Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 12 March 2001 (continued)
Department: Review of Audit and Accountability (Report)
asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel whether the report by Lord Sharman of Redlynch entitled 'The Review of Audit and Accountability for Central Government' has any implications for his Department.
Lord Sharman's review was carried out on behalf of the UK Government. It was independent of Government and represents his personal views following wide consultation with a variety of individuals and bodies. The UK Government will be considering the report and recommendations and will provide a co-ordinated response in due course.
My Department will be considering Lord Sharman's recommendations very carefully, with a view to improving the present system of accountability in Northern Ireland. It will also be important to have a full and wide-ranging consultation process across Government, the Assembly - particularly the relevant Committees - and with other interested parties.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he agree that the recommendations and amendments put forward to the Government Resource and Accounts Bill by the Finance and Personnel Committee pre-empted, to some degree, the findings of Sharman? Despite opposition, the Committee was successful in getting changes to the Bill.
Also, does he agree that the implementation of the recommendations of the Sharman Report will create a degree of openness and scrutiny of Government accounts? Can he assure us that this will be the case with respect to future legislation?
There are a number of points in that particular question. I believe we improved the Government Resources and Accounts Bill through consideration in Committees and in the Chamber. Nevertheless, I also believe that some of the proposed amendments raised issues that would be better and more competently pursued in future legislation. We have already indicated that the Audit Reorganisation Bill would be one area in which to take forward some of those issues.
Now that we have the Sharman Report and recommendations, it is particularly important that we consider them properly. A number of false statements have been made in relation to Sharman, the legislation, and the attitudes to amendments that I had dealt with previously. The order making provision that Sharman recommended be used in the Government Resources and Accounts Act 2000 is in our Bill, which has now gone for Royal Assent.
Furthermore, we included the additional requirement on the Department of Finance and Personnel to have regard to any views of the Public Accounts Committee in relation to that order making provision. Quite a number of issues have been raised - more far-reaching than we could consider in the context of the Government Resources and Accounts Bill. The Executive, the relevant Committees and I are determined to fully consider those issues.
Can the Minister assure the House that we will not follow slavishly that which is done in another place? Can he assure us that in applying the best parts of the Sharman Report we will be able to demonstrate our own autonomy, which is the interest of accountability for the people of Northern Ireland?
I can assure the Member that it is precisely for that reason that we need to have our own consideration and our own wide-ranging consultation on the Sharman Report and on the other issues involved. There might be issues and ideas outside and beyond that report that, for our purposes, we want to take forward.
We need to remember that the original focus and thrust of the Sharman review was looking at things from the perspective of the UK Government. It did not look at issues at local government level, some of which, in our devolved context, fall to us, as opposed to the situation across the water. We need to come up with our own views and our own proposals. That is why I have argued that we should take the time to properly consider the Sharman Report and other aspects of these issues that might fall outside the ambit of the report.
In the Bill that we recently passed in this House, we have already made provisions that go beyond those in the equivalent Whitehall legislation.
Deprivation (Noble Study)
asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to detail what progress has been made on the Noble study into identification of the deprivation levels throughout Northern Ireland.
That project is well under way. A programme of consultation with a wide range of interested groups has been completed and the consultants are currently checking and evaluating data sources supplied by Departments. A consultation version of the research findings will be made available in April, and I expect the final report on the research to be published by early summer.
Can the Minister confirm the level of allocations he has made for gap funding? What arrangement has he agreed with the European Commission and the Northern Ireland Departments to alleviate the difficulties facing those groups operating in areas of greatest disadvantage? Furthermore, can he inform us of the procedures to be followed by voluntary groups seeking to avail of the resources?
That goes outside the immediate point about the Noble study. However, to make it clear, as I have recounted to the House before, in the current financial year we have made some £9 million of gap funding available to cover a number of European programmes. Half of that is to cover the gap between Peace I and Peace II.
Nevertheless, we recognise that the main issue of concern to people is the gap in funding that will apply in the next financial year. To that end, as I announced in this House on 12 February, the Executive is now authorising Departments to go ahead and, on the basis of sound judgement, to make advanced allocations to projects that they believe would be eligible under Peace II. We have allocated a further £2 million to the Executive Programme fund on social inclusion and community regeneration, effectively as a safety net to cover Departments in case they make a bona fide allocation on that basis to a group that subsequently does not qualify for Peace II. That safety net provision is there, first to protect the respective departmental budgets, and secondly to protect the budget for the Peace programme overall.
Does the Minister agree that it is important to replace the dated Robson indices when using new criteria to determine funding so that more up-to-date data would be used? Does he agree that it would be highly questionable, to say the least, to continue to rely on dated information such as the Robson index - or the International Fund for Ireland ward designation, which has been derived from it - when developing new TSN criteria? Furthermore, does he recognise the importance of being able to target pockets of deprivation, which might be neglected at ward level?
I agree with the thrust of most of the points raised by the Member. The Robson indices have served their purpose and run their course. That is why we are conducting this exercise at present. We want to make sure that we have new indicators of deprivation, both to take account of a wider range of domains of deprivation, because those are relevant to particular programmes, and, in aggregate terms, to give us a more reflective and broader-based measure of deprivation. It is also important that, as far as possible, we improve the assistance that such measures of deprivation can give us in targeting terms - and that means not just in helping to map the particular factors of deprivation, but also being able to locate concentrations of deprivation.
Whilst, as before, a great deal of the work will be processed on the basis of ward level, the clear aim is that the outcome will not be confined to information which is available only at ward level. I accept that there are pockets either within wards, or that straddle wards. Ward boundaries are not necessarily drawn in the most congruous way from an administrative or social point of view.
asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel what plans he has to discuss future policy on the level of rates with local councils.
As the level of regional rates is a matter for the Assembly, I have no plans to meet councils to discuss future policy on rates levels. However, I am prepared to meet council delegations to listen to their concerns on rates issues, and I have meetings with a number of council delegations later this week. Subject to diary commitments, I am also arranging further meetings with council delegations next month - all on rate-related issues.
I thank the Minister for his answer but want to probe him further. He said that he has no policy in relation to meeting with councils, and yet he lists a number of meetings that he is going to have with them. Given the outcry that there has been about the increase in regional rates levels, certainly in so far as his original proposals were concerned, he will be aware, as a former councillor, that many local council representatives - from parties of all descriptions, his own included - have voiced grave concerns about the level of the increase.
Would it not be more sensible for the Minister to agree that as part of the future proposals in relation to the level of rates, he should have a formal process of consultation with local councils? Can he also outline to the House what plans he has to ensure that when the rates bills come through people's doors that they know to whom they should complain about a regional rate increase of more than double the rate of inflation - almost treble the rate of inflation - which is his responsibility?
I have already pointed out in this Chamber and at the Finance and Personnel Committee that some time ago, I asked the Rate Collection Agency to ensure that on the rates bill, there is a much clearer and stronger differentiation between the regional rate and the district rate. It may be harder to do that satisfactorily this year, compared with future years, simply because of time factors and the question of the need for better information and technology - different software, essentially. However, we have already taken the decision in principle, and an instruction to sharpen up that differentiation has been given to the Rate Collection Agency. It is important that people understand the basis and composition of the rates bill that they are being asked to pay.
As regards the wider points, I said that it was in relation to future rating levels that I had no plans to discuss or deal with councils. I based that partly on the fact that, in the nature of our public expenditure planning and of the number of meetings that I have to undertake within Government, it would be hard for me now to promise and build in a satisfactory consultation phase with local government about future regional rate levels. It is more important for us to make sure that we have built in more prior consultation with the Assembly, and its Committees, in particular, for I know that that has been a point of criticism and concern here. We could, therefore, look after our responsibility for the regional rate in an open and transparent way, allowing councils to do the same in relation to their responsibility for the district rates.
The Minister was straying into the area on which I was about to question him. Does he have plans to introduce some clear delineation between the general Exchequer grant and money raised through overall rates, and the local element of the rates, and could these, in future, be clearly delineated?
Those questions were also raised in the context of the rating policy review because they relate to the make-up of rates and the presentation of subsequent rates-based transactions. Therefore they are relevant to the wider rating policy review. That rating policy review will be open to views submitted from a range of interests including local government, and there will be a public consultation phase. The debate that will take place at that time will usefully pick up on some of those points.
asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to set out his policy on procurement.
Mr C Murphy
asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to outline progress in the development of proposals to improve public procurement.
Mr A Doherty
asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to detail the progress being made in the procurement review.
Mr Deputy Speaker, with your permission I will take questions 5, 11 and 12 together.
Current policy is that all public procurement be based on value for money, having regard to propriety and regularity. Value for money is defined as the optimum combination of whole life cost and quality or fitness for purpose to meet the users' requirements. The review of procurement was conducted prior to devolution and produced a number of recommendations which have considerable merit. However, more needs to be done to ensure that that important work is taken forward in the context of devolution and in a way that is consistent with the wider commitments in the Programme for Government.
An implementation team has been established to take forward the findings and recommendations of the initial review. The first meeting of the team took place on 19 February, and it will bring forward its proposals and take account of the equality dimension for consideration by the Executive Committee by June 2001.
I thank the Minister for his statement and for clarifying the issue for me. Will he inform the House if the Government Purchasing Agency (GPA) was used in assessing the award of a purchase contract for the Northern Ireland Tourist Board to Baird's printing company for the production of promotional and marketing materials? If the GPA was not used, why not? Will the Minister assure the House that it is Executive policy that all public service contracts are submitted to a process so that no conflicts of interests may arise now or in the future?
The GPA was not used in the procurement transactions that were the subject of the Comptroller and Auditor General's report. That decision was not made by the GPA or the Department of Finance and Personnel. Therefore I cannot comment or give details on it.
Subsequent to the first draft of the Comptroller and Auditor General's report, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board moved to a position where all its procurement will be conducted through the GPA.
Mr C Murphy:
Go raibh maith agait, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Will the Minister assure the House that the implementation team will adopt a mechanism whereby firms that are found to be in breach of fair employment practices will not benefit from public procurement?
The composition and terms of reference of the team include the facility to have regard to equality implications, and that touches on the issues that Mr Murphy has raised. Therefore the exercise can take account of those issues, and I await the team's consideration and recommendations.
Mr A Doherty:
Does the Minister agree that by introducing a more professional and integrated approach to the public sector buying process substantial savings can be generated, which in turn can be used as a source of funding for areas of greatest need? Does he have any indicative figures as to the value of savings on a budget the size of the Northern Ireland block?
As I have said, the review was undertaken prior to devolution. It looked at public procurement in Northern Ireland, which is running at £1 billion a year.
That review said - on the basis of the savings being suggested for Whitehall - that we should be able to achieve savings of some £30 million. After further examination of this matter, we could achieve even greater savings. The main aim is not to quantify the possible savings, but to make sure that we have the means to guarantee that all possible savings are made. We should also maximise the value for money that we get from public procurement so that we do not overspend on items and services and so that we can, in turn, release that money into other hard-pressed areas of public spending.
Northern Ireland Departments: Staffing
asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to detail the current level of staffing for each of the 10 Departments.
On 1 January 2001, 24,731 civil servants were employed in the 10 Departments, excluding the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. The figures include permanent and casual staff as well as industrial and non-industrial staff, but they exclude those on career breaks.
The departmental breakdown is as follows: Agriculture and Rural Development, 3,618; Culture, Arts and Leisure, 351; Education, 588; Enterprise, Trade and Investment, 1,155; Environment, 1,725; Finance and Personnel, 2,538; Health, Social Services and Public Safety, 903; Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment, 1,398; Regional Development, 4,799; Social Development, 7,656; and, in case anybody is still concerned, in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, 296.
I thank the Minister for his detailed breakdown. I am sure that he is aware of the public perception that the bureaucracy created is a sort of gravy train. What policy does he have in place to determine the level of staffing in all the Departments?
My Department's personnel function is to ensure that Departments have the financial and human resources they need to carry out their responsibilities. Departments are feeling financial and human resources pressure, not least because of the demands created by devolution. We have to make sure that we are not overspending on government and that, as far as possible, public money is being spent on public services. The money spent on government is intended to ensure that public services are managed in an accountable manner and planned in a way that best meets this community's public policy priorities, particularly as reflected by the Assembly.
asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to confirm that moneys will not be allocated to ex-prisoners' groups from the Executive programme funds.
The Executive have made no decision about the allocation of the Executive programme funds. The proposal is that, in the first instance, applications to the programme funds be made by Departments. They can include bids for moneys intended for distribution through the community or voluntary sector. I assure the House that each application for funding will be rigorously assessed against the criteria agreed by the Executive, and they will be assessed by the Executive to ensure that the significant resources in the programme funds are put to the best possible use.
Does the Minister accept that there is an increasing public perception, rightly held in my view, that those who inflicted most damage on this society over the years are gaining most from the money allocated for victims? Does he agree that by ensuring that any further funds go to the real victims of terrorism, the Executive would be showing the people of Northern Ireland that they care for those who have suffered most?
First of all, I recognise that there has been an amount of public comment on these issues and that some comments have misrepresented, in an unfair and unhelpful way, many of the allocations that have been made by organisations such as the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust and their management as intermediary funding bodies of Peace I. Nevertheless, I recognise the genuineness with which particular concerns are held on the degree to which money is being made available to a range of victims' groups and specific victims' interests. The Executive are trying to be sensitive to this, and in the arrangements made in Peace II in respect of victims that measure will be managed under the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. I think steps are already being taken to make good some of the deficiencies that people have identified in past practice or their perceptions of it.
Senior Civil Service Review
Mr A Maginness
asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to detail when the Senior Civil Service review team will meet and the date its work will be completed.
The first meeting of the review team took place on Monday 5 March 2001. As agreed by the Executive Committee, the review team will report to me in six months. I will bring the report and my recommendations to the Executive for final decision.
Mr A Maginness:
I would like the report to be as comprehensive and wide-ranging as possible and the outcome of the review to be acted upon speedily to ensure that opportunities for those groups who are currently under-represented - women and Catholics - are enhanced.
The terms of reference for the review have been deliberately cast broadly to maximise the opportunity which the review provides. The review team has been asked to ensure that current practices and procedures for appointment to and promotions within the Senior Civil Service facilitate the business objective of Ministers and Departments and that these practices match examples of best practice in other major public and private sector bodies. We are determined to reduce obvious under-representation, particularly in respect of women and Catholics. We also want to look at any other identified form of under-representation. With the agreement of the Executive we are determined to act on the recommendations proposed by the review team.
(Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair)
The Chairperson of the Ad Hoc Committee (Mr Savage):
I beg to move
That the report of the Ad Hoc Committee set up to consider the draft Life Sentences (Northern Ireland) Order 2001 referred by the Secretary of State be submitted to the Secretary of State as a report of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Perhaps it will be helpful to Members if I set out some details of the workings of the Committee. The Assembly established the Ad Hoc Committee on 22 January 2001 to consider the draft Life Sentences (Northern Ireland) Order 2001 and report to the Assembly. The draft Order seeks to introduce new provisions for the sentencing, review and release of life-sentence prisoners and those in prison at the pleasure of the Secretary of State. It will establish a specific body of Life Sentence Review Commissioners and move to address the matter of compliance with the Human Rights Act 1998.
Our first meeting was held on 29 January 2001. We met on four further occasions, all in public session. The Committee considered the draft Order and debated the purpose of and changes to the legislation. As a result of extremely tight deadlines the Committee decided to invite written evidence from seven organisations, as listed in the report. The Committee also invited the Secretary of State and senior Northern Ireland Office officials to give oral evidence on the background to the Order.
However, owing to pre-existing diary commitments they were unable to accept the Committee's invitation.
Overall, the Committee received six written submissions and took oral evidence from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the Probation Board for Northern Ireland and Prof John Jackson from Queen's University, Belfast. This provided a good spread and balance of evidence, considering the extremely tight deadline. All written submissions, minutes of evidence and minutes of proceedings are included in the report for completeness.
Having heard oral evidence on 5 and 6 February the Committee carried out an article-by-article consideration of the draft Order on 12 February. This also included consideration of the four schedules overall. A majority of the Committee welcomed the draft Order, as it attempts to bring the law on the release of life-sentence prisoners into line with the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). However, the Committee had a number of concerns, including the fact that the Secretary of State would retain certain powers, potential breaches of the ECHR, lack of clarification on all life prisoners recall and revocation of licence. The Committee made the following recommendations and comments in relation to the draft Order.
For article 3, a statement should be included that the Commissioners are to be independent of Government. The appointment of commissioners should, as far as possible, be made through open competition.
"In discharging any functions under this Order the Commissioners shall have regard to -
(b) the Convention rights of life prisoners;
(c) any representations made by or on behalf of a victim or a member of his/her family."
"Convention rights" and "victim" need to be defined.
For schedule 1, the Commissioners must have security of tenure to ensure their independence of Government, and provision should be made for a fixed-term appointment of five years. For article 4, there should be a role for the commissioners in deciding what information should be disclosed to the prisoner. This would entail a process whereby the Secretary of State would refer to the commissioners for a decision on the extent to which certain information should be withheld from the prisoner.
For article 5, new arrangements whereby courts will be required to fix the punishment part of a life sentence were welcomed. Political interference with the court's power to sentence convicted offenders who were over 18 when they committed their offence was questioned. The power of the Secretary of State to review the court sentence when the offender was under the age of 18 when the offence was committed was considered appropriate.
For article 6, an amendment was recommended to exclude consideration of certain factors when deciding when to release a life prisoner. For article 7, the Secretary of State should consult the commissioners in all compassionate release cases.
For article 8, there should be an amendment to allow the commissioners to review the licence at regular intervals and to give commissioners the power to annul a licence after a certain time has elapsed and where there have been no breaches of the licence conditions.
For article 9, there should be an amendment of the wording of article 9(2) so that it reads
"The Secretary of State may revoke the licence of any life prisoner and recall him to prison before a recommendation by the Commissioners is practicable where it appears to him to be necessary for the protection of the public from serious harm."
An amendment to article 9(4) should specify a timescale:
"The Secretary of State shall as soon as reasonably practicable refer the case of a life prisoner recalled under this article to the Commissioners."
On article 10, the power to specify the tariff or punishment part of the sentence of transferred life prisoners should be given to the court. In order to comply fully with article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the determination of the tariff requires a hearing before a court. There should be a procedure whereby the Secretary of State refers the case of a transferred life prisoner to the court for the tariff to be determined.
On Article 11, as with article 10, the power to certify the part of the sentence which should be served before a prisoner is due to be considered for release should also be given to the court.
These recommendations are outlined in detail in the report, together with the Committee's conclusions, which stress
"The need for the Secretary of State to enter into meaningful consultations with the relevant organisations before implementation."
The Committee was set tight deadlines to complete its work, which militated against the provision of oral and written evidence from the Secretary of State, the Northern Ireland Office and to some extent the legal profession. That timely evidence would have helped us to produce a more fully informed report.
The Assembly is often put in the position of presenting complete reports or commentaries on pieces of legislation within tight deadlines, giving it little time to perform these functions adequately. A strong message should go from the Assembly to the Northern Ireland Office and the Secretary of State that Members should be given a reasonable time to react to proposals from the Government.
I thank the members of the Committee for their assistance, their hard work and their contribution to the report. I also thank the various organisations for their written submissions and oral evidence, which were given short notice.
Finally, I thank the Assembly staff for their support.
I invite Members to support the motion.
Mr A Maginness:
I thank Mr Savage for his chairmanship of the Committee and for the contribution he has made to the House. It was a comprehensive presentation on behalf of the Committee on this proposed draft legislation. I agree with the Chairperson about the time frame. All members of the Committee and, indeed, other Members of the House agreed that insufficient time was given for consideration of this draft legislation. The same was the case with the flags regulations, the financial services legislation and so forth.
Under section 85(4)(c) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the period we are given is, in effect, 60 days. It should be emphasised to the Secretary of State that 60 days is not long enough and that the Act should be amended to extend the time period. The code of practice on written consultation issued by the Cabinet Office in November 2000 stipulated a period of 12 weeks, which compares unfavourably with the time allocated to the Assembly. Strong representations should be made not only by the Committee in its presentation to the House but also by you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to the Northern Ireland Office.