The Civic Forum, which commenced operation in 2000, has not met since 2002. Following the restoration of devolved powers in May 2007, the then First Minister and deputy First Minister considered the position of the Civic Forum in the re-established devolved arrangements and decided to commission a review of the effectiveness and appropriateness of its structure, operation and membership. The review was also to make recommendations on the most appropriate mechanism for engaging with civic society.
The review was launched in 2008 with a public consultation exercise that attracted 60 written submissions, all of which are accessible on the OFMDFM website. In addition, the review involved meetings with former Civic Forum members and stakeholders and with similar bodies in other jurisdictions. There was no widespread desire for a return to a structure of the size and expense of the Civic Forum as it had previously operated. Accordingly, there have been no meetings of the Civic Forum during this Assembly mandate, which has also resulted in considerable savings to the public purse.
I thank the First Minister. Will he join me in welcoming the fact that the Civic Forum has not met, not least because taxpayers’ purses and wallets have been relieved of that financial burden? Can he assure us that those financial savings will continue into the next term so that we can bring them back to the public?
We had reached the stage where the Civic Forum, in full operation, was costing about £500,000 every year. We have probably saved a couple of million pounds as a consequence. At the same time, I do not, in any way, want to leave the impression that we want to reduce the connection with our community. We want to continue having consultation. For instance, because of the economic downturn, the deputy First Minister and I brought together a group of stakeholders from across the community. We did that without those people getting or seeking any expenses, which indicates that people are willing to give their views without having elaborate and expensive structures.
It is not for me to commit the next Assembly or Executive, although I believe that they should look at the whole issue of consultation, not just in relation to the Civic Forum. We need to streamline our ways of operating and make them more effective. In the new mandate, we must look at some of the delays that are occurring because of lengthy consultations and, sometimes, unnecessary levels of consultation.
The First Minister has, to some degree, answered some of the points that I was going to raise. However, can he explain to the House whether any money is being spent on that moribund body, the Civic Forum? What are his intentions, if he is returned to the House in the new mandate, for how civic society may relate to what goes on here?
During the year, some funding was made available to deal with the consultation exercise that had been set up by my predecessor and the deputy First Minister. That is being rounded off at present, and, although Ministers have not received it yet, I know that it is in the brokerage system to come forward to us. My view for the future is that I want there to be consultation. It is important that we have a connection with the community, particularly with those who have expertise in issues that we are dealing with. However, I think that we can manage to have that consultation and the value of the advice without the expensive machinery of the Civic Forum that we had before.