Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Committee of the Centre

Wednesday 8 May 2002


Review of Public Administration

Ordered by The Committee of the Centre to be printed 26th June 2002
Minutes of Evidence: 04/01/E (Committee of the Centre)


The Committee of the Centre is a Standing Committee established in accordance with paragraph 10 of Strand One of the Belfast Agreement and under Standing Order No 54 of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Terms of Reference of the Committee are to examine and report on functions carried out in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and on any other related matters determined by the Assembly.

The Committee has the power to send for persons and papers.

The Committee has seventeen members, including a Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson and a quorum of five members.

The current membership of the Committee established on 15 December 1999, is as follows:

Mr Edwin Poots (Chairperson)
Mr Oliver Gibson (Deputy Chairperson
Mr Roy Beggs Jnr
Mrs Eileen Bell
Dr Esmond Birnie
Mrs Annie Courtney
Mr Duncan Shipley Dalton
Mr David Ervine
Mr Danny Kennedy
Ms Patricia Lewsley
Mr Alex Maskey
Mr Conor Murphy
Dr Alasdair McDonnell
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Eugene McMenamin
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon


Wednesday 8 May 2002

Members present:
Mr Poots (Chairperson)
Mr Gibson (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Beggs
Mrs E Bell
Mrs Courtney
Mr Ervine
Mr Kennedy
Mr McElduff
Dr McDonnell
Mr McMenamin
Mr C Murphy
Mr K Robinson


Mr D Trimble ) Office of the First Minister and
Mr M Durkan ) the Deputy First Minister


The Deputy Chairperson: Good morning, Gentlemen. May the Committee hear your evidence.


The Deputy First Minister (Mr Durkan): I thank the Deputy Chairperson for the opportunity to discuss the review of public administration with the Committee. We have prepared a script for Members, but rather than read through it we will look at the main points.


We want to consider the revised terms of reference. I want to update the Committee on progress since the Assembly debate on 25 February 2002. I welcome the interest in the review and the constructive approach of the Committee and of the Assembly. Over the past several months we have been engaged in a pre-consultation process. This has coincided with work to finalise details before we can launch the review formally. The work covers several points that were raised by the Committee, in Assembly debates and elsewhere.


From the outset, we have been determined that there should be a strong independent element to the review but that the Executive should retain responsibility for final decisions. We have been trying to identify suitable people for a panel of independent experts. We have informally approached several people to test their willingness and availability, although responses have been mixed. Everyone was interested in the review. However, some ruled themselves out because they had other commitments; others said that they may be available, and others have yet to respond. We must ensure that we balance expertise and background, because we do not want a panel with too many people from the same field with the same insights. We must consult the Executive before we announce names, and we hope to conclude that in a couple of weeks. The experts' first job will be to assure the quality of the terms of reference. That will include comments that arise at this meeting and feedback from it. We expect to appoint five experts, including one or more with a background in Northern Ireland. We are considering the appointment of a chairperson to act as figurehead for the panel of experts and to draw together the independent contributions into a coherent strand of advice and thinking so that we can fully utilise the independent experts' contribution. The experts will play a full role in the review, including establishing a project plan; contributing to the generation of ideas and proposals; and agreeing a consultation paper. They will, of course, have a direct line to the Executive. A team of full-time public servants will support the review, and a senior civil servant will act as the review's chief operating officer. It will be that person's job to manage the review and to work with the experts. He or she will also be held accountable by the Executive for the work of the review team and will be the key official in reporting regularly to the Committee. A multidisciplinary group will act as project managers and work with the chief operating officer.


In the budget position report, officials state that the review could cost about £2·5 million over 18 months. Further work has been done to refine those estimates, and the figure is now £3 million. However, that is a working assumption to be confirmed. That will cover the cost of the independent experts, staff, research, accommodation, travel and publications. The Executive have agreed that the budget bid will go into the June monitoring round.


We anticipate that the main phase of the review will take 18 months. Given the need to consult widely and the scale of the research programme envisaged, firm conclusions are unlikely before the end of 2003. Of course, we shall consult the independent experts on such a demanding timetable before reaching a decision. Some have argued that the review should be completed in this Assembly session; however, that would be possible if we tackled only a few issues or if we reduced public consultation. Cutting back on either the scope of the review or the consultation on it would be unacceptable, given its significance.


We are at the end of the pre-consultation and are moving towards the launch. After taking account of the views expressed today, we shall be inviting the independent experts to assure the quality of the terms of reference. As stated in the debate on 25 February, we will be seeking Executive and Assembly endorsement for the terms of reference. We hope that the review will be launched in June.

(The Chairperson enters at 11.17 and takes the Chair).


The First Minister (Mr Trimble): Paragraphs 13 to 17 of our paper 'Review of Public Administration' give a summary of the pre-consultation process. Paragraph 16 gives information on the organisations consulted, including the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE), the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA), the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (NICICTU), and The Chief Executives' Forum, among others. Some amendments were made to the terms of reference as a result of the consultation. We wrote to the Committee on 3 May and included the revised terms of reference.


A preamble sets the review in context. The timescale of the review is also shown. The review acknowledges the contribution made by those who have worked in the public sector over the past 30 years.


The heading 'Terms of Reference' now contains the word "development". That has been included because it will allow the team to examine how decisions on services are taken. That concept is reflected in the significant changes made to the section on 'Subsidiarity' in our original document 'Draft Terms of Reference and Paramaters for the Review of Public Administration'.


There was criticism of the original draft of the section entitled 'Scope of the public sector', which some people saw as a coded reference to widespread privatisation. We have, therefore, rephrased it. It would be wrong not to investigate whether the services and functions of the public sector could, or should, be delivered in another way and whether they are value for money. It is not, however, our intention to introduce full-scale privatisation. It was also pointed out that much could be learnt from the community and voluntary sector. Consequently, we have included a reference to that.


Several people called in the consultation papers for clarification of the bodies to be covered by the review. To meet that, the 'Scope of the review of public administration' contains an indicative list of bodies that may fall within the remit of the review. The review team may decide to include other bodies absent from the list. The Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission, and the Loughs Agency have been inadvertently included under the heading 'DARD - Department of Agriculture and Rural Development'. They should not be there because the North/South bodies are not included in the review of public administration. I am sure that it is an oversight, and I draw your attention to it in case you think that we are broadening the scope of the review to include those matters.


There are some fundamental matters to which we have not made changes. In the course of consultations, some people suggested that we again examine the distribution of functions among the 11 Departments. We did not intend to include that in the review. Members know that the present distribution of functions in the Departments resulted from lengthy negotiations in 1998, and we see no immediate need to reopen that. However, changes to the nature, delivery and organisation of services could alter matters. We may look at the matter again, and additional devolution in some areas could necessitate a re-examination. However, it is not the intention in this review to reopen those issues. This review focuses primarily on the services outside the Departments - the local bodies and the local delivery of services.


I should touch on the review's independence. A panel of experts will assure the quality of the process to give advice and to introduce genuine independence into the review. However, it is right that the final decisions on these matters be taken by the Executive and, through them, by the Assembly. Final decisions in these matters should not be contracted out to unelected persons.


It is the role of the Assembly and the Executive to take those decisions. That is why the structure contains a significant independent element. However, those who are elected and accountable to the Assembly will take the decisions. That is crucial to our approach.


It has taken some time to establish the terms of reference, and it is taking time to assemble the panel of independent experts, but we are in the final stages and hope to have these matters finalised in the next week or two. We hope to launch the review in a month's time - all being well. Much preliminary work has been done to reach this point, but once the review is under way we hope that it will progress as quickly as possible.


The Chairperson: Thank you for your submission. I apologise for being late. In his evidence to the Committee, Prof Colin Knox posed the question: given the non-statutory status of the Committee of the Centre and the lack of real engagement with the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the two junior Ministers so far, how seriously will the views of statutory Committees, as expressed to the Committee of the Centre, be taken?


The First Minister: We have gone through these matters and are here to respond to the Committee on them. We will always take the Committee's views seriously: we do not disregard its function. That the Committee is non-statutory makes no practical difference.


We are about to launch a review, and we have a general picture of how it will proceed. However, we do not have a detailed view, and we are not sure how it will work out in practice. We shall keep the Committee informed of its progress, and, where appropriate, we shall arrange for further hearings. There are ways and means for us to keep in contact. It is certainly not our intention to ignore the Committee.


The Deputy First Minister: We consulted the Speaker, who sought the advice of the Business Committee on the best way of formatting Assembly involvement and scrutiny of the review. It confirmed that the Committee of the Centre would most appropriately represent the interest and involvement of the Assembly.


We have already said that the chief operating officer of the review team will report regularly to the Committee on the conduct of the review. The chairperson of the independent panel of experts will be a figurehead for the independent advice given to the review. We envisage that that person will also lead the public consultations. That is another direct line of contact for the Committee with the panel of experts.


Given that we are opening up those lines of communication with the Committee and that the exercise will be a public one, we shall take the views of the Committee fully into account, just as we would the views of others. We shall rely on the Committee of the Centre to marshal the thoughts and insights of the Committees. We cannot conduct a review in which evidence is given to all Committees concurrently. We must have coherence and co-ordination as we do in the Programme for Government and Budget consideration. The Committee of the Centre can perform an essential role in that regard.


The Chairperson: We are conscious of our role, and that is why we want clarification. We do not want the Education Committee, the Environment Committee, the Committee for Finance and Personnel or any Committee to have the views that they submit to us ignored. I put that on the record. We are taking responsibility for co-ordinating all the Committees' responses, and we take that role seriously. We want to ensure that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister also take it seriously.


The Deputy First Minister: I can give you such an assurance. The construct is similar to that of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, and when I was Minister of Finance of Personnel I negotiated, agreed and developed the handling of Budget considerations and other matters. The construct also developed in parallel on the Programme for Government. We have no problem with that construct.


The Chairperson: I totally accept what you say; I just want clarity at the outset.


Dr McDonnell: What is the role of the high-level experts?


The First Minister: The high-level experts will provide an independent element to the review. We are looking for independent thinkers to bring new ideas and to challenge thinking. They will work with the official team, but they will also have a direct line to Ministers. We hope that they will be an integral part of the system. In particular, we want them to assure the quality of the team's work and to mentor the team. They will make a contribution to the Executive on important stages of the review.


We also hope that they will assist the review team in establishing and in carrying out its strategic approach to the review, giving advice and information. We also hope that they will provide an independent public profile by attending public meetings, seminars and conferences. They will make a significant contribution. They will not carry out the work itself, but they will comment, challenge, advise and be a focus for independent views.


Dr McDonnell: Will you be able to stick to the blistering timetable?


The First Minister: The timetable is blistering, but our target, if achieved, will allow the review to be conducted more quickly than analogous reviews elsewhere. That is the point. We do not want a lengthy review, because implementing its recommendations would take time. Legislation stemming from the review will probably take quite some time in the Assembly, as will its administrative implementation. Unless we are ambitious now, the work could drag out for a decade. An ambitious target is necessary, and we want to achieve it.


Dr McDonnell: How will you ensure equality in such a vast exercise?


The First Minister: Equality will be very important in the review. The official team, the independent experts, the Committee, Mark Durkan and I and our ministerial Colleagues will all study this closely. It will be difficult to satisfy everyone.


Dr McDonnell: There will be winners and losers.


The First Minister: We hope to avoid that, and we must define "winners and losers". It will be important that people have equal access to services. There will also be questions about jobs. Will changes in boards mean that some areas lose jobs while others gain them? We shall bear that in mind, as people will examine it keenly. We shall review those issues, and we are very much aware that Members and the public will study the outcome very closely. That was partly what I meant when I said that the key decisions must ultimately be taken by elected representatives, since they know that they are accountable not only to the Assembly but to the electorate.


The Deputy First Minister: Equality and equity in accessing services are among the key points in our revised terms of reference. The review team and the independent panel of experts will clearly have to be mindful of equality issues throughout the exercise. We must also remember that proposals emerging from the review will have to undergo a full equality impact assessment just like any other proposal. The team will also have to rural proof the proposals. We have tried to ensure that the review is fully sensitised to all the issues to which, either through statutory obligation or service responsiveness, we must be sensitive.


The Chairperson: I see that rural proofing has been defined.


Mr McMenamin: We have already discussed the Committee's role with your offices. Will you share research findings with the Committee?


The First Minister: That depends on the circumstances. I am not sure what we can do. Research will be important - indeed critical - to the review team's thinking. We shall publish research undertaken as part of the review, and I understand that the intention is to publish it collectively. We should be happy for the Committee to discuss with the review team how the research might be shared with it before publication. We do not intend to deny you access to it. We do not know exactly what research will be undertaken. We shall have to examine its handling during the review. We shall discuss with the Committee how to share it.


Mr McMenamin: How will you ensure that we learn from best practice in other parts of Europe?


The Deputy First Minister: We must learn from best practice elsewhere to avoid mistakes. We can test whether apparently bright ideas or "buzz" concepts have worked. The review will look abroad in examining how best to organise public administration. We have tried to listen to people who have international experience or a very good understanding of what is happening elsewhere.


The budget for the review made allowance for travel and research. Further research may be commissioned on developments elsewhere, and that may involve travel.


Mrs Courtney: How will you ensure gender balance on the expert group?


The First Minister: Balance is important, and we have therefore tried to construct a balanced team. It would have been much easier had there been a good balance in responses. Part of the difficulty is that there is a balanced picture at the beginning. When people are approached, some accept and some do not. We want to ensure that the result is balanced, and I take the point on gender balance. We strive to achieve that, and I shall be very disappointed if there is not an appropriate gender balance in the team.


Furthermore, we try to balance the areas of expertise of those with a background in public administration or local government, as well as those who are outside that field and who can look critically at it. We also want a balance between people with a Northern Ireland background and those who have experience elsewhere. We have examined the rest of the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and North America.


That shows the balance that we are attempting to achieve. I cannot guarantee that we will achieve all the intended balances, because the team is not yet fully formed. We have received some acceptances and await others. We hope that it will be sorted out within a week or two. At the moment, however, I can only assure you that we are conscious of balance and have sought to achieve it geographically, in expertise and in gender. I hope that we will be successful.


Mr C Murphy: I am sure that you are both aware that the public expected a review of public administration to be the first item on the agenda for the devolved Administration. There is a sense of dismay that only in 2002 are we getting round to debating its terms of reference. Has there been a rough estimate of potential savings in public finances through streamlining public administration?


The First Minister: I should be very disappointed were there no savings. However, as we have no idea of what changes there will be we cannot quantify them. There is no secret plan in a bottom drawer. Greater efficiency in service delivery is important. It will be disappointing if significant efficiency and financial gains are not made, but it must be borne in mind that financial savings very often mean redeployment or alternative employment for people.


The Deputy First Minister: There is no target in the review for the amount of savings to be made, the number of bodies to be left in existence or in forms of structure. There is no ulterior agenda. There is no blueprint in a filing cabinet for independent experts to endorse and for the review team to manage.


People may say that the review should have been under way a long time ago. However, there is more certainty now; relying on such an exercise could have been questioned in the past when the institutions were much shakier. We have experience of devolution; newer Departments and their respective Committees now have their bearings. People know how bodies do or do not fit into delivering services and developing policy.


Greater knowledge of the issues in public administration enables us to improve the conduct of the review. That applies to the Assembly and the Executive. That it was not done earlier will not be a huge handicap. Experience will help us and will improve the quality of the Assembly's contribution to the review.


Mr McElduff: Unsurprisingly, my question concerns the North/South dimension of the review, which will have long-lasting implications. As with the Burns Review, we are trying to ensure the effectiveness of the system well into the twenty-first century. How important is it to harmonise structures on a cross-border basis to ensure efficient service delivery? Such an approach should prevent the duplication of services, particularly in the border counties. For example, people from Cavan avail of healthcare in Omagh. How can such an arrangement be formalised?


The Deputy First Minister: The revised terms of reference for the review show that we are considering how to deliver services effectively. That will involve seeking the advice of independent experts from here and elsewhere, and extensive consultation. All ideas on how best to deliver regional and national services will be incorporated into the review.


The North/South Ministerial Council, the implementation bodies and other measures are already in place to address the North/South dimension of administration. The First Minister and I have reported to the Assembly on a meeting in the institutional format. Officials are being asked to identify areas of co-operation between Departments that are not shown under the formal and accountable heading of North/South Ministerial Council co-operation.


As with the Burns and Hayes reviews, the public administration review does not have to include everything. Discrete exercises and other developments should still be pursued. Given that people are already questioning whether 18 months is sufficient time for the review, we cannot stop all other projects and say that all other action should be subject to the review of public administration.


The First Minister: I remind the Member that the North/South implementation bodies and the duties of the North/South Ministerial Council are not subject to the review. Those governmental structures are excluded from the review, and I do not suppose that the Member suggests that the North/South Ministerial Council and the implementation bodies should be subject to it.


Mr McElduff: Perhaps the review should address their further development as opposed to their diminution.


The First Minister: I have just said that those matters are not included in the review, and that has been clear from the outset. Obviously, service delivery will feature in the review because we must address the question of how to achieve it effectively. However, that does not mean that we are considering services per se: there is a distinction to be made. The services and the policy underlying them are departmental matters. That may not be a clear distinction. The Member knows that Ministers study these matters. For example, to some extent, healthcare comes under the review of acute hospitals. However, the review of public administration will not examine where acute hospitals should be located - that is a different issue.


A line must be drawn, because, although we examine some aspects of service delivery, we must not get drawn into determining what those services should be. That is a matter for Departments and their Ministers.


Mr Gibson: I am always delighted to hear of Cavan people developing a healthy interest in coming to Omagh. Education is good for people.


The word "expert" always perturbs me. How does one define "expert", what is his or her field of expertise and what contribution can an expert make? Several research exercises have produced nothing more than collections of ideas. What sort of administrative and clinical objectivity will the five experts bring to the review? The efficiency of our administration will be the ultimate test.


The First Minister: When we announce who the experts will be, I will be disappointed if we and the Committee do not feel that we have assembled a group of people who can make a valuable contribution. We are trying to strike a balance between people with experience of public administration and local government and people from outside that system who have the ability and expertise to contribute ideas and to challenge existing practices. We want to encourage new ways of thinking, rather than churn around existing ideas about administration.


Mr Gibson: Who will the project managers be and what projects will they manage? Will they be employed to do research?


The Deputy First Minister: A full-time team of officials will manage the review, reporting to the chief operating officer. The project managers will also work under the chief officer, and their areas of employment will be defined and refined closer to the launch of the review. The review will comprise several discrete strands. People who have interests in different strands should be able to engage with project managers in the interests of accessibility and reliable contact with the review.


As the First Minister said in the House on 25 February, the full-time team will contain people from the wider sphere of public service not just civil servants.


Mr Gibson expressed concern about the independent experts. On 25 February Members expressed doubts about whether the experts would be truly independent or whether they would be insiders. The general opinion was that we should engage independent expertise to proof the quality of the review and to ensure new ideas rather than endorse a secret plan of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.


The independent experts will ensure that we are alert to innovation, best thinking and experience from elsewhere. They will also help to assure the quality of the review's work as it develops; they will start by assuring the quality of the terms of reference before they are submitted to the Assembly for its endorsement.


The panel will continue to mentor and monitor the work of the review. We hope that by having a chairperson, the role and contribution of the independent panel of experts will be more visible and that that will ensure a strong working relationship between the panel and the review team. Those are not the only independent contributions. When we reach sectoral work in the review, the assistance and insight of other relevant experts will be engaged.


The Chairperson: The Deputy First Minister may be concerned that there was a SDLP walkout during his last comments. His Colleagues have left to make up the quorum in another Committee. They wish to apologise for that.


Dr McDonnell: I must join them.


Mrs E Bell: The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister seem to realise that the independent panel of experts will attract the most public comment and query. Will the panel will be completely independent, will it be drawn from a broad spectrum of people and will it be gender-balanced? Will the experts be drawn from the usual core of the "the great and the good"?


The Deputy First Minister: I hope that they will be good.


Mr Kennedy: Will they be former members of the Alliance Party?


Mrs E Bell: They will not be ex-Alliance Party. We are not the great or the good - we are just brilliant.


Mr Kennedy: And modest.


Mrs E Bell: A panel of experts is essential for a good review and should include people from the voluntary and community sectors. Prof Colin Knox said that the draft terms contained no ranking or prioritisation of principles to inform the review. The Committee shared his view. Nor was there acknowledgement of the potentially conflicting nature or trade-offs in the application of those principles. Will you rank the principles in the terms of reference to prevent that?


The First Minister: I do not think that that is possible. Several important principles are mentioned. You are right to say that there will be cases in which those conflict and when choices will have to be made. That will involve trade-offs; it will involve balancing the pros and cons of a decision. There will be several such choices. It is not possible or realistic to assign values in advance - to say that one value will always prevail over another. That will only apply in specific circumstances. Making choices between values is quintessentially a political exercise. The choices that will be debated most ought to be made by people who are politically accountable. That is inevitable.


The panel is a small team of five people, whether great, good or otherwise. I said in reply to an earlier question that we are trying to achieve a gender balance and a balance of expertise. We are trying to achieve a balance of those who are inside the system, and are therefore familiar with it, and those who are outside the system both geographically and in relation to expertise.


We want to look at the review with fresh minds and a critical attitude. The phrase "the great and the good" conjures up notions of people who are nurtured by the system, and who serve and will replicate it.


Mrs E Bell: Those people exist.


The First Minister: Of course they exist, but that is precisely what we do not want. We want to move to the point of having fresh insight, and we hope to see radical results from this process. There is obviously a limit to how far that can go, but the object of the exercise is to take a fresh look.


Mrs E Bell: I am glad to hear that.


The Deputy First Minister: We would probably have been criticised if we had tried to introduce ranking. People would have taken that as a hint of what was on the agenda. The terms of reference will be quality assured by the independent panel of experts before it goes to the Assembly for endorsement. That panel might advise that we amplify some of our points more than others. We must wait and see what the experts say. For us to introduce ranking would be to pre-empt and prejudice the independence of the review and to hint that we wanted to filter what the consultants told us. That would be wrong.


Mr Beggs: You anticipate that the review will last for 18 months, and you estimate that it will cost £3 million. The enormity of the task sank in for me only when I looked at the indicative list of bodies that are to be included in the review. Approximately 144 bodies listed are involved in education and health matters. I assume that the review will address how the vast majority of the Budget in Northern Ireland is spent. I am curious: is £3 million enough for that enormous task? How did you arrive at the figure of £3 million? This is a huge task, especially if it is to be completed in 18 months.


The First Minister: An advisory panel of five or six independent experts is involved in the review; that is not a huge number. That panel may be a civil service team and may include a chief manager. It should not cost much. Of the £3 million that we have mentioned, I can assume - although it may not be borne out in practice - that 25% of that is for staffing costs; 20% is for the costs related to the experts, such as remuneration, travel and expenses; 25% for study visits, publication and consultation costs; 20% for office accommodation and general costs; and 10% for research. That 10% might seem small for a research budget, but the review will not entail a big administrative job. It is about people thinking about and looking critically at existing bodies, although knowledge of how those bodies operate is in the public domain. Therefore the review itself ought not to cost a lot, although of course official estimates that are given at the start of a job are not always reflected in what is eventually spent. Occasionally the job costs less; sometimes it costs more.


Mr Beggs: Will the review explore public administration in other parts of the United Kingdom, particularly the devolved regions? Continuity is important so that lessons can continue to be learnt. For instance, the Public Accounts Committee learnt recently that detailed analysis of educational standards is available, and the Public Accounts Committee forced the Department of Education to scrutinise the boards. Why was that not done a long time ago? The Audit Office was aware that that scrutiny occurs in other parts of the United Kingdom and made it happen here. How will you ensure that good practice elsewhere in the United Kingdom continues to be borne in mind when you are thinking about structures?


The Deputy First Minister: Because good practice elsewhere in the United Kingdom is important, we tried to ensure that the independent panel of experts would be able to read what was happening elsewhere before deciding what might be applicable to our circumstances here.


The review will not examine each body with a fine toothcomb to find out if it has done anything worthwhile in the past few years. However, because there are now devolved institutions and arrangements of accountability here, it will review public administration on broad terms to find out the best way of administering and managing services and developing policy in ways that are sensitive to local needs and initiative opportunities. There will not be a dedicated investigation into each body.


The review will examine the Next Steps agencies and area boards generically. There are other vestigial bodies that still exist here in an advisory capacity due to the democratic deficit from direct rule. Consumer interests may be examined to find out who needs and uses the services, and new arrangements resulting from the review can best reflect that. Many of those things can be done generically to save time.


The First Minister: (Inaudible due to ice poured next to microphone)


Mr Kennedy: In a warmer part of this building, I have the honour of chairing the Education Committee. What access will the Education Committee have to the independent experts who are conducting the review of administration of education and library boards and other matters?


The First Minister: Perhaps the Chairperson should reply to that question.


The Chairperson: It was posed to you.


The First Minister: You can correct the answer Chairperson, should the need arise. We agreed with the decision to interact with the Committee of the Centre on the review. It will then deal with the views from other Committees. I am not sure how that will work out in practice, but I am quite sure that much of it will evolve as we proceed. We are looking at the administrative structures rather than at the nature of the services, though that distinction may be difficult to observe in practice. If the Education Committee had a strong view on some aspect, there should be some way of expressing it and of taking account of it in proceedings. However, that is something that we will have to work out as we go along.


The Chairperson: The Committee of the Centre would be content if the Education Committee, or any other Committee, approached it to speak to the independent panel of experts, provided that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister approves of that.


The Deputy First Minister: The independent panel of experts will also undertake other work. If they are making available one day a week, we must be measured in our expectations. These people cannot spend all their time appearing before Committees, if they are to view other things. We must ensure that while they have access to the Committee of the Centre, the Committee in turn picks up on views and concerns that arise in other Committees.


As well as the high-level experts, more discrete expertise will be recruited to look at particular sectors or administrative issues. It might be more appropriate for the relevant departmental Committees to have access to those sectoral experts.


Mr Kennedy: Many Assembly Members, including members of parties represented by you, were elected on a promise to reform or abolish quangos. How do you expect the review to deal with the future of quangos?


The First Minister: As the Deputy First Minister said, some quangos were formed during direct rule and played a consultative role in the absence of elected persons. They were a means of providing advice to Ministers who were not organically connected to society here. I am sceptical as to whether they are necessary in the present circumstances. I shall choose my words carefully, so that I cannot be accused of having a closed mind on the subject. When the time comes, we must examine the matter with an open mind.


New arrangements for accountability are in place through the Assembly, its Committees and the Executive. That is part of the reason for undertaking a review of public administration and asking whether those bodies are necessary in the light of the present arrangements. We are examining those matters with a critical eye. However, the review must also be objective. It would not be right to begin with a witch-hunt, or to say that we must abolish 50% or 70% of quangos. Part of the function of the review is to critically challenge existing structures.


The Deputy First Minister: This exercise is not a non-selective quango cull. We must ensure that we provide administrative structures and systems to best fit the positive, realistic and attractive characteristics set out in the terms of reference. We know that we are over-administered. Many Members made that point in the Assembly debate on the review of 25 February 2002. However, we must be careful not to adopt the stance of "clearing away the clutter because we have now elected representatives".


Roy Beggs made a useful point when he drew attention to an issue that a Department or a Committee would not necessarily have unearthed. The Comptroller and Auditor-General and the Public Accounts Committee happened upon it in a different way. We want to make sure that the different angles of vision and involvement that are needed in the administration and planning of public services are all taken into account and are not lost.


In some instances, tiers of administration that provide advocacy channels might be lost if everything was disposed of.


Through the more congruous formation of the new Departments, some policy and programme areas have seen the light of day more than was previously the case. In some cases, those interests have perhaps been brought forward in a positive way because a dedicated body looks after them. The new construct has allowed them to be developed. Several questions must be considered so that we get the best fit - the best way of administering what must be the best services.


Mr K Robinson: Thank you for coming along, gentlemen. As you have probably noticed, this is a well-balanced Committee; we shirk with both our shoulders. Perhaps some have better reason than others, because five of us sit on another Committee.


We have watched a review emerge into the public domain and take many twists and turns. We have also seen it influenced in a way that has surprised us somewhat from within. Can you guarantee that the review will be allowed to go forward in a complete state of neutrality, without any interference from either of your good selves or others in the Executive? We are now coming up to an election. As we have all seen, unfortunately, there have been leaks. Sometimes these leaks have been spun out into the media, and they detract from the good impact given the Assembly by reform and the ability to scrutinise. We go back into a cloud where the issue that once was crystal clear becomes so murky that nobody is quite sure where it is going.


The public view is that we are engaged in an exercise that will end with a more efficient and effective system of public administration; it will be fit for its role. However, we will never achieve that if along the way individuals or groups resile from a neutral situation and try to push a personal view of where the review should take us.


The First Minister: You are hitting fertile ground when you talk about the effect of selective leaking of matters - people leaking information with a particular agenda. We are smarting somewhat from an exercise last week that looked suspiciously like that. An announcement that was going to take place towards the end of the week was leaked with a particular spin on parts of it. We are conscious that that has added to confusion in the public mind about the consequence of the announcement.


Can I give you a guarantee that the world will be perfect in the future? No, I cannot, though I wish that I could. We will be looking critically at a range of existing local government structures, departmental structures and the delivery of services, and many people in those existing structures will have strong views. They may agree or disagree with the way they think that the review is going and may consequently be motivated to leak aspects of what they think is, or is not, happening. Their perceptions of what will happen may not be correct.


Also, people may feed information into the public domain because they want to see something happen more quickly. Others might not like the way they think the review is going and leak bits of it into the public domain to frustrate what is being done. We cannot exclude that. We hope to make an interim report well in advance of the election. The review is likely to be completed afterwards, and that may not be a bad thing. Maybe the atmosphere will be cooler post-election, but we do not know.


I will not guarantee that the review will proceed neutrally without my or the Deputy First Minister's influence. However, we regard ourselves as guardians of the process. We are anxious to see that it is carried out in accordance with the proposals and terms of reference that we have presented to you, and we will do what we can to uphold those. This is an issue that has many ramifications; it could send many hares off in different directions, and speculation and leaks are to be expected.


Mr K Robinson: Will the Deputy First Minister respond?


The Deputy First Minister: In some ways it relates to the question about access to research. That issue must be assessed because it is intended that the research be published collectively. If it were carried out on a bit-by-bit basis, people would take each bit of research as a snapshot of the review, each with a headline that might mislead Committees or wider interests. We want to avoid misapprehensions, so that the finished review will be fully understood. We must remember that the review of public administration has been undertaken by the Executive as part of the Programme for Government. While there will be a dedicated review team, an independent panel of experts, and other specialised experts recruited for different aspects, the review is taking place under the political auspices and authority of the Executive. We did not want the Executive to be remote from the review. That would have allowed for the perception that the Executive could distance itself from the report, weaken its status, and so create the circumstances in which a consultation of the review and a review of the consultation might ensue. People have told us that they are fearful of this type of syndrome. That is why we want to build in all the independent experts that we can and ensure that the review is as comprehensive as possible. However, we also want to make clear that it is within the competence of the Executive, so we have that balance.


We will not be able to prevent parties having different attitudes and priorities. When it comes to elections, the review will not mean that we will be in a position to tell parties that they cannot put ex-councils or quangos in their manifesto. Parties will come up with their own stances on those issues. However, from the point of view of the Executive and the Assembly we must ensure that the review is conducted with integrity, robustness and with a balance between independent experts and honest Executive responsibility. We think that we have that balance.


Mr K Robinson: Can the First Minister assure us that the Executive will have collective responsibility for this document, and that Ministers will not be making individual press releases?


The First Minister: An Executive decision will be made as part of the process. What individual Ministers say or do, or how particular parties vote on issues in the Assembly may be another matter, as we have seen.


The Deputy First Minister: Each Minister deals with different policy communities, who have their own concerns or ideas about the review. Ministers have a right and a duty to engage with those policy communities. It would be difficult for a Minister who deals with local government to refuse to discuss its impact with people in that field. It would be difficult for the Minister of Education to refuse to discuss it with those involved in administering education, as they might feel that the review has a particular agenda. From time to time, Ministers will need to talk about certain aspects of, or issues arising from, the review. As Committees will be considering their areas of interest and discussing their views with the Committee of the Centre, it would be odd if Ministers were not allowed to address their interests in their fields of work in ways that they believed to be helpful and relevant to the review.


Mr K Robinson: Unlike some Committees that can only react to decisions that have been made, the Committee of the Centre will not be playing catch-up. We will be kept fully abreast of research findings and other events. Is that not the case?


The First Minister: We will share and discuss research with the Committee as we proceed. Obviously, at the outset of this complex process, we do not know exactly how the process will work - just as we do not have a secret plan of conclusions in the bottom drawer. We will have to keep in touch with the Committee about the way in which the process evolves, and there are channels through which this can be done.


Mr McElduff: May I ask an additional question, Chairperson?


The Chairperson: No. I gave everyone the opportunity to ask as many questions as they wished. I would like to ask one or two questions, and I am conscious of the time. The scope of the review is not exhaustive; additions can, and probably will, be made to the list. Finance is an issue, but the priority of the review is to achieve a more efficient and effective public administration process. In that context, finance would be a secondary consideration.


However, if efficient and effective service delivery were achieved, one would assume that savings would be made. At present, we spend about £1·2 billion a year on administration throughout the various Departments and local government. The establishment of institutions and the expansion of Departments, following the Belfast Agreement, added a further £80 million to that cost. Are you saying that you cannot envisage savings that would offset that £80 million? In the early days, emphasis was placed on the possibility of the review of public administration making savings that would offset that cost.


The First Minister: It is true that in 1998, we said that we hoped that the review of public administration would balance the additional administrative costs. I do not have any independent confirmation of the figures that you gave. Nevertheless, if the cost of additional departments is £80 million, that is a remarkably low percentage increase, when compared with a total of £1,200 million. It might be possible to achieve the 1998 objective of cancelling out the additional costs, but I will not set that as a target or give an undertaking to achieve that. That would be very unwise.


You are right to say that savings might and should be made. However, I do not wish to give the impression that the review is intended simply to cut certain costs or save a particular amount of money come hell or high water. We are looking objectively at this in the light of all the factors, criteria and values that we have set. We hope to produce a more effective, efficient system that will improve the current quality of service.


The Deputy First Minister: The more money that we can spend on services from our hard-pressed Budget, and the less that we can spend on structures and systems, the better. Representatives, Committees and Members want to have the management and information to enable them to understand how well we are delivering services. We need tiers of management and public administration. It is not simply a matter of wiping everything away and saying that it is all going to services.


Management contributes to efficiency, and it should not be simply seen as leaden and bureaucratic inefficiency in its own right. Part of the review of public administration is to ensure that we get the right balance and that we get lean. In that regard, there is no point in our trying to set a figure, as people will query the amount, and ask whether the exercise is dictated by a fixation about that amount of saving. In other cases, people will say that things are being deliberately targeted because they fit that bill, or that reduced bill.


The Chairperson: Can you exclude the possibility of it costing more?


The Deputy First Minister: If it cost more, we would not be able to afford it.


The Chairperson: Sometimes these things happen.


The Deputy First Minister: When I grappled in a previous post with attempts to curb departmental running costs and who examined different ways of doing that, I found that those who talked a lot about cutting the costs of bureaucracy were not very encouraging or receptive to attempts to restrain them. When it comes to making choices or pursuing those options, they all back off. We want to ensure that we have what we need, what works best and what is most affordable in terms of public administration, so that more money can go towards services and projects. If we want to borrow money and negotiate borrowing power because the departmental expenditure limit does not give us what we need to spend on services, we must try to ensure that more of that limit goes directly on services.


The Chairperson: The opportunity for modernising administration is significant. Does someone on your panel have special E-Government expertise?


The First Minister: Some of the experts are familiar with it. We approached a number of people, but not everyone was available. Consequently, this is what we have been able to assemble in the circumstances. However, it is a good group with varied expertise. The group has not been finalised, so there is an element of hope in my voice. However, you will find that it includes people who have experience of modernisation and improvement of structures in the broad sense. We hope that this expertise will characterise the result.


The Chairperson: In response to a question from the Chairperson of the Committee for Education, Prof Colin Knox said

"As Chairperson of the Committee for Education, you would like your Department to be included in the review. However, the terms of reference exclude the Departments. Although there was a defence, which hedged around "discharge and delivery" versus "distribution", I cannot see how that distinction will be operationalised in the review. The more comprehensive the review, the better it will be. I understand the political arguments for excluding the 11 Departments from the review."


Is it not a danger that the review will be half-baked because it does not cover the Departments? There may well be subsidiarity issues regarding local Government. Departments may take on more powers if some of the quangos are run down. By excluding the 11 Departments, are we not in danger of failing to produce the comprehensive review that we really need?


The Deputy First Minister: I do not agree with the thrust of your question.


The Chairperson: It is not my question. Prof Knox posed it.


The Deputy First Minister: The thrust of your comments was based on what Prof Knox said, and then you asked a question. We are reviewing administrative structures that have grown up over a generation. The administrative footprints that emerge from the review could well last for a generation. That is the sort of stability and the measure of change that we are talking about. Departments do not necessarily have that sort of life cycle. Various quangos and area boards have existed over the past 30 years, while Departments have come and gone, formed and reformed. That is in the nature of Government and of organising Departments.


Under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister can propose what the configuration of Departments will be. That is passed to the Assembly for determination. Each Assembly has the discretion to organise Departments that best fit. This power, through the regional, democratic accountability of the Assembly, is beyond that envisaged by the review of public administration.


If we said that departmental functions were to be included in the review, it would not be long before that would dominate the review, and people would say that we were creating political agendas by handing responsibilities from one Minister to another. The Committees of the Assembly would focus on turf issues for their interests and those of their Department. The focus would pull away from the issues that appear in the terms of reference of the review. All sorts of ulterior agendas would be ascribed to individuals, and the review would be distorted.


Ultimately, any result from a review of public administration pertaining to Departments would not matter. It would not preclude proposals by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister in post after the next election for a different configuration of Departments for the Assembly to vote on.


To go back to the question of the impact of the election, we need to remember those things as well, and see what the Northern Ireland Act 1998 prescribes. The review must focus on the structures that have existed for a generation because they catered to certain circumstances, and come up with new systems that can also last a generation. The way in which Departments are reconfigured does not fit into that mould.


The First Minister: The Chairperson asked a specific question about the transfer of functions to local government. It may be possible to make minor adjustments. The introduction to the review circulated to Members states that the review will examine how Departments perform their functions, and whether those functions should be transferred to the local regional or sub-regional level.


Please bear in mind the point made by the Deputy First Minister about the responsibilities of the existing Departments. Those have been the subject of a determination by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, which was brought to the House and voted on by the Assembly. That mechanism exists; this review does not intend to reopen that distribution, or recommend a fresh determination. It is possible, within the terms of the determination, to make adjustments. Small functions have already been transferred from one Department to another. However, any significant adjustment would trigger a fresh determination and a fresh application of the d'Hondt formula. We do not intend to accidentally change the political map of this Administration while carrying out the review. That is why we have tried to draw the distinction between the departmental level, and the operation of functions at local and sub-regional level.


Your commentator, Professor Knox, is correct to say that it will be difficult to draw such a distinction in every circumstance. We touched on that problem in some of the discussions earlier today. Nevertheless, that does not invalidate the distinction or the need for us to be aware of the nature of the review. It will not review everything. If it did, we would be dealing with a totally different animal and a different time scale. To some extent, the review of public administration grew out of the determinations of departmental functions that went to the Assembly at the end of 1998, and we want to keep to the spirit of that.


The Chairperson: Gentlemen, thank you for your time. I found this morning's discussion useful, and I trust that there will be further exchanges on the issues.

Meeting adjourned until 2.00 pm

1 May 2002 / Menu / 20 June 2002