Quangos and Arm’s-length Bodies of Government Departments

Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:15 pm on 27th April 2010.

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Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP 4:15 pm, 27th April 2010

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer will have 10 minutes in which to propose the motion and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

I beg to move

That this Assembly calls on the Executive to review the roles and functions of quangos and arm’s-length bodies of government Departments to ensure that there is accountability and value for money.

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to move a motion to ensure that quangos and arm’s-length bodies are accountable to, and provide value for money for, the Assembly and the Executive.

What are we talking about? What if the public body concerned is not part of the government? That is the problem, and that is what we must stop and change. Such bodies must be made accountable. At present, they are one step removed from government, but to whom they are accountable is sometimes not too clear. We must make quangos and arm’s-length bodies accountable and responsive.

We also need to look at Executive agencies, which are excluded from the directory that lists arm’s-length bodies. Agencies that have been formed in various Departments must be made accountable. Non-departmental public bodies (NDBP) fall into different categories such as Executive NDPBs, advisory NDPBs and tribunal NDBPs. In March 2009, there were 78 public bodies. We must look at Executive agencies, which are formed when a Minister sets up his or her own agency in a Department. Those agencies are accountable to that Minister.

Ministers also appoint members to those bodies, often a mix of the great and the good, who seem to rotate around various government agencies. They often seem to be appointed because their faces fit, while other people’s faces are unacceptable. There appears to be a pool of people who sit on one quango or another and then move around other public bodies. It does not matter how unaccountable they are, who they are, or how much they have been criticised or held to account for their failure to deliver, they always seem to turn up in another position.

Certain parties get more of a turn at appointments than their share of support demands. However, I acknowledge the change that has occurred from the time when the Northern Ireland Office favoured people who could not otherwise get elected and tried to insert them into quangos. In the Assembly’s first mandate, we found that direct rule Ministers, particularly the Secretary of State, appointed a number of such people to public bodies, in which they have remained for a long time without being accountable to the Assembly.

We must look at all those bodies, how their members are appointed, the pool of people from which those members are drawn, and how people get into that pool in the first place to be in a position to be appointed.

The big issue is to wipe out quangoland completely and make it accountable to the Assembly. That was OK when there was direct rule and Ministers flew here one day a week and rubber-stamped what quangos and Departments put forward. That has changed. The make-up of government here and how it is run also have to change.

Under the review of public administration (RPA), we were to get a complete review of quangos; their powers were to be relocated to local and central government. I declare an interest as a local councillor. More powers should be given to local government. Elections are held every four years, so those bodies are accountable; they have to put forward rates budgets so that they are accountable for the money that they spend. The public will respond very quickly to that. We need to look at the role of local government in the future because that role is unclear at present.

Unfortunately, it now looks as though the RPA will not come into operation. That is because of various factors, and ministerial intervention in that process has led to boundaries being an obstacle to the RPA moving forward. We need to remember that the gerrymandering of boundaries in the first place led to the collapse of local government and the Stormont regime. Under direct rule, a new structure of government was put in place to move away from that, and quangos were put in place to do the job. More and more powers were given to quangos.

On 10 December 2001, the Programme for Government committed the Assembly to a review of public administration by spring 2002. That review never happened. It was said that we would have a different structure under devolution, but that did not happen either. The direct rule quangos were given more powers and functions. Research and Library Services have provided a useful document by Morison stating that the idea of depoliticising government was pursued by removing political or constitutional issues from representatives who may have been elected to local councils or regional Assemblies and giving them to quangos, which were supposed to be at arm’s length and non-political.

Morison also said that quangos were potentially more democratic. That leaves a question about how they came about. The people who appointed those quangos might have believed them to be more democratic, because the Northern Ireland Office appointed people whom it liked or with whom it curried favour. Therefore, no accountability was necessary. We need to move to a new situation.

Executive agencies are another issue, as different agencies in Departments have become like arm’s-length bodies. One of the issues that got my back up recently was the Roads Service response to the recent severe weather. The various agencies responded differently; they did not work collectively to put together a structure, and there was no flexibility in responding to local needs. Correspondence was needed, but nobody stepped out of the line to meet local needs. The simple answer was that they had their programmes; they had responded in the same way for years and they would not change. One hundred and one reasons were given for doing nothing and not one was given for how something could be done.

During that time, Northern Ireland Water did not respond to breakages and pumping problems; it would not even deliver water to areas if the roads were not gritted. That was particularly the case in rural areas.

Roads Service said that it was not responsible for gritting the road, so it was not gritted and the water service would not deliver. Indeed, as far as the water service was concerned, if the road did not appear on its computer screen somewhere in Belfast, that road did not exist.

We need to find a way to make bodies accountable, and, to allow us to bring ministerial control back and allow the Ministers to respond, the motion affords us an opportunity to review the structures that govern quangos. The Assembly will then be able to hold Ministers responsible, and they will not be able to take the line that they are acting according to regulations. If a Minister hides behind legislation to avoid doing something, we need to change that legislation. This is a legislative Assembly, and its role, when necessary, is to change legislation.

To make arm’s-length bodies, agencies in Departments and quangos accountable to Ministers, we need to change legislation so that Ministers can come here to be questioned by Members about their respective roles. In that regard, I congratulate the Minister for Regional Development, who took action recently on Northern Ireland Water. That showed that Ministers can hold bodies to account and bring them back into line. Ministers can take back power and change situations. Therefore, I hope that the Assembly will take back power.

We have changed the structure of government here from a situation involving direct rule and quangos to one in which the Assembly is accountable to the public and Ministers are accountable to the Assembly. Ministers must take back the power to make decisions, for which the Assembly can then hold them accountable.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

The Member should bring his remarks to a close.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

Let us cut out the middle tier of bureaucracy and bring ministerial control back to the Assembly.

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP

The fact that many MLAs are not in the Building does not reflect on the seriousness of the issue. Indeed, I am sure that many of those on the doorsteps this afternoon will be hearing the public’s frustration about the number of quangos and arm’s-length bodies, what they are for and whether we are getting value for money from them.

The issue is a favourite with the tabloids. I do not want to be the human embodiment of the ‘Daily Mail’, but we might consider the figure of £170 billion that has been spent on quangos across the United Kingdom since the Labour Party came into Government, including, for example, £6·5 million that the British Potato Council spent on promoting spuds. Passenger Focus spends £5·3 million a year to give rail passengers a voice. Those are the sort of examples that really irritate the public, particularly when people find out that five times more money is spent on quangos than on the Ministry of Defence budget. At a time when our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq are not getting the equipment that they need, that sort of thing leads to anger.

It is not sustainable to continue feeding public money to bodies, which, in many cases, simply duplicate work that could be done elsewhere. Some individuals who sit on two or three funded groups are making a lot of money from those groups. They are paid thousands of pounds for perhaps only three or four days of work a month. In the current economic climate, that is unsustainable.

In the Northern Ireland context, just under £10 billion of public expenditure has been spent on public bodies. For a country this size, that is a very high figure. My research papers include a quote from the Alliance Member Mr Kieran McCarthy, who said that he had been “gobsmacked” by that amount of money and that it was a “major scandal”. I agree. The cynic in me finds that slightly surprising given that, over the years, the Alliance Party has done so well out of quangos, which is a point that was made in the opening comments. Nevertheless, Mr McCarthy’s point about the impact on front line services was well made.

That said, for balance, it is important to say that some arm’s-length bodies and quangos play an important and useful role. Indeed, as a member of the new Justice Committee, I recognise that, in recent weeks, a number of arm’s-length bodies have come under the Assembly’s control, and the Committee has received briefings on them. For example, the police, criminal justice authority, the Police Ombudsman, the Law Commission and the Policing Board are now under our control. They fulfil a role and serve a purpose that the public recognises.

We can point to other bodies in the Department of Education and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, such as the boards, which play an important role. We can look also at Translink. I think that Northern Ireland Water was mentioned earlier as one of the Go-co agencies. It is one example of an area in which we could see lots of changes being made. It has not been a very good example. Those are the sorts of bodies that could be looked at.

The Assembly has discussed and identified other areas where money is not being used efficiently. We have had debates in the Chamber on the Civic Forum. The motion proposes that bodies and quangos such as the Civic Forum, which do not provide value for money, should be looked at. The Civic Forum sat and did not come up with any proposals of note, and none of its recommendations has been implemented. It is a challenge to those on the other side of the House that we must look for efficiency savings in some of those arm’s-length bodies and quangos.

Some of the North/South structures should also be looked at. It is interesting to note that some of the North/South bodies were the first areas that the Irish Republic’s Government looked at when they were looking for efficiency savings in government structures. They looked at whether they were getting value for money and whether business on a North/South axis could be carried out more efficiently without such expensive bodies.

The amount of money that is spent on quangos and arm’s-length bodies is in particularly sharp focus. Over the past couple of days, we have heard a lot about the comments that David Cameron made at the weekend. He said that £200 million could be slashed immediately from the Northern Ireland Budget. That sort of thing brings into focus the areas in which our money is being spent and whether it is being spent wisely.

As a party, the DUP is committed to slimming down government, and we have said consistently that we want to see fewer of these unelected quangos, we want to slim down the Executive and have fewer Departments, and we want to see a reduction in the number of Members. We have been a driving force in the review of public administration process. This morning, I spoke on the Local Government (Finance) Bill.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP 4:30 pm, 27th April 2010

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP

We also hope to see a reduction in the number of councils. It is important that all Ministers take this issue seriously. If they sponsor any arm’s-length bodies, it is important that they look to see whether those bodies are serving a purpose and whether they will give greater value for money. I support the motion.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

I thank the Member for tabling the motion. I declare an interest as a member of Fermanagh District Council. I do not know whether that declaration is necessary or whether the council can be called an arm’s-length body or a quango, but I feel that they all come under the overall review of public administration, through which we have been trying to reduce the number of bodies.

It is ironic that the motion comes from the party to my right, Sinn Féin, because it has been trying to establish the education and skills authority. It could be one of the biggest quangos that we will ever see in the Province and one that may prove disastrous — just like the Minister who is trying to implement it. The establishment of the education and skills authority would be disastrous for the people of the Province, especially the children and the parents of young children, for whom it would be absolutely scandalous. It has moved far beyond what it was originally envisaged to do.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

Does the Member accept that the establishment of the education and skills authority would mean that several bodies that have been in place for many years, with no change, would be removed and replaced by one body?

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

That would be the case, if it were to be brought forward in the way that was originally envisaged. That is the point that I was trying to make. The Minister has tried to change that body, beyond all recognition, from the one that was envisaged by many Members, and that is one of the huge difficulties with it.

Another huge failure in this society has been the Human Rights Commission. Elected people here should be taking decisions, but the bill of rights cultivated by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is a fine example of a failed project which is a proven disaster and on which millions have been squandered. Its failure is blatantly evident in the refusal of the Northern Ireland Office to endorse the Human Rights Commission’s political pet project. It is universally recognised that the commission went far beyond its original mandate. The bill of rights has, ultimately, been a failure and a political whim of some of the commissioners. That is a profound disservice to the people of Northern Ireland. Not only has it been an exceptionally costly exercise, but the commission has attempted to hoard power by undermining the responsibility and authority of locally elected politicians.

I heard the last two Members say that elected representatives here should make the decisions. I agree with that, but clearly, in many circles, politicians are afraid to take the hard decisions, and they farm issues out to quangos to do it for them, which almost exonerates them of their elected responsibility.

Local government reform has been ongoing for some time, and it seemed that we were getting close to some arrangement, although it was not agreed by everybody. However, it is now doomed to failure, at a cost of millions of pounds to the population of Northern Ireland.

I support the motion in principle, but our Province’s history of dealing with such issues has not been good. If we are going to progress the issue, we must do so with vigour and authority and actually deal with quangos. Let us shift them on instead of creating new quangos that will try to take away responsibility from elected representatives.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

First, I declare an interest as a member of the Community Relations Council, but I stress that it is an unpaid post. No doubt Members will want to refer, implicitly or explicitly, to the urban legend that the Alliance Party is somehow particularly dependent on quangos for current and former members. I must stress that that is a myth, and it has been perpetuated by our political opponents over the years. Any proper analysis of the figures will confirm that there is no such bias in that respect.

We are more than happy to support the motion calling for a review of quangos, but we have some concerns about the implications of the debate and about the comments that some Members have made. We want to see some sense of balance in this. There is a role for quangos, which is a very pejorative term in our politics, between the Executive and Departments and the community. That relates to the delivery of services and the conduct of particular functions.

The whole drift in modern policy-making in government organisations is very focused at departmental level on policy-making and the support functions around that, but delivery is farmed out to other bodies that can specialise in that. Our system of government and governance in Northern Ireland tends to reflect that model. I would be wary if we were talking about taking functions that are conducted by quangos back into core Departments. That would be very unwieldy, and it would open up a whole new set of problems.

On the other hand, there may be a temptation to farm those functions out to local government, particularly in the context of moving to 11 councils under the RPA. However, in some respects, that might be counterproductive because a number of the functions that we are talking about that are performed by quangos are best conducted at a single Northern Ireland level. We should not delude ourselves about how small Northern Ireland is in the policy-making and service-delivery world. Northern Ireland is big geographically, and we are all familiar with that, compared to the situation in England and Wales and further afield. However, the provision of services on the basis of 1·7 or 1·8 million people is not terribly unusual. Therefore, a little perspective is required on that.

Similarly, if we are to go down the line of rationalisation, that may be a motivation for some in terms of saving costs. However, I would caution against seeing a review of quangos as part of a wider drive in tackling waste in government, as a bottomless pit that can produce constant savings for us and help avoid difficult decisions on public expenditure. The fact that the sums do not add up is not, in itself, a reason not to make an effort, but let us not feed any unrealistic expectations.

That said, there is also a case for rationalisation based on better service delivery. When quangos or the division of functions between quangos are regarded as arbitrary, consideration should be given to whether a merger of quangos or, in some cases, their abolition may produce much more rounded results.

It is tempting to provide a list of good quangos and a list of bad quangos. We could pat on the head the first list, of which we approve and which the public regard as doing a good job, and we could all give a good kicking to the second list of bad quangos because we do not like them. However, that is another arbitrary distinction, and it is not such a black-and-white issue. Some popular quangos perform poorly, whereas others that are negatively perceived perform pretty well. The picture is, therefore, neither straightforward nor simple.

There is no reason not to conduct a review as part of the general process of good financial management, and we are happy to support the motion.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Most reasonable people would welcome the measures that are being taken to address the devastating results of allowing a sector as powerful as banking to operate virtually without regulation. Many who feel that those measures are not extensive enough will recognise that they are, at least, first steps in the right direction.

The public reaction is not only to the abuses of power and privilege in the financial sector. Society wants to see the root-and-branch reform of all aspects of public life. That desire is fuelled, to some extent, by the parliamentary scandals. However, a recurring theme, one that is at the heart of the motion, is the existence of quangos, their proliferation and the disclosures about the salaries and additional payments made to those appointed to them.

People must be satisfied that the process is objective, fair and transparent. Some measures have been taken in that direction, but they are insufficient to achieve their intended purpose. I would not argue that it is possible to step back from the application of that particular form of management in all circumstances. However, I have substantial reservations about the quantity of quangos, and I wonder whether, in many instances, they represent a dereliction of duty on the part of those who are elected or are full-time public servants in this region.

If the Assembly and the Executive were seen to address the issue, they would inject a measure of public confidence. The matter need not primarily be addressed as a cost-saving exercise, but it would have the beneficial impact of saving money. It would demonstrate that there is accountability and that the buck stops here with the Executive and the Assembly. There has been an emergence of agreed political structures, and we have demonstrated that a durable, sustainable and robust form of government is being delivered. Now we must follow through in other aspects of public service.

The general perception of quangos is negative, irrespective of the good work that some do or the vital service that others provide. People’s view is that quangos appear to mushroom during the good times. However, when there is an economic decline, rather than reducing the number of quangos, the Government turn to front line services in health, education and welfare payments as the first option for making spending cuts.

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP

Does the Member agree with me and, indeed, the Irish Government that some of the North/South bodies are among those that could be considered on the basis of whether they provide value for money in seeking to make savings? Does he also agree that there may be a better way in which to do business on a North/South basis than through those expensive bodies?

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin 4:45 pm, 27th April 2010

I agree with the Member to an extent, although not entirely. I do not believe that anything should be ring-fenced and excluded from examination. I am convinced that North/South bodies are mutually beneficial; however, I respect the fact that that is not the opinion of every Member. I share many Members’ belief that none of those bodies should be free from the most rigorous scrutiny and accountability. I would be confident enough to look at whether those bodies offer value for money and show demonstrable mutual benefit.

Since the Member has given me the opportunity, I want to refer to an issue that was raised by Tom Elliott. I find the attitude to the education and skills authority inexplicable and unconscionable. The establishment of the ESA would release many millions of pounds that could be used and are absolutely necessary in the education sector. If there are problems, it is not beyond the genius of Members and their parties to find solutions. Rather than looking for problems, we should look for solutions. We have a ludicrous situation in which people complain about the duplication of the work of two bodies that supposedly address the same issue. Well, those people have created the problem. They should have facilitated the Minister in replacing the wasteful bureaucracy of the tier of education and library boards with the single education and skills authority. At a stroke, that would have released many millions of pounds.

The RPA is another example, although I will not go into that. However, it is another example of politically motivated interference that holds up reforms that would expedite service delivery and defend our limited budget.

Nine point eight billion pounds is tied up in quangos. Although not all that money could be released, I can say this much: if we reduced the number of quangos, we would not have to worry about the cost of water services and the measures that the Minister of Finance must address. There is far too much bureaucracy; it is another tier of government. Many quangos could disappear and nobody would miss them; service would be as good without them.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

I call the Minister of Finance and Personnel to respond to the debate.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I am eating a sweet, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will try to get rid of it. I expected Mr McLaughlin to speak for a while longer.

I thank Members for their contributions, even though it is late in the afternoon and I should be out canvassing in East Antrim. I have been detained in the House until now. Nevertheless, an important issue is being discussed. There is a public perception that non-governmental agencies, or quangos, are too numerous and are not properly accountable, and that was borne out in Members’ assertions.

Before I deal with issues that Members raised, I want to put the matter in context: there are 74 public bodies in Northern Ireland, which employ about 115,000 people. As Mr Farry said, many of them have traditionally been a means of delivering services. Indeed, even if those bodies did not exist, the work would still have to be done, and, even if they were done away with, the money would still have to be spent; it would simply be governed differently.

Members’ points fall into three categories: first, appointments to bodies; secondly, the bodies’ accountability; and, thirdly, another common theme was what is being done to review the number of bodies.

I will deal first with appointments to bodies because that brought criticism from a number of parties. In fact, the only party to defend the appointments system was the Alliance Party, oddly enough. Mr Farry gave a stout defence. In fact, he may have protested a little too much in favour of appointments to public bodies. Members will be aware of the old game show ‘Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?’ The Alliance Party has its own version: “Who Wants To Be a Quango Chair?” Quite a lot of its party leaders won that game on a number of occasions. However, Mr Farry has not been fortunate on that front.

I will go through the appointments procedure. Responsibility for the appointment of board members lies with individual Ministers and their Departments. Although I am responding to the debate, that aspect does not lie primarily with my Department, other than for the bodies that are under its control. Although arrangements may have been looser in the past, appointments must now comply with the code of practice issued by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. The overall responsibility for policy on public appointments is a matter for OFMDFM, which produces a report on all public appointments made under that code on an annual basis. There are 1,200 such appointments made to public bodies in Northern Ireland, and that does not include the new Department of Justice, which has about a dozen of those bodies under its control.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

Twenty-nine. Thank you very much. The Member is always a mine of information when it comes to such things.

Remuneration is an issue that has been raised on a number of occasions, especially with regard to the position of chairman. The remuneration of board members is a matter for individual Departments and Ministers, and it varies from nothing, in some cases, to quite substantial sums.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

If I had had time, I would have made this important point. A Sunday paper used the Freedom of Information Act to establish some of the levels of remuneration. I will not abuse the privilege of the House to name names, but the chairperson of Invest NI gets £40,000 a year plus expenses for working four days a month. Is that the type of remuneration that the Minister is concerned about?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

Others have been raised as well. Although there is always the desire to attract the best individuals, some levels of remuneration are difficult to justify. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why some of the quangos have been regarded as sinecures for a small circle of individuals, as Mr Molloy described them.

That brings me to the second point, which is about accountability. Quangos are not insulated from accountability. There are opportunities for Committees and Members to raise concerns with Ministers, since it is the responsibility of Ministers to decide on appointments and remuneration, and the House should be used to raise those concerns.

I will continue with the second point, which relates to accountability and guidance for quangos. There was some confusion, and I think that it was Mr Molloy who talked about the fact that, very often, people were dissatisfied with Executive agencies. The whole point is that Executive agencies are part of central government and have the same accountability arrangements in place as Departments. Indeed, on many occasions, quite rightly, questions have been asked in the House about those Executive agencies, and that is the way in which concerns should be raised.

With regard to the guidance issued to public bodies on this matter, it is my Department’s role to ensure that the ground rules for the administration of public money are set. There are a number of things that are done with regard to arm’s-length bodies.‘Managing Public Money Northern Ireland’ sets out the accountability and governance principles with which public sector organisations must comply when dealing with public resources. That publication has an annex for arm’s-length bodies, “Model Management Statement and Financial Memorandum (MS/FM)”. That provides Departments with a template that sets out a clear framework for the strategic control between Departments and their bodies. It covers a range of issues, such as operational performance, financing, accountability and control, and it sets out the conditions under which government funds are provided.

The bodies must then make a clear statement of the accountability arrangements, their governance requirements and the requirements for arm’s-length bodies to ensure that value for money is achieved. When that is agreed against all the requirements of the MS/FM, all bodies will be monitored by their sponsoring Department to ensure that individual Ministers have put in place appropriate arrangements between them and the arm’s-length bodies to determine the terms and conditions of the MS/FM for the individual bodies. The importance of that document and that arrangement is that oversight cannot be overstated, and it is for that reason that my Department has the overall approval role when signing off those individual MS/FMs.

In addition to the guidance for managing public money, my Department issues guidance on a range of governance-related topics that are relevant to public bodies. That includes ‘Public Bodies: A Guide for NI Departments’, which is designed to provide additional guidance for Departments involved in establishing and sponsoring public bodies. The Department of Finance and Personnel also provides guidance on issues such as risk management. It produces the ‘Audit Committee Handbook’ and regularly gives additional guidance through “Dear accounting officer” and “Dear finance director” letters.

It is the responsibility of each Department to ensure that all relevant matters that are drawn to its attention are shared with public bodies under its sponsorship. All DFP guidance reinforces the accountability links between individual Ministers and Departments and the boards and executive staff of arm’s-length bodies. Some Members have suggested that arrangements are not in place for accountability, but I hope that I have illustrated that at least measures are set in place not only for setting the standards but for monitoring and reviewing them and for ensuring that Ministers apply them.

Many Members raised the review of arm’s-length bodies. It is important that we continually review arm’s-length bodies. The following example about a certain body illustrates the point, and I know that is not regarded as an arm’s-length body. It is one thing for Members to say what they have said during the debate, but implementing that is another matter. I had a salutary experience in my former role as Minister of the Environment, and I am looking at some of the culprits for that, who are in the Chamber. I can see the Member for Lagan Valley Mr Lunn smiling because he knows what I am going to say. After three fairly damning reports on the Road Safety Council were published, I decided that the Department would no longer fund it. A vast sum of money was not involved; it was only £160,000. I finished up being hauled before the Committee for the Environment twice, having three debates in the Assembly and receiving questions at nearly every Question Time for six months.

It is good to have a high-level debate such as this and to talk about the need to review arm’s-length bodies. However, once that starts, every person will crawl out of the woodwork to say how wonderful, valuable, important and indispensable they are. Inevitably, plenty of Members will say that they did not mean that arm’s-length body and that they meant another one.

Let us be warned of that when we talk about reviewing arm’s-length bodies.

Nevertheless, we have taken a number of measures, such as the review of public administration. Mr McLaughlin and Mr Elliott referred to the ESA. I am not against finding some way of concentrating the way in which we administer the delivery of services in the education sector, although I think that, if we are going to replace what we have, it must be replaced with something better that takes into consideration the sensitivities of the education sector and the various providers within that sector. That is where the issue has arisen, and the Minister of Education bears some responsibility for dealing with that, along with others.

Under the review of public administration we have already looked at a number of public bodies. For example, the two phases of the restructuring and streamlining of health and social services have now been completed. Overall, the number of health and social services bodies has been reduced from 38 to 17, and the number of trusts has been reduced from 19 to six. Therefore, we have already started doing some streamlining. In addition, we are moving towards reducing the number of councils from 26 to 11, and we hope that that aim will be fulfilled.

In addition, in April 2009 the Assembly agreed to an efficiency panel review to examine the number and organisation of Departments and the implications of the RPA to ensure that the departmental structure is best organised for the delivery of public services in an efficient manner. That is ongoing.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP 5:00 pm, 27th April 2010

Will the Minister draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I will.

Other work to review the number of public bodies is ongoing. That is something that we have to look at continually. Some minor bodies could disappear without a great deal of reorganisation, whereas other changes will take much more reorganisation. Such reorganisation is an important issue in getting the best use of the public purse, and we should keep it under review. I thank the Members for raising the issue.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

I ask Members to please switch off their mobile phones and BlackBerries, as they interfere with the recording equipment.

Photo of Barry McElduff Barry McElduff Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. It falls to me to conclude the debate on behalf of the proposers of the motion: Francie Molloy, Mitchel McLaughlin and me. I thank each of the Members who contributed to the debate, which, I think everyone will agree, was an important and necessary debate on the roles and functions of quangos and arm’s-length bodies, principally from the point of view of achieving greater accountability and ensuring value for money.

I welcome the fact that there has been unanimous support for the motion, and I thank the Minister of Finance and Personnel for attending today’s discussion, despite the fact that he would prefer to have been in East Antrim. This is a ruse that we have used on a number of occasions to prevent the Minister from being in East Antrim, because the margin between he and Oliver McMullan is closing by the day. We will, therefore, be tabling more motions of this character in support of Mr McMullan’s candidature in that area.

As Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, I am aware that over 80% of the functions of that Department are devolved to arm’s-length bodies. When I was briefed on the roles and remits of that Department, that is the first thing that was brought to my attention by the then permanent secretary, Mr Sweeney. Speaking in a party political capacity, all one has to do is remember the debacle of the Northern Ireland Events Company, a company limited by guarantee but which also came under the responsibility of the Department. When we discuss the very existence of arm’s-length bodies, the way in which they function and are managed can sometimes be as interesting as their very existence.

The outcome of the debacle involving that arm’s-length body, if it can be called that, was that the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure adopted a number of the Committee’s recommendations regarding the management of its arm’s-length bodies. Those included recommendations that a departmental observer should attend all meetings relating to arm’s-length bodies; an individual who joins the board of an arm’s-length body should undertake the relevant mandatory training within six months; and that a skills audit should be performed across all board members of arm’s-length bodies under the aegis of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure to establish members’ financial and governance skills.

The Minister said that government in a different way will still cost money, and he is right. He enumerated the appointments in the system, saying that it now exceeds 1,200. Mitchel McLaughlin said that the chair of an arm’s-length body receives £40,000 per annum plus expenses in remuneration for a few days’ effort a week. The Minister spoke about appointments and the whole business of accountability. He said that the Department of Finance and Personnel has issued guidance notes on financial accountability. He also said that all bodies are monitored from a value-for-money perspective and that they must make a clear statement on accountability arrangements. All of that is welcome; it is what we want. However, the wider review of quangos and arm’s-length bodies remains of the utmost importance.

Francie Molloy emphasised the number of agencies within Departments. He cited the example of DRD’s Roads Service and NI Water not working effectively together to address the problems caused by the freezing conditions during the winter, when NI Water faced the challenge of delivering water to households in rural areas where the roads were not gritted. Mr Molloy said that there are too many agencies in DRD and other Departments. He said that there was a lack of clarity about the number and remit of public bodies and executive agencies. He also said that the great and the good were regularly appointed, as if there is a pool of quango servers, which the NIO has certainly drawn on. He also referred to quango land and commented on the review of public administration being uncertain at this time.

Alastair Ross suggested that it is not sustainable to continue to feed public money into all public bodies and agencies at current levels. He said that arm’s-length bodies carry out some useful and important functions and that they cannot, therefore, be ruled out per se. If arm’s-length bodies deliver, they deliver, and that should be recognised. He cited the Civic Forum as a bad example. However, I believe that we must examine that issue, because it is important that we hear the voice of civic society. The challenge for the Assembly is to ensure that democracy is participatory and that the voice of civic society is heard in some format. However, we should certainly learn from the lessons of the Civic Forum.

Mr Ross said that his party was the driving force behind the review of public administration. However, some Members believe that that party is, in fact, holding it up. He also said that the North/South is one area where bodies could be axed. However, I take a contrary view. Given that there are two systems of everything on this small island of six million people, a North/South approach not only makes sense but saves money. One can approach the subject from that perspective as well. If Members were to talk to the people in border communities about GP out-of-hours access, they would see that there is a lot of scope for the expansion of North/South bodies in the spirit of accountability and making best use of public resources.

Tom Elliott had an interesting exchange with Francie Molloy about the education and skills authority. He lambasted the Human Rights Commission, which was, perhaps, predictable.

Photo of Barry McElduff Barry McElduff Sinn Féin

OK. He said that politicians were afraid to take responsibility and make decisions.

Stephen Farry declared an interest and conceded that he is a member of the Community Relations Council. He almost pleaded guilty in respect of the myth that the Alliance Party did not benefit unduly or disproportionately from such appointments in the past. Trevor Lunn will, obviously, agree with that, but others will continue to question it. Stephen said that he supports the review, but wants a sense of balance in the debate because some arm’s-length bodies have merit, deliver services in an efficient way and, at times, specialise.

Mitchel McLaughlin reminded us that the banking sector is unregulated and that reining in the banks is a job and a half. He also mentioned the proliferation of bodies and said that some salaries are on the high side for not a very large amount of work. He had reservations about the number of such roles and asked whether it is sometimes a dereliction of duty on the part of Ministers and public servants to rely extensively on delivery by arm’s-length bodies. He engaged in a discussion about the merit of North/South bodies and said that, although nothing should be excluded from rigorous scrutiny or review, North/South bodies may come out favourably. He challenged some Members’ attitude to the education and skills authority. He felt that it is an effective use of public resources to release millions of pounds to establish one overarching body, rather than creating too many lesser bodies under its aegis.

In conclusion, I thank the Members who participated in the debate and hope that we can pass the motion unanimously.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly calls on the Executive to review the roles and functions of quangos and arm’s-length bodies of government Departments to ensure that there is accountability and value for money.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)

Motion made:

That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker.]