Mr Deputy Speaker, with your permission, I shall answer questions 4 and 7 together.
There is no reason for the delivery of social-housing programmes to be disrupted by the change to new procurement arrangements. The projects that are already on site when the change takes place will continue under the old arrangements. No decisions have been taken about the number of procurement groups or the nature of such groups. They could be formed under a lead association, as a group of associations that pool development staff or they could involve the setting-up of a separate procurement entity. Where development staff from associations who are members of the group move to the new group, they will take their scheme files with them to ensure continuity. There may be a very few schemes in which no dedicated development staff have been involved. In those cases, co-ordination will be necessary between the originating association and the procurement group.
The consultation period for responses to the procurement proposals was extended to 31 August. The responses have been analysed, and my Department is currently considering the final shape of the procurement strategy. Members of the Committee for Social Development have already been consulted and have responded directly to me.
This issue is important for the Executive and for every Member of the House. I hope that all Members will agree with me that there is an urgent need to increase the supply of affordable social housing throughout Northern Ireland, particularly in those areas in which need has been identified.
I assure Mr McCallister that my Department and I are totally committed to ensuring that there is an adequate supply of housing throughout Northern Ireland to accommodate the needs of people with special needs; those with disabilities, or, indeed, multiple disabilities; those who live in inaccessible locations; those with young families; or those who belong to one-parent families. I want to be able to ensure that all the needs of the people of Northern Ireland are adequately met.
The Minister expects housing associations to form new procurement groups by 1 April 2008. However, the Department has yet to produce much in the way of guidance for housing associations on the subject.
Given the tight time frame, and the experience in Scotland and Wales, where the creation of procurement groups cost a significant amount of time and money, is the Minister confident that she can make the assessment that the benefits of that step will outweigh the costs?
It may be helpful if I provide Mrs Long with some background information. The document that initiated the consultation was issued to 42 groups, and 27 responses were received. Generally, there was broad support for the proposal to create procurement groups. It was felt that a small number of groups was better for developing client expertise and economies of scale. However, it was also felt that fewer than three groups might pose a risk in the unlikely event that one were to fail or perform poorly. The selection of three groups rather than six has the advantage of not permitting the largest associations to overwhelm the smaller associations. Three groups would encourage the larger associations to spread their expertise.
The Member also asked when the procurement strategy will be published. I will have it published as soon as is practicably possible, and I want to be able to ensure that that is the case. According to the joint National Audit Office and the Audit Commission report of 20 December 2005, the housing corporation procurement strategy, through the use of procurement groups and associated changes, made an efficiency saving of 9% between 2003-04 and 2004-05. The aim of such efficiency exercises is to enable more to be done for the same level of expenditure. It is not the intention that the same level of activity should be maintained for less cost. As the procurement strategy rolls out, I will return to the Committee with further details.
I take Mr Craig’s comments on board. I hope that good-practice guidelines will be in operation. I will get back to the Member on the detail of the issue.
I am conscious of that issue. The matter is currently being considered by the implementation group, which I lead, into the Semple Review. It is Government policy that all surplus land be circulated in the public sector. Moreover, the clearing-house arrangements give my Department access to other Departments’ surplus land. All public-sector needs must be taken into account, and the Valuation and Lands Agency must decide priority. I am conscious of the issues that the Member has raised, but what is important is that the supply of social housing throughout Northern Ireland increases. The Member will no doubt agree with doing that in his constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where I recently met members of Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council on the matter.