Mr Speaker, I want to make a statement to the Assembly on recent decisions reached by the Executive on the names and functions of future Departments.
There is a commitment in the Programme for Government to agree changes to the structures of government that will operate in the next Assembly mandate. One of the areas covered by last year's political talks was institutional reform. The Stormont House Agreement of 23 December 2014 included a commitment that the number of Departments should be reduced from 12 to nine in time for the 2016 Assembly election, with the new allocation of departmental functions to be agreed by the parties. Given the pressing timescale, it was important that early decisions were made on the names and functions of the future Departments. The matter was discussed in January by the party leaders, convened in an implementation group set up to follow through on the Stormont House Agreement commitments. Furthermore, the Executive discussed departmental reorganisation extensively at no fewer than four meetings during January and February. Those discussions concluded at last Thursday's Executive meeting. I am now able to announce the decisions that have been reached on the departmental structures coming into operation next year.
The following will be the nine future Departments.
The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs will bring together most of the existing functions of DARD with the inland fisheries functions of DCAL and most of DOE's environmental functions, including regulation. It will also take on OFMDFM's current policy responsibility for sustainability strategy.
The Department for Communities will combine the existing functions of DSD with most DCAL functions, with the exceptions being inland fisheries and waterways. It will also take over DEL's employment service and DOE's responsibilities for local government and built heritage. In addition, the future Department will assume a range of OFMDFM delivery and operational functions on the social investment fund, racial equality, united communities and good relations, disability and poverty, gender and sexual orientation, and north-west sites and strategy.
The Department of Education will continue the existing functions of DE, together with a range of children’s services, including OFMDFM’s policy responsibilities for the childcare strategy and for children and young people. The definition of children’s services transferring to this new Department will need further refinement, though it is agreed that child protection will remain with the Department of Health.
The Department of Health will continue the existing functions of DHSSPS, except for public safety. It will also take on OFMDFM’s policy responsibilities for older people and the active ageing strategy.
The Department for Infrastructure will exercise the existing responsibilities of DRD, but will also take on a range of functions from other existing Departments: vehicle regulation, road safety and Driver and Vehicle Agency functions from DOE; the Rivers Agency from DARD; inland waterways from DCAL; and, from OFMDFM, the strategic investment unit and several regeneration sites, including the Crumlin Road Gaol.
The Department of Justice will continue the existing functions of DOJ, but will also take responsibility for public safety from DHSSPS, and the support function for the Planning Appeals Commission/Water Appeals Commission from OFMDFM.
Finally, our Department, OFMDFM, will be significantly transformed. Its new name will be the Executive Office. As is clear from the previous description of the functions of the other Executive Departments, OFMDFM will be transferring most of its delivery functions. It will retain its role in supporting the Executive and the central institutions, including coordination of the Programme for Government, international relations, civil contingencies and the executive information service. Policy responsibility and coordination will remain in relation to equality, good relations, the Together: Building a United Community strategy and Delivering Social Change. Sponsorship and support for a number of key institutions will also be retained, notably the Attorney General’s Office, the Equality Commission, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission, the historical institutional abuse inquiry, the Maze/Long Kesh Development Corporation, the Victims and Survivors Service and the Commissioner for Victims and Survivors.
That, then, is the general shape of the future departmental system as agreed by the Executive. It will be subject to further refinement of details as work proceeds on the legislative implementation of these decisions.
These are machinery of government changes. No functions are being done away with and no policies terminated. Staff will follow functions, and there may be a certain amount of early disruption. However, once the changes have been effected, there will undoubtedly be greater efficiency. There will be fewer Ministers and departmental hierarchies. Permanent secretaries, central management units, press offices and support functions can all be rationalised.
This will be administratively challenging, but a broadly based programme board has been established to set direction and oversee implementation. The Executive have also agreed the drafting of a Departments Bill and a Transfer of Functions Order to provide a legislative basis for these changes. We aim to introduce the Departments Bill to the Assembly after the Easter recess. A more detailed Transfer of Functions Order will be available for Assembly scrutiny later this year. There will be extensive opportunity for the Assembly to consider and debate these changes.
This will be the most extensive reorganisation of the departmental system since 1999. It provides an opportunity for a leaner, more joined-up Administration, with improved cohesion between, and within, Departments. This should mean ultimately greater efficiency in our Administration and improved services to our citizens.
I welcome the First Minister's statement and the commitment to deliver on this important Stormont House Agreement commitment. The Minister talks about a significant transformation in his own Department. He will be aware that OFMDFM is sometimes ridiculed for having more staff than 10 Downing Street or the west wing of the White House. I wonder what the implications are for staffing, as OFMDFM becomes the Executive Office and sheds its delivery functions.
I am grateful for the question, not least because it allows me to ridicule those who make the comparison between the White House and a delivery Department, which is what OFMDFM was, with hundreds of staff acting as a full Department rather than just as an Executive office. It will be massively transformed; the staff complement will be significantly reduced. Only at a later stage will we be able to indicate precisely what that division will be, but, after this change, it will be one of the most effective and efficient organisations that one could possibly imagine.
I think that my friend will be aware that literally hundreds of functions are carried out by Departments. We went through this at the Executive meeting, and each of the Departments would have maybe 10 major functions outlined if one were to give standing to each of those elements. We tried where possible — for most of the Departments, it was possible — to get some generic title that would cover the range of functions that they will hold. The one Department for which it was not quite possible to do that was the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs because it is very hard to get a generic term that will cover each of those sometimes diverse functions. It is to make it less confusing. It will take some time, I suppose, for everybody to get used to which Department carries out various functions, but, as no functions have been terminated, no policies have been brought to an end and all the functions of government will still go on, I think that the easier that the title is for people to remember, the better.
Yes, I think that the silo mentality is worsened because of the system of government that we have. The Departments almost take on a party flavour. You talk about Sinn Féin Departments or DUP Departments or SDLP, Alliance or Ulster Unionist Departments, and people should be focused on what is actually being delivered by those Departments. Whatever we do here, the purpose of it is not simply some moving around of the responsibilities that each of the parties will have; this is about getting a proper, efficient, functioning Executive. I think that the longer that the Executive work together the more that we will be able to get that collectivity that is necessary in the Executive and the more that people will look at the overall picture. Indeed, from St Andrews, it has been necessary, I think, for Ministers in a Department to win support from their colleagues for any novel, contentious or cross-cutting issue. I think that that adds to the collective responsibility that we each have one to the other.
I thank the First Minister for his statement. Which new Department and which new Minister will in future be responsible for strategic planning and taking article 31 decisions? Given that you have said that the numbers of staff in OFMDFM will be significantly reduced, can you indicate, in round terms, whether that will be 40%, 50% or 60%? Will that extend to the number of special advisers — SpAds — that OFMDFM enjoys?
It may well be that we will have 100% of the seats, and, therefore, I could perhaps give you a name. Whoever the Minister is, I think that you will have a much more coherent Department with all the infrastructure issues being dealt with together.
This will reduce the number of Ministers.
It may have an impact on the number of junior Ministers. Some larger Departments might argue that they have a better case for a junior Minister than the Executive Office. The SpAds will follow the Ministers wherever they go, but there will be fewer special advisers because of the reduced number of Departments. That should bring joy to some people in the House at least.
I welcome progress on the important Stormont House commitment to improve the effectiveness of the Northern Ireland Executive. Will the First Minister provide an update on the Stormont House commitment to deliver an independent audit of the cost of division to all Departments to ensure service delivery that promotes sharing over separation in Northern Ireland?
As we are dealing with a specific issue about Departments and functions, that does not exactly sit alongside it. However, an implementation group has been set up as a result of the Stormont House Agreement, and the leaders of each party and some of their colleagues are on it. If the Member feels that progress is not fast enough, I am sure that he will get the ear of his party leader and tell him that he is not moving fast enough.
Unquestionably, there will be savings, which might come to the Assembly as well as to the Executive. When you cut out three private offices, three permanent secretaries and their staff and all the paraphernalia of government that goes with them, there are savings to be made. If you have nine rather than 12 Committees covering Departments, I am sure that the Assembly will also offer money back to my colleague the Minister of Finance on the savings that will be made here.
I thank the First Minister for his statement. With the proposed disappearance of DCAL, there is an obvious point to be made about the role of arts and sport in our community. That will be absorbed in the Department for Communities, but would it not have been more appropriate to have included, together with communities, a reference to the arts and sport, given their central importance?
I mentioned to my colleague that there are hundreds of functions of government, and I am sure that all Assembly Members will have their own view of what the real priorities are. However, if one were to look at the Department for Communities and add "arts" to the title, is the Member saying that that is more important than housing; urban regeneration; the Social Security Agency; child maintenance services; the voluntary and community sector; museums; libraries; creativity and architecture; language; cultural diversity; sport; the Public Record Office; employment services; local government; the social investment fund; and racial equality? I could go on and on. If the argument is that arts is more important than all those issues, the Member can ask the question, but I do not believe that it is more important than many of those issues. That is why a generic title serves the Department much better.
After over a decade of my party arguing for a reduction in the number of Departments, I do not want my joy to be dampened in any way now that that is crystallising in the Assembly. We also want a reduction in the number of Assembly Members.
During the talks process, my party argued that it should be down to somewhere in the region of 70. We were prepared to compromise in the region of 90. At the end of the day, the Stormont House Agreement said that it would be reduced to 90 by 2021, but it could be done for 2016 and would still be within the terms set out in the agreement. I hope that, in the implementation group the party leaders are in, we can convince people that a faster timetable is possible. There is no legislative reason why it could not be done, there would be significant savings and it would make the Assembly more in line, though not entirely in line, with the representation in Scotland and Wales. The Assembly is still two or three times as large, per head of the population, as Scotland and Wales. I think everybody recognises that it needs to be done, and I hope we have sufficient stability here for people to think that this is the right time to do it.
I find this fascinating. It will be great to see the Department of the Economy coming on board, which I think was Lord Empey's idea many years ago.
Will the Executive move on from being a two-party system or, using the implementation groups, will it move to involving all parties in the consensus that we are working towards, particularly in how we link with the Government at Westminster to deal with the reserved matters that affect us? We do not seem to have any suitable links for pulling things together.
Far be it from me to remind the Member that it was his party that created the system. We have been able to refine and improve it as time has gone on, but it should not be a two-party system. We have a full-time implementation body: it is called the Executive. All the Executive parties are there, and all take part in the discussions that we have and the decisions that are made. I hope that, as time goes on, the smaller parties — I have to point out that not all of the three smaller parties are in the same category on this — recognise that they have a responsibility to their colleagues in the Executive to take the position that is collectively agreed, rather than trying to score party political points outside and look for issues where they can try to undermine the two main parties. The onus is not on the two main parties but on those who choose to separate themselves from an Executive decision.
Junior Ministers were thought to be necessary in OFMDFM because, unknown to a number of people — at least if they know, they have not let on — OFMDFM takes in the broad range of work of all of the government Departments and therefore, both in terms of special advisers and the need for junior Ministers, it is recognised that there is a considerable workload across the range of government responsibilities. We will maintain all the strategic roles, issues and functions of OFMDFM, but we will have a much more strategic role, rather than a delivery role. That will allow greater coordination between Departments in the future. I indicated in my statement that this was the broad outline of what we wanted to do.
It was necessary for us to have agreement on what the Departments would be and what they would be called because we have to start preparing the legislation. We can refine the functions further. There is still room for us to discuss some of those issues. We still have not decided whether junior Ministers are needed in the new Executive Office, whether they should go to other Departments and whether there is a view that, because more business will be carried out by other Departments, they have a greater call for a junior Minister. Those issues have not been decided. The responsibility for that lies with the deputy First Minister and me. We have the sole responsibility under the legislation for determining whether there are junior Ministers and where they should be. The deputy First Minister and I will discuss that in the future.
I welcome the Minister's statement, particularly the inclusion of "Environment" in the new Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. However, given the recent examples of us facing imminent risk of infraction fines over horse mussels in Strangford lough due to the opposing objectives of DARD and DOE, what safeguards will be put in place to ensure that the interests of the agriculture and fishing industries will not trump the protection of the environment?
The safeguard is in the hands of the Minister, the Committee and those who have the responsibility. I would have thought that having the two of them in the one Department allows for greater coordination and hopefully a greater understanding of the pros and cons of each issue. Ultimately, the responsibility lies, as it always has, with a Minister, and the responsibility for calling that Minister to account lies, as it always has, with a departmental Committee set up by the Assembly.
The present timetable requires us to get a Bill through the House so that it becomes a Departments Act and to get a functions order through the Assembly. If we were to decide to reallocate the functions of any Department — the Member mentions OFMDFM's delivery functions — it could be done legally and it could be done within the time that is allocated. I am not sure that there is a great advantage in making that change for what would probably end up being about eight or nine months, because you would be spreading those amongst the 11 existing Departments, as opposed to the eight other Departments that would be in place after the election. While it could be done, I do not see any real advantage in doing it, and it seems that the election and a new Assembly is the right time for the complete change to take place.
The cost savings that will result from this exercise are important during a time of financial restraint, but the real goal is to achieve much more efficient, joined-up and effective delivery of government. Can the First Minister outline how he believes this change will help us to move away from the silo mentality of separate Departments and lead to more strategic joined-up decision-making and policies?
My friend is entirely correct in indicating what the purpose and value of the changes will be. While the silo mentality is ultimately in the minds of individuals as opposed to the structure of any Department, the fact that there will be fewer Departments obviously makes it easier for coordination and cooperation between them. There is also greater recognition that, as we mature as an Assembly, we need to look towards joined-up government and that Departments, even when you reduce them to the number that we have, will still have overlap and will still have the necessity to work with each other. I hope that the silo mentality will be removed from the minds of Ministers. The reductions that we have had and the savings that will flow from them are entirely in line with what we have been attempting to do at a time of great financial difficulty.
Of course, I recognise, and I should put on record, that we are putting a significant burden on our Civil Service, which is already having to handle significant change as a result of the reduction in size of the public service. This requires very careful work to ensure that front-line services are not adversely affected and will also involve moving staff around Departments. The Civil Service will therefore be under very considerable pressure over the next number of months, and we should put on record our appreciation. We can take a decision at an Executive meeting, in an implementation body or at Stormont House, but civil servants have to do the work on the ground to put it in place.
Reducing the Departments to nine is good, as far it goes; but I am more interested in democratising the appointment of Ministers to Departments. We are about to have a general election. If the Stormont system applied, Cameron, Milliband and Clegg would all end up in Downing Street, and there would be no Opposition. How absurd that would be — how unworkable, as this place demonstrates. When will we bring into line with the rest of the democratic world the way in which we appoint Ministers?
When the Member joins with me and is able to convince other colleagues in this House that a voluntary coalition is the right way to go. I went to Stormont House, and I argued for that; however, we came out with the highest level of agreement possible. I recognise entirely that, as time goes on, we have to democratise and normalise the Assembly much more, and that can only be done if we get something akin to the system that we had at Westminster. I am not sure that his analogy was the best in the present circumstances: who knows who will be in the next Government of the United Kingdom?
How can the new Department of Education protect other children's services, particularly early years services for children before they start school, given the draw on resources by schools?
This statement does not go into the allocation of funding. What will happen, I suspect, is that the Finance Minister, when looking at future Budgets, will look at the funds received for the various functions and pass them on to the new Department responsible. There will always be a call for more money for every element of government. Indeed, I could have argued a long time ago that children's functions should have gone to the Department of Education. It has now been recognised that all children's services, excepting those that relate to health, will be in the Department of Education, which is the right place for them in my view.
In terms of the finance, I hope that, when we come to the Budget, a more responsible attitude will be taken by some people in this House, who simply want to vote against a Budget, no matter what it is. When you allocate funds, it is always easy to look at the various permutations, but the hard decision has to be taken, and, in circumstances where our Budget has been massively reduced over the last number of years because of decisions taken by the coalition Government, those decisions become harder and harder. By saving money, by reducing the number of Departments and their staff, we are taking a further step to the reform of public services that my colleague is taking forward.
I ask the First Minister about silos and finances. As the First Minister will be aware, in-year monitoring rounds are important for the efficient management of government, but many of the surrenders of funds are complicated by historical factors. Some can be transferred within a Department; others must go back to the centre. When we amalgamate certain Departments, will he give an undertaking that we will ensure that we can do interdepartmental funding without having to return funds to the centre?
My advice to the Finance Minister would be not to do that. To give any Minister the ability to move money around the various functions in a Department would be a retrograde step. The Executive, collectively, need to make the determination on each of the heads of expenditure and be satisfied that that is the right balance. It would be wrong for any Minister to take it out of balance.
As we go through a year, there will be circumstances where, if there are savings in one area, the Finance Minister can allocate them to other Departments or give flexibility to a Minister to use those savings in his or her Department. My view is that we are far better having a system where everything comes back to the centre and is reallocated. On that basis, you can look at a priority in a Department as opposed to what the priority might be in another Department; that is how money should be allocated.
When we enter a new Assembly and a new CSR period, all previous bets are off; it will be up to the Executive to take the decision about how funds are allocated in-year as well as over the Budget period.
I welcome the reduction in the number of Departments, but it acknowledges the Departments' failure to work together for efficiency and the betterment of Northern Ireland. How will the First Minister encourage his Executive to start working together right now so that we can hit the ground running when the changes are made?
There needs to be an open and honest acknowledgement that no politician in their right senses would have produced a government with 12 Departments, as was done here. It was done for entirely political reasons; it was done to have the maximum number of people in the Executive so that there would be a share-out to parties that were smaller than the main parties. It was done, no doubt, for the best of intentions; it was important to get as wide a buy-in to the process as possible.
None of that, whether it is nine Departments or 12, should stop colleagues working together effectively and efficiently. We are from different Departments, and there are coalitions that are much less successful than ours elsewhere in the world, including some not too far from where we are. There are difficulties in operating a coalition of any form. To have a mandatory coalition, where you are put into an Executive not because you have common views but because you have a percentage of the vote, shows just how difficult it is to operate. Much more credit should be given to the fact that, in spite of the massive ideological differences amongst the parties, they have been able to work to the level that they have together and that they have been able to reach some significant agreements.
I give a general welcome to the new departmental layout. I see savings and efficiencies coming from it, and there will also be an opportunity for better coordination to meet the needs of people. In terms of the operational aspects of the social investment fund, which are transferring to the Department of the community, which is largely built on DSD, is that a recognition of the delays in setting up the social investment fund and getting moneys out on the ground, and the inefficiency of having that duplication of service that already exists under DSD and local government?
It is the same recognition that there is with every other delivery function that is being taken out of OFMDFM. We want to make the new Executive office a strategic Department rather than a delivery Department. That makes sense for the overview that we have and the role that we have of coordinating the Executive. It also makes sense because it is bound to be easier for one Minister to take a decision than it is for two Ministers to take a decision, no matter how agreeable they might be. The fact is that we have removed most, if not all, the delivery functions from the Executive office to make it a Department that will have a strategic overview of all the Executive's work, and, particularly, some of the issues that are allocated to it in policy terms.