DEL: Transfer of Functions
William Hay (DUP)
The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two and a half hours for the debate. The proposer will have 10 minutes to propose the motion and 15 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have seven minutes.
Thomas Buchanan (DUP)
I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on the First Minister and deputy First Minister, when considering the transfer of the functions currently exercised by the Department for Employment and Learning to other Departments, to take note of the views expressed by key stakeholders consulted by the Committee for Employment and Learning.
It gives me great pleasure to rise as the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning and move this very timely and relevant motion, which addresses the proposed dissolution and transfer of functions of the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL).
Throughout its existence, the Committee has worked closely with the Department to consider and advise on matters of policy and legislation. Members have become familiar not only with the issues under consideration but with the organisations that have translated those issues into real people with real concerns.
As soon as the announcement was made, the Committee felt that the views of the key stakeholder organisations should be considered in the drafting of any legislation to accomplish the transfer of departmental functions. Accordingly, the Committee wrote to 75 organisations and offered them an opportunity to put forward their views. Members were impressed with the number of stakeholders who not only chose to provide a written response to the consultation but were prepared to come up to Parliament Buildings and explain their views to the Committee. I put on record our thanks to those stakeholders who chose to put their views to the Committee on where the functions of DEL should go.
The majority of stakeholders believe that most, if not all, of DEL’s functions would be best aligned with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI). That reflects the belief that the overriding focus should be on the economy and the drive for sustainable prosperity, which was expressed in the Programme for Government.
Some stakeholders went further than that and proposed merging DEL and DETI into a new Department for the economy, as recommended by the independent review of economic policy (IREP) report. That would result in complete integration of skills and training, job creation and employment relations.
The universities and the further education colleges were very much of the opinion that responsibility for third-level education should move to DETI and that, as they have such an intrinsic link in their provision, higher education (HE) and further education (FE) should not be separated. Both universities and colleges reiterated that they have a decisive role as drivers of the economy, as well as a role in delivering skills and training. However, the two university colleges, Stranmillis University College and St Mary’s University College, believe that teacher training is an integral part of education and, as such, would benefit from a move to the Department of Education. The vice chancellors of the universities were content that such a split would not have an adverse impact if the remaining HE functions were to transfer to DETI.
Representatives of industry and commerce, as well as those involved with careers guidance, strongly supported transferring to DETI the DEL functions relating to skills and employment. They felt that this would create a closer association between the demands of the labour market and the supply of skills to meet those demands.
Virtually all of the voluntary organisations that engage in vocational training with young people and adults agreed that they would prefer to work with a Department that is focused on the economy rather than on education. They felt that such a move would maintain the focus on job opportunities and the social economy — a focus they had worked hard to establish.
Although the First Minister and the deputy First Minister had not identified the possibility of DEL’s jobcentre functions transferring to the Department for Social Development, that was discussed by a number of stakeholders. However, only one stakeholder favoured that option, arguing that it would put DSD in a better position to deal with the implementation of welfare reform. The majority of respondents believed that the association with benefits would be off-putting to jobseekers.
Many stakeholders placed an emphasis on the importance of joined-up government, and that view is shared by members of the Committee. Strategies such as Pathways to Success, which addresses the difficulties faced by young people not in education, employment or training, will require dedicated cross-departmental co-operation regardless of which Department is identified as taking the lead.
Another theme common to all stakeholders was a concern that service provision would be disrupted by transferring the relevant functions from DEL to another Department. Effective working relationships have been built up with departmental officials, particularly by representatives from the community and voluntary sector but also by staff within agencies such as Invest NI, and those relationships are greatly valued in achieving a successful outcome.
The Committee also believed that it was appropriate to seek the views of those who are tasked with delivering the DEL services: the departmental staff. Many stakeholders paid tribute to the dedication and expertise of DEL staff, and the Committee has benefited throughout its term from their advice and assistance. In spite of a very pressured timescale, almost one third of DEL staff responded to the Committee consultation. That high level of response is indicative of the level of staff concern, and that concern has been heightened by the degree of uncertainty about their future.
Although both departmental staff and the senior management team expressed their commitment to the successful implementation of the transfer of functions, whatever the outcome, their views on how that should happen largely reflected the views of key stakeholders. The majority of staff respondents believed that the functions they carry out would sit most comfortably within DETI and that such a move would maintain DEL’s existing focus on jobs and the economy. Many staff already work closely with colleagues in DETI and Invest NI and have found that relationship to be both useful and productive.
Careers Service staff identified the two different strands of their work — work with adults and work with children — and indicated that work with school-age children would fit best with DE, while careers guidance for adults would align better with DETI.
Jobcentre staff felt that a closer alignment with DSD would not be beneficial as they need to get a wide range of clients, not just benefit claimants, into employment. Staff working with the FE and HE sectors, reiterating the views of the colleges and universities, emphasised the importance of the acquisition of higher-level skills in delivering on the economic targets of the Programme for Government.
There was a clear and recurring theme running throughout the responses that the Committee received. Stakeholders and staff would welcome the transfer of the majority of DEL’s functions to DETI. Such a transfer would continue to build on DEL’s growing focus on economic matters and integrate its commitment to delivering skills with the creation of jobs now and in the future.
I commend the motion to the House and seek Members’ support in calling on the First Minister and deputy First Minister to ensure that their Executive colleagues take into account the views of all stakeholders when resolving the future of the Department for Employment and Learning as soon as possible.
As we bring this motion to the Floor of the House, I am disappointed that there is no representative of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to respond to the debate. This is an important issue; we are seeing the Committee for Employment and Learning being dissolved. Its functions will go to one Department or will be split between a few Departments. That is all to come on trial. Given the importance of the debate, I would have liked someone to have been here to respond to it. However, we will wait to see the outcome of where this takes us and where the Committee goes. I commend the motion to the House.
Michelle Gildernew (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I also welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate. I see this as an opportunity to look at the future of higher and further education and the future of our skills sector in a way that does not just go back to the status quo with so much divided between DETI and the Department of Education. We should look at it in the round to see how we can improve on some of the services that are delivered by DETI, the Department of Education and even DSD.
It is widely accepted that education must also be an economic driver. The Department of Education has a critical role in producing young people who are suitably qualified for the needs of the economy. This is an ongoing process from the cradle to the career, if you like. Therefore, it stands to reason that it would be better served under a single Department, allowing for more effective strategic planning, continuity, etc.
I know that the whole trajectory of education over recent years has been to drive up attainment across a range of areas, both academic and vocational. That is certainly the logic of the entitlement framework and has been the direction of travel for a period of time. So, to progress seamlessly, it would make sense for further and higher education to be aligned with the Department of Education, as that would enable us to work seamlessly through a young person’s learning pathway. That would then ensure that the training and skills sector is equally valued within education and would assist us in enabling young people to add value to their lives and communities, as well as meeting the needs of the economy. We must remember that education is not just about meeting the needs of the economy but about the entire package that a young person goes through. However, it certainly has to do both.
STEM is a major part of the curriculum. It does not make sense to have schools and the Department of Education divorced from the wider STEM agenda. Having been on the Committee for Employment and Learning for a short while, I recognise the great work that is going on. For example, we had a visit to Omagh last week where we heard about the 20 foundation degree courses, in a range of areas, that are being delivered at the South West College. I have been very impressed by the work of the regional colleges. They are no longer seen as the poor relation in further education. It is important to keep that educational package together in one block, if you like. I certainly would have no difficulties with a number of the functions that currently reside within DEL going to DETI. There is certainly a job of work to be done to see where the best match is. I do feel that, to get the maximum benefit out of a young person’s education, higher and further education should be aligned with the Department of Education. That said, however, —
Mervyn Storey (DUP)
I thank the Member for giving way. Will she clarify for the House whether she is speaking as a Member of the House or on her party’s policy? When the Education Committee tried to ascertain from the Education Minister his Department’s view on the dissolution of DEL, it was told that he had not come to any definitive conclusion and was waiting to see what everybody else was saying. Can the Member clarify the position?
Michelle Gildernew (Sinn Féin)
This is a view that I have come to myself, having been at quite a number of the stakeholder meetings and having listened to many of them put their points of view across. Also, I have young children, and I recognise the needs that they will have. Hopefully, they will progress through their education. As a mother, I have no difficulty with them starting their higher and further education journey at a regional college, getting their foundation degree there, and then moving on to a university to continue their education, if that is the path that they choose to take. So, I am speaking very much on the basis of my own experience and on how I see a fit that will benefit the young people of the North.
Going back to the idea of there being an opportunity, there is a need to look further at how the Department of Education could refocus itself. We could look at models in the South or at that in Wales where the education departments include education and skills. One of the stakeholders talked about the absence of a skills strategy and how she felt that the skills agenda had slipped back within DEL as a result. Something that we should think about might be the expansion of the role of the Department of Education to education and skills. We should also think about ensuring that that fit and progression, and that holistic and very cohesive approach to education, is delivered through a Department of education and skills.
We have the opportunity to take a fresh look at some of the areas of work that are currently being carried out by the Department of Education, and, it has to be said, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. Could things be done better? Both Departments will have to be rejigged to accommodate the new officials and new policies, wherever they end up. So, I think that this is an opportunity — to use the Cathaoirleach’s words — to see how we can do things better.
I recognise how important DEL has been in developing the economy and in ensuring that young people, at the minute, are doing their best. However, I have to say that I have been disappointed at times — not just by DEL, but by a whole lot of Departments — about how our most vulnerable young people are treated. As far as DEL is concerned, young people who are not in employment, education or training (NEETs) are part of that category. There have been times when we have been fairly robust in our challenges to departmental officials about the priority that NEETS get throughout the Department.
At the moment, the training regime of young people with special educational needs is looked after by DEL. I know that there were very strong views at the stakeholder meetings about this, but we have a situation where young people have come through formal education and are now at the training stage. Given that, I would like to see some ring-fencing and a fresh focus and approach. I am sure that many of us have constituents who say that their young people do not get the stimulation or challenge that they need. They are not getting the training that they need to allow them to contribute to, and be a part of, society. Parents do not want their child, or their adult, with special needs to be a burden; they want them to make that contribution and to feel that they are doing so. We talk a lot about good mental health. You need to feel that you are making a difference and that you can impact on society and are not a burden on it.
So, I have been disappointed at times about how our most vulnerable people have been dealt with by DEL, and I would like to make the point that, whichever Department these areas end up in, there should be a fresh focus and ring-fencing to ensure that those people get the treatment and quality that they deserve. Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
Mike Nesbitt (UUP)
I thank the Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning for bringing forward this important motion. I also thank the Committee for Employment and Learning for its work in producing this report, looking at the transfer of functions following the proposed abolition of the Department for Employment and Learning and the gathering of the views of the Committee stakeholders.
On 5 March 2012, OFMDFM wrote to the Committee seeking the views of the Committee and other Statutory Committees on the redistribution of the current responsibilities exercised by the Department for Employment and Learning. The letter requested that the OFMDFM Committee co-ordinate the views of Committees on the matter. At its meeting on 7 March, the Committee agreed to undertake the co-ordination role and wrote to all Statutory Committees seeking their views on the redistribution of responsibilities. The Committee also wrote to the Committee for Employment and Learning to request the names of stakeholders with which it had consulted and circulated that to the other Committees. The Committee wished to avoid duplication of any work being undertaken by the Committee for Employment and Learning. To that end, the Committee also checked with OFMDFM regarding the organisations it had consulted about the proposals.
Following consideration, the Committee agreed to write to the Equality Commission to seek its views on the redistribution of responsibilities. The Committee also agreed to request a briefing from the Department and to ask it to provide a summary and an analysis of the responses it received to its consultation process. The Committee received responses from the Committee for Social Development and the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, advising that they were content for the issue to be dealt with by political parties. The Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development responded by providing a copy of a response from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, which advised that it did not anticipate any significant impact on DARD.
The Committee for Finance and Personnel provided a copy of correspondence from the Department of Finance and Personnel in which it advised that there will be a need to bring forward a Supplementary Estimate and associated Budget Bill for the Department or Departments gaining the additional functions.
The Committee received a response from the Equality Commission on 10 May. It has been circulated to Members, but the Committee was unable to discuss it at its most recent meeting on 9 May. The Equality Commission response stated that:
“The re-distribution of a number of the functions of the Northern Ireland Civil Service from one Department to others is unlikely of itself to raise equality issues, in circumstances where each public function will continue to be performed and similar resources and staff committed to it. As we understand the position at this time, detailed proposals on the proposed new arrangements have not been published ... In the absence of any concrete proposals at present, it is not possible to reach a conclusion on any potential equality impacts.”
At its meeting of 9 May, the Committee considered the responses that I have referred to and agreed to forward them to the Department. The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the Department also agreed that it would be more appropriate for political parties to address the proposals and that it would not, therefore, make any comment on them.
I will now say a few words as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. I say this to the House and to the Executive: here we have an opportunity to prove to the citizens of Northern Ireland that we are relevant. To give context, let me take you back to 1998 and the Belfast Agreement, when, clearly, the objective was different from what it is today. The objective in those days was to take three groups of people and bring them together. There were those who saw our future going forward politically; those who saw violence as a way forward; and those who wanted to ride the two horses. We created a devolved Administration which was big enough to accommodate everybody. As some people might say, an exceedingly big cake needed to be baked so that everybody got not only a slice, but a large slice.
In 2012, we are in very different circumstances, not least economically. It is time to move forward from those transitional arrangements of 1998. It is time to look at a system of devolved government which is effective and efficient and which delivers value for money. I note that at his party’s most recent party conference, the First Minister said that this mandate had a new priority: a priority of delivery, as opposed to the previous mandate, when the priority was survival. I accept that the last mandate was the first in 40 years to go full term and was the first ever cross-community power-sharing mandate to survive in the history of Northern Ireland. However, that was then, and you cannot take that message out twice to the electorate and ask for support.
It is time to deliver, particularly on the economy. The economy comes first, according to the last Programme for Government and according to this Programme for Government, and the economy comes first according to the report of the independent review of economy policy, which Mr Buchanan referred to. The report’s key recommendation was that we should move to create a single department of the economy. Why wait any longer? That report was published in September 2009. In the Northern Ireland Executive report on unemployment in September 2009, the figure stood at 52,700, and a report on unemployment claimants in April 2012 stated that the figure is now 61,500. Therefore, it has gone up by 8,800.
How many more of our citizens need to be unemployed before we act? How many more recessions do we need to endure? How bad must it get before we act and do the sensible thing as recommended by Professor Richard Barnett and his team? The abolition of DEL is the opportunity for us to be relevant, and I call on this House to use it as the opportunity to bring forward a single department of the economy.
As Members will know, the Committee has been engaging thoroughly with stakeholders throughout all sectors to ascertain the strength of feeling and direction as to the dissolution of the Department for Employment and Learning over the past number of weeks. I want to take the opportunity, as the Deputy Chair has done, to thank our Committee staff for the work leading up to it and also all those who made written or oral submissions. The Committee undertook a very positive and constructive consultation. As a result of that, there are areas where there is clearly consensus.
Let me state categorically that it should not be an issue of carving up a Department for the benefit of a political settlement. We have tasked DEL with serious issues, and it should not just be a carve-up between the DUP and Sinn Féin. Interestingly, this carve-up has now become much more complicated. One could presume that that is one of the main reasons why we do not have either the First Minister or the deputy First Minister here to respond to this debate.
It should be a matter of providing a leaner, more efficient Government that is capable of delivering for our people — even more so now that times are hard. To do that, the serious work that DEL is undertaking now needs to be placed where the expertise is best placed to integrate those responsibilities.
We were given a wide range of diverse views by 29 organisations, and they addressed a huge number of very important issues within the current competency of DEL. I have said many times before and at the Committee that NEETs and youth unemployment needs to be the highest priority for DEL and among the highest priorities for whatever new Department takes on its responsibility. To that end, the SDLP, after internal discussions and intense discussions with stakeholders, has judged that, based on detailed analysis of responsibilities within the branches of DEL, many of the roles performed by the Department for Employment and Learning should now be exercised by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.
We have taken a businesslike approach to this crucial proposal and have deduced branch by branch which Department would be best able to perform the roles soon to be transferred. Obviously, HR, corporate services and finance will be undertaken by a reorganisation of whatever Department undertakes DEL’s respective roles.
The higher and further education divisions should be merged and retained together in a new branch within the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to ensure a link-up at source with the economic responsibilities of DETI and to maximise integration of key elements of the higher education strategy, such as knowledge transfer partnerships, as well as the commercialisation of more university-based research.
We believe that the skills and industry division needs to be split. The industry responsibility should be subsumed into DETI’s economic policy division, in particular the business development and foresight units. That will add a specific economic focus to the work of that division and will enable DETI to integrate future needs in respect of skills gaps into its internal focus, alongside that of the outputs of our universities. We believe that the skills responsibility is best suited within the Department of Education. It is imperative, as we have seen with NEETs, that a preventative and forward-thinking focus is brought to bear with the skills of our young people. We believe that having that expertise and experience in the Department of Education will enable our young people to focus on their talents and to become more powerful economic drivers post-16 with the skills that the economy needs to recover and grow.
That having been said, the SDLP wants to be clear when it states that youth unemployment and young people not in education, employment or training pose huge problems for our economy going forward. As such, we must give it a primary focus. It is for that reason that we believe that a dedicated youth unemployment and NEETs division should be created, headed by both DE and DETI to give it the cross-departmental basis that it always needed and with its work being held to account by the ministerial subgroup on children and young people.
The final relevant branch in DEL — strategy, European and employment relations — should be merged into the European support unit in DETI, as well as the business regulation division and the economic policy division. While it is clear that there are major opportunities for us in Europe, it is imperative that those opportunities, including the European social fund, are used for the benefit of us all, as well as the economy at large.
It should be stated that some respondents were concerned about the expertise in relation to the employment relations aspects of DEL being lost and, perhaps, DETI being too concerned with employers. Therefore, any decision on those responsibilities should be taken in the context that workers are the drivers of the economy and their needs should be dealt with with the greatest care and efficiency, whichever Department they find themselves in.
A massive body of work has been carried out by the Employment and Learning Committee and by the respondents to our consultation over recent weeks, who have reflected on the future needs of DEL customers as well as the wider economic responsibility that DEL carries out. It is imperative that the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister takes those into account if we are to have any confidence in the outcome of any moves to dissolve the Department. It is worth saying that delay without a final decision being made and the mutterings about political deals being done behind closed doors have caused great stress and anxiety to the community that relies on DEL for a range of services. That includes departmental staff who are demotivated and whose morale is not good. We have a duty to ensure that government reflects the priorities of the people we all serve. This is an opportunity to show that we are listening and have listened —
Chris Lyttle (Alliance)
I welcome the efforts of Basil McCrea, the Chair of the Employment and Learning Committee, for taking a lead on what was an inclusive and innovative consultation process. He showed a lot of leadership on the issue and had an innovative speed evidence session as part of the Committee, which is something that other Committees could learn from and utilise. Indeed, it is a significantly more robust consultation than that of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister at this time.
We managed to gain quite constructive ideas on this important issue as a result of the consultation on the future of one of the most important economic Departments in Northern Ireland. I will take away five key areas from the process.
First, one of the key points from the feedback was that Dr Stephen Farry is — to be frank — doing a particularly good job in his role as the Minister for Employment and Learning. There was a genuine sense of disappointment at the possibility of losing him as Minister.
Secondly, there was an acknowledgement that the Department for Employment and Learning had developed particular expertise, and there was concern about how the delivery of those services will be protected.
Thirdly, they said that if DEL were abolished, a wider review of good governance and departmental structures should be conducted, with a more full and public consultation. Fourthly, they said that that wider review should seriously consider giving the majority of DEL responsibilities to a Department of the economy; that has been the Alliance Party’s position for quite some time. Otherwise, the good work that has been done on skills — a skills strategy has been in place since May 2011 — is in jeopardy of being dissected.
Fifthly, they said not to neglect key areas for which the Department for Employment and Learning has been responsible, such as community-based education and adult learning. The Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning launched adult learners’ week in the Assembly today. A lot of the feedback from community groups doing vital work in community education on the ground was that they are concerned about where their field will fall as a result of this process.
I am not sure whether the current process is about good or rational governance. From our perspective — if we are frank — this is more about reducing the number of Departments held by the Alliance Party. Let us be clear: the Alliance Party has put forward sensible and workable proposals that could deliver coherent reform and good governance. If proper reform and more efficient government for people in Northern Ireland were on the agenda, my colleagues and I would wholeheartedly endorse that. However, I do not think that that is what is on the table at the moment.
So what feedback are we getting? NIPSA, the union representing staff working in the Department, claims that it only found out about the process via the press. I am not really sure whether that is the way we want to conduct good governance via the Assembly. This creates the quite absurd situation where a Minister could become, as far as I recall, the first Minister on these islands to be removed from office because he and his party are doing a good job. Many organisations have also acknowledged how competent Stephen Farry has been as Minister in delivering change in a key economic Department and in improving Executive co-operation across other Departments. That was noted in particular by NIACRO, which acknowledged the good cross-cutting work being done by DEL and DOJ. The action being taken on ‘A Shared Future’ was noted in particular.
Most notably, the Department has developed a shared future policy-proofing tool, meaning that all new policies introduced by DEL will be tested to determine whether they contribute positively to a shared society or inadvertently reinforce divisions by providing services on a segregated basis. DEL is the first Department to introduce that innovative policy-making process, which, I believe, demonstrates real delivery by an Alliance Minister to tackle the cost of division in Northern Ireland. Although all other Ministers talk about a shared future, Stephen Farry has initiated a meaningful review and taken action on the segregated nature of teacher training in Northern Ireland, with all its associated costs — an issue that has been ignored for too long by other Ministers.
Some of the other key concerns raised in the consultation feedback were about where skills will sit in any new departmental structure, where the key issue of getting young people into education, employment or training will sit, and the continuation of our HE and FE strategies. The Minister and his Department have not been found wanting on those issues so far. So, the question being asked is this: will that important work be affected by the dissolution of the Department that brings those key roles together? With that in mind, I say to those seeking to remove DEL for political ends that perhaps they should have a thought for that and should be careful what exactly they wish for.
I would also like to pay tribute to the Committee staff who oversaw this informative process and to the various stakeholders and numerous organisations that responded. The Committee has collected a wealth of information, and a full report is available via the Committee for Employment and Learning. I hope that the First Minister and deputy First Minister will take some time to read that, given that they are not here today.
It is the view of the Alliance Party that it is the duty of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to provide a full, formal consultation and a wider review on an issue as important as departmental rationalisation for Northern Ireland. Alliance is well up for a reduction in the number of Departments and MLAs. We have made that clear, and we have specifically stated that we think that eight Departments and 80 MLAs is a good target to aim for, but the way this is currently being addressed by the First Minister and deputy First Minister is concerning. There is explicit concern that it amounts to political vandalism for political ends.
David McIlveen (DUP)
As has already been said, the amount of work that has gone into bringing the report forward is worthy of thanks. First, I want to thank the Chair and Deputy Chair of the Committee. I know that they have both been heavily involved in bringing this piece of work into existence. I also want to thank the stakeholders, both those who responded in writing and particularly those who took time out of their busy schedules to come and address the Committee. We really did appreciate that. It was very useful in setting the context for where the stakeholders see the functions of DEL being transferred to.
I think that the biggest thanks have to go to the Committee staff, who did a sterling service in co-ordinating everything. It was a mammoth task to get all those people into two rooms in one go. The whole process was efficient, and a big thank you and congratulations have to be passed to the staff, both the Clerk and the assistants, of the Committee.
Before we go too far down the road of the ins and outs of this debate, we have to remember that, from a public point of view, this is, ultimately, a good-news story. We have to accept that the Assembly is too big, it is over-governed, and there are too many Departments. If we are putting a message out to the public that you have to be more careful, watch your spending and be more efficient, surely it only makes sense that, in the Assembly, we are seen to be doing the same thing. I know that there were some issues —
Chris Lyttle (Alliance)
On that note of the public and efficiency, what would the Member say about the view that the Institute of Directors — which obviously represents a significant amount of the public — submitted to the consultation, namely that the process appeared to be motivated by political expediency rather than good governance, and that the impact on efficiency would be greater if the departmental structure were reviewed as a whole?
David McIlveen (DUP)
I thank the Member for his intervention. What do I think of it? I absolutely agree. I think that there have been some issues around communication. I know that the Alliance Party will have a party political problem with this because, ultimately, it will be that party that loses a Minister, but the fact is that we need to constrain what we have here. We need to be seen to be bringing our budgets under control as well. We concur with the Institute of Directors — there are no issues with that — but it was one of many organisations that brought their views forward on this particular issue.
Bearing in mind that it is, by and large, a good-news story, we have to be very careful that, when it comes to the distribution of the functions of DEL, we do not very quickly lose that ground and turn it into bad news: something that is embarrassing, on which the wrong decisions have been made, and on which we get to the end of the process and have ignored the stakeholders and public opinion. It is very important, now that we have taken that piece of work on board and we have the opinions of the stakeholders, that we listen very clearly to what they had to say.
I also concur with the Deputy Chair and others who have mentioned the ministerial response. I think it would have been worthwhile to have a ministerial response at the end of the debate. However, I am an optimist, and we can perhaps take their absence as a positive, in that the Committee has statutory functions and is there to advise the Executive, particularly — in this Committee’s case — the Department for Employment and Learning. We can possibly take some heart that, despite the cynical view of the Alliance Party, decisions have not already been made and, perhaps, as the motion requests, they will take note of what has been requested by the Committee.
David McIlveen (DUP)
I do, Mr Allister; I believe it with all my heart.
I return to the stakeholder responses. I agree with Mr Ramsey, who mentioned that the responses were very innovative. I was surprised by just how emphatic they were. It would be erroneous to say that everybody, 100% of the respondents, said that the functions of DEL should go to one particular place, but we were not expecting that. I do not think that anyone expected that. However, the vast majority, by a long, long way, wanted to see the functions of the Employment and Learning Department go either into DETI or to this new Department of the economy.
I have some concerns about the comments made by Ms Gildernew on the seamless approach to education, how someone should start from the cradle and get into a career. The fact is that when someone in our education system gets to the age of 16, there is a natural seam: they have a choice to leave. We are not going to remove that just by having it all under one Department. If our drivers are towards the economy, surely it makes sense, when we are preparing for the next stage of a young person’s career, that we ensure that they have the right grounding and the right support in place as far as support from the Department is concerned.
During the consultation process, we had a very interesting engagement with Bill McGinnis, who gave us what I believe to be a fairly comprehensive definition of DEL’s main aims, which are to promote learning and skills; prepare people for work; and support the economy. I believe that those three fundamental aims are central to the whole ethos of DEL, and it is vital that the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister keeps those aims in mind throughout the process of dissolving the Department for Employment and Learning. There is no doubt where those functions lie. It is common sense that those functions, on the whole, should be transferred to a Department of the economy or into the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.
I really do hope that this does not become a political carve-up and that we take a long-term view on this and come up with the best results for the people we are here to represent.
Barry McElduff (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
Again, like the other members of the Committee, I am appreciative that the Committee, under the chairmanship of Basil McCrea, undertook a very important exercise when we provided an opportunity for the key stakeholders to express their views on the dissolution of the Department and the transfer of functions. I, too, want to thank the Chair, the Deputy Chair and the Committee staff, led by Cathie White in this exercise. I particularly refer to the day when 10 stakeholders met in one room, with a section of the Committee led by the Chair, and other stakeholders met another section of the Committee, led by the Deputy Chair. Tom managed to keep to time on that day; Basil, I think, ran over time, but there was always that danger. I was happy to be located in the room governed by the West Tyrone member on that occasion.
One of the key considerations, if we are to go to the heart of the matter, is the question of where higher education and further education should go. I argue for the provision of a continuum of lifelong learning under the auspices of a Department of Education or a Department of education and skills. I believe that those functions should be transferred to the Department of Education. Higher education and further education are part of a bigger administration of all education in Dublin, where there is the Department of Education and Skills; in Scotland, where there is the Department of Education and Training; and in Wales, where there is the Department for Education and Skills. I think that that best practice needs to mirrored in this region.
I am drawn to evidence that some groups provided on the matter, including, for example the Ulster Teachers’ Union. It stated clearly that the proper place for the higher and further education functions of DEL was the Department of Education. Similarly, the University and College Union made a very strong case and reminded us that its primary function was to be educators, not businesspeople. It expressed concern about the shifting emphasis away from education and the area of learning on to the business and private sector. Of course, it is not irrelevant at all, but there is a shift away from an emphasis on learning and the unique educational needs of the individual.
The Alternative Education Providers’ Forum argued strongly about that area as well. It is responsible for 14- to 16-year-olds and a small 16-plus group of young people who are very alienated from the education system. It stated:
“We have found that, once we transfer those young people into further education or training organisations, the support services that we bring have not found a continuation.”
The Open College Network expressed the idea of a continuum of lifelong learning and emphasised that there was an opportunity for young people to establish themselves on a clear path of learning for life, including from the cradle to the grave. So, again, I am drawn to the evidence that those groups provided on the matter.
I note that even some of those that opposed the realignment of further education and higher education with the Department of Education found some justification for locating the teacher training function in DE, not least because the major policy drivers emanate from and are initiated by the Department of Education. I suggest that the Department of Education is the more natural home for higher education, because the primary and core function of higher education is learning, teaching and the student experience. It is not solely about economic development, although that is an important element. I remind people that the University and College Union wanted emphasis on the fact that its mission means that they are educators who are conscious of the needs of the individual.
A point that other Members made, including Michelle Gildernew, was that a number of contributors to the consultation said that the most important thing for them was that working among Departments and joined-up government needed to be central to all this. Those contributors were not prescriptive about the direction of the functions. Among the organisations that made that point was Include Youth, which works with young people who are not in education, training or employment. It said that it should be noted that:
“responsibility for addressing the needs of that group lies with a number of Departments and, crucially, with the Executive as a whole.”
Include Youth’s message was that the ministerial subcommittee needs to work effectively on that.
There needs to be a review of careers service as well. I am concerned that careers teachers in the North tend not to make students aware of options in the rest of the island, where, in very many cases, there are no student fees. I am told that there might be as few as 20 students from the Armagh area who study IT in Dundalk, where you might be able to complete a degree without paying fees for that type of higher education.
I will conclude —
Barry McElduff (Sinn Féin)
I will conclude by saying that it is not all rosy for the Department of Education, because the FE sector says that it does not want to be Cinderella in any new arrangement. The Department of Education needs to ensure that that does not happen.
I welcome the fact that junior Minister Bell has joined the debate.
Sammy Douglas (DUP)
I support the motion, and I welcome the opportunity to speak in today’s debate. Like many other people, I wish to pay tribute to all those who have been involved in this process, including the Chair and Deputy Chair, or Basil and Tom, as we call them. I think they have done an excellent job.
In one sense, it is a bit sad being here today, because we are talking about the dissolution of the Committee as well, and I have enjoyed being part of it. I also want to pay tribute to the Committee members and all the departmental and Committee staff, particularly Cathie White and her team for the excellent job that they have done. They have helped us and have been invaluable in our research over the consultation period. I think that this is a good example of a Committee that has by and large worked very well together.
The motion asks OFMDFM to take into account the opinion of key stakeholders when transferring the powers of the Department. The Committee’s consultation found clear and uniform answers. The majority of stakeholders who responded, including businesses, community and voluntary groups, DEL staff and trade unions — although I think trade unions were split down the middle on a couple of issues — wanted to see most or all of the Department’s remit transferred to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. I do not believe that any of the respondents wanted to see all of DEL’s functions transferred to the Department of Education or any other Department.
Like me, the stakeholders agreed that the economic benefits of linking DEL and DETI are not only clear to see but would deliver real and tangible benefits for the Northern Ireland economy. The CBI, an organisation that represents around 60% of Northern Ireland’s biggest employers, stated that the:
“key functions of DEL are, therefore, unambiguously linked with economic development. We believe that their effectiveness will be enhanced through closer integration with DETI.”
To link the Department that is a vehicle for economic development, DEL, and the Department that delivers it, DETI, not only makes economic sense but provides an opportunity to further create economic drivers and, more importantly, keep Northern Ireland moving forward.
The Institute of Directors, which I think someone mentioned earlier, commented on another advantage of linking DETI and DEL, which is that it would allow access to information, skills and services to make economic development more simplistic and streamlined. I believe that all of us in this Chamber agree that confusion often arises when the services and roles of both Departments overlapped. DEL is being dissolved: that is a fact. Let us make the most of it, as I think one of my colleagues said earlier.
It is clear from the consultation that the majority view is that the natural home of DEL’s remit is the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. That is a fact. Enhancing the development of the economy can only be seen as advantageous and a welcome asset to Northern Ireland. In order to facilitate further enterprise, innovation and development, the only logical move, for me, is to ensure that DETI plays a major role in the transfer of powers from DEL.
I pay tribute to our excellent universities and further education colleges that have made exceptional efforts over past years to align themselves with business and the skills sector, thereby ensuring that they equip the Northern Ireland labour market with a vast array of skills and a competitive advantage on the economic landscape.
Under the inspirational leadership of Minister Arlene Foster — I am sorry; I cannot read her writing here — the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment has been a fundamental driver to economic development. I am confident that, under her watch, the utilisation of DEL and DETI will be maximised.
Sammy Douglas (DUP)
It is hard to work out because it is in Irish. That gives me an extra minute. I thank the Member for that timely intervention.
I will address some concerns that were highlighted by DEL staff. If I was in their position, I, too, would be concerned. There certainly was a feeling among staff that the delay in the decision-making process on the future of DEL has been damaging to morale. That must be addressed urgently, because it is simply not acceptable that staff tell us that they are demotivated because there was little or no consultation. Concerns were also raised about potential job losses, and people are worried about an uncertain future as a result of DEL’s dissolution. There were also fears that further reductions in the number of Departments would mean more changes down the line. Staff are asking whether they have to go through all these changes now only for it to happen again in the future.
Many staff also felt that there was little or no consultation with them until we, the Committee for Employment and Learning, asked for their views and, I think, did a good job in trying to elicit those. Several branches stated that they felt that there was a clear alignment between at least some of their functions and DSD, yet DSD was not mentioned at all during the discussions. One recurring concern was the potential loss of momentum between current DEL staff and providers. Many stakeholders and staff voiced concerns about the loss of relationships built up over the years between various projects and staff. They also worried about a loss of momentum, particularly on initiatives aimed at tackling youth unemployment. Pat Ramsey mentioned NEETs, and the people involved in that area worry that it will be lost in the transition.
Finally, there was criticism from some Members, who claimed that the dissolution of DEL was a manoeuvre of political expediency. When I stood for the DUP last May on a manifesto of making Stormont work better and streamlining it to deliver more for the people of Northern Ireland, the electorate endorsed those policies.
I call on OFMDFM to take note of staff concerns and stakeholders’ views. It is my view that DETI must play a major role in the reshaping of DEL, either through the transfer of power or, as someone mentioned earlier, the amalgamation of the two into a Department of the economy. I support the motion.
Danny Kinahan (UUP)
I am very pleased to have a chance to speak today on the transfer of functions from the Department for Employment and Learning. I speak as a member of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and as a member of the Education Committee. However, I feel that I must start by declaring an interest, as I have two children just entering the university world. I wonder whether one or two other Members ought also to have declared an interest.
I noted, when reading the call for evidence, that the test was maintaining effectiveness, and we must all keep that in mind regardless of whether the functions are kept together or moved. However, we should also keep in mind that there were six Departments under direct rule, and we now have 12. For a considerable time, the Ulster Unionist Party’s policy has been that there should be eight. However, today’s motion is on the future of DEL and whether to split it or move it as one. If further and higher education were to go to the Department of Education and all skills moved to DETI, it would seem sensible that all of education remained under one Department — if only that were the case. The lecturers want it that way, and it would keep together all elements of education from the cradle to the point of getting a degree or starting a career. However, it does not seem healthy for one party to have total control of education from beginning to end, and I emphasise the word “control”. I aim that comment at Sinn Féin, should its Minister remain there.
There is too much emphasis on control, and it is not just a problem of dogma. It seems that it is more important that Sinn Féin controls every decision and makes those decisions itself. There also seems to be a total lack of consensus and discussion. In my few weeks in the Education Committee, going around parents, teachers and boards, that is what I am hearing from all of them. No one is discussing anything with them or communicating well with them. Taking that on board, we can then look at the mess we have with transfer tests. We got rid of transfer tests, brought in two or three tests and then we had last Friday’s bickering. We cannot afford to have that happening with our children’s education. We need consensus and discussion, and we need to find an agreed way forward. It comes down to politics, particularly when politics is damaging. We also saw it last week with the debate on nursery places. We called for a review of the July and August birthday criteria and the need to help the working poor, and we were basically told no. We need discussion and a consensus to come forward.
The alternative is to put it all into DETI, and, as you heard from my party leader, that is the way that we think it should go forward. The Assembly must concentrate on creating jobs and skills and on ensuring that all our students and apprentices find jobs. That is the most important priority, and it should be our top priority. The Ulster Unionist Party feels that we should have a Department of the economy. Let us take up that point and make it an opportunity.
Something else that I think is very important. When you look at education and government, where are the links with trade, business and commerce? Councils, which are responsible for so many of the people in Northern Ireland, have little links with trade and business, and there is little help for training. The councils are there to look after everybody and yet, somehow, we are missing out on commerce. As another Member said, in our schools you do not really meet it until you get to the careers evenings. The governors do not necessarily have a business link; nor do the teachers. We have to look at what we are doing and find a way forward to ensure that we are looking for the skills that will get everyone jobs in the future. At the other end of the spectrum, what research is going on to ensure that the jobs and skills that we prepare people for in the future are the right ones and the ones we are educating people for? Therefore, a Department of the economy seems to be the right way forward.
We support STEM subjects, and it seems right that we should be training everyone more in technologies and engineering. However, look at world markets and world skills and try to find Northern Ireland’s place there. A study by R E Smalley, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist at Rice University, found that, in the future, 90% of all physical scientists and engineers in the world will be in Asia. In 2001, 5% of American 24-year-olds had engineering degrees, compared to 39% of the Chinese and 19% of South Koreans. We have to find our niche in world markets. Therefore, I ask again: who is looking at the research as to where we go in the future?
Look at the top businesses and top industrialists. How many of them are actually run by people who have the skills of those bodies? Often you will find a linguist or a lawyer at the top. We really must prepare people for the future and equip them with a wide range of skills. At the same time, we must move away from the tick-box world that has come in with interviews, where the threat of legal action against somebody stops them actually assessing the best leadership qualities that we need to take our businesses forward.
The Ulster Unionist Party believes that there should be a Department of employment, but it also believes that there should be parental choice and a light touch. Apologies for the clichés, but we should let teachers teach, learners learn and parents parent. When it comes to the Department, we should depart and not have too many hands on.
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.
Alastair Ross (DUP)
However, if you do not come to the report with a predisposed position but read it and look at the stakeholders’ views, you will see that it is going in the one direction that they want, which is towards a Department for the economy with the majority of functions moving towards DETI.
Trevor Lunn (Alliance)
I rise not as a member of the Committee for Employment and Learning but as an interested observer to all this. I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Committee for Employment and Learning’s motion. It is not a normal thing for me to do, but I congratulate Basil McCrea, along with his Committee and the Committee staff, for their speed and efficiency and for the attention that they have given to the matter. That is very important.
In making any decision about the future of the Department or its functions, it is essential that the First Minister and deputy First Minister do what is best for Northern Ireland and our economy rather than make any short-term political move. So far, it is being viewed in that way, and I see no reason to change my view on that. As some Members said, including some from the DUP, it is a pity that OFMDFM is not represented here today. I was going to welcome Mr Bell, but he has disappeared again. He managed about 15 minutes.
Trevor Lunn (Alliance)
Mr Allister wants to steal my joke about golf courses, so I will not pursue that.
The Alliance Party is supportive of the streamlining of government. In our most recent manifesto, we advocated a system that went down to eight Departments and to about probably 80 MLAs. This really needs to be part of a full review of how all Departments operate and how government in Northern Ireland can be made more effective and efficient. Decisions that are made regarding a rationalisation of Departments should not be taken in isolation of a wider review. I heard Mr McIlveen and Mr Ross say that there was no reason not to go ahead with this at the present time. If it is the right thing to do, why wait? I will watch and listen with interest to see what the next Department to be targeted will be, because there is no reason to wait for that either. Perhaps that will be a Department that is not held by an Alliance Party Minister, but it is nearly bound to be. Perhaps it will be a Department that is held by a DUP Minister or a Sinn Féin Minister, but I doubt it very much. As I say, we will wait and see.
As a small region, we need to have a flexible and responsive workforce, but we need to lay the foundations now for the skills that we will need in the future, particularly given the possibility of corporation tax reduction on the horizon.
DEL, as demonstrated by its recently published skills strategy, has set out the vision for the skills that our economy is likely to need to maximise our growth possibilities. A labour market that is strong in the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — will form the basis of a successful and advanced economy. DEL has been actively working to achieve strength in those skills alongside other Northern Ireland specific priority skills and the essential skills of literacy, numeracy and IT.
DEL is a coherent Department based around the skill needs of our population. In fact, compared to a number of other Departments, its functions have a much more natural fit. So, I agree principally with the DUP that the functions should not be split. There is no coherent reason that I can see for the functions being split. However, I will watch what happens with interest, because there is a clear difference of opinion across the House about whether some of its major functions should go to the Department of Education and some to DETI or a new Department of the economy. We will wait and see how the big parties sort that out.
The focus of DEL at the moment is on training those who require the skills to enter the labour market for the first time, be that through further or higher education; those who are already in the workplace but require new skills to progress or change their careers; and those who are unemployed and need help to enter or re-enter the world of work.
Both the Programme for Government and the economic strategy recognise the importance of investing in skills and have set ambitious targets to ensure that the skills of our population meet the needs of business, both now and in the future. Skills are critical to growing our local business base as well as to meeting the requirements of potential foreign investors. Given the focus that the Executive are placing on the economy, we can ill afford to play political football with one of the key Departments to ensuring economic growth. In fact, it is one of the largest Departments in the Northern Ireland Executive.
As I said, we will watch with interest, as the losers in this debate, to see the outcome. The most important thing is that the functions of DEL, the morale and spirit of DEL staff and DEL’s ability to do the job it was set up to do are not too badly damaged by all this. There must be a morale problem at the moment. That is plain to see. That is really all I have to say about it.
Jim Allister (Traditional Unionist Voice)
We are gathered here today to mark the impending passing of the Department for Employment and Learning. I admit that I have attended better wakes, and I am sure that you, Mr speaker is in charge of proceedings of the House of Commons in..." class="glossary">Deputy Speaker, have too.
Here we are, dutifully debating a serious issue. A serious issue in particular for the staff of a government Department, who, through political machinations, have been left in a position of total limbo. Their morale probably knows neither whether it is coming nor going, for they do not know whether they are coming or going. This whole process has treated the staff particularly badly.
Here we are debating this, but to what end? Who is listening to what we have to say in this House? Maybe we should be grateful, because we had the great honour of one of the junior Ministers from OFMDFM gracing us with his presence for all of 15 minutes. The truth is that they are not listening, because what we say will not in the least affect what they do. That is the harsh political reality. The reality is that the outcome of this will be dictated by political expediency, just as its origin is political expediency. The decision to abolish DEL was not taken on the basis that it was the Department that most deserved to go or that there was some rationale or determination that identified it as the obvious candidate to be put out of its misery. If you were doing that, you might have thought that DCAL, the Ministry of fun, would have been the most obvious Department to choose. If the decision were dictated by reality, you certainly would not be disbanding DEL, but then who needs a Department for Employment when the number of people unemployed is as low as 60,000? Who needs a Department of skilling when 25% of young people are without skills and are unemployed?
Oh yes, we need DCAL and DSD, but it seems that we certainly do not need DEL. Anyone who believes that will believe anything and will believe the propaganda that will come out when the functions of DEL are distributed — as if it will be done on any rational or sensible basis. If rationality — that which is sensible and that which is necessary — were the touchstone, DEL would certainly not be the Department being dispatched.
However, we all know that it was political expediency that decided that DEL had to go, because even the unembarrassable OFMDFM had no answer when asked about the scandal that a party with 16 seats had one Ministry and a party with eight seats had two Ministries. So, as part of the patch-up in relation to justice, it was decided that the Alliance Party’s Department, whatever it might be, had to go. That is what has brought us here today, and it is that same spirit of political expediency that will determine where DEL’s functions will ultimately go.
Indeed, OFMFDM is not even putting a face on it, hence the absence of any Minister. Its Ministers are showing their unbridled contempt for this House and this Committee and for the future of DEL’s functions. Not even a junior Minister is here for the debate — apart from the 15 minutes when Mr Bell was here. One might have thought that it would be more beneficial for them to have a listening role in this House rather than a speaking role, if yesterday is anything to go by. Maybe Mr Bell would have been better spending his time in this House yesterday than doing what he was doing. Maybe even today he has other requirements. I do not know what section of our community he is off insulting today; yesterday it was the golf clubs, maybe today the garden centres —
Jim Allister (Traditional Unionist Voice)
I am seeking to express my exasperation that OFMDFM Ministers are not here. I am giving them some advice. If they were here to hear it, it might keep them from putting their foot in it in other places, but we will see.
Even if OFMDFM Ministers are not here for me to cast my pearls of wisdom before them, I will give the House the benefit of my opinion as to where I think the functions of DEL should go. To me, it really is very straightforward. If you have an employment and skilling Department — when you distil it down, that is, in essence, what DEL is all about — it seems self-evident that you attach it to either a new Department of the economy or the present DETI. That pretty much seems to be a no-brainer. However, that is not how it will be. It will be a political carve-up between the DUP and Sinn Féin. “Them and us” politics will still be very much alive when it comes to the distribution of DEL functions. This bit for them, this bit for us — that will be the determination of how the functions will be distributed. So, I am sorry, we are largely wasting our time, but, then, what is new about that in this House?
Basil McCrea (UUP)
I am not sure whether I can add any pearls of wisdom to those offered by my esteemed colleagues. There is much to appreciate in tonight’s debate. I want to take the opportunity to speak a little bit on behalf of the Committee and make some observations. If time permits, I will offer a few observations of my own.
I do not want in any way to embarrass any of my colleagues by what I am about to say. Some of them have been quite outspoken on the matter, and I am grateful for that. I think that it is a mistake that no Minister from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is present to hear what had to be said. I do not want to cause embarrassment, but I think that a lot of really important information has come across. We had a really interesting debate this evening. The media sometimes castigate this place for not staying late, not talking about important issues and not dealing with issues that really affect the people of Northern Ireland. However, this is not one of those occasions. This was a measured, constructive debate that was conducted by people who have different opinions and points of view, but which were put across quite properly and appropriately. I do not think that it would have been too much to ask for some people who are in the Executive, whoever in the Executive, to listen to what we have to say. When I was waiting for the debate to start, I heard Minister Alex Attwood responding to an interim report from his Committee. He said that he would respond and take things further forward.
Having made that point, I want to thank the Business Committee. We asked several times for a little bit more time for the debate, as others might have wanted to speak. As it turns out, we probably will not need all the time. However, as the Chair, I was keen for every Committee member and others who chose to speak — I thank them for their time — to be able to give their opinion on this matter.
One issue, amongst others, that was raised was about the views of the staff in the Department. Sammy Douglas appropriately raised it. Something that was really quite novel in the exercise that we took forward was the inclusion of a very detailed response, almost line by line, from many people in the Department. That is the correct way to have a consultation — people should be asked what they think. The staff have been quite outspoken, and I do not think that they should be castigated for saying what is on their mind. They are worried about their jobs, morale, budgets and a lot of things. We should take note of those worries and deal with them. If a private company was acting in this way, we would all be at the steps of its head office saying that that is not the right way to go forward and that the staff should be involved. Many of us were quite alarmed by the debates around Stranmillis and St Mary’s. We asked at that time why the views of the staff at Stranmillis were not being taken on board. The same argument applies here.
There were positive issues that came across, and I want to offer a sincere and genuine note of thanks to my vice Chairman, Tom Buchanan, who more than ably led the debate. He absolutely put out the points of view that need to be discussed. I hope that Tom will agree with me when I say that we have shared the responsibility of trying to manage the Committee on a number of issues. Tom shared the workload and has been most diligent and helpful, and he put his point of view across in his own inimitable style.
I am also happy to report to the speaker is in charge of proceedings of the House of Commons in..." class="glossary">Deputy Speaker that chairing the Committee has been an interesting experience. Some personalities have been involved. I am grateful that the smiling Jim Allister is here to make his contribution. He certainly made a very valuable contribution in Committee. I notice that Mr McElduff was worried about my timekeeping in some of the Committee meetings that I chaired. That was mostly because I had to try to keep Mr McElduff in some form of order, which was not an easy task, as you can imagine.
Other Members have spoken, including Mr Ross, Mr McIlveen, and Mr Douglas, who I have referred to already. All of them made contributions that made the Committee as a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Mr Ramsey was forever drawing to our attention our obligation to NEETs, and I thank him for that. We addressed other issues, such as the North West Regional College. Ms Gildernew brought quite an interesting perspective on things, including getting me on a zip wire near Omagh — I thought my last days had come.
When you take all of that together, I think that we actually worked very diligently and very well as a Committee. There were times when we had differences of opinion, sometimes hotly expressed, but they were always in the interests of making Northern Ireland a better place. For people, particularly in the media, who criticise politics or politicians, let me tell you that there is no greater amount of work and no proper diligence that has not been carried out by this Committee. If they have any decency in them, they will take note of the way in which this debate has been carried out and the points that have been made. I challenge them, here and now, if they are listening to this — because we are now past 3.30 pm, which is the point at which they stop watching — to see that this is real politics; this is real debate, and these are issues of import. They are not simple sound bites. These issues need proper, considered debate and deliberation, and it would serve us well if we were able to get that message across to the electorate in this part of the world.
I want to move on and mention some of the issues. What is in front of us is more than just a sterile debate about whether DEL should go into DE or DETI, or whether universities should go to one place or another. There is much more that the Department for Employment and Learning and its Committee have looked to than just that. Earlier, Mr Lyttle mentioned the opening of adult learners’ week. That was a most inspirational event. The Belfast Trust, among others, talked about care workers who said that 80% of the people in their care left school with no qualifications. A significant number of them have numeracy and literacy issues. They point out that these are governance issues for them, because if there is a problem with reading and writing, there may well be problems later on with health. They talked about inspiration and the way that people come forward, with a bit of training, and how they go on to other things. This is what DEL is about.
We also talked about EMA. Include Youth told us how they feel so annoyed that EMA is not paid to them but it is to others. Who will forget the person from Opportunity Youth with the great Mohican haircut — I hope he will not mind, but I thought he made a marvellous contribution — who told us how he turned his life around. That is also DEL. That is education.
Of course, the issue of youth unemployment was raised. We have to look at Steps to Work and ask whether it is a good programme. Maybe it is good that 25% of people on Steps to Work got a job. Perhaps that is a tick. However, maybe we might think that there should be more. There are issues that the Committee will, rightly, look at: tuition fees and whether the MaSN cap is still relevant. Mr Ramsey repeatedly raised the issue about what Derry would like to see as far as a third campus is concerned.
Basil McCrea (UUP)
I am quite happy to see that Mr Wells has come to join the debate, because I am happy to deal with this in a calm and equal manner, whether it is Derry or Londonderry. I have made the point, and the issue in front of us is about our people — all of our people.
I talk also about autonomy. What comes out in many issues in the report is that Queen’s, the University of Ulster and the further education colleges value their autonomy. They all like having the freedom to go and do what they think is right. We have seen some great examples of them operating on their own, which, as politicians, we sometimes try to muscle in on. The Confucius Institute initiative was the University of Ulster’s, which we happened to attend.
The investment in the Belfast campus was put together by them. The head teachers’ initiative by Queen’s University and the leverage are issues in which they had some independence.
I come now to the skills gap. Mr Ross raised the point about most of our fastest growing companies being absolutely beside themselves because we do not have the skills necessary to fill the job opportunities. That point was repeated by other Members, including Mrs Overend. We have to ask ourselves about careers. When our young people are at school, or later on, are we giving them the right advice as to where the jobs are going to be? Are they doing the right degrees? We talk about teacher training, and we had a debate about St Mary’s and Stranmillis. People said that it does not matter whether you make too many teachers, because all of them will get jobs anyway. Think of the waste. That is not the right way for a small, niche economy to be carrying out its business.
We must find some way to deal with adult apprenticeships. Most of our companies are telling us that they want highly skilled technical people of graduate calibre, which, for those who are listening, is different from graduates. It is about having people with technical skills to look after such areas as aerospace, coding and software. We need somebody to look at that.
I have to mention other issues. Ms Gildernew brought up the work that the Committee has done with the disabled and those who need a little bit of support when they look for education. I do not think I would be alone in saying that one of the greatest triumphs for the Committee was when it had dinner presented to it by NOW, which is a project for people in north and west Belfast. You can look at the other contributions. I do not know what other members thought about Orchardville and how its representatives explained where they want to go with sheltered education.
I want to read one final bit of contribution from our report. It is really worth listening to, if the First Minister or deputy Minister is listening. Mr Tom Mervyn of the Employment Services Board said:
“Before we get into the issue of the potential dissolution of the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL), I will give you a brief overview of the Employment Services Board and the area that we represent. West Belfast and the greater Shankill area has around 50% of Belfast’s unemployed, its worklessness and its income support and incapacity benefits claimants.”
He also said that it has worklessness rates of as much as 65% in some individual wards. He makes the point that because of the size of Belfast, and you can talk about other cities in our area, it is not something confined to them. This is something that affects us all. It affects the productivity of this area. We need to make sure that we concentrate resources into those areas. I am interested to see what form of structure comes forward to make sure that we deal with all of those issues. It is not about only universities —
Sammy Douglas (DUP)
This is not to give you an extra minute or anything. Does the Member agree that a lot of the good work that has been carried out by the Committee should be part of a legacy that will be handed on or transferred to whatever Department takes on the functions of DEL?
Basil McCrea (UUP)
As ever, I am very grateful for Mr Douglas’s intervention. On a personal note, I must say that I have been very impressed by the contribution that he has made throughout the Committee’s work. His perspective is about trying to get things done. I hope that we will be able to deal with these issues.
Let me finish by saying a few things in my capacity as a Member, because I have been speaking on the Committee’s behalf. I want to put out some truisms that I do not think are true. I know that some people will disagree with this, but this is real debate. Some people think that we should be engaging in blue-sky thinking and that we should simply let our teachers get on with it or let our researchers sit in a lab somewhere and think up something. We do not have the resources to do that. We are not the United States of America. We cannot research everything; we cannot do everything; we need to be focused in what we do. It is not for me to say what we do. However, I know that we need focus and that most learning takes place when it is in context and when people say, “I want to learn that skill for a particular reason.” It is about getting relevant, and we need to focus our activity on ways that maintain our employment, our standard of living and our competitiveness down the road.
Basil McCrea (UUP)
Sorry, Mr speaker is in charge of proceedings of the House of Commons in..." class="glossary">Deputy Speaker. I do not have my glasses on, so I did not see that we were getting so close. I will finish with this point. This is not about politics; this is about the future of Northern Ireland. I hope that we will have another debate in which all are engaged, including our Ministers. I commend the motion to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly calls on the First Minister and deputy First Minister, when considering the transfer of the functions currently exercised by the Department for Employment and Learning to other Departments, to take note of the views expressed by key stakeholders consulted by the Committee for Employment and Learning.
That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr speaker is in charge of proceedings of the House of Commons in..." class="glossary">Deputy Speaker.]