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.
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;" and
"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.
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.
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?
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.
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]
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
Any research by the Library service, either in the Assembly or elsewhere, is available to all Members and can be accessed by them or by anyone outside. I make the point again that it is a provision rather than a firm commitment to go out tomorrow and spend that amount of money.
Jane Morrice raised the issue of childcare, which was considered at the CAPO meeting and by the Commission. I think that there is a willingness on the part of the Commission to address this issue. The mind of the Commission at this time is that this is best done through a voucher system. The pressure on Parliament Buildings might be a good reason for us to move in that direction. A survey will be going out to all Members, their staff and the Assembly staff. However, the Commission felt that this is not the right time to send out the survey. We should allow staff to get into place first because the results of the survey will greatly depend on the number of staff in the building. Those are costs which the Commission has put in, based on assumptions in relation to how much the building will be used by Members, their staff and Assembly staff. There seems to be a willingness in the Commission to make provision. How innovative it turns out to be may cause some disappointment, but I think that provision through a voucher system seems to be the most sensible way to proceed.
I too am concerned that public funds should be used prudently. The money that is to be spent on the Assembly means that there will be less to spend on health and education. We are currently talking about taking £23 million away from the Northern Ireland block grant — something which has not been planned for.
Given that there has been no reduction in the number of Northern Ireland quangos — think of the savings that would flow from that — can the Member justify the proposal to have 400 civil servants (an additional 270) servicing the Assembly? How can he submit a report which sets aside £2 million for salary increases and £1.8 million for office-costs allowance increases, given the fact that the Senior Salaries Review Body has not issued a report?
I thank Mr Robinson for his very informed report. My question relates to access to Parliament Buildings. There has been a great deal of public interest in the Assembly since it began. Many people have visited the Assembly from Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and beyond, and I congratulate the staff on their friendly and welcoming approach to visitors.
Paragraph 24 of the report refers to the introduction of a new pass system. Can I have an assurance that, as far as is possible, Parliament Buildings will remain open and accessible to as many people as are interested in coming here to find out about the work of the Assembly?
Who co-operated with Mr Coulter and examined the alcoholic beverages in this House? Will that person’s name be made available to the Assembly? I should like to have a word with that person about temperance.
What steps are being taken to tighten security within the precincts of this building? May we have a breakdown of the costs of the Speaker’s Office, which are estimated at £215,000?
I too want to deal with the estimate of £36·8 million for the financial year 1999-2000. Mr Robinson touched on part of my question when he was addressing Mr McCartney’s query, but I will ask it anyway. What changes could be made to the structure of the Assembly or in the way it operates to reduce this figure?
I congratulate Mr Robinson and his fellow commissioners on a first-class report. Much of it had to be based on speculation as to what will happen next year, and that is a difficult thing to do when one is presenting a report of this nature.
My first question concerns the overall cost of £36 million. At first glance one begins to suspect that we are heading towards the extravagance of the European Parliament. However, Mr Robinson said that part of this sum is a transfer of costs from other Departments into the budget for the Assembly. Some people outside the Assembly will try to knock it and present it in a negative manner. The explanation which has been given, and is generally understood within the House, may not be generally understood by the public and, indeed, may be mischievously misrepresented by some journalists.
Does the Commission intend to issue a press release to summarise this report and especially to explain how the figure of £36 million has emerged?
My second question is about the post office, which was not mentioned. The reopening of the post office in this building is a great asset and a great facility for everyone who works here, and I try to support it. As well as postal services, it provides facilities for television licences, passports and child benefit. A notice was circulated to Members about the provision of this facility. Has the Assembly staff been alerted to its existence, and is there any further way we can promote its activities? If such an office is not viable, it will close.
My third question concerns catering. I noticed in the report that the original catering contract was between Mount Charles and the Department of Finance and Personnel. Mr Robinson suggested that Mr Coulter had been sampling the available menus. Looking at him, I can see the result — they must be good. The meals are good in all the restaurants.
Is the Commission renegotiating a contract with Mount Charles? When one brings parties here in the evening the price of food is very high indeed — £12 per head for a fork supper of sandwiches, mushroom pates, sausage rolls and coffee is extreme. This needs to be renegotiated so that all Members may bring guests from their constituencies and from organisations.
Mr Beggs asked about staffing. Each of the heads of departments had to make a determination based on what we now know will be the requirements of the Assembly. It was a fairly straightforward mechanical exercise. As I said in answer to a previous question, there is no intention to fill all those posts immediately. We will allow the Assembly to grow. If extra staff are required, they will be put in place. If they are not, there will be a saving for the Northern Ireland block.
The worst position would be if we did not have the provision in our estimates — if, after the Assembly had worked for some time, more staff were required but funds were not available. The public would think less of us if, in the middle of the financial year, we had to go cap in hand for more money. They might think more of us if, halfway through the financial year, we could give money back because we did not need it. I hope that that will be the case.
We expect the SSRB report to be published within the next week, and as far as the Commission’s fortune-telling ability in relation to that report is concerned, I have to say that we have heard some whispers, but it would be irresponsible to comment on them. I suspect that Members would not thank the Commission if the SSRB were to recommend an increase in Members’ salaries without there being any money in the estimates to pay for it. I would not like to remain on the Commission in those circumstances.
We have made what we believe to be a sensible estimation, based on our understanding of the SSRB’s thinking. We could be wrong. Perhaps it will recommend more than our estimate, perhaps less. As it is a provision only and not actual expenditure, we can deal with that when it happens.
Reference was made to the accessibility of Parliament Buildings. We are paying particular attention to the needs of the disabled, both the visually and the physically impaired. As regards the general public gaining access, we must marry the need for openness within the Assembly — and I do not think that we should be placing undue restrictions, other than those which accommodation dictates — with the security difficulties, which Dr Paisley has pointed out.
In recent sittings Members commented on the fact that they had seen members of the public straying around various floors of the building. One Member told me that a group of three schoolchildren peeped into his room. We need to have a specified route to ensure that people adhere to the security requirements.
The Keeper of the House has drawn the Commission’s attention to the need for a new security pass system. The present security passes are deficient on at least two grounds. One is that they are easily counterfeited, and the intention is to have security passes which are more like credit cards to replace the current laminated ones. They would be similar to the identification cards used at Westminster in that they would immediately identify the individual by way of category apart from the photographic identification. A staff member’s pass would have lettering, which would enable the Doorkeepers to recognise immediately that that person was allowed access to particular areas.
Such a system would also cut out the need for several security passes — some members of staff need different passes to get into the building and to specific car parks. One card would be able to deal with all of that. It would not be as easy to counterfeit such a card, and it would be easier for the Doorkeepers to identify the person using it.
I welcome Mrs Iris Robinson’s concern about costs and expenses. [Laughter] I will savour this moment for a long time.
She asks what kind of changes could be made to reduce costs. Obviously, a reduction in the number of Members would reduce costs, as would a reduction in the number of Committees. Providing fewer facilities and paying less in salaries would reduce costs. Those are the areas that we must look at. If we can do with fewer back-up staff, that will also reduce costs. It will be a case of finding the proper balance over the next 12 months, and estimates for future years will be much more informed because we will have had some experience of actual costs upon which to make our determination.
Mr Taylor referred to attempts to get a handle on the start-up costs of the non-recurring expenditure. The press, of course, has available to it the whole of the report and today’s deliberations, but he is quite right to say that the press may see some juicier headlines for selling newspapers. All that we can do is to set out the basis upon which we have arrived at these figures.
The figure of £36 million is a substantial amount, and it has an impact upon other spending programmes. The Commission obviously had this in mind when it reduced — I emphasise "reduced" — the figure to £36 million.
Staff throughout the building have been notified of the existence of a post office in the Building. The news of its opening is on the notice boards. I hope that we will also have a gift shop. Both those facilities will be on the line of route for visitors to the Building and there should be some passing trade from the general public.
I cannot give my hon and reverend Friend the name of the person who is monitoring the use of the bar. It may surprise some Members to know that the amount of money from the Press Bar and the Members’ Bar shows, to the shame of Members, that the press use their facilities far less than do Members. I must add that the Members are not using the bar that much either. The Commission will have to look at those issues in terms of the size of the facilities and the numbers of staff.
I can also tell Mr Taylor that at the last Commission meeting there was a determination that there should be a House Committee to deal with catering matters. The Mount Charles contract has one and one half years to run. I do not wish to enter into debate about the Mount Charles contractual arrangements — he might be surprised if he were to hear them — but I can say that at present the only way to reduce costs would be by subsidy, and I do not think that the public or the Assembly would welcome that.
I welcome the Commission’s intention to promote equality of opportunity and fair treatment in all recruitment practices, and its commitment to advertise publicly all vacancies. What is the religious breakdown of the current staff, and is it in line with the population of Northern Ireland?
Perhaps Mr Robinson could deal with an issue which is not mentioned in the summary of estimated expenditure for 1999-2000. Can he assure us that the new super-quango — the Civic Forum headed by Sir George Quigley — will not have a cost implication for the Assembly? Has the Commission looked at that issue?
Mr Poots raises the issue of the religious breakdown of staff. Of course, when we deal with equality we deal with not only religious and political affiliations but also with the gender issue.
The religious breakdown, in terms of the present composition of the Assembly Secretariat, is remarkably close to the balance in Northern Ireland as a whole. That is surprising for two reasons. First, we are dealing with people who have been seconded from the Civil Service. That has largely been a case of people putting their hands up and saying "I want to work there", and one might have expected one section of the community to be more enthusiastic than the other.
Perhaps the counterbalance to that is that because we are situated in east Belfast one might have expected the composition to reflect the surrounding area. However, the balance is to the religious affiliations of the community as a whole. We have some concern on the gender issue. The proportion of males working for the Assembly is 55·6%, and the proportion of females is 44·4%. That adds up to 100% for I do not think that there are any other categories. It is, of course, out of proportion to the breakdown in the community as a whole, which is about 49% male and 51% female We shall have to pay some attention to that issue.
I can assure Mr C Wilson that there is nothing in our estimates for the Civic Forum. I am assuming that another Government Department — the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers — will cover the expenses of the Civic Forum. If they are relying on the Assembly budget to cover it, they are in trouble.
As there are no further questions, we will move to the next item of business. I express the appreciation of the Assembly to Mr P Robinson for his presentation of the report and for his comprehensive answers to questions. I also express my thanks to the other members of the Commission and to the staff.
I expect that Members will have been somewhat surprised at what has been going on in the background to prepare for the full and proper functioning of the Assembly. That is now more apparent with the presentation of this report, and Members will agree that members of the Commission and the staff have been working very hard, albeit in the background, on many issues.
The Assembly has heard something of the context in which the Shadow Commission has worked over the past five months. Before I speak about some of the assumptions behind the report, there are two observations about our situation which I would like to bring to the attention of the Assembly.
First, we heard of the National Assembly Advisory Group in Wales. It was established in December 1997 and reported in August 1998. It had eight months in which to analyse the needs of a consultative Assembly which would have no legislative power. Similarly, we heard of the Consultative Steering Group on the Scottish Parliament. It was established in November 1997 and reported in December last. In 13 months it conducted a very wide consultative exercise to form its view.
Neither of those bodies had to manage facilities, provide services, manage staff, supervise contracts and so on. The Shadow Commission to the New Northern Ireland Assembly has had these functions on top of the responsibility to determine future staffing, services, accommodation, property and resource needs of a legislative Assembly following devolution.
The fact that we have produced this report in only five months and have been able to put in place the initial facilities and services to allow Members to function, albeit in shadow mode, is a testament to the hard work of all members of staff. It is evidence of a high level of commitment and loyalty to the task of bringing this institution fully to life and a manifestation of the intense activity of the Shadow Commission, its members and its staff.
I endorse Mr P Robinson’s commendation of the enormous efforts of Tom Evans, the Clerk to the Commission, of the members of the Board of Management and of the officials of the Central Personnel Group who have given us an enormous amount of time and valued advice. I have a particular word of thanks for the staff and advisers of the Initial Presiding Officer, who have been involved in our processes in great detail from day one. We have reached this point in a fraction of the time taken in Wales and Scotland, and established the core departments of the House. That is a positive achievement.
A second incidental and remarkable fact of which the Assembly should be aware, and of which any Member who regularly consults the minutes of our meetings which are lodged in the Library will be aware — the fact that no Member has consulted those minutes we accept as a vote of confidence in our collective ability to fulfil our function — is that over the past five months, on the many matters that have required decision, judgement or direction, the Commission has had recourse to a vote on only one occasion.
That shows the collaborative and consensual nature of our decision-making and our commitment, as Mr Robinson said, to step outside narrow party political agendas and constraints to ensure that every Member is given the best opportunity to represent his constituents and, conversely, that constituents have the highest possible level of access to, and information about, the new Assembly and its work, its functions, its services, its procedures and its decisions. The Commission is getting to grips with all its responsibilities, and I am confident that that will continue.
We have talked in some detail about the context in which the Shadow Commission has operated. I should like to point to some of the assumptions that have had to be made as events have progressed over the past few months, because they go directly to the future basis on which our estimation of a budget for the Assembly has been founded. Some of these assumptions may seem obvious, and some already underpin the way in which we operate at the moment. However, ultimately it will be for the Assembly to decide the nature and character of the legislature that it wishes to create.
One of the important assumptions is that the Assembly will obviously wish to be as open, transparent, accessible and accountable as possible. Following directly from that is the need to introduce a high standard of information and communication systems. The creation of a public information service is central to that assumption. The events co-ordination unit, with the management system for visitors, tours and students, is an inevitable consequence, as is the necessity of computerising for every Member, every service and every facility of the Assembly.
The demand for openness and accessibility requires the creation of Internet and website facilities, and the demands of efficiency require the creation of intranet facilities and links to other institutions such as Westminster, Dáil Éireann, Europe, and so on. These are all included in the report. We feel that these services are essential if the Assembly is to be an open and accountable body, a twenty-first-century regional Parliament, and we ask for the House’s endorsement of that view.
A second assumption is that over a lengthy period of time, there will continue to be significant change. With the creation of 10 new Government Departments, North/South institutions, British/Irish institutions, a Civic Forum, Assembly Committees and new systems of information, communication, research and administration, the assumption has to be that for the foreseeable future, ongoing training will be necessary for staff and Members alike. A sizeable budget for training across all disciplines has been included in the report.
A further assumption, which is reflected in the sizeable stationery and publishing costs of the Assembly, is the requirement to publish Assembly papers and Hansard on a daily basis. That is not a simple assumption. In the Welsh proposals, it is recommended that the verbatim record of the proceedings of their House be made available, in some unspecified format, within three days. I understand that in the Scottish proposals there is limited provision for paper-based publishing of their parliamentary documents, but everything will be done electronically.
Our report has assumed that there must be complete provision for both electronic and hard-paper copies of the relevant documentation and that, in the case of Hansard, the Order Paper, motions, amendments, and so on, there should be the capacity for the overnight production of documents. Of course, this is again based on the assumption that the Assembly will decide to operate on a 9 am to 5 pm or 10 am to 6 pm schedule. It is my belief that it is possible to operate efficiently, cost-effectively and professionally using normal business hours. The budget that has been developed will be substantially greater if the Assembly decides to operate a Westminster-style schedule of work or any system with regular late sittings.
For one reason or another, a range of other assumptions have influenced the report. At a straightforward level we have assumed that Committees of the House will wish to meet in other locations in Northern Ireland. We have assumed that the North/South Council, the Council of the Isles and other bodies that we will be involved in will meet elsewhere, and we have budgeted for Committee travel, staff travel and hospitality.
More importantly, we have assumed that a high quality, highly responsive Library and research facility must be created to service Members so that a professional, modern, efficient system of accountable democracy can be developed. We have made provision for the creation of entirely new systems of information, accounting, personnel management, security and administration. There is, I suppose, an expectation that the Assembly Commission itself will publish details of its estimates, budgets, minutes, proceedings, decisions and accounts.
There are three specific recommendations in the report. The first relates to the overall budget for the running of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I propose that this recommendation be accepted. It represents the assessment of the Shadow Commission and the Board of Management with the support of the Department of Finance and Personnel, and it has been arrived at with comparative analyses of the House of Commons, the Dáil, the Consultative Group in Scotland and the Advisory Group in Wales. It is a high price but an accurate reflection of the price of representative democracy.
The second recommendation refers to our own value and worth as Assembly Members, at least in relation to our pay and pension rights. It would set an important precedent if we were to accept this recommendation. However, that is the subject of a further business motion, and I shall say no more at this stage.
The third specific recommendation is that the Assembly commit itself to a process of open recruitment for all members of staff. That is crucial to the future well-being of this legislature. It will open up employment opportunities to everyone and will allow a process of recruitment based on merit to be established. That, I hope, will contribute to our having a vibrant and talented team of people working here, with their loyalties owing to this institution, serving the needs of Members, and by implication, the entire community.
That is by no means to say that we do not already have a vibrant and talented team of people here. I believe we have and that many of them will want to stay. But it does not change the fact that the Northern Ireland Civil Service is too small a pool from which to draw, given that the private and voluntary and community sectors have not been tapped and that there is enormous talent available at local government level and within non-departmental bodies or quangos.
I have probably spoken too long. I recommend that the Assembly accept the report in its entirety.
My Colleague did speak too long, but I have given him the extra minutes and I shall not speak for the allotted time. In his excellent presentation Mr Robinson and my Colleague, Mr Fee, outlined most of the points that people will have queries about, so I simply want to endorse their comments about the efforts and the commitment shown by you Sir, as Chairman of the Shadow Commission, and the Assembly staff, who worked long and diligently to produce this report. That reflects the work that has been ongoing from our arrival here in June and from the setting up of the Shadow Commission. I hope that Members appreciate what has been achieved in this transitional period.
I think that we have successfully carried out our remit, as far as possible, in preparing for the effective functioning of the Assembly. The report outlines the steps that have already been taken to ensure that we have sufficient staff to service the Assembly procedures and practices from June until now. We are now preparing for the recruitment of staff after the appointed day.
The Shadow Commission is indebted to the Department of Finance and Personnel staff who have completed a mighty job for us all since we first arrived here, tired and weary from the agreement negotiations, promoting — or otherwise — the referendum and electioneering to obtain an Assembly seat.
Those of us who were in the Northern Ireland Forum were glad to see a number of support staff from there, and I hope that they will continue to work with us. I also hope that Members will confirm our agreement to the guiding principles for future recruitment. Mr Robinson sufficiently addressed Members’ queries and concerns about recruitment and equality of opportunity.
We have some way to go in the process to appoint the Clerk to the Assembly, but, given the hours of work and research by the Commission and Central Personnel Group of the Department of Finance and Personnel, I am confident that we will make a successful and worthy appointment to this vital post. We shall also give priority to the staffing of the 10 Departments and of any other Committees that are deemed necessary to run the devolved Assembly effectively.
Accommodation for Members and their staff was also one of our priorities, and, for the most part, work has been completed although there are some problems to be resolved as detailed in paragraph 22. The report details the wide remit of this body, and I assure colleagues that every shadow Commission member contributed in full to the various issues that had to be dealt with, from the furnishing of the Chamber, to catering services, the provision of the IT equipment, and the development of adequate library and research facilities. We have been a housekeeping committee, but that has been vital to the progression and development of the Assembly.
We are still looking into the feasibility of crèche and gym facilities. I am sorry that Ms Jane Morrice is not here to hear my comments on those. I am obviously concerned about them and, as Mr P Robinson has said, all members of the Commission are keen to look into the development of some sort of crèche facility, voucher or otherwise, and gym facilities about which Mr Hutchinson is interested. There are important issues relating to the establishment of printing, publication and distribution facilities sufficient for a working Assembly and its ancillary Committees. As Mr Robinson said, we hope to report again soon on those issues.
We have already made enquiries about costs, and surveys will be carried out on the potential use of crèche and gym facilities. We have had meetings with the Stationery Office about the provision of printing and distribution, and will embark on the next stage of the necessary process on that. I should like to record our recognition and appreciation of the work of the Hansard staff.
We visited the crèche in Brussels, and we were impressed with it and have taken on board some suggestions. At Westminster, the voucher system was suggested to us for a number of reasons, and we will report back on that. Be assured that the gym, crèche and the publication facilities will be priorities in the near future.
Our programme for future action is outlined in paragraph 32, and shows the ongoing schedule of basic but important topics that will facilitate the efficient transition from shadow to full devolution. The Commission, as a corporate body after the appointed day, will continue to develop Assembly procedures and services. Those will give Members the necessary support to carry out their duties in full parliamentary style. That will improve representative democracy, which in turn will improve Northern Ireland generally so that we can build a constructive future for our children.
I ask Members to support the report and endorse the key recommendations.
The sitting was, by leave, suspended from 12.30 pm until 2.00 pm.
May I join the queue waiting to give Mr P Robinson plaudits for his excellent presentation of the Commission’s report. It is a comprehensive document and should be welcomed by all Members. It is also indicative of the Commission’s hard work under your Chairmanship, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. Many Members were unaware of that work, which indicates a degree of commitment to what is a rather dull and, perhaps, unglamorous aspect of the Assembly. All members of the Commission should be congratulated on their work.
I share the concerns about the estimated cost of the Assembly. Some £36 million is a large sum — more than was anticipated. But democratic government can be an expensive business, and the creation of a new democratic institution is bound to create new costs. However, the value of such an institution would be inestimable if it were to bring about peace and reconciliation, in which case it would be money well spent.
I know that all parties will share the view that the Assembly will have to look at its expenditure and consider economies where they are necessary. The SDLP recognises that the projected cost of the Assembly is considerable, and it will act responsibly in relation to that.
The Commission’s recommendation to allow the Senior Salaries Review Body to set the level of Members’ remuneration is the proper way to approach this issue, and we should welcome it. The thorny business of Members’ remuneration should be taken out of the hands of the Assembly; the computation of their salaries and expenses should be decided by an independent body such as the Senior Salaries Review Body. The SDLP welcomes that and supports this recommendation. However, it will be a supreme act of faith on the part of the Assembly if Members blindly accept that body’s recommendations.
SDLP Members would like to put on record our thanks to the Assembly staff who have worked in a courteous, warm, friendly and efficient way. They have given us great service over the past few months, and I know that Members from other parties will join me in congratulating them on their work. I pay particular tribute to Nigel Carson for his work in relation to the House. He has shown leadership and, in a dedicated and efficient manner, has helped the House to establish itself.
Professionalism should be the hallmark of the Assembly and of our contributions to its work. The professionalism of the staff should also be reflected in the work of all Members individually and collectively. Therefore in discharging our duties as public representatives we welcome the services that are provided by staff members and their high degree of professionalism.
It is important for Assembly Members to obtain the best possible research facilities, and I welcome the Shadow Commission’s steps in this regard. It is important that we educate ourselves in terms of those facilities, and it is particularly important for the Assembly to provide Members, as it has done, with hi-tech facilities and services to carry out their work in a professional manner. I welcome the steps that have been taken, and I look forward to the improved services that this report foreshadows.
It is essential that we move quickly to the appointment of the Clerk, the Deputy Clerk, head of administration and other staff for the Assembly. It is important for the discharge of our duties and for the creation of that professionalism that I referred to earlier.
The SDLP welcomes the Shadow Commission’s commitment to public advertisement and its commitment to an equal opportunities policy and to a code of practice. That reflects the values of the Assembly, which was established to create fair play and opportunity for all in our community. If we were found wanting in this respect it would be highly damaging to the Assembly. Therefore the SDLP supports the Shadow Commission’s recommendation.
One small point which was not addressed in the report, and I am not in any way quibbling, is the availability of medical services in the Assembly. I refer not so much to ongoing medical services but to emergency services. There is a first-aid facility in the House — and that is to be welcomed — but for an institution which will employ over 300 people plus 108 Assembly Members it is important that a proper emergency system is available if required. I hope that the Shadow Commission will look at this matter in some detail in the near future. I know that it has looked at it in broad terms, and I am aware that you, Mr Initial Presiding Officer, convened a preliminary meeting on it. I hope that this work will continue.
We have a wonderful opportunity to establish a new and exciting political forum for all our people in a new ultra-modern Assembly that is fit to serve the needs of the twenty-first century. The report is a substantial step forward in that process. I say "well done" to the Shadow Commission. Let us thank its members for all their work.
As we did not have the opportunity during questions this morning, I should now like to congratulate the Shadow Commission on its report. I am sure that Members will note that those Committees which are driven by Members seem to be able to issue their reports on time. Unfortunately, this has not been the case for the First and Deputy First Ministers (Designate), who have consistently produced their reports at the last minute. Perhaps in future the efficiency of Member-driven Committees could be emulated by the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate).
Secondly — I will finish my licking in a minute or two — I congratulate my Colleague Peter Robinson and the SDLP and Alliance Party Members on the presentation of the report. I wish to raise a couple of issues which I feel are worthy of note.
As we heard this morning, the media are already jumping all over the report in relation to the costs of running the Assembly. That is to be expected because it is the kind of issue that makes a good headline with which the public can easily identify. Politicians are always good value for such speculation and activity.
However, I cannot understand why Members have feigned horror at the figures in the report. Mr Roy Beggs said that they would mean fewer classrooms and fewer hospital beds. Only last week — less than seven days ago — he voted for the very structures that have led to some of the costs that are outlined in the report. He took that action despite the fact that for days beforehand he had said that he would have nothing to do with them. It is one thing for the press to write about the cost of the Assembly, and another for those who voted for the structures that have given rise to these costs to come here and hold up their hands in horror.
Peter Robinson said this morning that if the architects of this establishment want this type of structure they cannot complain about the cost. My party has made it very clear that it will seek to keep the cost of democracy to a minimum. I hope that is true of all parties in the Assembly. I hope that we can have some democracy to start with and that when democratic structures are in place we will seek to keep costs to a minimum.
I take issue with the Member on that. When we set up 10 Departments, there will be 10 Ministers. There are salary implications there, and the 10 Committees will have cost implications. The back-up for those Committees will have staffing implications, and I could go on. The report has implications for what we decided last week.
I thank my Colleague for that helpful intervention.
It is imperative that the Assembly should have nothing to do with the setting of Members’ salaries and office costs allowances. It is right to leave this matter in the hands of an independent body.
I spoke earlier about the use of this building and the surrounding grounds. On each sitting day, it has been gratifying to see the number of people on guided tours around the building. It is good that this historic place is now accessible to people. We should record our gratitude to Mr Victor Bull, who has now left the events co-ordination section, and to his successor, Mr Dermot MacGreevy. Many members of the parties that I have brought here to be shown round by Mr Bull commented on his enthusiasm and love for the building. That enthusiasm rubbed off on those visitors. He did a magnificent job pioneering this work, and I have no doubt, having seen his enthusiasm, that Mr MacGreevy will provide Members with the same standard of service.
I do have some concerns about the use of the grounds. There has been considerable controversy about this, as you are aware, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. I do not think that all the suggestions made by the Secretary of State for the use of the grounds would have been of benefit to this place. Some of her proposals were inappropriate. I trust that the Commission will continue its consultation with the Department. As Mr Robinson has said, the Minister with responsibility for the Department of the Environment will be involved in making decisions on the use of the building and the grounds. We are not sure who that Minister will be, or how sympathetic he or she will be. For that reason I would prefer the Assembly to have the final say on this matter.
My final point relates to a matter that was raised earlier today, but to which my Colleague did not respond. I should like to hammer this point home. It was significant that the Commission visited Westminster. It is also significant that Mr Molloy of Sinn Féin was quite happy to visit the hated "Mother of Parliaments" to learn from that institution.
It is also interesting that — to use a term much used in the Assembly by Davy Ervine — Sinn Féin was unable to "choreograph" its party line on this matter. One Sinn Féin Member was on his way to Westminster, while another was condemning an Assembly Committee for wasting public money on doing the same thing. That Member — Mr McElduff — suggested that he had nothing to learn from the House of Commons. It is worthy of note that Sinn Féin seems unable to get its act together on the issue.
A Chathaoirligh, may I at the outset congratulate Mr Peter Robinson and the other members of the Shadow Commission on a comprehensive report. His address was also comprehensive. I also wish to acknowledge a Chathaoirligh the Assembly staff, who at all times treat Members with the utmost courtesy.
In terms of employment and equality, Sinn Féin’s position is that equality is for all — Protestant and Catholic, men and women, black and white. We should not like to see equality being compartmentalised into either race or religion. We are pleased that the report states clearly that employment in this building will be open to all.
It is interesting to reflect on David Trimble’s address last year to the Unionist Party conference, when he said that the agreement gives a chance to do what Craig and Carson did. Thank God that will not happen. Stormont, the Government Departments and the policies developed here should reflect the new reality. Not only do they need to accept that there will be Catholics about the place, but also Nationalists and Republicans, disabled people, ethnic minorities and women.
Sinn Féin will continue to insist, a Chathaoirligh, that equality is central to the whole process of government including, crucially, decisions on Government expenditure. We shall also continue to make government accessible to all the equality constituencies which have been excluded, by discrimination, from government in the past.
A Chathaoirligh, Sinn Féin does not want to dismantle the ethos of the building; we want to add to it. Its ethos should reflect all our diverse cultures, and in that regard we hope that the Irish language will find its rightful place in this Assembly, both in terms of its use and of the availability of translation.
I do not want to add much — the report is good and comprehensive. Sinn Féin agrees with its coverage of the issues.
I hope that what I have to say will not bring forth, in the words of Assemblyman Ervine, "a cacophony of protest". Stormont is on a hill — some people might even think that it is something of an ivory tower. There is no doubt that when one arrives here there is an atmosphere of isolation. It would be a great mistake on the part of the Assembly to use that isolation to distance itself from the electorate and from the people who sent us here.
It is clear that many people from both the Unionist and Nationalist persuasions, will view the amount of money which has been assessed by the Commission as necessary for the future running of this place, with a degree of near horror. It seems that people have been conditioned, perhaps erroneously, to accept a cost of £14 million — a figure that caused some critical comment. The figure has sprung from £14 million to £36·78 million — almost £37 million — and there is at least a hint that it might ultimately exceed £40 million.
This will cause many people in Northern Ireland to view all the proceedings here with some suspicion, particularly as it is rumoured that the independent salaries board proposes to increase salaries from £30,000 to £37,500, and the amount for constituency purposes from £30,000 to £32,000. That is a total increase from about £60,000 to about £70,000.
It is prudent and wise to depute any future increases to an independent body. For the Assembly to retain control over awarding increases to Members would have been too much for the electorate to bear. The public would simply not wear that.
Mr Robinson made a valid point when he described himself and his Commission as being like the quantity surveyors who were not responsible for the design of the institution which this money was required to service and, in some circumstances, to erect. Let us look at the architecture.
There are 108 Assembly persons. The United Kingdom mainland, excluding Scotland and Wales, has approximately 52·5 million souls, yet the United Kingdom has only six times the number of elected representatives that are to service a population of 1·5 million. There are nearly 4 million people in Wales yet it is to get between 70 and 75 Members to look after the interests of considerably more than twice the population of Northern Ireland. Scotland has a population of 5·5 million. It will have perhaps 126 Members, and it will have greater powers, such as the power to raise taxes, than the Northern Ireland Assembly.
If one were to extrapolate the representation that the architect should properly have allowed for Northern Ireland, we might have about 60 or 70 Members at most. The architecture was necessary, not because the people of Northern Ireland require 108 Members, but because the political policies and the agenda of the British Government required that there should be 108 Members in order to service their own political objectives.
There is a similar situation with the Ministries. When I first spoke to the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate) about the criteria for deciding the number of Ministries, I asked if the decision would be based on the number relevant to the efficient and economic good government of Northern Ireland, or whether the criterion was to be the maximum number to enable, for political purposes but not for good government purposes, the maximum number of Ministers to be included. There was the additional creation of junior Ministries, none of which was adumbrated in any way in the agreement.
We presently have £40 million probably allotted to the running of this place, and another £90 million is required to service 10 Ministries —a total of £130 million. Where will the £130 million come from? It will come from the block grant or it will be raised, as some suggest, by perhaps a 10% or 12% increase on the regional rate. In other words, we are having to pay for institutions of government designed by other people for their purposes and not directly related to the efficient and economic good government of Northern Ireland.
The Commission, which has done an excellent job, having regard to the architectural brief presented to it, has simply highlighted the real cost of government for Northern Ireland. That being the case, Members will have to show the public that they are giving good value for money for, in Northern Ireland terms, Members are getting very good money indeed.
I have some minor comments. Alban Maginness suggested that we need some sort of medical service in case an unfortunate Assembly Member, due to strain, overwork or perhaps even the excitement of the place, requires urgent medical attention. We have a main hospital about five minutes away and an Assembly Member would need to be very excited, very overstressed or very overworked before needing services of such emergency as to require some sort of medical unit here.
Mr Roche said that £2 million was being allotted to research whereas, encapsulated in the £30,000, soon to become £32,500, allotted to Members for constituency work, there is a built-in allowance for research that is required or thought necessary by the individual Member. Indeed, I am told that some Members are employing researchers with a salary of £18,000 per annum. In those circumstances one would have to seriously question whether that Member would require, as Mr Roche quite properly pointed out, an additional £2 million spent on central research. Some money certainly needs to be available for central research, but whether we can afford to be as generous as has been suggested in the Commission’s report is another matter.
I endorse entirely the sentiment that real equality of treatment, whether for Protestant, Catholic, Unionist, Nationalist, even Dissenter, should be available for everyone. That is a worthy objective. No democrat should be excluded from government. However, someone who is inextricably linked with an organisation that has demonstrated antipathy to any form of democracy should certainly be excluded.
There have been some comments about Craig and Carson. I suggest that those Members who have little knowledge of Unionist history should read Sir Edward Carson’s parting valediction in which he laid down the leadership of the Unionist party. It would certainly open their eyes to what Carson felt about the Catholic population and how they should be treated — it would be worthy of being inscribed in any equality agenda.
I also welcome the report and recognise the hard work that has gone into it. On behalf of myself and my party, I thank the members of the Shadow Commission for their service to the House in preparing this report.
In paragraph 14 of the report the Commission said that it realised quite early in its deliberations
"the enormity of the task of establishing the infrastructure required for the purpose of the Assembly."
Now that the report is before us, the House understands the enormity of that task. As well as thanking the members of the Commission, we owe a debt to all the Assembly staff for their long hours and dedication. My work with the Standing Orders Committee puts me in a better position than most to understand this.
I welcome in particular the provisions of paragraph 16, including the
"commitment to equality of opportunity and fair treatment in all its recruitment practices".
It is very welcome to see that so explicitly stated.
I welcome the commitment to the public advertisement of all vacancies, and particularly the reference in paragraph 16 to
"the establishment of a discrete cadre of Assembly staff which is not just an off-shoot of the NICS".
That is vital. We must reach out to the community and enlist and engage its vast resources of talent and ability. We should develop a different and independent approach to the problems of government from that which has become a traditional ethos in the Civil Service.
I have some concern about paragraph 20 which refers to the distinction between the responsibilities of the Commission and those of the Department of the Environment in respect of the Stormont Estate. It is very important that we have a clear and explicit dividing line between the two separate areas of responsibility.
It would be unfortunate if the Assembly were to allow circumstances to develop in which it found itself obligated to the discretion of a particular Department or Minister. We need to ensure that the Assembly’s responsibility for its business, establishment and areas of operation remains discrete and distinct from the responsibilities of any Department or Minister.
In my question to Mr Robinson I referred to the provisions of paragraphs 25 to 29. Bob McCartney and other Members are perfectly correct to say that the House would not be fulfilling its remit if it did not avail itself of electronic access to the vast resources of information and research which are available to it from the various legislatures with which we have a relationship. As I said earlier, the European Commission and the European Parliament have vast resources of information and research available to Members, and it is comforting and pleasing to know that we will be tapping into them.
Like other Members, my Colleagues and I were concerned at the enormous increase from £14 million to £37 million. Mr Robinson’s and Mr Fee’s explanations set the context for that increase. The Commission ought to arrange for the fullest briefing for the media and for them to have a breakdown of these costs. Some journalists seem to have a predisposition for investigating minutely the remunerations and the expenses of public representatives. It is very important that the public does not misunderstand the size and dimension of these costs, and people should be fully briefed on how they have arisen. Sammy Wilson said that not all of these costs are additional. Some result from the transfer of certain areas of responsibility from Departments to the Assembly and do not therefore mean extra public expenditure.
Members will be aware of their responsibilities, given the cost of this exercise in democracy, to provide value for money and to ensure that this elected legislature enhances life and brings about economic and social advancement in the community. If that happens it will be seen in retrospect that the cost incurred was money well spent on a new approach to democracy which enhanced the community and reinvigorated its economy.
I commend this report to the House.
A Chathaoirligh, thank you for the opportunity to lend my support to the report and to commend it to the Assembly. It is a joint and agreed report, and an important indicator of how things can be done if Members get on with the work in hand. Members of the Commission worked well together in a businesslike manner in taking on the responsibility that the Assembly vested in them.
The Commission set out very clearly from its inception that it would adhere to the fair employment regulations and publicise all available jobs. Those are important criteria which we need to maintain throughout the Assembly. The provision for new staffing means that we will recruit publicly for all the positions that may come about over the next 12 months, or whatever time is necessary to get everything in place. The current target figure is 400, and that will add to the cost of running the Assembly.
We must try to make this establishment family-friendly so that people feel free to come and express their opinions. We must also make provision for child care. A crèche facility in this Building may not be the best means of doing that. Would one wish to take a child to the basement of this Building? Is that the best place to provide a crèche? One of the questions that we heard in Westminster was "Would you bring a child into the centre of London if childcare facilities were provided for Members there?"
There has to be further consultation with all Members and their staff to ensure that we provide the best facilities. Perhaps the provision of such facilities on a voucher basis, as in Westminster, is the best way forward. Members will need to make us aware of future arrangements that they may need for childcare.
The Commission has been in shadow form, but it has been a good working example for the Assembly. Work has been done, but more requires to be done. As a member of Sinn Féin, I emphasise our commitment to making the Assembly work. People seek commitments, and this is one example of Sinn Féin’s commitment. There are many other issues that we need to deal with, and as they arise the Commission will deal with them.
There has been much talk about costs. There is nothing to stop any Member refusing to take salary increases or to take a salary at all. Those who have jobs elsewhere and other earnings could look at that, although perhaps that is not the best way to go about it. It is easy for people to rush out of here to make cheap political points on radio or in the press, against their opponents or even their party or former party members. We need to make it clear that it is up to the Assembly to decide for the future. We should do that collectively here, and should not run outside to do it.
We are looking at the cost of the new Committees. There could be as many as 20 such Committees and if Members did not get the opportunity to monitor all those Committees, they would rightly complain. We cannot provide that opportunity without the necessary finance, and we need to take on that responsibility, which runs right across the board.
Mr Wilson and Mr McCrea asked about London. I did travel to London, and I was very happy to accompany Mr Peter Robinson and the other members of the Commission. We had a good working relationship over the two days. That was important. We can all learn, and we can learn from travel, so I make no apology for going to London. What my colleagues do in other situations is a matter for them. One of the lessons that people can learn from Sinn Féin in various ways is that the party is not a monolith. We do not just take directions from the top irrespective of our feelings. It is important to look at the issue in a broader sense.
On the Friday evening in London, it became clear that within the estimates there was not enough cover for the work that will be involved in the Assembly over the next few years. It was clear that we had to review those estimates, and we arranged a meeting for the Saturday. All the heads of Departments came here on the Saturday morning to work out the revised budgets. I pay tribute to the Clerk, the Initial Presiding Officer and his staff, and all the heads of Departments who worked throughout that weekend to ensure that by Monday morning we had revised budgets. It was clearly a team effort between the Assembly, the Commission and the Departments to ensure realistic figures to present the Assembly with a programme for the future.
Members of the Shadow Commission were asked to present the Assembly with a report. It is clear that when they knew the project and had a target, civil servants, Commission members and staff all worked together to ensure that it was met. It is an example for the future because if the members of the Commission can work together, there is no reason why the members of an Executive cannot work together in the same way. I ask the First and Deputy First Ministers (Designate) to move speedily to set up the Executive, so that we can again show a commitment to make structures work.
The Commission took very difficult decisions, and I again pay tribute to the Initial Presiding Officer for guiding us to those difficult decisions in difficult times. No doubt more difficult decisions will have to be taken, but I have no doubt that that will be done.
The costs need to be looked at again, more along the lines of the transfer of those costs rather than just adding them to the other costs. When we start to dismantle the quangos, there will be squealing from different quarters, but we can transfer that finance into the Departments. If we could end the Drumcree crisis we could save thousands of pounds over the next year. I hope that those with influence in that quarter will try to resolve that situation because the money saved could be used in hospitals and schools and for other services rather than be wasted.
I say especially to Members opposite that there is a danger sometimes that people cannot recognise change or commitment when they are staring them in the face. I ask Members to judge us by our commitment, our workload and our participation and not to get hung up on old clichés of the past. We can and should move forward, and today is an example of us moving forward. Go raibh maith agat a Chathaoirligh.
I join in the praise for Mr P Robinson and the other members of the Shadow Commission for their excellent work in presenting the report to the House. Mr Robinson helped us all to understand their relationship to the Assembly and what he described as the relationship between quantity surveyor and architect.
My thoughts on that are that the client — in this case the electorate in Northern Ireland — did not get what the architect promised. When the chief architects in the company, Mallon and Trimble, were laying out their specifications and plans, the senior partner, Mr Trimble, promised the electorate that the steelwork for this new edifice at Stormont would be based on decommissioned weapons. There is little hope of that now, and one wonders what we are to build upon. Will it be empty promises or Mr Taylor’s assertion that he would be prepared to accept a pledge from Gen de Chastelain and we do not need metal or steelwork on the site?
We need a new set of plans, new foundations and lasting structures that will be built on democracy rather than on the nonsense that has been presented to us to date.
I am concerned about the spiralling cost that is starting to unfold before the eyes of Members, and indeed the public. In addition to the £36 million that Mr Robinson laid out this morning, there is, as Mr Sammy Wilson has said, the additional burden of costs resulting from the Ministries. That adds £90 million to the £36 million.
I was not aware until Mr Robinson answered my question earlier that a substantial additional amount is required by the First and Deputy First Ministers to service their office within the Assembly. As part of that, a large amount will be spent on the new Civic Forum. I have not been told exactly how much that will cost or of who will foot the bill. The one thing that is certain is that the money will all come out of the block grant. The idea is that there are little pockets of money coming from different sources. At the end of the day there will be concern and the public will ask questions.
As Mr Robinson has said, we are tasked with ensuring that, within the remit of the shadow Commission, the money is spent wisely. I entirely agree with the comments by my colleague Mr Roche that perhaps savings could be made in the area of research. I assure Mr McCartney that when it comes to my party, the money that is spent on research will be spent wisely. We will not do as some Members of Parliament do and squander money on second-rate advice and second-rate research. We shall go for the very best.
I thank Members for their praise of the work which has been done on their behalf. From the Initial Presiding Officer, who chaired our meetings, to Members and staff, it was a great team effort. We all worked together, and the result is the report.
My colleague and I will sum up and, let us hope, address some concerns. I will leave the contentious issue of costs and the equality issue to Mr Fee. I agree with Alban Maginness that cost is a major issue, but as he said, the creation of a new democratic institution will involve new costs. We need the solid infrastructure that was mentioned, and if we do not have an infrastructure that works with the people who put us here, there is no point in going on.
We are discussing not only Members’ salaries and facilities but the whole remit that is laid out in the report — from accommodation and the costs of the Chamber to what we eat when we are not in here, and what we do when we are in our offices. We need all the facilities. Much money is involved but I hope that it will provide best value. That will be borne out over the next four years.
As Members have said, we must also bear in mind that after devolution there will be no need for the quangos that people deride so much. There will be no need for the five education and library boards and the health boards and so on. That is another issue to be looked at. The block grant will be a totally different entity. Before running down what we have tried painfully to build up, people should take those things into account.
I am glad that most Members have agreed with the Senior Salaries Review Board motion to be moved by Rev Robert Coulter and Mr Molloy. It is essential that we are not seen to be deciding our own salaries.
"Fair play and opportunity for all" is the comment that was made, I think. We have tried to do that as much as possible with openness and accountability in all our discussions about present staff and the staff that we hope to get after devolution.
We are also looking into the provision of medical facilities, in answer to Alban’s query. Mr McCartney can joke about it, but I think it is in quite bad taste. Someone could be taken ill here, including himself, and need instant medical treatment — maybe that is just wishful thinking on some people’s part. I want to be very sure that we do have some sort of medical provision in Parliament Buildings for the number of staff that we will have in the future.
I agree wholeheartedly with Mr S Wilson’s remarks about tourists. We should have an open and accessible building. Again, the Commission has tried to have the facilities here to do that. I and other Members from North Down, indeed, from all areas, have had parties of school pupils and pensioner groups here every day — some of them are here at the moment — and I know that they have all enjoyed that facility. We always say to the people who come up here to visit us is that it is their building. I hope that is what we will continue to portray.
We are not here because we put ourselves here; we are here because the people put us here. Therefore we must make facilities, we must have the amount of money that it takes to keep this building open and accessible to everyone. The ethos of the building should be kept. I think it was David Trimble who said
"a pluralist Government for a pluralist people".
The building should be open for all people to visit. It is not an ivory tower and never should be.
My colleague will be talking about equality. I will just mention that we did give it due consideration. It is a very important issue and it will form the basis of any appointments or facilities. Everyone is due equal facilities. We have had serious discussions about that and intend to consider it further.
Some of Mr McCartney’s remarks were political. In reply, I say that the Shadow Commission is an objective, functional body. We work on the realistic figures of 108 Members and 10 Departments. We do not go into the political analysis but try to provide what will be required. Over the next four years constituents can see whether we have given best value. If they think that we have spent too much they can use their vote as they see fit. The figures that we had were projections.
There may be some disquiet among civil servants about how they will be treated after devolution. Will all the jobs be advertised or will some staff be automatically transferred because of their present attachment?
As was mentioned this morning, since we started in shadow mode staff have been seconded to the Assembly. Only when we become a fully corporate body will we have the power to recruit. That is when our open recruitment policy will begin and when positions in the Assembly will be open to all. As Mr Peter Robinson has said, we have had a review to monitor our current staff. If there is an imbalance we shall look at it.
Denis Haughey is right when he says that there has to be a clear and explicit dividing line about the estate.
We have clearly shown that we are aware of that and that we will look at it. We will have negotiations with the relevant section of the incoming Department of the Environment. We have to make sure that we know what we are responsible for.
In reply to Francie Molloy may I say that although we did not comment on the crèche earlier, the crèche and gym facilities are just as important as any others, and we are looking at them. When everything has been rationalised, a survey will be done, and we will inform Members of the situation in due course.
I ask Members to accept the report.
I should like to explain why the Commission members are sitting where they are and why Peter Robinson, when he presented the report this morning, sat at the top table and took questions there. The Commission members have agreed explicitly that they will not follow party political agendas in any sense and that they will, as a body, be responsible to each and every Member. While they are acting as commissioners, they must be seen as independent of party structures. That means that when a Commission report is being discussed, they will not sit on their party Benches. That will reinforce the role that the members see for themselves and their relationship with the other members of the Commission.
It will not be possible to deal with the issues that have been raised. First, there is the proposed scale of investment in the research facility. About £700,000 of the £1·8 million is non-recurring capital expenditure and relates to items such as personal computers for staff and Members, the computerisation of Members’ constituency offices — a recommendation in the SSRB report — the provision of an annunciator system in the building and the teletext-type service to keep Members up to date with what is happening in the Chamber, wherever they are within this complex.
That is all part of the research and information budget, and these services will be made available in all the Departments of the House. This is not an excessive amount of money. When the Assembly is up and running and begins to legislate, the demands from Members’ constituency offices and researchers may strain the research facilities, and we may be under-resourced in this area.
Members asked about the openness and ethos of the House. We are conscientiously recommending that, in future, vacancies here be filled by open advertisement. There was nothing in the original estimates to cover the cost of advertising for a large number of staff, so we have had to build into the budget, from scratch, all the consequential costs of creating a legislature.
Other items that were not included in the original £14 million estimate had to be built into the costs. For example, there was no provision for salaries and wages. The original costs were based on the costs of the Forum, whose members were unsalaried. In addition, there was no provision for office cost allowances, and so 108 times £30,000 had to be included in the budget that we presented.
There was no significant provision for running the Committees, for research, for the publication and stationery demands of the new Assembly, or for pensions. Therefore enormous amounts of essential costs had to be built into the budget which were not included originally and which do not necessarily represent new finance to be taken out of the Northern Ireland block. Many of these costs, such as our salaries, our office costs, allowances and capital expenditure within this building, are currently being incurred, and will simply transfer in the Vote to the Commission’s budget.
Over the past five or six months, each member of the Commission has worked hard and effectively and has taken his responsibility seriously — even when that may have been uncomfortable. If Commission members were required to go to London or anywhere else, no matter how inconvenient that was, they did their duty without complaint and outside the glare of publicity.
Many questions have yet to be addressed, but we have made provision for the Assembly to be able to address them effectively and efficiently in the future. The issues of electronic voting, the electronic tabling of motions and Bills and the like have yet to be addressed, but we are putting in place the infrastructure that will allow Members to go down that route if they wish. The provision of information to schools, libraries, isolated rural communities, local government and business has yet to be addressed. We have not worked out the detail of how accessible our systems will be, but we have put the hardware in place to ensure that the Assembly will be an open, transparent, accessible and accountable body.
Much of the cost of the infrastructure, in terms of information technology, will be non-recurring; the recurring element will be in staff training and servicing the computer systems. We shall publish the details of our estimates when we go through the negotiating procedure to secure funds from the Northern Ireland block. We now need the Assembly’s approval to continue this work and hope that it will adopt this motion.
Question put and agreed to.