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Significant progress has been made across the Civil Service reform and modernisation programme. The centre for applied learning has been fully operational since October 2006, the Records NI project will be completed by March 2008, and the other key corporate services projects, providing shared-service centres for human resources, accounts and ICT, are being rolled out across the Northern Ireland Civil Service, and will be complete by April 2009. The procurement for NI Direct will get under way this month, with a view to introducing the single telephone point of contact for public services in Northern Ireland on a phased basis from December 2008 onwards.
On Workplace 2010, I am pleased to say that the two remaining bidders — Land Securities Trillium and Telereal — have been invited to submit their best and final offers for the contract, and those should be received by the end of April. I can also confirm that the independent review of policy on the location of public-sector jobs is under way, and I expect a report from the team by the summer. The Member will be aware that although the placement of jobs was not part of the initial reform project, it is my intention to draw that issue in as part of the reform project and to align it closely with Workplace 2010.
Will the Minister outline the views of his Department in respect of decentralisation of public-sector and Civil Service jobs to regions of high unemployment, and the environmental impact of the subsequent reduction in commuting requirements? Finally, can he define what is considered a reasonable travel to work area?
Having set up a review, I think it is wrong for me to state what I believe the outcome should be. I met Sir George Bain as he started the review, and I believe that the review team have already had some initial meetings. I have previously expressed views in the Assembly on the issue, so I do not approach it reluctantly.
There are real advantages for Northern Ireland if we can have a fair distribution of jobs around the Province, with reduced pressure on our infrastructure if jobs are close to people rather than bringing people along our roads to jobs. If we can grow the economy, particularly in the areas that we are pressing for — financial services, business services, and computer technology — those jobs are more likely to come to the greater Belfast area. Therefore, it becomes all the more important that we look at the jobs where we have a greater control of location and consider their displacement to other areas of the Province.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minster for that last answer in particular, and I have a related question.
If female civil servants are given an advancement opportunity, they may have to relocate or commute to avail themselves of it. That can cause difficulties for those who have child-rearing responsibilities. Will the review take that important issue, which relates to equality of opportunity, into consideration?
I am sure that consideration of that issue was in the review panel’s remit. We have been inclined to examine how the public sector works on the basis of what has been its historical modus operandi. The truth is, however, that things will change considerably in the future. I visited Clare House and spoke to some of the staff there. One lady who was from the greater Belfast area told me that she worked mostly from home and came to the office perhaps only once a week to deal with some issues.
There will be greater flexibility in the future, and it is likely that computers and the advancement of technology will play their part in that flexibility. More people will stay in their own area rather than work in town centres.
Members will know that, following the most recent high-profile data loss by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in the third week of November 2007, I initiated a review of the way in which Departments and agencies handled data. That review has been led by Bill McCluggage, and the process has been that people from each of the relevant areas of activity have been contacted and allowed to conduct self-analysis on the basis of a series of questions. The outcome of the review indicates that improvements can be made, and we will report shortly to the Committee when we have more detail. The report will deal with a series of issues about the transfer and handling of data. Clearly, improvements can be made. Considering the frequency of those types of occurrences in GB, it is incumbent on us to ensure that Departments that hold personal details in many areas of activity have the highest level of security. It is important that we do not find ourselves in the same position as those in GB have found themselves.