Oral Answers to Questions — Northern Ireland Assembly Commission – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 15th June 2021.
1. Mr Clarke asked the Assembly Commission, given that the hospitality and tourism sectors have now reopened, when it plans to open Parliament Buildings to the public. (AQO 2226/17-22)
7. Ms P Bradley asked the Assembly Commission when Parliament Buildings will reopen to the public. (AQO 2232/17-22)
12. Mr Lynch asked the Assembly Commission what plans are in place for the safe reopening of Parliament Buildings to visitors and members of the public when we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. (AQO 2237/17-22)
With your permission, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I will group questions 1, 7 and 12 together, so I will need an extra minute, if that is OK. I thank the Members for their questions.
Members will appreciate that the primary functions of the Assembly are to hold the Executive to account, make laws and represent the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. That has been the key consideration in the Assembly Commission's decision to limit access to Parliament Buildings to permanent pass-holders during the coronavirus pandemic. That decision was taken in order to ensure the health and safety of our staff, Members and other Building users and to minimise the risk of infection so that the vital work of the Assembly was not disrupted.
The Assembly Commission reaffirmed that decision on a number of occasions, most recently on 12 May, and committed to undertaking a further review before the end of June. That further review has now taken place, taking cognisance of the significant easing of public health restrictions and the guidance provided in recent weeks, which have allowed a welcome degree of family, societal and economic normalisation. Given that the Assembly goes into a summer recess on 10 July, the Assembly Commission considers it appropriate that the current limitations on access to Parliament Buildings be removed at that point and that events, tours, public dining and visitors to Parliament Buildings should resume on 14 July, after the public holidays.
The Speaker wrote to all Members yesterday to set out the Assembly Commission's decision. The date of 14 July will allow time for staff to make the necessary preparations for the return of visitors to Parliament Buildings while ensuring the health and safety of all Building users and of the public, and minimising the risk of infection so that the vital work of the Assembly is not disrupted in advance of recess.
While Members may have a range of questions on the outworking of future changes to public health regulations and guidance on events, tours, public dining and visitors to Parliament Buildings, those are matters for the Executive rather than the Assembly Commission. Therefore, it would be unhelpful for me to speculate on what future decisions the Executive will take and how they might impact on the Commission's decision.
I thank the Member for his answer. Notwithstanding what he said about the factors that it has to take into account, should the Commission not also take into account the pace, albeit it has been slow, at which the changes the Executive have allowed other places to open and get back to business?
Indeed, in the canteen in this place, we sit almost 3 metres apart, at single tables, but you can now eat out quite freely in a restaurant at weekends or on any night during the week. I wonder why the Commission is working at such a slow pace, given the relaxations introduced by the Executive.
I thank the Member for his response. I would rather have a slow pace than a risky pace. With respect to your point about the Blue Flax restaurant, given the proximity to the summer recess and the continued emphasis on reducing the risk of infection, the existing 2-metre social distancing will continue to apply in the Blue Flax until summer recess. With effect from 14 July 2021, it will be reduced to 1 metre, or to the relevant social-distancing requirements that are in force at that time.
I reiterate that the Assembly Commission will continue to apply the decisions of the Executive, in line with public health regulations and guidance, in order to protect the health and safety of staff, Members and other building users.
I thank the Member for his answers so far. I welcome the date of 14 July for some easements to the restrictions on the general public in Parliament Buildings. I chair the all-party group on homelessness, and it would like to put an event in the diary. Will the Long Gallery and things like that be open for Members to book events?
Thank you for your question. Members can approach the Events Office from 22 June 2021 to book those dates. The Assembly Commission will continue to adopt a risk-based approach to the delivery of events and tours in Parliament Buildings. It will move forward cautiously, based on any public health regulations and guidance that are in place at the time of reopening. The practical considerations relating to the provision of events and tours will need to be considered in detail to ensure that they can be provided safely, observing any social-distancing or other requirements. If that cannot be done, they will not be offered.
Thank you for your answers so far. In light of where we are with the risks of the pandemic, which are still there, how will the Assembly Commission ensure the safety of staff, Members, Building users and the general public?
I thank the Member for his question. The Assembly Commission will do that based on risk assessment, as it always has done. The director for that area carries out regular risk assessments and feeds that in to the Commission, which then makes a decision based on his or her recommendation. It is purely down to risk assessment.