I thank the Member for his question. A draft language policy was initially presented to the Assembly Commission in March 2010, and it was agreed that that policy would be taken for further consideration by the parties. An amended version of the policy was presented to parties to consider in June, and, since then, there have been more discussions on it at Assembly Commission meetings throughout 2011 and in the early part of 2012. Party submissions on the draft policy were then received and, at the meeting in November 2012, a revised language policy and associated guidance, which had been devised to include that input from Assembly parties, was presented.
At our most recent meeting, the Speaker proposed and the Commission agreed that it would hold a special meeting to explore a range of good relations issues and options in the very near future. It is anticipated that the draft language policy will be discussed at this meeting, including whether any further areas of the Assembly website would include Irish.
I thank the Member for his question. As far as I am aware, submissions were made by all the parties in the end. Some submissions were more substantial than others. I am sure that we would be able to give you those in writing.
Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta as ucht na bhfreagraí seo. Tá mé ag iarraidh a fháil amach, in ainneoin na gcaipéisí a cuireadh isteach, cén t-am a chuirfear i gcrích iad? Thanks very much, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I thank the Member for her answer. The SDLP submitted a substantial document on this issue. However, the most important issue is not so much how many documents have been submitted, but when the policy is going to be implemented.
I thank the Member for his question. As I said, the draft language policy has been considered in tandem with the inputs from the political parties. I can assure you that, as a Commission member, I am mindful of our statutory obligations when considering policies. We are seeking political agreement on this, and, unfortunately, there are some who will turn languages into political footballs. I am confident that, through the work we have already done, the Commission will come to a decision soon on a way forward with a very balanced viewpoint.
Parliament Buildings: Food Traceability
I thank the Member for the question. The Assembly Commission monitors the traceability of all food and produce sold in Parliament Buildings through its current support services contract. That specifies that the service provider, Compass Eurest, shall ensure that all food supplied under the contract meet current UK laws governing the sale and consumption of food. Food standards mirror standards laid down in assurance schemes that encompass food safety, environmental considerations and animal welfare, provide for independent third-party inspection and are accredited to the European product certification standard EN45011.
As a result of the recent mislabelling of meat products in the European food chain, the Assembly Commission recently sought and received further assurances that Compass Eurest’s Ireland and UK suppliers comply with our required traceability testing and hygiene processes for this contract. It has also verified that all meat products sold in Parliament Buildings adhere to the required standards and specifications.
I thank the Member for his supplementary question. I can assure the Member of that. All meat products are sourced from suppliers that have local businesses in Northern Ireland. Meat products are sourced, when available, from livestock reared on Northern Irish farms. Vegetable products are purchased from Northern Irish companies that source from local farms. An exception is given to exotic vegetables, which, when needed, may be imported due to seasonal constraints.
Parliament Buildings: Roof Project
The roof project is a very important project for the House. For a number of years, there have been problems with water ingress through the roof of Parliament Buildings. This has caused damage to the fabric of this Building, which is listed. Short-term repairs have been made in recent years, but it is now essential to undertake a major project to safeguard the long-term future of the Building.
The Assembly Commission has appointed an integrated design team to develop the outline scheme proposal for the repair and refurbishment of the roof.
Although the scheme proposals have not yet been finalised, at this stage the indications are that construction work will begin on site in late 2013 or early 2014 and will last for almost 12 months. Once the Commission has considered and approved the scheme proposals, and following a procurement exercise to appoint a contractor, a detailed programme of works will be agreed.
Thanks to the Member. The roof project's primary objective is to provide a long-lasting solution to ongoing problems of water ingress. It is envisaged that that will entail a complete replacement roof covering, along with rationalisation of existing roof-mounted mechanical services. Where appropriate, environmental design initiatives, such as solar heating panels and rainwater harvesting, will be incorporated into the design, and opportunities to optimise accommodation on the fourth floor are also being explored.
Some Members — including me, for which I declare an interest — are fortunate enough to have offices to the front of the Building. Unfortunately, the roof problems mean that the wall at the front or back of the office, depending on how you class it, has mould growing on it. What steps will be taken as part of the project to repair those office walls and to ensure that the mould is removed?
Thanks to the Member for the question. Other works will certainly be required, during which there will be what can only be described as serious disruption to the House. For example, we expect the work to stop on normal plenary days, but there will be a lot of disruption to fourth floor offices and a number of offices will be decanted from the Building. I assure the Member that I will make sure that the offices that he uses are inspected to make sure that they are part of any planned works.
Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Cé nach margaíonn an tSeirbhís Oideachais a cuid seirbhísí go díreach le scoileanna, coláistí ná hollscoileanna i nDeisceart na hÉireann, ghlac roinnt acu páirt sa chlár oideachais i bhFoirgnimh na Parlaiminte.
Although the Education Service does not directly market its services to schools, colleges or universities in the South of Ireland, a number of them have participated in the education programme in Parliament Buildings, and that is to be welcomed.
Sa bhliain dheireannach, ón 12 Márta 2012 go dáta, ghlac 35 scoileanna agus coláistí ó dheisceart na hÉireann — 1,166 duine — páirt sa chlár oideachais i bhFoirgnimh na Parlaiminte.
In the year from 12 March 2012 to date, 35 schools and colleges from the South, comprising 1,166 individuals, participated in the education programme in Parliament Buildings. The schools were from Dublin, Donegal, Monaghan, Cavan, Meath, Mayo, Waterford, Wicklow and Cork. Of the 35, 29 groups booked directly with the Education Service and six were sponsored by the following Members: Seán Lynch, me, Barry McElduff, Chris Lyttle and Conall McDevitt.
To date, the education team has not visited schools in the South of Ireland to deliver the education programme, but, obviously, if a request was made, it is something that we would consider. In addition to groups that have participated in the education programme, other educational groups from the South of Ireland have been brought to Parliament Buildings by Members for meetings, programmes and events.
The main Assembly website and the dedicated Education Service website contain all the relevant information for groups wishing to take part. The Education Service has recently created a specific Twitter feed to raise awareness of the service and other educational activity and welcomes and encourages Members' support for and involvement in programmes.
Cuireann an fhoireann oideachais fáilte roimh smaointe ó Chomhaltaí ar conas an tseirbhís, agus seachadadh na seirbhíse, a fheabhsú.
Is smaoineamh an-mhaith é sin. That is a very good idea. I know that, recently, our Commission was in Scotland. We had a very interesting visit there. I have no doubt that all the members of the Commission would be very interested in travelling to Dublin. Indeed, at a recent constitutional convention — I am a member of the convention, along with other Members of this House — I raised the good work that the education service is doing, the lessons we can learn from the South and the lessons they can learn from us.
I suppose that that question is very similar to the previous question, and a very important one. We can learn from Wales, Scotland and our colleagues in the South. We were over studying Scotland. I know that some other Members are going to the Welsh Assembly, and we will be very interested to hear what it is doing. Following on from today, I will ask our officials to make sure that we study what has been done in Wales. That may have been done before; this is my first Question Time for the Commission, so I would not want to presume that good work has not been done. We are open to learning from experiences in other legislatures.
That is an issue that is being progressed through the Assembly's management team and trade union side. They have been involved in a series of discussions since the publication of the business efficiency review report on security and usher services in March 2012. Those discussions have proved productive, and both sides have outlined their position in relation to the report’s recommendations. Trade union side has indicated that it is broadly content with the recommendation to establish a team of staff to co-operate with the Assembly’s control team.
I understand that progress, through the consultation, has been ongoing in relation to the proposal to amalgamate security officers and ushers. There are some outstanding issues, and further discussions are planned for this week between trade union side and senior management to try to reconcile and resolve any further difficulties.
I thank Mr Ramsey for that answer. Some of the terms he used were quite interesting; productive and progressive are maybe unusual terms for this House. I appreciate that there is a limited budget and function as to what can be carried out by the ushers and security officers, but has an assessment been carried out on how to ensure that the service to users and visitors will not be affected in any way?
There is an ongoing review of the services provided to Members, particularly security and ushering in the Building. It has been a long, ongoing exercise; probably one of the longest in the business efficiency review. So, it has taken time. I think that management side and trade union side are taking a steer from the Assembly Commission, and they want it to be resolved amicably between trade union side and senior management. I certainly hope that progress can be made. As I indicated earlier, there is to be a further meeting within days to try to reconcile some of the other differences on the proposal in the business efficiency review.
Does the Member agree that the ushers and security officers have, since 1998, served this Building very well? Hopefully, whatever is in the future, they will be recognised for the work that they have done.
I thank the Member and welcome his comments; there is absolutely no doubt. I acknowledge the contribution that all staff in the Building make, but particularly on the front line. Our security and ushering staff deal with the general public in the Building, at times in difficult circumstances. Again, I would certainly, on behalf of the Assembly Commission, acknowledge the contribution of and commend all our staff in Parliament Buildings.
Assembly Commission: Flags
I thank the Member for her question. The members of the Assembly Commission who were present at the meeting held on 2 June 2000, when the issue of flags was discussed, were as follows: The Lord Alderdice, who was Speaker at that time; Mrs Eileen Bell MLA of the Alliance Party; Mr Gregory Campbell MLA of the DUP; Mr John Fee MLA of the SDLP; and Dr Dara O’Hagan MLA of Sinn Féin.
Further to the Commission member's answers, was it the understanding of the Commission members at the time, or do you have any reason to suspect, that the expressions put forward by individual Commission members were not those of their political parties? Were there submissions from the parties at that time?
Can you confirm that the Commission is free to set its own policy on the flying of the flag, either by choosing to follow some of the designated arrangements or to follow exclusively plans of its own desire?
Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I Mí na Samhna 2012, cheap an Oifig IS soláthraí nua le seirbhísí idirlín banda leathan a sholáthar d’oifigí toghlaigh Comhaltaí Tionóil. Le linn na tréimhse suiteála ón 3 Nollaig go dtí an 20 Nollaig 2012, aistríodh 62 líne banda leathan ó oifigí toghlaigh go dtí an soláthraí nua.
In November 2012, the Information Service (IS) Office appointed a new supplier to deliver broadband internet services to MLA constituency offices. During the installation period, from 3 to 20 December 2012, 62 constituency office broadband lines were transferred to the new supplier, with the majority of offices able to avail themselves of improved internet connection speeds. One MLA office in Carrickfergus still remains to be upgraded due to outstanding works at the premises.
Due to the age of the printers and the high levels of faults being reported, a printer replacement programme was brought forward by the Assembly Commission in 2012. As a result, the IS Office has recently completed the replacement of printers in MLA constituency offices. During the installation period, from 9 January to 7 February 2013, 107 new multifunction printers were successfully delivered and installed in constituency office premises.
The Assembly Commission plans to replace the laptop computers supplied to Members in the coming financial year, 2013-14. The IS Office will consider the scope and type of devices offered in the light of feedback from MLAs on the forthcoming roll-out of tablet computers.
Rinne an an Oifig IS uasghrádú ar bhogearraí Fuinneoga agus Oifige Microsoft a bhí ag reáchtáil ar ríomhairí toghlaigh sa bhliain 2011, agus dar leo go bhfuil na ríomhairí deisce agus na monatóirí scáileáin réidh ar fónamh go fóill.
The IS Office upgraded the Microsoft Windows and Office software running on constituency computers in 2011, and it considers that the current desktop PCs and flat-screen monitors are still fit for purpose. Consequently, the Assembly Commission does not plan to replace constituency desktop PC equipment until 2014.
I thank the Member for her answer. A lot of work has certainly been done. Does the Commission envisage any further deliveries of equipment, or does that complete what the Commission set out to do?
I think that Members would agree that significant work has been done. We will look at how to refresh equipment and support Members on an ongoing basis. If the Member has any ideas or things that he would like, we would certainly be willing to hear about them.
The Assembly Commission provides a childcare allowance for secretariat staff. The scheme operates on the basis of a cash payment to eligible participants, with payments subject to personal income tax and national insurance contributions. The installation of a new payroll system that facilitates the administration of a childcare voucher scheme that meets HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) criteria is at an advanced stage. It is anticipated that the new system will be fully operational early in the new financial year. The introduction of the new payroll system will not in itself remove the requirement on the Commission to establish an HMRC-compliant childcare arrangement.
The childcare voucher system is a tax-efficient way to provide quality childcare, with benefits to the working parent and to the employer. It has taken an unduly long time to introduce it here, with an old IT system originally being blamed many years ago. Will the Member assure me that all the procedures are now in place so that it can be introduced and, in particular, that the preferred provider of the vouchers has been selected?
I can assure you that it is at an advanced stage. We are perhaps not at the point at which all the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed, but it is anticipated that it will be there fairly early in the new financial year, so we are very close to completion.
A number of HMRC-approved childcare voucher providers are already established in Northern Ireland. The provisions of the voucher scheme have been approved by the Commission. When the scheme is actually approved, which should be in the near future, there will have to be a procurement exercise to select a suitable provider for secretariat staff. The provider is not there at present, but the intention is that, as soon as everything is there, the procurement exercise will be completed.
It is also important to note that Revenue and Customs will formally consider the eligibility of any scheme only when all aspects of the scheme are finalised. However, secretariat staff continue to work with the relevant HMRC liaison officers to ensure that the final scheme can be approved by them at the earliest possible opportunity.
Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I declare an interest as a recipient of the childcare voucher scheme. Will the Member outline what consideration has been given to the establishment of a crèche in the grounds of the Stormont estate, given that it is quite difficult to access childcare, particularly for people from rural communities? It would be useful if such a facility were to be considered.
Some very unkind Members may say that there is already a crèche here that accommodates at least 108. [Interruption.] Various remarks could be made, but perhaps it is best not to make them. At this stage, I do not know of any plans from the Commission to provide a crèche. However, the issue is probably being looked at, and I will try to find out whether it is being given any consideration. If that is the case, we will write to the Member.
Someone told me that Mr Kinahan had been kidnapped. I do not know whether that is the case. [Interruption.] I thank the Member for her question. Members will be aware that the North/South Inter-Parliamentary Association has been established. Indeed, many were at the inaugural meeting. The first plenary session was held in Dublin on 12 October 2012. [Interruption.] It gets better.
The North/South Inter-Parliamentary Association comprises 25 Members from the Northern Ireland Assembly and 25 Members from the Houses of the Oireachtas. The association was established to facilitate regular and direct discussion and engagement between the two legislatures with a view to finding ways to address issues of common interest and concern as envisaged in the Belfast and St Andrews Agreements. At its inaugural plenary meeting on 12 October 2012 in the Seanad Chamber in Leinster House, the association considered the themes of child protection and the Ulster canal. Feedback indicated that Members found this a worthwhile and useful experience.
The association is supported by an executive committee, which is co-chaired by the Speaker and the Ceann Comhairle and comprises five Members from each of the legislatures. It has been agreed that plenary meetings will occur on a biannual basis. Preparations are currently under way for the second plenary to be held on 26 April 2013 in the Senate Chamber in Parliament Buildings. It has been agreed that the topics for discussion on that occasion will be positive mental health strategies, suicide prevention, type 2 diabetes and caring for an ageing population.
No formal report was produced from the day. However, a communiqué was issued following the meeting. The executive committee is now looking at mechanisms for sharing information on a wider basis.
Assembly Secretariat: Business Efficiency Review
Ón 12 Mhárta 2012 go 12 Mhárta 2013, ghlac 393 bun- agus meánscoileanna ghlac 12,741 páirt i gClár na Seirbhíse Oideachais.
From 12 March 2012 to 12 March 2013, 393 primary and secondary groups totalling 12,741 individuals from 248 schools participated in the education service programmes.
Agus grúpaí eile á gcur san áireamh, grúpaí óige, ollscoileanna agus araile, ghlac 546 ghrúpa páirt i gclár na Seirbhíse Oideachais — 16,798 duine.
Of the 393 school groups taking part, 356 groups —
Gabh mo leithscéal. Tá brón orm. I am very sorry about that.
The Commission instigated the business efficiency programme in response to the 2011-15 Budget settlement and work began in 2011. To date, three thematic and nine business area reviews have been completed, covering over 80% of Assembly secretariat staff and expenditure. The reviews of a further four business areas are nearing completion, and work on the final tranche of reviews covering the remaining five business areas will commence towards the end of this month and are scheduled to be completed during summer 2013, as per the agreed business efficiency programme project plan. The implementation of business efficiency recommendations is ongoing, with each report being addressed as it is published.
Cuimsíonn an próiseas seo mion-díospóireacht leis an gCoimisiún, nuair is cuí sin; agus comhairliúchán le Foireann na gCeardchumann ar mholtaí an athbhreithnithe.
This process includes detailed discussion with the Commission and consultation with trade union side on the review recommendations.
I apologise for my mistake.