Assembly Staff: COVID-19 Working Arrangements

Oral Answers to Questions — Northern Ireland Assembly Commission – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:45 pm on 8th December 2020.

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Photo of Maolíosa McHugh Maolíosa McHugh Sinn Féin 3:45 pm, 8th December 2020

6. Mr McHugh asked the Assembly Commission to outline the criteria used to decide whether Assembly staff are required to work in Parliament Buildings or from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. (AQO 1322/17-22)

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I thank the Member for his question. Throughout the pandemic, the Assembly Commission, like other responsible employers and in keeping with all regulations and guidance, has sought to ensure the health and safety of all users of Parliament Buildings, including Assembly staff. Specific measures include visible guidance on the management of risk through effective hand-washing, the implementation of social-distancing measures, an enhanced cleaning regime, and expediting and using a widespread policy of working from home, where that is possible.

In the early stages of the response to the pandemic, the Commission was also acutely aware of the specific issue of staff who were at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19 and the need for them to be particularly stringent in following social-distancing measures. For that reason and in keeping with the guidance in place at that time, staff with specific underlying medical conditions were not required to travel to work. <BR/>As the regulations and guidance have evolved, the underlying criteria that are used to decide whether staff work in Parliament Buildings or at home have remained largely the same. Those are, first, whether the work of the Assembly requires the attendance of members of staff in Parliament Buildings. If so, those members of staff will attend Parliament Buildings safely and securely. That situation arises for staff from a range of business areas. Secondly, if attendance is necessary only on specific days or for part of a week, many business areas have implemented a rota system to ensure coverage of Assembly business while mitigating the risk of COVID-19 infection. Thirdly, if the work of the Assembly does not require attendance at Parliament Buildings, members of staff can work from home if their duties are amenable to homeworking. The Commission will continue to ensure that all services required by the Assembly are delivered while safeguarding the health and safety of staff.

Photo of Maolíosa McHugh Maolíosa McHugh Sinn Féin

Thank you for your answer. It would appear that, during the latest lockdown, a significant number of staff continued to work on-site, particularly on the fourth floor. Why was that?

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

The figures show that, from a staffing body of just under 345 full-time equivalent members of staff, the nature of their tasks is such that some 290 full-time equivalent members of staff are able to work from home for all or part of the time on their own device or on a device provided by the Commission.

The number of staff working from home on a particular day will vary, depending on the nature of Assembly business and on the need for a physical presence in Parliament Buildings. For example, on Mondays and Tuesdays, the number of staff working from home will fall, as there is a need for staff to help facilitate plenary business on those days. Similarly, staff will be needed to facilitate Committee meetings on Wednesdays and Thursdays each week. There is less need for staff to be physically present in Parliament Buildings on Fridays when there is no plenary sitting or Committee business, and, hence, the number of staff working from home can be greater.

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

Last Thursday, the permanent secretary of the Department of Finance and the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service HR division were before the Public Accounts Committee and discussed that very issue. One of the points that a number of Committee members made was that the targets, deadlines and productivity of staff working remotely have to be managed. Is the Commission convinced that that has happened and continues to happen?

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

During the COVID-19 period, the Commission surveyed staff on their well-being and on the communications that they had received. I think that we will come to that in a later question. The findings of that survey showed that the vast majority of staff felt that they were able to work effectively from home and were trusted to do so.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Mr Beattie is not in his place to ask question 7. Anois bogaimid go dtí uimhir a hocht. I move on to question 8.