The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.
I beg to move
From the outset, I want to indicate that the remarks that I am making are on behalf of the Assembly Commission. I acknowledge the support of all members of the Assembly Commission in the development of the engagement strategy.
Today’s debate marks the culmination of work undertaken by the Assembly Commission over the past year. The Commission has set out an ambitious vision of strengthening democracy and creating a better future for all. In order to achieve that vision, the Commission has set out a strategic priority to develop a dynamic and responsive strategy for outreach and public engagement. Put simply: engagement is the process of giving the public a voice and enabling them to contribute to the democratic process. The engagement strategy has now been approved by the Assembly Commission. [Interruption.]
However, it is both timely and appropriate to allow Members from all parties to contribute to the ongoing debate in wider society on the role of our democratic institutions. The Electoral Commission reported that turnout for Assembly elections has declined from almost 68% in 1998 to just over 53% in 2007. A recent survey found that over half of Northern Ireland adults believe that:
“people have no say in what Government does.”
Less than one fifth of adults believe that they have a say in what Government do. The statistics are even worse when it comes to younger people: almost one quarter of 18- to 24-year-olds strongly agree with the statement:
“People like me have no say in what Government does.”
Given that this generation grew up during the most peaceful period of the past 40 years in Northern Ireland, the challenge of strengthening democracy and creating a better future for all cannot be underestimated.
Against that stark background, the Assembly has developed a clear, consistent and long-term strategy for engaging with the general public. The Commission hopes that the strategy will lead to an increased awareness of the role of the Assembly and a strengthening of democracy. The Commission does not underestimate the magnitude of the challenge. Significant long-term investment is required to increase public understanding of the Assembly. The Puttnam Commission stated:
“The public have a right to expect a Parliament which reaches out to all citizens and invites participation and interaction.”
The improvement of public access to Parliament Buildings is a primary objective of the engagement strategy. However, the Assembly already finds it difficult to meet the existing demand for access, particularly to Committee meetings. As a democratically representative body, it must be desirable for the Assembly to create more public understanding of its role and to foster the sense that it welcomes all visitors, and it is already successful in the latter respect. Typically, Parliament Buildings hosts 40 schools, colleges and universities and approximately 1,100 students per month. In addition, it hosts approximately 140 tours and events attended by about 6,000 people each month.
However, the Commission is all too aware that more must be done. Educational visitors are the engagement strategy’s priority, and awareness and understanding of the Assembly should begin at school. The Commission’s aim is to give as many schoolchildren and young adults as possible an opportunity to visit the Assembly as part of the experience of learning about our democratic institutions and processes and how they work.
Is the Member aware of a special event taking place on the May Day bank holiday? On that Monday, schoolchildren and families of MLAs and Assembly staff are invited to a family fun day. Several Departments will be involved, and, given that the event is taking place on a bank holiday, the invitation will be open to even more people from outside the Assembly. They will be able to take advantage of the opportunity to see inside Parliament Buildings and to visit the grounds.
I thank the Member for his intervention. I was not aware of that event but, thanks to him, I and many others know about it now.
I am delighted to announce that the Commission will launch a subsidised travel scheme later this year. The scheme aims specifically to encourage children from schools in areas of social and geographical disadvantage to travel to Parliament Buildings. Such schemes already operate in Wales, Scotland and Westminster, and it is appropriate to introduce a similar scheme for the Assembly.
However, as learning about the work of the Assembly is not solely dependent on a visit to Parliament Buildings, the Commission is developing a Northern Ireland-wide programme of educational activity. Building on the theme of education, the Assembly will focus on engaging with young people. A youth forum will be established to consider, debate and make recommendations on issues of particular importance to young people. The youth forum will culminate in an annual youth assembly, the outcome of which will be debated by MLAs in the House.
The Assembly is the most important political institution in Northern Ireland. It is important, therefore, that it equips the current generation of young people with the skills and experience that will allow them to play their part in future political life, whether as MLAs or public servants. Society can only benefit from young people having an insight into the way in which democracy works.
The Assembly is committed to giving young people an understanding of how the legislature works. I am delighted to announce that an innovative postgraduate bursary programme will be established that will lead to the award of a masters degree in legislative studies and practice. The new programme, the pilot of which will be launched on 24 March 2009, is the first masters degree of its kind, and it will benefit those who want to play their part in future political life, whether as MLAs or public servants. The bursary programme will provide participants with the opportunity to gain experience of working in core business areas of the Assembly. All Members would freely admit that, at times, politicians and the media do not make good bedfellows. However, in a democracy, the public has a right to understand what the Assembly does and why.
The Power Inquiry concluded that the media — television, newspapers and radio — remains the single most important source of information that the public draws on for political news and information. The Commission understands fully that demonstrating how the Assembly considers issues and scrutinises legislation, in a way that suits the needs of the media, is key to maximising coverage of the business of the House.
The Commission is in the process of making changes to media access to Parliament Buildings in order to further improve the level of media coverage. Last year, the Assembly made a significant investment in upgrading its broadcasting facilities, and we will continue to build on that investment by ensuring that all Committee rooms have broadcasting equipment installed. In future, rather than having to travel to Parliament Buildings to visit a Committee, it will be possible to view and hear proceedings using the Internet.
It is impossible to ignore the rise of the Internet. It is also interesting that technologies that seemed to be innovative only a few weeks ago are being overtaken by new technologies. The Assembly website was first set up in 1998 and now has more than 20,000 pages of content. That is a huge asset. However, the website has not kept pace with technological developments. As a result, the Commission is committed to investing in the complete redevelopment of the website over the next 18 months.
We have already piloted some innovations. Some Members have heard of services such as Twitter. In fact, some Members are already using it. The Assembly is piloting its own Twitter service, which the public can register for, and receive, regular “tweets”. For Members who think that I am making that up, check out www.twitter.com/niassembly. It is essential that the Assembly, as an institution, is seen to be wholly transparent. The new Assembly website, when developed, will provide members of the public with the ability to view plenary sessions and Committee meetings live or through a playback function.
Users will also be able to subscribe to automatic update services to notify them when changes have been made; for example, when a Committee report or Bill is published. The Internet will deliver much more. However, it is only a tool, and it cannot, and should not, replace face-to-face engagement between MLAs and their constituents. The Assembly is committed to engaging with the public and their local communities. A roadshow with the theme ‘Your Assembly Your Say’ will take place from 18 March to 7 April and will pass through nine towns and cities across Northern Ireland, from Ballymena to —
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá mé iontach sásta cead cainte a bheith agam ar an tairiscint seo inniu. Cuirim fáilte roimh an díospóireacht seo. Ba mhaith liom i bhfabhar na tairisceana.
I welcome the take-note debate that has been outlined by fellow Commission member Stephen Moutray. I speak in favour of the motion. As Mr Moutray has outlined, the engagement strategy is trying to deal with the disconnection between the Assembly and the wider community.
There has been a decline in voter participation between 1998 and the last election in 2007, and there has been a particular decline among younger voters. That is why I think that the strategy will be particularly important in trying to address that issue. It will also address disadvantaged groups, some of whom are disadvantaged because of their geography, others because of their distance from the Assembly. I am talking about citizens and young people in schools. There are people who are disadvantaged because of deprivation and social disadvantage. In particular, I welcome the fact that a travel scheme will be put in place in an attempt to deal with that problem.
Furthermore, attempts must be made to reach out to minorities, because the strategy will not work unless it engages with everyone in society. Obviously, the politics of the past mean that there is a legacy with Stormont. However, I am not just talking about problems in engaging with unionists, loyalists, nationalists and republicans. There are also problems with our engagement with, for example, ethnic minorities ― people who have come to this country in the past few years. In addition, we must engage with older people, people with disabilities, young people and gay and lesbian people, and the strategy outlines how the Assembly can engage better with those groups over the next couple of years.
Although we say that the Assembly has a job in hand, if one examines the figures that Stephen Moutray mentioned, one discovers that in 2007, approximately 50,000 people visited Parliament Buildings, and a similar number visited in 2008, including 35,000 adults and almost 7,500 children on school visits. Furthermore, there are approximately 500,000 hits a month on the website, inquiring about Committees and the questions that Members have asked. Although we must not rest on our laurels, and we must ensure that the engagement strategy develops over the next couple of years, quite a few people are interested in visiting the Assembly and the website.
Stephen Moutray mentioned media access, about which there has been some criticism. I know that politicians do not always get on with the press, but there has been criticism of the media having access to here, having information, and having access to Committees. The website is also an issue: it has been in existence for quite a few years, and there are plans to try to update it.
There are two further crucial areas that must be considered. First, educational visits must be a priority for the engagement strategy, because young people make up the category that is most disconnected from politics and the Assembly. Secondly, emphasis must be placed on the work of Committees. Most Committees attempt to hold some meetings in various places in the community. For example, on Thursday, the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment will be going to Derry. Nevertheless, it is important to implement the strategy.
I, too, welcome the debate on the Assembly Commission’s engagement strategy. As a member of every Assembly Commission since the establishment of the Assembly, I think that I can safely declare an interest.
The Assembly Commission has been developing the engagement strategy during the past year, and it is gratifying to know that we can bring it to the Floor of the Assembly today, even with so few Members in the Chamber.
Earlier today, Members discussed important matters, including the Budget Bill and the Financial Provisions Bill. Irrespective of political perspective, those matters, although they may be considered mundane, ultimately impact on the whole of society, and that is hugely significant, because all too often, the yah-boo of politics overshadows the enormous amount of constructive debate and good work that takes place in the House. However, that is not unique to this Assembly or to this country. It is a fact of life that in almost every democratic legislature in the world, the perceived distance between politicians and the public is growing, and although the engagement strategy is not a panacea for all our perceived institutional woes, it represents a good starting point from which to proceed.
Our economy is in recession, and now it is more timely than ever that all Members, as elected representatives, take the opportunity to let the public have its say. That is why the forthcoming Assembly roadshows are so important. I welcome the fact that the roadshow will visit Ballymena, as well as eight other venues across Northern Ireland.
I have seen a lot of changes in the past 10 years, particularly in how the relationship between the Assembly and the media has changed over time. It is fair to say that the Assembly has been less than welcoming to the media in the past, but this Commission appreciates fully the significant role that the media plays in communicating the work of the Assembly to the public.
Stephen Moutray, the honourable Member who introduced the debate, said that television, newspapers and radio remain the most important sources of information that the public draws upon for political news and information. That is why the Commission has recognised the important contribution that the media can make in communicating the work of the Assembly. That is a relationship of which all Members and parties need to be supportive.
Since the establishment of the Assembly in 1998, there have been times when I have been disappointed in the attitude of the media towards the Assembly. When I was studying for my media degree and doing a thesis on the relevance of existentialism to television, it became apparent — again and again — that too many people in the media think only of the next programme, and many think that controversy, confrontation and sensationalism are all that matter in media expression.
The media must take under its wing the fact that it, too, has a responsibility in the community for the corporate knowledge that goes out from the Assembly. The Commission is not asking the media not to deal with those who overstep the line and who do something wrong; it is asking the media to partner the Assembly in the engagement strategy so that, together, we can take forward the programme and let the people see the good side of an Assembly that does so much for them.
I welcome today’s debate. It is important that the Assembly acknowledges that the Commission has initiated a debate, which is useful for Members to express their individual points of view, as opposed to party points of view, on the work that the Commission is doing and, in this instance, on engagement. It is important that the Commission and the Assembly involve themselves in engagement and outreach with the public.
The Electoral Commission has produced some disturbing figures. The turnout for the 1998 Assembly elections was 67·9%, but in 2007, that had dropped significantly to 53·3%. That is a huge drop of 15% in the number of voters participating in Assembly elections.
I am not saying that the engagement strategy will remedy that, but there is an obvious need for Members to engage with the public in order to improve the reputation of the House and to attract people to its work. The Assembly is an important democratic institution, and we worked hard to establish it. Therefore, it is important that all Members become involved in the work of engagement. The ultimate success story will be to make politics work in the Chamber.
If politics works in this House, more and more people in the general public will engage with the work of the Assembly.
Of course, the Commission is not a party-political body — it is non-partisan and exists to assist with the more technical aspects of the work of the Assembly. Part of that involves enhancing our technological facilities, to assist people communicating with us and to help us to communicate with the public. A great deal of work has been done on that and a great deal of money will be invested in extending our website to make it more sophisticated and technologically advanced so that people can take advantage of the information that is available from the Assembly. That is a very important advance; however, as Mr Moutray said on behalf of the Commission, there are many other aspects of our work.
Mr Moutray referred in particular to the youth forum and the youth assembly. Encouraging young people to be interested in the mechanics, politics and general working of the Assembly is a vital part of our work. A further enhancement and attraction is the postgraduate bursary that will be available to university students, as it will allow them to work in Parliament Buildings and gain an academic qualification arising out of their participation in the work of the Assembly.
There are many ways that the engagement strategy will, in a very practical and measured way, engage with the public. It is important also that we enhance the facilities for the press and the media in this Building, so part of the strategy involves allowing greater access for the press. The strategy is a serious and sustained effort by the Commission, and it is fair to say that there was no disagreement in the Commission on it. The strategy has the collective force and authority of all the Commission members, and its aim is to engage with people throughout Northern Ireland.
As Mr Moutray suggested, it is important for all Members to engage in the roadshows that the Commission has organised, which will be happening over the next month or so. I encourage all Members to participate in them — as a member of the Commission, I will certainly do so where I can.
As a member of the Assembly Commission, I fully support the engagement strategy for the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is important to point out that this is the very first engagement strategy, and I consider it to be extremely important to the development of the Assembly as a whole. Given that there is greater certainty now about the future of devolution, it is vital that we develop an outreach programme at every level.
It is essential, if we are to succeed, that we give ownership of the Assembly to everyone in Northern Ireland. That is a major priority of the Assembly Commission, and it is for that reason that we have developed a series of Assembly roadshows that will allow people to understand how the Assembly works and, by the same token, will provide opportunities for MLAs to interact with local communities. As Alban Maginness said, it is a great opportunity in which MLAs can participate. Some MLAs expressed disappointment to me that a roadshow will not be appearing in their constituency, but I hope that all the constituencies of Northern Ireland will be covered before the end of this mandate.
I have been greatly impressed by the work of the Assembly’s Education Service, and it seems that the number of schoolchildren visiting the Assembly is increasing. It is important to try to develop an interest among young people, not only in the work of the Assembly, but in political life. Hopefully, as other Members have said, the engagement strategy will encourage more young people to vote when they come of age.
I welcome the establishment of the Youth Forum and the youth parliament. A number of years ago, I chaired a youth parliament on several occasions in Belfast City Hall, and that was hugely successful. There are great opportunities out there.
It is also encouraging to see Committees going out into the community and holding meetings outside Parliament Buildings. By the same token, as Stephen Moutray said, there is a need to improve facilities in Committee rooms in Parliament Buildings to make them more accessible and more user-friendly. A space audit is being carried out in Parliament Buildings, which aims to improve facilities for elected Members and members of the public.
As chairman of the Northern Ireland Assembly Business Trust, I am delighted with the good relations that have been developed between Members and the business community and, in particular, I wish to thank the Speaker for all his help and assistance. Last month, a Speaker’s dinner was held in Parliament Buildings. It was hugely successful and, since then, we have enlisted new members from the business community.
Other Members have referred to the relationship with the media — it is important to develop good relations. The fact that quite a large number of people watch ‘Stormont Live’ on Mondays and Tuesdays goes to show the importance of developing good relations with the media.
Finally, if devolution is going to work and be a success, it must be open and transparent and fully accountable to the people of Northern Ireland, and that is what the engagement strategy is all about.
I thank the Assembly Commission for tabling the motion. Engagement with the public is extremely important. As individual MLAs, and as political parties, we should already be engaging with our constituents. I run weekly surgeries in my offices and attend group meetings. I also run personal websites and get involved with other community organisations. The onus may, therefore, be on individual Members to engage with the public. It is disappointing that more Members did not come to listen or participate in the debate on engagement.
My party is embracing new technology. Mr Moutray talked about emerging technology such as Twitter. Of course, there is also Flickr, YouTube and others, which are important in reaching new and younger people who are more au fait with such technology than some Members. As a relatively new body, the Assembly must do the same. I encourage people to engage with this body and to improve their understanding of what goes on in the Committees, the Executive and the Assembly. Greater interaction between the legislature and the people whom we represent can only strengthen democracy and be a good thing.
People are, generally, interested in what goes on at Stormont. As has been mentioned, there are tours of the Building every day. We meet groups of people, students and schoolchildren almost weekly, and I meet a number of school parties through the Education Service. I agree with Mr Neeson’s comments about it being a good service, and we must commend the good job that its staff do under somewhat cramped conditions.
It is important to get young people involved in politics, and every Member to speak so far has said so. Young people should understand that the decisions that are taken here impact on their lives, and will in the future.
For that reason, it is encouraging to see so many groups from schools and universities coming to Parliament Buildings. They are keen and eager to learn more about the political process, and that is a good thing. The report from the Commission referred to a purpose-built education suite, which is very important and is a positive and welcome recommendation of the engagement strategy. Such a suite will assist in teaching young people and university groups about devolution. It is also important that teachers and lecturers are kept up to speed with events, and the suite will host seminars, from which lessons and information can be passed on.
Engaging with young people on all levels is important. Members have heard about the Youth Forum, which is an interesting concept. I was here last year for the Youth Forum debate held in this Chamber. That was a useful tool for young people, and it was very encouraging to hear such strong opinions about issues affecting the people taking part. The interns programme referred to in the strategy is also useful. I have met interns who are at the Assembly at the moment. They have an opportunity to work with parties, MLAs, in the Bill Office and in other aspects of Government.
It must be recognised that most people cannot get to Stormont during the day, and they may get only a snippet of what goes on here in the news at home in the evening or in newspapers. As Mr Moutray said, we should be improving the media output by improving live streaming from the Chamber, and, indeed, from Committee rooms. That means that people who are interested — or school groups and their schools — will be able to watch proceedings live and gain a greater understanding of what we do.
Posting videos or snippets of Members’ speeches online may be other ways to be considered. Mr Moutray also talked about Twitter, which may be useful, and may enable people who are following debates to get a snapshot of what is going on.
I am not quite sure that it would be a top seller, but I think that it would be useful for people to get a snippet of what happened on a given day on issues in which they have an interest. It is something that we must look at.
Another way of engaging is through the all-party groups. In addition, the Assembly Committees meet with the voluntary and community sector all the time, and it is important that voluntary and community groups have the opportunity to come to Stormont to give evidence.
I have heard in the debate about Committees interacting. As a member of the Environment Committee, I know that on a number of occasions that Committee has gone to places such as the Giant’s Causeway, Armagh and Castlewellan in order to conduct its business. That is a way of taking Assembly proceedings to the public. More people can access us and we are seen out and about, which is something that must continue.
Finally, it has not yet been mentioned in the debate, but I notice the inclusion of e-petitions in the strategy. E-petitions have been very successful, particularly in Downing Street. I have been lobbied on a number of occasions by constituents who want me to sign up to a Downing Street petition, whether on the recent Eames/Bradley recommendations or on other issues. It would be an important way for the public to register their concerns and comments to the Assembly.
The Member had an intervention. I will probably take his extra minute and, hopefully, I will not twitter through it. Like all the Members who have spoken, I broadly welcome that the Assembly, as an institution, is engaging with the community. I do not wish to be the fly in the ointment, but there are some issues that I want to raise in the debate. I would appreciate answers today, but if not, perhaps I will get them in time.
As most Members have said, the engagement strategy was published just a few weeks ago. That was the first time that most Members — if not all — got to see it. We are told that the strategy is now part of a public consultation. I would appreciate some information on that. Is it the standard public consultation? How long will it take? To whom has the consultation paper been sent? Has it been sent to the section 75 groupings? Are the roadshows part of the public consultation? If not, are we jumping before we actually consult on a document that the Assembly has sent out?
I agree with the Speaker’s comments in his press release, in which he said that he was:
“looking forward to going into the community with the Roadshows and speaking with local people”.
I agree with the Speaker. As someone who has a background in local government, I see the value of reaching out to local people and their communities. Alastair Ross touched on the fact that that is something that we do, for example, through our constituency services and constituency meetings.
A key question, and an issue that has been mentioned, is who chose the venues, the times and the format of the roadshows. If answers can be given today that there will be additional roadshows, then so be it; we should be given that information. I am quite concerned that there will be only eight or nine venues.
We talk about engaging with all sectors of society, so we should genuinely engage with those who are most likely to be marginalised. How do we expect elderly people from North Belfast or a person with a disability from West Belfast to get to The Baby Grand? Is that genuinely targeting those who are most marginalised from the Assembly?
I do not want to come across as being very critical of the strategy, however. If there are answers to our questions, let us know. We should be acting as a conduit, but we need to send out a clear message.
Bob Coulter mentioned that he was a member of all the previous Commissions. Their outreach attempts did not work, so we should not assume that the same venues will work now. We need to propose new venues and talk to —
Does the Member agree that it is important that the roadshows are scheduled to go to every part of Northern Ireland — north, south, east and west — and that that should be an important part of the strategy?
I absolutely agree. We need to be told about it now, because we, as MLAs, will be selling the engagement strategy as much as members of the Commission. If we are genuinely going to engage, let us talk to the community groups and organisations, the farming and fishing communities, the Irish language groups, and the Ulster-Scots society, but we should be told. It should not be a matter of the Commission versus the Assembly. The Assembly, collectively, should go out and give information to the people. I accept that there should be additional roadshows, and we should be told about them as quickly as possible.
I do not think that anybody could fault the work that is being done by the Assembly’s Education Service. I accept that its staff work in cramped conditions and with resources that are not up to date or up to standard. However, I want to know whether its forward work plan will target areas of disadvantage. Will it target areas of geographical and social disadvantage? I want to know who it will target in my constituency.
If we welcome the strategy, we must consider this place itself. As Sean Neeson mentioned earlier, we need to give ownership of all of this to the people. There is a history to this place. If we are to succeed in really engaging with people, we need to consider the fact that the Assembly website is not bilingual. We also must examine the flags and emblems in this place. The Commission has not made any attempt to implement the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.
If we are sincere about outreach, the Commission should engage with people in my constituency and in others. If we are talking about being genuinely involved in getting schools and young people up here, is there an Irish-language officer in the Education Service who could give tours? If there is not, the strategy is not for all the people from the outset. If thousands upon thousands of pounds will be spent on the engagement strategy, we, as MLAs, should know the details from the outset.
The idea of MLAs using their constituency offices to engage with people is absolutely right. However, if we want to send out printed-paper documents, we find it hard to send out information through the free-post service as it is, because circulars tell us that we cannot do certain things. If the Commission gives us information to send out, where does that sit in relation to our providing financial information about our affairs? That issue must be cleared up.
I agree that the all-party groups need to be properly resourced.
From what I have heard during this debate, it is self-evident that we all should agree on a strategy for the Northern Ireland Assembly to engage with the wider community — not least because the fortunes of this Assembly have ebbed and flowed since 1998; not just during the days of suspension, but even last autumn, during the days of no Executive meetings.
Therefore, I welcome the document in that it establishes the principle of community engagement. However, like Sue Ramsey, I want to put on record — although perhaps a bit more forcefully — my concerns about it. Mr Moutray said that the strategy is the culmination of more than a year’s work, yet we are now being asked to endorse a strategy that contains many explicit commitments that have not been costed. My question to Mr Moutray is: what is the cost of all the explicit commitments that the Assembly Commission has entered into in the strategy?
Let me remind Members of some of them: the Assembly will be represented at major events; there will be an Assembly festival every year, of which there will be seven or eight different dimensions; there will be a visitors’ centre; a permanent exhibition; a retail and book shop; a dedicated education room; a mini-Assembly Chamber; live streaming; a ticket office; an electronic booking system; a public café; the replacement of broadcasting in the Assembly; an intuitive website; new media staff; and a new continuous professional development co-ordinator.
How much will all that cost? The Commission asks us to sign off on a document that states that those things will happen, and I want to know how much they will cost. That is a reasonable question at a time of economic stringency. The community with which we want to engage will not deny that the initiatives may be worthwhile and important, but it will ask how much they will cost.
The second issue is a possible contradiction, a point on which Sue Ramsey touched earlier. Paragraph 2 on page 4 states:
“This strategy will be the subject of a public consultation exercise.”
Is it or is it not a fully fledged public consultation exercise? If it is, we cannot make commitments to do things until the exercise is finished; if it is not a fully fledged public consultation exercise, let us say so. Let us admit that we are not having a fully fledged consultation with the people of the North with whom we are meant to engage. What is the answer to Sue Ramsey’s question, which I have also asked? That surprises me, given that the report is the culmination of a year’s work. What consultation was there with those who came through this Building over the past year — the teachers, educationalists, businessmen and students? I would like an answer. Given that we have all those mechanisms to consult the community, as well as an educational advisory service and an annual audit, what consultation has been held over the past year with the visitors to the Building to proof those proposals against what they thought was the best way to proceed?
I listened to Mr Neeson talking about a space audit. Every hour, somebody goes round every room in the Building to see whether we are in them; that is preposterous. I know where I was this morning, and it was not upstairs in my room. I was in the Chamber in the morning, the Senate Chamber afterwards, and I returned to the Chamber this afternoon, just like many other Members. The space audit may be an evidence base on which to decide on accommodation in this Building. It is not much, if you ask me.
Finally, I have serious issues with the Assembly Commission, which has been guilty of grave error in the conduct of much of its business over the past year or two. That is why it is before a fair employment tribunal as I speak.
It may or may not be. However, being before a court of law does not build much confidence in the community’s mind, and we are talking about building confidence in the community.
I thank Members for their contributions this afternoon. The debate was generally constructive and useful, and the Commission fully appreciates Members’ views. It is clear that Members from all parties welcome the need for the Assembly to engage with the public.
However, engagement represents a challenge for all working legislatures. The Assembly already finds it difficult to meet existing demands for access, particularly to Committees. It is not unusual to walk around the corridors of Parliament Buildings to find visitors to Committees waiting outside for a space to become free. However, greater understanding of the role of the Assembly, and fostering a sense that the Assembly welcomes visitors, must be desirable for a democratically representative body.
I have already mentioned the importance of young people to the future of the Assembly. The Assembly’s Education Service has done much over the years to educate young people on what is happening in the Building. However, the facilities available for education are totally unsuitable. In the medium term, the Assembly Commission is committed to providing a dedicated space for education so that a wider range of programmes can be provided for more schools and for more schoolchildren, as well as for teachers and adult learners.
As I said earlier, the Assembly receives a huge number of visitors each year. Measures have been undertaken to improve the security of Members, staff and visitors, and those measures have attracted significant adverse publicity. Although the case for the new arrangements is clear, the perception of some people is that the Assembly has become less welcoming even though it now receives more visitors than before the new arrangements were implemented. In addition, much has been done to improve access and facilities for all visitors, but there is much more to do to improve the welcome that visitors receive. That will include the development of a dedicated visitors’ centre, incorporating a permanent exhibition on the work of the Assembly, as well as a public café.
Parliament Buildings is the home of the Assembly, but the Assembly is getting out and about with increasing frequency. Committees normally meet in Parliament Buildings, but over the past year, they have made significant efforts to engage with communities in their own areas. I have already mentioned the forthcoming ‘Your Assembly, Your Say’ roadshows, and the Assembly Commission’s efforts to improve the way in which the Assembly connects with people who cannot come to Parliament Buildings. In addition, the Assembly is developing educational outreach programmes to increase the scope of its educational outreach activity.
The Commission is committed to engaging with people in their communities, and we will hold outreach events, public meetings and talks in communities throughout Northern Ireland. Over the next year, the Commission will hold roadshows not only in the nine constituencies that were mentioned initially, but in every constituency.
By meeting groups in the heart of communities, we will raise awareness of what the Assembly does, how it works, and how community groups and individuals can engage with the democratic process. In the longer term, we will introduce video-conferencing technology into the Assembly to bring MLAs closer to the public. The Assembly will also increasingly be represented at local events of strategic importance; for example, at the Balmoral Show.
The Assembly Commission is committed to engaging with the business sector, and it has worked with a wide range of local businesses to form the Northern Ireland Assembly and Business Trust, as my colleague Sean Neeson mentioned. The purpose of the trust is to advance and encourage business understanding of the Assembly and also MLAs’ understanding of business. The trust has operated since 2002, and it has the support and involvement of all the main political parties in the Assembly.
The trust recently hosted Lord Mandelson, Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, and has also organised fellowships that place MLAs into local businesses. Recently, Declan O’Loan spent some time working in Mivan, while Simon Hamilton worked with easyJet.
The Assembly Commission has begun work on the development of a good relations strategy, and it is important that Members from all sides of the House contribute to the development of that strategy. Although some Members have raised issues, it would be inappropriate for me to pre-empt the collective view of the Commission.
The Commission has set an ambitious agenda for change in how the Assembly engages with the public, and we aim to deliver on it. It is important that the Assembly not only functions effectively as the devolved legislature for Northern Ireland, but that it is seen to be effective.
There are many detractors who will always be sceptical about anything that happens in the House and who will always be cynical about the commitment of MLAs to creating a better future for all.
To those detractors, I have one point to make: exercise your democratic right, get out and vote and play your part in strengthening democracy. If you do not like it, change it. Engage with the Assembly and help us to create a better future for everyone in Northern Ireland.
The media have an essential role to play in scrutinising the role of the Assembly, and all of us strongly defend that role. However, the media also have a role to play in communicating the positive work that takes place in this House and the vital work of Committees. That is a role that the media embrace infrequently. A few weeks ago, the Assembly sat for almost eight hours and debated important issues for Northern Ireland, including a five-hour debate on the Budget and the future role of credit unions. Therefore, it was a surprise to find the main headlines of local news media focusing on a one-minute exchange on terminology between Members. The media must continue to scrutinise the work of this House and must also play their part in strengthening democracy and creating a better future for all.
I have outlined much, but not all, of the positive work advanced by the Assembly Commission. We do not underestimate the challenge of engaging with the public, but we need to make a start. I hope that Members from all sides of the House agree that this engagement strategy will help to improve the public’s perception of our role, which is to work for them.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly notes the Engagement Strategy developed by the Assembly Commission, which is aimed at improving public engagement with the Assembly, its committees and MLAs.