Assembly Commission Budget 2021-22

Assembly Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 2nd March 2021.

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Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance 10:30 am, 2nd March 2021

I beg to move

That this Assembly notes the position of the Audit Committee on its scrutiny of the Assembly Commission's budget for 2021-22, as set out in its letter to the Minister of Finance on 14 December 2020 and laid before the Assembly on 22 February 2021; and agrees the Assembly Commission's budget for 2021-22.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Business Committee has agreed to allocate one hour for the debate. The proposer will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. In proposing this motion, the Assembly Commission wishes to highlight the methodology used to set its budget. The Commission notes that it involves the development of a draft budget by the Commission, scrutiny of that draft budget by the Audit Committee and input from the Department of Finance to help to inform the Committee's scrutiny. The motion and subsequent vote enable the Assembly to determine the resource that the Commission needs to enable the Assembly to carry out its legislative functions. The Audit Committee's consideration of the draft budget resulted in the letter, referred to in the motion, that was sent from that Committee to the Minister of Finance. I record the Commission's indebtedness to the Committee for the diligent manner in which it carried out its important scrutiny.

I turn to the figures in the Commission's draft budget for 2021-22. The total presented for resource departmental expenditure limit (DEL) is £49·333 million. That figure is split between non-ring-fenced resource DEL of £45·833 million and £3·5 million for ring-fenced resource DEL. There is also a budget proposal of £1·684 million for capital expenditure.

The first category in the Commission's budget is income. Next year, the Commission expects to receive income of £630,000. Just over £580,000 of that total relates to the recovery of the cost of ministerial salaries from Departments. The remaining amount is largely made up of the recoupment of the cost of salaries for the very small number of staff who are expected to be seconded to other public-sector entities for part of the year.

The second category covers salaries and expenses paid to Members. This category of expenditure is made up of a number of distinct subcategories. They include Members' salaries; constituency office running costs, including Members' support staff costs; Members' travel costs; and other costs associated with Members. The level of salary paid to Members, Ministers, Committee Chairs and members of the Assembly Commission was set by the Independent Financial Review Panel (IFRP), and the total cost forecast is £6·676 million. Members should note that the level of consumer price index (CPI) inflation was less than 1% at September 2020, meaning that no increase in Members' salaries is provided for in the 2021-22 financial year.

The amounts that Members can recover to meet the cost of running a constituency office include the cost of Member support staff, office rent and rates, office utilities and other office running costs. These were set by the Assembly Members (Salaries and Expenses) (Amendment) Determination (Northern Ireland) 2020, published by the Commission in August last year, and this subcategory is expected to total £10·461 million. The penultimate subcategory covers payments to Members in respect of the travel allowance set out in the determination. These are forecast to be £294,000 in 2021-22. The final subcategory covers what are referred to as "other costs". These include winding-up expenses, should a Member choose to resign her or his seat in the Assembly, and any ill-health retirements that might occur. These costs are estimated at £75,000 for the incoming year.

The third major category in the Commission's budget covers the salary payments for secretariat staff and the administrative costs that are incurred to deliver the full range of services needed by the Assembly. The first of these, secretariat staff salary costs, is forecast to be £22·026 million for the next year. This reflects similar secretariat staffing levels to those agreed by the Assembly for the current year. Members should note that the Commission has launched a Youth Assembly, and appropriate staff and other resources are already in place to deliver this exciting initiative next year. This category of expenditure also includes the Commission's administration costs, and these are forecast to be £6·131 million in 2021-22, which is the same as the amount agreed by the Assembly for the current year. Administration costs cover a wide range of expenditure items, including Committee expenses; building rates; utility costs, including electricity and gas; repairs and maintenance costs, third-party support for the business-critical IT systems that we use; and the cost of recurring contracts for things like broadcasting, catering and research subscriptions. They also include Member development costs and the cost of drafting private Members' Bills.

The next category is payments to parties under the financial assistance for political parties scheme 2016, or FAPP, as it is universally known. Those costs are forecast to be £800,000 next year, which is £70,000 higher than the current year. Members will be aware of the work that is being undertaken by the Assembly and Executive Review Committee to review the statement of entitlements for an official Opposition to potentially include additional funding for parties that form the Opposition. Without prejudice to that review, the Commission is also considering the amounts payable under the FAPP scheme for 2021-22.

The penultimate category is slightly more technical. It covers depreciation and impairment charges. For the next year, depreciation charges are forecast to be £3·5 million. That is mostly made up of the depreciation charge on the value of Parliament Buildings. We also have depreciation charges for such things as PCs and printers, but they are very small compared with the depreciation charge for Parliament Buildings. That makes up the total of £49·333 million for resource DEL expenditure for next year.

The Commission anticipates that it will need to make capital investments of £1·684 million in 2021-22. In its letter to the Finance Minister, the Audit Committee noted that the Commission's capital budget includes items that are badly needed to rectify underinvestment in the preceding three years. The capital plan for 2021-22 includes investment in the broadcasting infrastructure in the Building, Building security measures and a range of IT-enabled projects that are intended to ensure that our information and communication technology infrastructure is up to date and robust.

On behalf of the Commission, I take this opportunity to record my sincere thanks to the Assembly secretariat staff for the considerable effort that they have made to facilitate the work of the Assembly in a safe but effective manner throughout what has been an extremely challenging year. The Commission also thanks everyone who counts Parliament Buildings as their place of work. That includes Members, Members' staff, staff employed by political parties, and our contractors and suppliers. Their professionalism, adherence to the measures that the Commission has put in place and forbearance in the face of challenging circumstances has meant that we have enjoyed a safe and secure working environment in the Building. We thank them.

I commend the Commission's budget proposals for 2021-22 to the House.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

I call Daniel McCrossan. He has up to five minutes in which to speak.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Normally, the Audit Committee would produce a report outlining its deliberations on the draft budget for the Assembly Commission, Audit Office and the Public Services Ombudsman, but, because of the tight time frame for the 2021-22 Budget process, a letter was sent to the Minister of Finance instead. That is referenced in the motion. Before I give detail on the Committee's scrutiny of the Commission's budget, I will outline the background of the Committee's approach. The Committee followed the approach of the previous Audit Committee. To reflect the constitutional independence of the Assembly from the Executive, a methodology was introduced in 2016, similar to that adopted by the Audit Committee for agreeing the annual Estimates for the Audit Office and the Public Services Ombudsman. The intention is that that additional Committee function will be codified before the end of the mandate.

The Committee began its scrutiny of the Commission's indicative budget in October 2020 on the understanding that an in-depth review of every category of expenditure would be carried out to reach the final figures. The indicative budget that was presented for 2021-22 was largely the same as the original budget for 2020-21. That was primarily based on the hope that many of the plans that were in place for 2020-21, such as outreach and engagement activities, would be progressed in 2021-22. However, at the time, members noted that the figures would need to be amended to take account of the expenditure that could arise from the outworkings of the Assembly Members' salary and expenses determination, which the Commission published in the summer. As Members will be aware, the Commission has a legal requirement to meet all costs associated with Members, including salaries, allowances, expenses, Members' staffing costs and pension contributions. Those budget elements are determination-driven and are not under the control of the Commission.

During the October evidence session with Commission officials, members focused mainly on the indicative capital budget for 2021-22. Issues discussed included electronic access control to the Building, the security management system, the audio system in the Chamber, updates to the telephone and television systems in Parliament Buildings and the potential financial impact of roof repairs to Parliament Buildings. The Commission's review of expenditure was subsequently carried out, and it resulted in an increased expenditure of close to half a million pounds in resource DEL and nearly £300,000 in capital DEL.

Officials attended a Committee meeting in December to update members on the scope of the review and the revised figures. The increase in resource DEL was predicted mainly due to MLA constituency costs and party allowances increasing, and it also included an increase for secretariat staff salaries to reflect pay progression and recruitment. In the light of the Chancellor's pay freeze announcement as part of the spending review, it does not include an additional pay uplift for staff salaries.

The increase in capital DEL was, in the main, down to broadcasting infrastructure improvements, remote working solutions and the replacement of TV systems in the Building. Members heard that most of the capital works planned are needed to address underinvestment in previous years in the fabric of the Building and viewed them as being necessary in order to face the challenge of a fully functioning Assembly, especially in difficult times such as these. Indeed, the Committee pressed the Commission to ensure that works are progressed as quickly as possible. The Committee, however, received correspondence from the Minister of Finance asking that the Assembly Commission engage with Enterprise Shared Services (ESS) to determine whether there is a more cost-effective solution to the capital requirements. That matter has not been fully dealt with but is something to which Committee will return.

The Committee sought further information from the Commission on the cost of the remedial work required for the roof of Parliament Buildings but was advised that the matter was still under investigation. No further information could therefore be provided at that stage. There is no cost given for the remedial work in the budget, but, given the potential impact of any repairs on the Commission's future budget and the Committee's role in looking at value for money, details of the cost, when known, have been requested.

In coming to its conclusion, the Committee was mindful of the wider public expenditure position, and, as set out in its letter to the Finance Minister, it agreed that the Executive's draft Budget document should make provision for the Assembly Commission to have a resource DEL budget of £49·333 million and a capital DEL budget of £1·684 million, with the resource DEL broken down into £45·833 million of non-ring-fenced DEL and £3·5 million of ring-fenced DEL.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice 10:45 am, 2nd March 2021

As MLAs, we should always be mindful of the very privileged position in which the Assembly Commission operates. Uniquely within these institutions, it has that most favoured of positions, in that the money that it asks for, the Department must provide. That therefore intensifies the need to ensure that there is neither squander nor abuse of that money.

The upcoming Commission budget coincides, of course, with the year of the centenary of Northern Ireland. Given the status of the Commission as the oversight body for how this place functions and presents itself, it is therefore a matter of grave disappointment to me that there is not a single line in the budget that is specific to celebrating that centenary. That is very remiss. There are on those on the Commission who talk loudly about respect, but, when it comes to those who wish to celebrate the centenary, seeking some respect, they get from that party, namely Sinn Féin, the exercising of a veto in order to deliver disrespect. That is quite shameful. We are almost at the end of the first quarter of this year of centenary, yet have we heard a squeak from the Commission about celebrating the centenary? No. Rather, we have had foot-dragging on propositions and a determination, it would seem, by some to make sure that it is disrespect rather than respect that attends the centenary. That is a measure of some on the Commission and of the folly of the arrangement of what they call consensus but which, when it comes to the conduct of these things, really means veto.

We also see it when it comes to the question of the illumination of the Building. Next Thursday is the annual international day of remembrance of the innocent victims of terrorism. One of the victims' groups — the South East Fermanagh Foundation (SEFF) — and I have, again, made a request for the illumination of this Building on 11 March to mark that significant day. Last year, the Commission snubbed innocent victims; it refused illumination. This year, it is dragging its feet; it has not even, almost within a week of the occasion, issued a decision. That is wholly shameful and disrespectful. It is another illustration of the abuse of veto in the Commission. I call on the Commission, given its disgraceful conduct last year, to at least not compound it, but show some respect to a most deserving cohort of people: innocent victims of terrorism.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

I remind the Member that we are discussing the budgetary aspects of the Commission.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Yes, and we are discussing in that, therefore, the work of the Commission. It is important that that is borne in mind.

The Commission brought a Bill to the House some time ago, but we have heard nothing about the Second Reading of that Bill. When is that coming to the House? We are entitled to know.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I will not speak for long. The main discussion on the Budget will be later, so I will speak in detail to that. I raise one point in relation to the Assembly Commission budget. People have struggled left, right and centre in the pandemic in the past year. Workers have lost their jobs. Many have lost wages through being furloughed. Small businesses have fallen through the cracks; many are still unable to get any support or financial assistance. It is clear that the politicians in the Executive could not find money to support people in that situation, yet they can increase money for office staff and expenses.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way. I hope that he agrees that there is a long outstanding issue of pay and benefits for Assembly staff. Members' staff have been treated very badly. Have the Member's staff taken up the changes to the determination? If so, the Member could be accused of having double standards.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I thank the Member for his intervention. As I said —.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Member has an extra minute if he requires it.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

As I said last year to the Member, one of the first things that the Assembly did when it reconvened was look after its staff and offices by increasing expenses.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

No, I will not give way; you will have plenty of time to speak.

History will not be kind to those who argued for and will pass a Budget today that will tighten the belts of workers, people on benefits and public services, but at the same time looking after their own offices and staff. This motion will allow for that while many workers are struggling and have lost wages. It is a shame that people cannot see the double standards at play today and in the past year. I put on record my opposition to this part of the budget. However, as with many cases in the House, I will probably be unable to force a Division because of the rules in place.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Mr John O'Dowd is winding on the motion. The Member has up to 10 minutes.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

I thank Members for their contributions to the debate. As my colleague John Blair noted in his introductory remarks, the Assembly Commission is mindful of the fact that the Assembly should debate the Commission's budget in plenary. That is important because the resources that are made available to the Commission will be used to provide services to the Assembly and all its Members.

In the current circumstances, when we are likely to face significant financial pressures and, in fact, in all circumstances, the Commission is mindful that when it provides the services that are required by the Assembly, it does so in a way that delivers value for money. The point is regularly made that the Commission must provide the Assembly and every Member who is elected to the House with all the services that are required to carry out the Assembly's legislative scrutiny and representative functions. That will remain the Commission's overarching objective as we approach the end of the Assembly mandate.

The Commission considers the Budget for next year as being sufficient without being excessive. It does not include unnecessary sums that cannot be justified, nor is it threadbare to the extent that the services required by Members will not be able to be provided. It strikes a balance for the final year of the mandate, with the anticipation of a heavy legislative programme in circumstances that are likely to remain challenging for everyone in Parliament Buildings. This Budget should enable the Commission to meet the necessary costs that arise in-year in relation to staff costs, Building running costs, the costs of the delivery of effective constituency services for our community, and the ongoing cost of investing in infrastructure to ensure that it continues to meet Assembly needs.

I will respond now to some of the issues raised by Members. Of course, the Budget is scrutinised by the Audit Committee, of which I understand that Mr Allister is a member. The Budget will be brought before the House today, and Members will have an opportunity to vote for or against it. The Commission has adopted the same principles for the upcoming centenary as we have for the decade of centenaries. Indeed, we agreed a paper on it quite recently. The same principles have been applied to all the significant centenaries over the last period.

Mr Carroll is a classic example of, "Do as I say, not as I do". The Commission has provided proper terms and conditions and wages to workers. I do not delineate between workers. If someone works for an Assembly Member, that should not mean that they have fewer rights and entitlements and a lower salary than someone else. You chose to vote against that legislation. In fact — dare I say it? — you followed the path of wee Jim Allister instead of big Jim Larkin. You talk the talk, but you need to walk the walk. When it comes to improving workers' rights, the Assembly Commission has walked the walk.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

The Member talks about supporting workers' rights and, indeed, Jim Larkin is a good reference point. Will the Member and his party support my trade union freedom Bill, which aims to increase the rights of workers across society in the North?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

The principle of the Bill sounds fine, but I am speaking as a member of the Commission. The party will engage with you on your Bill.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

Is the Member not astonished that Mr Carroll did not take the opportunity to affirm his support for his own constituency staff, who are highly skilled and work on complex issues and, yet, because of the previous determination, were left on below-standard wages and with no rights or entitlement to pay if they were taken ill?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

I am disappointed, not astounded. Rhetoric is cheap; action costs. The Commission, across all its political hues, has decided that it will pay staff properly. Indeed, in relation even to Assembly —

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

Thanks very much indeed for giving way. I must declare that I am a member of Unite. My staff, who are union members, have, in the past, expressed their concerns about the fact that they lack support. Speaking on behalf of my staff and other trade union members, I can say that they, too, are delighted that our staff are being paid what they are worth.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Indeed.

Moving on, I do not believe that lighting is an issue for Budget deliberations. I am sure that the Member will be able to submit questions or other communications on lighting policy to the Commission.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

The Member must surely appreciate the urgency of this matter, given that we are just over a week away from the event. The Commission has had this request for months. Surely it would be compassionate to those who represent innocent victims to give a positive response to that request at this stage.

The Member says, "Rhetoric is cheap". Indeed it is. Let us have some action.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin 11:00 am, 2nd March 2021

I understand that Commission members received communication from the secretariat about a lighting paper and the request that the Member refers to. It is now up to Commission members to respond. I am reluctant to go into detail on it because I do not believe that it is necessarily a budgetary matter.

In conclusion, Commission members considered the requirements for the 2021-22 budget. While recognising that a significant element of its budget is non-discretionary, the prevailing circumstances were also considered. The Commission is grateful to the Audit Committee for its work on scrutinising and affirming the 2021-22 budget total of £49·333 million for resource DEL and £1·684 million for capital DEL. I commend those amounts to the House.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly notes the position of the Audit Committee on its scrutiny of the Assembly Commission's budget for 2021-22, as set out in its letter to the Minister of Finance on 14 December 2020 and laid before the Assembly on 22 February 2021; and agrees the Assembly Commission's budget for 2021-22.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

I ask Members to take their ease before we move to the next item of business.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)