justified in the report.
May we have a ball-park figure, excluding non-recurring items such as start-up costs, and including estimates for unprovided-for expenditure, for what the Assembly will cost in an average, future year? The sum of £37 million represents nearly half the putative value being put on the assets of the port of Belfast. It seems an extraordinarily large amount, especially if it is to be incurred annually.
Has the Member any comment to make on the fact that when we add the £90 million that will be needed to fund the 10 Departments and notwithstanding the promised savings, it will mean that about £120 million will be taken out of the block grant to finance this place and its associated Committees? How can we justify that to the people of Northern Ireland? Many people will find that an outrageous sum, given what they are receiving in return.
I entirely accept Mr Robinson's comment that he and the Commission are merely the quantity surveyors and not the architects, but sometimes it is the quantity surveyors who have to tell the architects that a programme is ludicrous. Perhaps if someone had applied the reasoning which should have been applied to the City Hospital building to what is proposed here, we would not find ourselves in the same position with a facility costing 10 times what it should cost.
Mr P Robinson:
First, I shall deal with Mr McCrea's question on the comparison with other Parliaments. It is difficult to make any comparison with the Parliaments that are being designed for other parts of the United Kingdom - the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly - because they are very much at the guessing stage, much the same as ourselves, although I think that we are probably very much in line with what is expected.
The big difference in one of the Assemblies is that it has - in my view unrealistically - assumed that Members will not require any hard copy of papers and will rely on electronic methods. It is very unlikely that Members will be satisfied with that in the long-term. The Westminster budget comes from several different Votes and amounts to about £350 million. That is for an operation on a much larger scale, but certain base facilities are required for any elected body. The annual expenditure of the Dáil - a figure which was given to Members recently - is about £40 million, but other costs were not included. For example, the building is, I think, dealt with by the Department of Public Works.
It is hard to get an exact comparison, but I agree with Mr McCartney that many people will be shocked by the scale of the expenditure. It is often the client and not the quantity surveyor who informs the architect about costs. More often than not the quantity surveyor is paid on costs and is usually the last person to reduce them, but the client can pull the architect back into line.
It is also difficult to give precise figures for non-recurrent costs. There are costs, for example, for equipment. There will be annunciation equipment throughout the building, and Members and staff already have information technology equipment in their offices. Such equipment does not need to be installed every year, but an amount must be set aside to allow for replacement. There will be a considerably reduced cost.
The estimates show that much of the cost relates to the servicing of Members. If, instead of being presented with a plan for an Assembly of 108 Members, I had been provided with one for an Assembly of half that number, the budget could probably have been reduced by about £10 million because Committees, salaries, other expenses and consequential expenditure such as IT would all have been reduced. Cost depends on the design. If there were fewer Departments, and therefore fewer Departmental Committees, clearly the cost would go down. That is an issue for the Assembly, and it is governed by the Belfast Agreement and the referendum on the agreement.
Mr Roche referred to the cost per Member. I think that my reference to the size of membership is pertinent to that. He particularly raised the matter of research facilities. Although a figure is included for research, there is no intention of going out tomorrow to employ all of the relevant staff and have them in place from day one. The sensible thing would be to let it grow according to demand. If it is not necessary - and it may not be - some money can be returned to the block grant. On the other hand, we have to look at the comparisons with other elected bodies. Members at Westminster have a larger office-costs allowance than Assembly Members and can employ research assistants. However, the Library in the House of Commons provides the facilities for that, and I suspect that it is so in the House of Lords also. There has always been that duplication.