Public Appointments

Oral Answers to Questions — Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:30 pm on 30th April 2001.

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Photo of Mrs Joan Carson Mrs Joan Carson UUP 2:30 pm, 30th April 2001

1. asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to give an assessment on transparency in public appointments following the publication of the Fourth Annual Report on Public Appointments.

(AQO 1346/00)

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

The procedures for public appointments are drawn up by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. They emphasise the need for appointments to be governed by the overriding principle of selection based on merit, the inclusion of an independent element in the selection process, openness and transparency in the appointments procedure and information to be published about appointments made. All Northern Ireland Departments are required to make appointments to their public bodies based on merit and in accordance with the Commissioner’s guidance. The involvement of independent assessors in the process should provide a guarantee of the objective implementation of the Commissioner’s code and is intended to provide the public with assurance that the process is transparent and fair.

Photo of Mrs Joan Carson Mrs Joan Carson UUP

The Fourth Annual Report on Public Appointments states that there are 2,300 public appointments on a total of 117 bodies. Does the Minister agree that this is an excessive number under devolution, especially when the total funding that these bodies administer is taken into account? Many quangos have been made redundant by the responsibilities of the new Government Departments and Assembly Committees.

For example, is the Training and Employment Agency board, with 12 members and salaries totalling £70,335, really necessary? It has a remit that could now be overseen by the relevant Committee and Department. Three members were recently appointed, so it is obvious that the Department wishes to continue with the quango. Will the Minister investigate the situation, with a view to an immediate reorganisation and review to reduce the number of quangos?

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I take the Member’s point. She will, of course, be aware that Ministers are responsible for public appointments in the remit of their Departments. The role of non-departmental public bodies is a matter that will be considered as part of the review of public administration. The First Minister and I will write to the Member with details of the budgets of non- departmental public bodies.

I agree with the thrust of the Member’s question. Given the type of structures that have been created politically since the Good Friday Agreement, there is duplication of effort by the large number of public bodies.

Photo of Mrs Annie Courtney Mrs Annie Courtney Social Democratic and Labour Party

Does the Minister accept that underrepresentation of some sectors still remains an issue? Will he make a statement about the appointment of a commissioner, and does he agree that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister should make this appointment?

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

It is accepted that members of public bodies in Northern Ireland should be more representative of the social and cultural mix of the communities which they serve and that members should be drawn from a broad range of backgrounds and experience. Appointments, of course, depend on the range and calibre of people who put themselves forward for selection. We consider it important to encourage a wide range of people to apply for public appointments. Action has been taken to address underrepresentation, and this includes the wide circulation of a six-monthly list of forthcoming vacancies on public bodies; more varied use of the media advertising of public appointment opportunities; and reviewing the job specification for each public appointment to ensure that the criteria do not discriminate against any group.

Application forms are also being revised to make them less off-putting, especially to women and underrepresented groups and to enable greater account to be taken of the merits of non-traditional career patterns.

I agree that the appointment of a commissioner should fall to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister rather than to the Secretary of State as at present. We will therefore make a Prerogative Order shortly which will confer the power of appointment to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.

As part of a wider review of the public appointments policy we will also consider whether to appoint a separate commissioner for Northern Ireland. In the interim, however, we have agreed to extend the period of appointment of Dame Rennie Fritchie, who also acts as Commissioner in Britain, and that will last until 28 February 2002.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson DUP

Does the Deputy First Minister agree that to enhance transparency in public appointments clear criteria should be published, one of which should be that appointees have no terrorist convictions? In the light of the boast of terrorist involvement this weekend by the Minister of Education, will the Deputy First Minister say whether the First Minister has indicated to him that his party will be joining the DUP in calling for the resignation of the Minister of Education?

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Member raises a matter which relates to an elected appointment under the d’Hondt system — it is not a public appointment. In relation to public appointments the criteria are there and have, by and large, been fulfilled. As I pointed out in answer to a previous question, things such as the structures under which we operate are changing, and the need for many quangos has receded.