COMMITTEE FOR FINANCE AND PERSONNEL
End of Session Report
(September 2008 - August 2009)
Remit, Powers and Membership
The Committee for Finance and Personnel is a Statutory Departmental Committee established in accordance with paragraphs 8 and 9 of the Belfast Agreement, Section 29 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and under Assembly Standing Order 48. The Committee has a scrutiny, policy development and consultation role with respect to the Department of Finance and Personnel and has a role in the initiation of legislation.
The Committee has the power to:
- consider and advise on Departmental budgets and annual plans in the context of the overall budget allocation;
- approve relevant secondary legislation and take the Committee Stage of primary legislation;
- call for persons and papers;
- initiate inquiries and make reports; and
- consider and advise on matters brought to the Committee by the Minister of Finance and Personnel.
The Committee has eleven members, including a Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson, with a quorum of five members. The membership of the Committee during the 2008/09 session has been as follows:
Mr Mitchel McLaughlin (Chairperson)
Mr Peter Weir (Deputy Chairperson) 1
Dr Stephen Farry
Mr Simon Hamilton
Mr Fra McCann
Ms Jennifer McCann
Mr David McNarry 2
Mr Adrian McQuillan
Mr Declan O’Loan
Mr Ian Paisley Jnr
Ms Dawn Purvis
1 With effect from 4 July 2009 Mr Peter Weir replaced Mr Simon Hamilton as Deputy Chairperson.
2 With effect from 29 September 2008 Mr David McNarry replaced Mr Roy Beggs.
Committee for Finance and Personnel (from left to right): Simon Hamilton, Ian Paisley Jnr, Jennifer McCann, David McNarry, Stephen Farry, Dawn Purvis, Peter Weir (Deputy Chairperson), Mitchel McLaughlin (Chairperson), Declan O'Loan, Fra McCann
Key Activities, Outputs and Achievements
- The Committee’s start to the 2008-09 Session involved consideration of the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) response to the Committee’s earlier report on the Building Regulations (Amendment) Bill. The Bill, which was the first piece of primary legislation on building regulations in Northern Ireland in the last 18 years, aimed to introduce significant reform of the regulations, which included extending the general principles of the existing primary legislation to include protection and enhancement of the environment and the promotion of sustainable development.
- Committee Stage commenced on 4 March 2008 and involved a substantial evidence gathering exercise, including oral evidence sessions with fourteen key stakeholders, including professional bodies, environmental groups and building control practitioners from Northern Ireland and from other jurisdictions. The subsequent Committee report on the Bill included twenty-two key conclusions and recommendations covering specific clauses of the Bill as well as related policy and enforcement matters and topical issues, such as energy conservation and the use of renewable energy technologies.
- The Department’s response to the Committee’s report, which was considered on 10 September 2008, addressed a range of issues which the Committee had identified. In particular, the Minister stated an intention to commit to using building regulations to further promote and encourage the use of low or zero carbon technology by establishing 2016 as a firm target date for all newbuilds in Northern Ireland to be zero carbon, thereby keeping pace with developments in GB and the Republic of Ireland. At Consideration Stage of the Bill on 13 January 2009, the Minister put forward two key amendments to the Bill, which were in line with the Committee’s recommendations and were subsequently supported by the Committee. The Final Stage was on 17 February 2009 and the Bill received Royal Assent on 2 March 2009.
- The Presumption of Death Bill commenced Committee Stage on 15 September 2008. The Bill was designed to provide a legal framework to help address the needs of the families of people from Northern Ireland who go missing and to address the immediate concerns of the families of “the disappeared”. As part of its consideration of the Bill, the Committee received written submissions and held oral hearings with key stakeholders, in particular, the WAVE Trauma Centre, representing some of the families of the disappeared, and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.
- The Committee’s report on the Bill, which was agreed on 14 January 2009, included twelve key conclusions and recommendations. At Consideration Stage on 9 March 2009, the Committee welcomed and supported the Ministerial amendments to the Bill which addressed concerns raised by the Committee. In particular, these included the provision of an additional jurisdictional rule which would give the High Court jurisdiction to hear cases in which the applicant is a close relative of a victim of violence within the meaning of the Northern Ireland (Location of Victims’ Remains) Act 1999. This amendment would help to address the concerns which had been highlighted in the evidence to the Committee that some of the disappeared could fall outside the scope of the jurisdictional rules as drafted.
- In line with the Committee’s recommendations, the Minister also tabled an amendment to place a statutory duty on the Registrar General to annotate an entry in the Register of Presumed Deaths in cases where he becomes aware that a missing person’s death has been registered outside Northern Ireland. The Committee considered that this amendment could help allay some of the concerns raised by witnesses and address the need to facilitate the updating of the records subsequent to the recovery of remains and the issuing of a death certificate.
- The Committee also welcomed various assurances from the Department, including: that there will be a periodic review of the seven year absence requirement; that the application process will be made as straightforward as possible; and that the Department will work with the families of the disappeared to identify other avenues of funding or assistance to help defray the costs associated with pursuing applications for declarations of presumed death, in circumstances where the families are not eligible for legal aid. The Bill received Royal Assent on 2 July 2009.
- The Civil Registration Bill commenced Committee Stage on 1 July 2008. The purpose of the Bill is to provide a more flexible legislative framework for the civil registration of vital events, including births, deaths, marriages and civil partnerships. It aims to provide improved service delivery, better access to services and information, as well as introducing new and more responsive services.
- The Committee received evidence from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations and the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland and subsequently pursued a number of issues with DFP. The Committee report, which was agreed on 18 March 2009, included nine key conclusions and recommendations. In particular, the Committee welcomed the Department’s commitment to give further consideration, when drafting new regulations, to the proposal to extend the data recorded in death registrations to include the names of the parents of the deceased. In addition, the Committee acknowledged the clarification and assurances provided by the Department, which aimed to, amongst other things: allay the concerns raised by witnesses around the potential for some provisions in the Bill to restrict access to registration data; provide confirmation that the Registrar General has no power in the legislation to amend records held by the FCO missions overseas; and confirm that there will be no procedural or resource implications for the FCO in respect of the maintenance of the “Record of Northern Ireland Connections”. Consideration Stage of the Bill was pending as the 2008-09 Session closed.
- The Financial Provisions Bill commenced Committee Stage on 3 March 2009. The purpose of financial provisions legislation is to cover routine financial matters, such as minor amendments to governing legislation or to regularise an existing practice.
- The Committee canvassed the views of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, the Audit Committee and the Public Accounts Committee, as the Bill contained provisions which were also relevant to the remits of these committees. In addition, the Committee issued a public call for evidence on the Bill and received oral briefings from Department of Finance and Personnel officials.
- As part of its deliberations the Committee sought further clarification from the Department on the repeal of the requirement to prepare Finance Accounts. The Department provided a detailed explanation which included: background information on the proposed repeal of certain provisions relating to accounts of the Consolidated Fund; clarification on the types of accounts produced; and the rationale for removing the need to produce separate Finance Accounts. In response to the Committee’s call for evidence the other relevant Assembly committees confirmed that they were content with the provisions falling within their respective remits.
- On 22 April 2009, the Committee agreed all the clauses and the Schedule of Repeals without the need to propose amendments, and this position was reflected in the subsequent Committee report on the Bill.
- In February 2009, the Committee considered the Budget Bill 2009, including the Spring Supplementary Estimates for 2008/09 and Vote on Account for 2009/10. The Budget (No2) Bill, together with the Main Estimates for 2009/10 was considered by the Committee in May 2009. The Committee agreed that it had been consulted appropriately on the provisions contained in both Bills and agreed to grant accelerated passage.
- During the session the Committee scrutinised ten statutory rules. Six of these were subject to affirmative resolution and the Committee recommended that they be affirmed by the Assembly. The remaining four statutory rules were subject to the negative resolution procedure and, following scrutiny, the Committee agreed that it had no objections to the rules.
- On 19 November 2008, the Committee agreed its terms of reference for the inquiry and focused its scrutiny on examining the experience of Small and Medium Enterprises and Social Economy Enterprises in tendering for and delivering public contracts as well as considering the nature and extent and application of social clauses within public contracts. In response to its public consultation, it received 35 written submissions from a wide range of stakeholders including professional bodies and has taken oral evidence from 11 organisations including DFP. Further evidence sessions have been scheduled for September 2009 and the Committee will hold a Stakeholder Conference in October to supplement the inquiry evidence and which will focus on identifying policy interventions and practical measures to address the key issues of concern. The subsequent inquiry report will contain recommendations aimed at maximising the economic and social benefits from the public procurement process in Northern Ireland.
- The Committee commenced this three-stage inquiry in July 2008, with the overarching aim of maximising the Assembly’s contribution to the Executive’s budget process and enhancing the role of Assembly statutory committees and Members in budget and financial scrutiny. The Committee framed its terms of reference to complement and contribute to a parallel Review of the Executive’s Budget Process commenced by DFP in May 2008, with the Committee’s focus on the Assembly’s internal arrangements and those between the Assembly and the Executive. The DFP review had a wider scope and involved engagement with a range of key stakeholders.
- Stage One of the Committee’s inquiry contributed to DFP’s review by identifying potential lessons from the budget scrutiny process in other applicable legislatures and co-ordinated the views of the other statutory committees on the strengths and weaknesses of the last budget process in 2007. The Stage One report was agreed in October 2008 and included suggested improvements to the budget timetable and documentation, departmental budget submissions and the plenary aspects of the budget process. DFP has not yet formally responded to the Committee’s submission and the Report on the Department’s Review of the Executive’s Budget Process has not been received by the Committee to date. Following confirmation of the Executive’s future budget process, the Committee will review the resources available to statutory committees and Members in undertaking budget and financial scrutiny and the processes for the in-year monitoring of departmental expenditure by the Assembly. The inquiry recommendations will aim to further improve the operation of the processes and facilitate more effective scrutiny.
- The Executive decided that a strategic stocktake of the Budget position for 2009/10 and 2010/11 would be undertaken in place of a comprehensive local budget process. The stocktake included a review of departmental progress against plans, the identification of reduced requirements and emerging pressures for the next two years and proposals for addressing these pressures through adjustments to existing plans and priorities. The Committee co-ordinated the views of the other statutory committees, before agreeing a submission to DFP in December 2008, which set out a range of budgetary concerns at a cross-cutting and a departmental level. These have a particular resonance in the current economic and financial climate and included:
- the potential for additional efficiency savings being required, in the context of possible slippage by departments in achieving existing efficiency targets;
- the budget implications of not achieving previously planned asset realisations;
- doubt as to the capacity of departments to deliver accelerated capital expenditure, in circumstances in which they are required to raise their standard of financial management and performance generally; and
- general concern at the range and quantum of new and emerging pressures on existing budget allocations which remain to be addressed.
- On 20 January 2009, the Minister of Finance and Personnel made a statement in the Assembly on the stocktake, in which he welcomed the Committee’s constructive approach. The Committee subsequently led a ‘take note’ debate in plenary on 27 January 2009, which gave Executive Ministers the opportunity to hear members concerns.
- The quarterly Monitoring Round process during the financial year gives departments the opportunity to surrender resources which are no longer required and to bid for money to meet emerging pressures. The Committee has taken a keen interest in this process throughout the session, at both a Departmental and strategic level. Members are briefed on the DFP position prior to the Department making its submission to the centre. Committee members then take the lead in questioning the Minister of Finance and Personnel following his statement to the Assembly on the outcome of each quarterly monitoring round and the Committee subsequently questions senior officials from DFP’s Central Expenditure Division on the strategic position of the Executive’s Budget.
Performance and Efficiency Delivery Unit
- The Committee saw considerable potential in the creation of the Performance and Efficiency Delivery Unit (PEDU) within DFP as a tool for achieving additional efficiencies and providing individual Ministers with a means for raising performance and delivery within departments. The Committee has taken oral evidence during the Session from the DFP officials responsible for PEDU, to ensure that it is carrying out its role effectively and providing value-for-money, particularly in its review of performance against the Public Sector Agreements in the Programme for Government.
- In its Report on the Executive’s draft Budget 2008 – 2011, the Committee raised concerns at the lack of detail on financing planned capital investment. During the 2008/09 session, the Committee heard oral evidence from the Construction Industry Forum on the slowdown in the local construction industry. Although the Investment Strategy falls within the remit of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, the Committee for Finance and Personnel has continued to scrutinise the financing arrangements for capital investment within the current budget period to 2011, and has taken evidence from senior officials from DFP and the Strategic Investment Board. The Committee has also monitored DFP’s progress against its own Investment Delivery Plan, to ensure that the Department’s capital investment remains on track.
- One of the Committee’s main priorities is to scrutinise DFP’s role to secure, plan, manage and monitor public expenditure in line with Executive priorities. In its Report on the Executive’s draft Budget 2008 – 2011 in December 2007, the Committee recommended a target of 1.5% for resource underspend in 2008/09 and not more than 1% thereafter. The Committee has monitored strategic spend on a monthly basis and has questioned DFP officials on the underspend position following the outcome of each quarterly monitoring round. The Committee has highlighted how the current economic uncertainty places an even greater onus on departments to manage public finances in a way which achieves the highest possible spend within authorised limits and maximises the impact from available resources. Members therefore welcomed the reduction in departmental underspend from £177m or 2.1% in current expenditure in 2007-08 to £44m or 0.5% in 2008-09. Going forward, the Committee will wish to examine both the extent to which the 2008/09 result is due to improved financial management across departments and the departmental performance in delivering Programme for Government targets.
Location of Public Sector Jobs and Workplace 2010
- As part of its policy scrutiny work at the beginning of the 2008/09 Session the Committee followed up on its First Report on Workplace 2010 and Location of Public Sector Jobs, which had been published in July 2007. As part of its response to this report, DFP commissioned an independent review of policy on the location of public sector jobs. This review, led by Professor Sir George Bain, aimed to address a number of the Committee’s recommendations, which focussed mainly on the need to maximise the potential economic and social benefits of a strategic dispersal policy. Professor Bain briefed the Committee on the review outcome on 1 st October 2008 and during an Assembly debate on 21 October 2008, the Committee Chairperson welcomed the review findings and recommendations which were closely aligned to the initial recommendations made by the Committee. Going forward, the Committee will monitor subsequent implementation of these policy proposals.
- On the separate issue of Workplace 2010 programme, the Committee actively scrutinised developments during the Session, including the process which led to the termination of the procurement contract. The Committee will continue to monitor progress by the Department in achieving the objectives of the original programme, including the focus on creating a modern, flexible working environment to enable the delivery of better public services.
Local Financial Sector
- Whilst financial regulation is a reserved matter, the Committee decided that the role of local banks and mortgage lenders in helping to alleviate the economic downturn for both individual households and local businesses should be kept under scrutiny and placed in the public domain. Following a briefing from the Consumer Council on how local financial institutions were treating individual consumers, the Committee heard oral evidence from the British Bankers’ Association and senior representatives from the Bank of Ireland, First Trust, Northern and Ulster Banks in January 2009. In June 2009, the Committee heard oral evidence from some of Northern Ireland’s leading mortgage lenders and, following a briefing from the Institute of Directors on its survey of Northern Ireland Businesses Accessing Finance from Local Banks, a further evidence session with senior banking representatives was held. The Committee welcomed the quality of this engagement and emphasised the need for continued dialogue and improved communication between the banks and their customers. Senior representatives from the Northern Bank will give further evidence to the Committee after summer recess.
Senior Civil Service Pay and Bonuses
- An initial analysis of the bonuses being paid to senior civil servants in Northern Ireland gave rise to Committee concerns at the current pay system for senior officials and whether this is effective in driving performance and efficiency in terms of the local economic conditions. Following evidence from DFP officials, the Committee wrote to the Minister of Finance and Personnel in January 2009 setting out its concerns and formally calling for a local and independent review of the pay arrangements for senior civil servants. The Review was formally announced by the Minister in June 2009 and subsequently a Committee motion expressing concern at the current arrangements for awarding pay and bonuses to senior civil servants, in the context of the Executive’s focus on public sector performance and efficiency, was debated and approved by the Assembly. In his contribution to the debate, the Minister expressed his gratitude to the Committee for its examination of the complex issue of pay and rewards for senior civil servants. The Committee is to be briefed on the terms of reference for the review at its first meeting after recess and will want to ensure that it is comprehensive and that it assesses the effectiveness, efficiency and appropriateness of the pay arrangements, having regard to the local economic conditions, and recommends reforms as necessary.
- The Committee has taken a keen interest in the domestic rating system since the return of devolution in May 2007. Having produced a report in 2007, containing recommendations for change, the Committee has been briefed by DFP officials in 2008/09 on the outcome of the public consultation on the Executive’s Review of the Domestic Rating System. In relation to the Executive’s review, the Minister of Finance and Personnel stated that the Committee had made an extremely valuable contribution to the process and that many of the final outcomes agreed by the Executive aligned with the Committee’s recommendations. The Committee has taken evidence from DFP on the policy aims and scope of the draft Rates (Amendment Bill), which will be introduced to the Assembly after summer recess.
- Also in relation to domestic rates, the Committee is continuing to monitor the implementation of recommendations in the Access to Benefits Report on Increasing Uptake of Rates Reliefs and has continued its scrutiny of Land and Property Services (LPS), especially in relation to rates collection. The Committee is currently awaiting a PEDU report on its examination of LPS.
- On 25 February 2009, the Committee took evidence from DFP officials on the performance of HRConnect, which is one of the Department’s main reform programmes. This briefing followed serious concerns that had been raised both in the media and directly with the Committee, regarding problems that civil servants encountered with the HRConnect services, including payroll errors.
- Based on the evidence received, the Committee made recommendations to DFP aimed at improving how the HRConnect services could be taken forward. These included a possible role for the Performance and Efficiency Delivery Unit in the immediate term and a “health check” review in the medium term, which would examine the issues arising from end-user experience. The Committee also agreed that the Public Accounts Committee and the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) will also be kept informed of this matter. In response to the Committee’s recommendations the Department confirmed that the NIAO are currently carrying out a review of the technical and service operations of HRConnect with a view to how services can be improved and that the project was subject to a recent detailed Gateway review.
- On 1 July 2009, the Committee received further evidence from the Department on the performance of the HRConnect services and actions being taken to improve the service.
Other Key Policy Areas
- The other key policy areas which the Committee scrutinised during the 2008-09 Session included:
- Departmental performance against targets in Public Service Agreements and in its annual Operational Plan;
- DFP’s lead responsibility for producing a regional economic strategy for Northern Ireland;
- Progress by the Department in fulfilling its lead role in managing absenteeism in the NICS;
- Data security in the public sector;
- Progress in resolving the NICS Equal Pay Claim; and
- The work of both DFP and the Special European Union Programmes Body in respect of European funding;
Engagement – Informal Meetings/Events
- During the 2008-09 Session the Committee was represented at various informal meetings and events, including the following:
13 November 2008 – the Chairperson gave a keynote address to a Building Control Convention on “Building in a Changing Environment”, which was held at the Radisson Roe Park Hotel in Limavady. The address outlined the work of the Committee in scrutinising the Building Regulations (Amendment) Bill;
20 November 2008 – the Chairperson attended the PricewaterhouseCoopers Business Eye Forum in Belfast to discuss the process of political, governmental and economic change in Northern Ireland with the main emphasis on how the private and public sectors can work together;
2 March 2009 – Members of the Committee met informally for discussions with the House of Commons Treasury Committee as part of its Inquiry into the Banking Crisis;
26 March 2009 – Members of the Committee met informally for discussions with the House of Lords Select Committee on the Barnett Formula .
Likely key priorities for next Session
- The Committee’s priorities for the next session include its ongoing inquiries into public procurement and Assembly scrutiny of the Executive’s budget and expenditure, which have been referred to above. Other immediate issues include the Rates (Amendment) Bill and NICS pay issues.
Detail of Committee Meetings
- The Committee met on 38 occasions during 2008/09. Of these 38 meetings, 34 were held in open session and 4 were held in open/closed session. One Committee meeting was held at the Metro Building in Belfast and incorporated a tour of the Capita facilities for delivering the HRConnect programme. Another of the meetings involved a concurrent meeting with the Committee for Regional Development, under Standing Order 64B, which was for the purposes of taking evidence on measures to mitigate the economic downturn.
Committee for Finance and Personnel – Expenditure for the period 1 September 2008 – 31 August 2009
|Committee Travel - committee members and staff travel and subsistence in relation to visits and meetings outside Parliament Buildings||Includes the cost of a committee visit and meeting at the Metro Building Belfast on 1 October 2008, which included evidence sessions on Public Procurement and a tour of the Metro Human Resources and Payroll shared service centre.||£695.47|
|Printing of committee reports|| Includes the cost of committee reports on:
|Advertising – the cost of public notices relating to committee inquiries, the committee stage of bills and meetings held outside Parliament Buildings|| Includes the cost of public notices in relation to:
|Consultancy support – the cost of specialist advisers appointed by the committee and commissioned research||Nil|
|General expenses|| Includes: