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COMMITTEE FOR EMPLOYMENT AND LEARNING
End of Session Report: 2010-2011
Remit, Powers and Membership
The Committee for Employment and Learning is a Statutory Departmental Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly established in accordance with paragraphs 8 and 9 of the Belfast Agreement, Section 29 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and under Standing Order 48 of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Committee has a scrutiny, policy development and consultation role with respect to the Department for Employment and Learning and has a role in the initiation of legislation.
The Committee has power to:
The Committee has eleven Members, including a Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson, with a quorum of five. The Membership of the Committee since 9 May 2007 has been as follows:
Mrs Dolores Kelly (Chairperson)
This report covers the work of the Committee for Employment and Learning during the 2010-2011 Assembly Session, from 1 st September 2010 to 24 th March 2011.
The Committee’s work programme for the session included a number of stakeholder events and the completion of an inquiry into Young People (16-24) Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET). The Committee reported on the Employment (No.2) Bill and the Student Loans (Amendment) Bill; considered a range of subordinate legislation; undertook a number of study visits throughout Northern Ireland, and met on 25 occasions .
Details of Committee expenditure during this reporting period are included at Annex A.
Committee Meetings / Visits
Of the 25 meetings convened by the Committee, one was held outside Parliament Buildings, at the Magee College campus of the University of Ulster. The Committee has stated a preference for not meeting in closed session unless absolutely necessary and, as a result, has held the majority of its meetings in open, public session.
During the session the Committee visited the Automotive Academy at Mallusk, which falls under the remit of Belfast Metropolitan College, and the Ballymena campus of the Northern Regional College of Further Education. During both of these visits Members were able to meet with staff and young people, and see at first the students participating in various learning activities. Subsequent to its meeting there, the Committee also enjoyed a tour of Magee College. Members were impressed with the range of facilities at the university, not least the Intelligent Systems Research Centre (ISRC) where they had an opportunity to interact with robotic “hands”.
In November 2010 the Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson represented the Committee when they paid a visit to the Lurgan campus of the Southern Regional College, where they learned more about the work of the College in partnership with the examinations regulatory body, Ofqual. Later that month, the Committee was shocked by the evidence of the abuse of shopworkers provided during a briefing from USDAW, and agreed to visit a local supermarket in Dundonald to demonstrate its support for the union’s ‘ Freedom from Fear’ campaign. As the Committee’s inquiry into young people not in education, employment or training, so-called ‘NEETs’, drew to a conclusion, Members had an opportunity to discuss some of the conclusions and recommendations of their draft report with young trainees in Springvale Training Ltd in Belfast, and gained some useful feedback from the young people themselves.
Employment (No.2) Bill (Northern Ireland) 2010
The purpose of The Employment (No 2) Bill was to reform workplace dispute resolution. The Bill reformed statutory procedures relating to workplace grievances and set out changes designed to contribute positively to the smooth operation of industrial tribunals and the Fair Employment Tribunal. Additionally, the Bill added a new right for employees to be able to request time to train. The intention of time to train is to help raise employees’ awareness and aspirations in relation to skills and encourage more employers to invest in training for employees, contributing towards improved business performance and competitiveness. The Committee undertook a pre-legislative information-gathering for approximately 18 months before the Bill was introduced. This gave Members the opportunity to take evidence on workplace dispute resolution from a wide variety of sources. Such was the volume of evidence gathered that the Committee decided to collate it in a report that was printed June 2009.
The Bill was introduced towards the end of the 2009-2010 session, so the Committee effectively began its scrutiny of the Bill in September 2010. The Committee took evidence from the Labour Relations Agency, the Law Centre and the Department, and published its Report on the Bill on 24 November 2010. The Bill passed its Final Stage in the Assembly on 15 February 2011.
Student Loans (Amendment) Bill 2010
The Student Loan (Amendment) Bill, which was referred to the Committee on 9 June 2010, excluded student loan repayments from Individual Voluntary Arrangements in respect of rescheduling debt, in the same way that such loans cannot be included in a bankruptcy agreement. Assembly Legal Services briefed the Committee on the legal background to the Bill, and representatives from the Students Unions of both of the local universities gave evidence. On 3 November 2010 the Committee agreed to publish its Report on the Bill which completed its Assembly passage on 14 December 2010 and received Royal Assent on 25 January 2011.
During the session the Committee considered 23 items of subordinate legislation which were laid in the Assembly. As part of its process for scrutinising subordinate legislation, the Committee has sought the views of relevant stakeholder organisations and worked with the Department for Employment and Learning to ensure that these views are properly taken into account.
Inquiry into Young People (16-24) Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET)
The Committee continued its Inquiry, which commenced in the previous session, into the issues surrounding young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not in education, employment or training (NEET). There are approximately 40,000 young people who fall into this NEET category. Some of these are merely in transition, but there would appear to be a significant proportion of this group who would find themselves in the NEET category over the longer-term and are likely to fall into the economically inactive group within our adult population. As well as gathering evidence from groups working with young people and from the young people themselves, the Committee was also kept updated by the Department for Employment and Learning as it proceeded to formulate a NEETs strategy. Members were very much aware of the cross-cutting nature of the issues involved as they began to examine the options for appropriate strategies to address the increasing numbers of these young people. This was reflected in the detailed submissions made by almost all of the Executive Ministers to the Committee’s request for further information on the extent of their remit for young people who are NEET. After organising a seminar to take the views of stakeholders on their draft recommendations, Members began their consideration of their Inquiry Report on 1 December 2010 and agreed that it should be printed on 15 December 2010. There was considerable media interest and a number of press articles reported on the Assembly debate which followed the general release of the Report in January 2011. Both Junior Ministers recognised the role of their Office in working with the Minister for Employment and Learning to ensure that the Committee’s findings and recommendations are reflected in the development of a cross-departmental NEETs strategy.
The Committee regards the Inquiry report as one of the most significant that has been produced during this mandate because it has resulted in real cross-party and cross-departmental working and will lead to an Executive strategy being developed. It has also shown how effectively a Committee can react to stakeholder concerns and issues and take them forward and ensure that they are dealt with. The Committee is also extremely proud of how successfully it has brought the Department for Employment and Learning and other Departments to the point where a strategy for NEET young people will emerge.
The Committee has been mindful of the difficulties of the current economic climate and has worked closely with the Department throughout the session to ensure that best use is made of the resources available. The Minister for Employment and Learning briefed the Committee personally in January 2011 when the draft Departmental Budget was first published. The Committee continued its scrutiny throughout January and February 2011 with various stakeholder briefings, in particular, from the Higher Education sector which will bear the greatest impact of any planned cuts. In addition, the Committee requested and received briefings from departmental officials at each of the quarterly monitoring rounds in September and December 2010, and in February 2011 .
The Committee continued to exercise its scrutiny role over a wide range of policies, both those currently being implemented by the Department for Employment and Learning, and those under development. The Committee has been particularly concerned with the implications of the proposed increase in student tuition fees, as well as the on-going Reviews of Higher Education, Widening Participation in Higher Education and Education Maintenance Allowance. The Committee has also remained mindful of Departmental policies on training and apprenticeships, and skills and employment issues, and has continued to keep a keen eye on these policies.
Engagement – Informal meetings / events
The Committee valued various opportunities during the session to meet on an informal basis with the Minister for Employment and Learning and his senior management team. These meetings have allowed Members to develop a good working relationship with the Department. This has facilitated, for example, the Committee being heavily involved in the development of the Department’s Bills from an early stage. The Committee has also hosted a number of smaller informal events for stakeholders, which has permitted members to gain an insight into issues such as student finance outside the more structured setting of a formal Committee meeting. In addition, the Committee has engaged with stakeholders on a much greater scale through a number of formal events. Prior to their meeting at Magee College Members invited local businessmen and academics to breakfast at the City Hotel in Derry, and a similar breakfast event in the Long Gallery in October enabled representatives from all six of the Colleges of Further Education to demonstrate their close links as training providers with business and government agencies. Also in October the Committee brought together stakeholders who had contributed to the evidence-gathering process for its NEETs inquiry and gained their feedback on its draft recommendations before finalising its Report. In order to promote the crucial role in the economy of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects, the Committee organised an event in the Long Gallery in February 2011with guests from the Further and Higher Education sectors, Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, local councils and businessmen. Such events have not only enabled the Committee to meet with stakeholders, but have also facilitated effective local networking and joined-up government. Throughout the year, the Chairperson, Deputy Chairperson and individual Members of the Committee have also accepted invitations to a wide range of events and enjoyed these varied opportunities for further stakeholder engagement.
At the beginning of the session the Committee for Employment and Learning brought forward two motions to the Assembly to allow it to extend its period of scrutiny on the Student Loans (Amendment) Bill and the Employment (No.2) Bill. The Committee also brought forward a motion in support of the USDAW ‘Freedom from Fear’ campaign, condemning the use of verbal and physical abuse against shopworkers and calling on the Minister for Employment and Learning to pursue the issues raised by the campaign with his Executive colleagues. On 18 January 2011 the Committee asked the Assembly to approve the findings of its Report on its Inquiry into Young people (16-24) who are Not in Education, Employment or Training, and to ensure that the findings and recommendations within the report are reflected in a NEET strategy. The motion received the overwhelming support of the Assembly.