DEL: Transfer of Functions
Alastair Ross (DUP)
Other Members started by thanking the Committee staff. I had better do the same; otherwise, I may get into trouble. A lot of work has been done by the Committee staff and, as Mr Douglas said, by our Chair and Deputy Chair. He referred to them as Basil and Tom. I have heard then referred to by other names in the past, but it is important that we put on record our appreciation for what was quite a volume of work to get through.
It is also useful to thank the Business Committee for allowing a little extra time for the debate. That has allowed Members who are on other Committees or who have not been part of the process until now to give their views. Members of the OFMDFM Committee and the Education Committee have been able to comment, and that is useful, because Committee motions that are brought to the House often result in the Committee involved talking to itself. I am glad that that has not been the case today.
As Members said, how DEL’s functions are split up will ultimately be a political decision. It is important to note that the Committee’s approach was not one of all its members starting with a political point of view towards which we made sure the report was biased. Rather, our approach was to ask the experts — stakeholders in industry and the economy, in the colleges and universities and in our businesses — what they thought and how they thought the functions of DEL should be distributed. We collected their views in written and oral evidence, and that was important, because the experts are the drivers of the economy. They are the very people of whom we were thinking when we put the economy at the centre of our Programme for Government, and it is important that they be able to argue from their position of expertise.
The argument comes down to whether you believe that we should have a Department for lifelong learning, as Mr McElduff talked about, or that we should move towards having a Department for the economy. In that regard, a casual reading of the evidence that we have collected over the past months will show a clear consensus. The majority of stakeholders believe that we should move towards having a Department for the economy, with the majority of DEL’s functions moving to DETI, whether it is rebranded or not. I have also heard it argued that having a single Department to drive forward the economy would be a strong indication from the Executive and the Assembly that we are taking the economy seriously.
During the exercise, others have argued that perhaps a new Department for the economy would be better considered in an overall restructuring of the Executive. In line with my colleague Mr McIlveen, I would have no difficulty with that. Indeed, our party has consistently argued against the structures that were set up in 1998. They were not set up for efficiency or effectiveness but for overtly political reasons. We have always maintained that we want to have a smaller Executive and Assembly. Hopefully, that will happen in the future. That debate is probably for another time and place, but it is worth putting those points on record.
As other Members said, a look at the list of consultees who argued that the majority of DEL’s functions should move to DETI shows it to include the CBI, the IOD, Invest Northern Ireland, a number of charities, Colleges NI, Queen’s University and the University of Ulster. It is significant that they all argued the same point. As has been said, the unions were not of a single view — some argued one way and some the other. Predictably enough, I suppose, the teaching unions agreed with the view of Stranmillis and St Mary’s that they would be better suited in the Department of Education. Most Committee members thought that that would be the case when the exercise was begun.
However, it is interesting that other unions, including NIPSA, argued that they should move towards DETI. When we looked at the evidence from jobcentre staff, it was interesting to learn that they unanimously believe that their role of getting people into work is more closely aligned with the work of DETI than with that of the Department for Social Development. Many members began the process thinking that some of the functions would go to DETI, some to DE and perhaps even some to DSD. Therefore, it is interesting that that was raised in evidence.
Nevertheless, the thrust of the evidence that we have taken is that the function of the Department of Education should be to concentrate on the building blocks of education. It should be about ensuring that school leavers, whether at 16 or 18, have the numeracy and literacy skills required to move on in life. Many said that they believe that the Department of Education is already too big to be taking on more functions of higher or further education or skills training. Other Members said that they are fearful that further education in particular will become the Cinderella service. They remember that that was the case previously, and, indeed, a number of charities said that they did not wish to go to the Department of Education because it is too big already and they would be forgotten about.
The FE and HE views that came out in the report said that those sectors are there to equip people for the world of work. It is about joining up with industry for the skills that it needs and the graduate courses that are provided at university. I should declare an interest as an Assembly Private Secretary in DETI, but I think that that gives me an insight into the needs of business. I disagree with Mr McElduff, who talked about the need to have lifelong learning in the Department of Education. I have listened to employers and business voice concerns about people not leaving school and college with the needs that industry requires, and that leads me to the conclusion that we need a joined-up approach in a Department of the economy. Indeed, only this morning, the Ulster Unionist Member Mrs Overend and I met one of Northern Ireland’s leading companies. That company talked about how concerned it is that young people do not have the skills that it needs. That highlights that our focus should be on that area. If we can deliver that by having a single Department for the economy, that is important.
Other Members spoke on the comments of Bill McGinnis, who is the adviser on employment and skills. He spoke about the importance of supporting the economy and said that his preferred option is for DEL, DETI and the work of Invest to operate together. Nigel Smyth of the CBI echoed that belief. He talked about the links between the functions of DEL and economic development. Again, that highlights the direction in which we should be travelling. The universities very much see their role as one that supports economic development and that can deliver the PFG. The voluntary sector also wishes to go in that direction.
In conclusion, of course people will automatically look for bits of the report that back their views.