The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes.
I beg to move
That this Assembly notes the reduction in the number of government Departments and the associated efficiencies; and calls on the Executive to review the number and function of their arm’s-length bodies with a view to reducing their number, where possible, and maximising the available revenue.
I move the motion in my name and that of my party colleagues. First, I wish to state that arm's-length bodies (ALBs) are necessary for the proper functioning of government; they perform an important role in helping Departments to fulfil their obligations. The review is not intended to eradicate all arm's-length bodies but aims to improve the public's, and even the Assembly's, understanding of arm's-length bodies. The review is intended to produce better scrutiny and stronger accountability and to ensure that arm's-length bodies are carrying out their functions as intended, meeting their aims, and achieving value for money.
In 2010, the Assembly debated a motion that called on the Executive to review the roles and functions of quangos and arm's-length bodies to ensure that there was accountability and value for money. The Democratic Unionist Party has tried to make streamlining government and its associated arm's-length bodies a key ambition. In the previous mandate, the Executive made huge strides in streamlining Departments and their arm's-length bodies and made provision to reduce the number of MLAs from the year 2021. In the 2011 mandate, the Executive delivered a reduction in the number of Departments from 12 to nine; a reduction in the number of special advisers; a reduction in the number of MLAs per constituency by one from 2021; and a reduction in the number of councils from 26 to 11. As of 31 March 2015, the number of public bodies stood at 103. Even then, that figure was collated after the creation of the Education Authority in place of the five separate education and library boards.
Progress is being made, but this party believes that a fundamental review is required of future delivery of the work carried out by arm's-length bodies. The Department for Communities alone has 21 ALBs — excluding the Northern Ireland Housing Executive — which collectively have a combined budget of £78 million. The main drivers included in the review should be as follows: reducing budgets; sharing services and accommodation; more collaboration; different accountability and governance models; and reducing the number of ALBs. On Wednesday past, I asked staff from the Equality Commission, in Committee, what England and Wales lose by having a combined Equality and Human Rights Commission. They did not know. I asked them how they justified not only separate buildings and support staff but the split thinking that comes along with them.
I thank the Member for giving way. The Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission are one body in England. Over the last five years, its budget was around £100 million. The two organisations in Northern Ireland have a total budget of about £30 million. That works out at £17 per person in Northern Ireland and only £2 in England. Surely this needs to be addressed. There is no reason for that type of spend on such organisations.
The Member makes a great point and backs up the reason for having the debate today.
There should not be a reduction in the number of arm's-length bodies just to save money at the expense of sacrificing useful services. Good government requires that the public bodies supporting it are efficient and effective. This is not a case of overhauling the most expensive arm's-length bodies but of looking at each organisation's functions, including at why those need to be done by an arm's-length body as opposed to in-house and at how efficiently they are done by any other organisation and how much they contribute to society.
This is not a straightforward process — at times it will be difficult to compare organisations — but we have seen instances where even sharing services has made a significant difference. The use of shared services has delivered significant savings across government. For example, IT Assist has reduced the cost of IT provision per user by more than 30% over three years and saved over £29 million. Utilisation of existing government shared services such as IT Assist, Account NI and HR Connect must be considered as opposed to each arm's-length body delivering its own IT and HR services internally.
This is a challenging discussion. We talk about reviewing arm's-length bodies abstractly and in general terms. It all sounds simple, but no doubt each stakeholder involved in the organisations is passionate about what they do and what they contribute. If an arm's-length body delivers, we need to recognise that and give praise.
Sometimes we get caught up in framing all arm's-length bodies as a waste of money or as unnecessary extras but some of them do fantastic work and contribute well to Northern Ireland. For example, on Friday I met with a business in my constituency of North Antrim. It ships pharmaceutical products all over the world and made clear that it was delighted with the support it gets from Invest NI.
Invest NI, for example, is an organisation that exceeds targets to help the Northern Ireland economy. In 2015-16, the agency once again exceeded its targets, promoting over 5,500 jobs across Northern Ireland against a target of 4,000. There is an organisation that is delivering.
I recently spoke in the Chamber about the Middletown Centre for Autism and the fantastic service it provides. The glowing reports from its most recent inspection highlight its effective service.
When individuals in my constituency contact me about work-related issues, the Labour Relations Agency is exemplary in the support, information and advice it provides to my team and to the individuals concerned. So, praise where praise is due.
However, there is room for a review of arm's-length bodies to see where there are inefficiencies. As the motion indicates, where the number of arm's-length bodies can be reduced, that is the most preferable option; but the review should be allowed to examine all options to maximise service delivery and reduce administration overheads.
In conclusion, the Executive are committed to delivery. We want the very best for the people of Northern Ireland and ALBs help us to achieve that through their various functions. What the motion is asking for today is simply a review. If a reduction in cost, administration, bureaucracy or duplication can be achieved, that would be beneficial for everyone. I commend the motion to the House.
I beg to move the following amendment:
Leave out all after "departments" and insert "and acknowledges the important contribution of current and past arm's-length bodies across a range of social, cultural, environmental, economic, legal, rights and equality issues; recognises that arm's-length bodies have independence which avoids decisions and funding being politicised, produces best policy outcomes and has access to technical and specialist capacity; and calls for a review of the financing of arm's-length bodies to establish proper resourcing with an objective and sustainable funding process through which arm's-length bodies can deliver effectively their work."
I will make one preliminary comment on the speech that we have just heard. On reading the motion, it is quite clear what the DUP was at: taking a battering ram to arm's-length bodies in Northern Ireland. What we heard from the proposer of the motion, Mr Logan, who was very measured and moderate in his tone, was him trying to reconfigure the motion to disguise its real intentions. Let us remember, as we go through the debate, that whatever is said by the DUP in proposing the motion —
— the intent of the motion is to do undue damage to ALBs. I will give way in a second. ALBs need review, but the motion would do them undue damage.
The proof of that is that there was only one intervention during Mr Logan's speech. What was the intervention? It was to reply to comments being made by Mr Logan. Why was the intervention made by Mr Lyons, other than to launch an assault upon the Equality Commission? In that moment and in that space, did the DUP not reveal the true intention behind its motion, despite the worthy efforts of Mr Logan to disguise it? For Mr Logan then to accept the scripted point from his colleague, without trying in any shape or form to recognise the different environment, culture and history in Northern Ireland when it comes to equality issues, and to subscribe casually, in that shallow way, to the analysis put forward by Mr Lyons of merging the Equality Commission and Human Rights Commission, as happened in England — something that many people rejected and the consequence of which is that many people feel that both the equality and human rights functions of that new body have been degraded — really did reveal much of the true thinking behind the DUP motion.
The SDLP supports reform. There are too many places in Northern Ireland society where people still cling to the past and the old ways of doing things. We agree that there should be a review of arm's-length bodies, but, in conducting that review, let us look more laterally rather than looking in the one-dimensional way of the DUP. I will come back to that in respect of the content of the motion. Let us bring into the heart of government the specialists in outside agencies who know best about how to mainstream into the life of government and the life of the North proposals and requirements in respect of equality, human rights, childcare, anti-poverty and older people. If you bring the people who have those specialisms into the life of government, government might live up to the ambition and needs of society. Let us do that.
When we are dealing with the issue of arm's-length bodies, what will we do about the gender imbalance in those bodies? At the moment, the number of men is twice the number of women, and the number of men who are chairs of arm's-length bodies is four times higher than the number of women. If we are going to do a review, let us deal with the gender imbalance across arm's-length bodies, especially at senior positions.
If we are going to review, let us be radical about it. When I was Minister, rather than conducting a light-touch review of the Housing Executive, I initiated a fundamental review in order to protect the legacy of its great achievements over the last 40 and more years —
All right. That might be a relief to some people, but obviously not to the Principal Deputy Speaker, who is very anxious to hear all my words. I welcome that.
Let us conduct a fundamental review, as we did in the Housing Executive, when, in an effort to ensure that it was fit for purpose for the next 40 years, we protected its legacy against those who wanted to degrade it.
What is revealing in the motion —
I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree that the review is not necessarily tantamount to reduction? It is about how we do things more effectively, and it might lead to the creation of a new arm's-length body — an independent environmental protection agency, for example?
Yes. I see that the Programme for Government is silent on that, despite the urgings of the SDLP in our very substantial Programme for Government submission, which we will publish in the near future. It will provide a very useful checklist against the inadequacies of the Programme for Government produced by the DUP and Sinn Féin.
What does the motion from the DUP say? Is says we are going:
"to review the number and function", and cost. That is it. Number, function and cost. Do not rely upon the British Government — I barely rely on them on this — but even they publish guidelines on reviews of arm's-length bodies. They talk about it a lot more than even the DUP talks about it, because the British Government talk about whether the bodies are still needed, still deliver, carry out their activities effectively and contribute to policy development. I go a lot further than the British Government, but it is revealing that the DUP does not go even as far as the Cabinet Office advice from the British Government; the DUP concentrates just on numbers, money and function.
I will say this to Sinn Féin, because I presume it may or may not be inclined to support the DUP motion —
I will deal with my amendment in my closing remarks. I want to deal first, though, with what should be off limits in the DUP intentions to prey on fundamental requirements of our society. There is a wide range of arm's-length bodies that, in the view of the SDLP, should be off limits in any fundamental revision of their function or future. Somebody once wrote that, once national conflicts are fully evolved, they revolve around issues of law, order and justice. Our society demonstrates that, when our national conflict entered its most recent phase — I reject the use of violence to bring about a resolution to that national conflict — it revolved around issues of law, order and justice. Consequently, through the Good Friday Agreement and other interventions, we created an architecture to ensure that issues of law, order and justice did not again become the engine for conflict in our society. When we come to the Equality Commission, the Human Rights Commission, our policing arrangements, our criminal justice arrangements and our oversight arrangements —
I will give way in a second.
— through all the criminal justice and other agencies in the North, let us be jealous in guarding them. They are fundamental features of the new order of politics, uncertain and turbulent though it may be, in Northern Ireland. I will give way.
Thank you. If law, order and justice are fundamental to what caused the conflict in Northern Ireland and should be off limits, why did the SDLP support the devolution of those powers to the Assembly?
Because we are better than a British Government at shaping the destiny of this part of Ireland and the needs of our people. Are you now saying to Sinn Féin that you did not want the devolution of justice and policing? I remember that, in 2007 and 2010 —
I will conclude, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker, and go back to the issues. I judge from the intervention that Sinn Féin is not inclined to support an amendment that is more rounded, grounds a review in fundamental values and requirements, talks about the need for independence in decision-making on certain matters, tries to protect the areas that need the most protection, looks to the strengths of arm's-length bodies rather than their deficits and talks about:
"a review of the financing of arm's-length bodies to establish proper resourcing with an objective and sustainable funding process".
That is where we should concentrate our efforts.
Ba mhaith liom labhairt i bhfabhar an rúin agus in éadan an leasaithe. I support the motion and oppose the amendment. My party colleague will speak on the amendment later.
The motion is short and concise, and it calls on the Executive to review the number of functions of their arm's-length bodies, which few would disagree with. I agree with Mr Attwood that there are fundamentals, and we need to look at things laterally and protect human rights and equality. We all know and understand that it is a time of Tory cuts to the block grant and of great financial difficulties for this Administration. There is a greater need and a responsibility on us to look at what more can be done to ensure the proper scrutiny and accountability of already reduced resources. Indeed, arm's-length bodies should be reviewed regardless of the state of the finances. There is also a responsibility on us to review public bodies to ensure that they remain fit for purpose, well governed and accountable for what they do. Good governance requires public bodies to be efficient, effective and accountable. We also have a responsibility to ensure that we get the service that we deserve and require for the people whom we represent at the lowest cost.
I was a member of the previous Justice Committee, and a number of arm's-length bodies came under the Assembly and Committee that previously had not been. They came to the Committee regularly to brief us and to be questioned — for example, the Criminal Justice Inspection, the Probation Board and the Police Ombudsman. Those organisations play an important and useful role in delivering services, and many in the public recognise that. As Mr Attwood said, those are key parts of the architecture of the new dispensation.
Since a similar debate took place in 2010, some progress has been made. The streamlining of five education boards into a single Education Authority, which was established last year, could save millions of pounds each year. Any review should consider issues of efficiency, including the potential for savings, and examine whether the public body could provide better value for money. It should also consider the performance of the body and the extent to which it meets its objectives, and whether it should be streamlined, as with the education boards. Could overlapping public bodies be amalgamated to avoid duplication? That could establish whether individual bodies should be abolished, absorbed into their parent Department or merged with another body, resulting in efficiencies and savings.
If the Assembly and Executive were seen to address the issues of public bodies through a review, they would inject greater public confidence. The matter needs to be addressed not as a cost-cutting exercise but as something that could have the beneficial impact of saving money. It would demonstrate that we are serious about tackling inefficiency and delivering value for money. There is an opportunity now, with these institutions bedding down and as we move further and further away from the days of direct rule, to bring about positive change with arm's-length bodies.
Mr Attwood mentioned a whole plethora of issues — for example, how members are appointed to public bodies, representation of minorities and gender balance. I read the research pack, and it was noticeable that women were under-represented, particularly in terms of remuneration.
I am grateful to the Member for giving way. He will be aware that, in the Executive Office Committee, I have consistently raised the issue of the class background of people who are appointed to public bodies because there is a tendency for a small self-perpetuating group of people to occupy quango-land.
I agree with the Member. Young people were also under-represented, and all those issues need to be addressed in any review. Over the years, I have heard people complaining about duplication of the work of two bodies in the House. This motion affords us that opportunity.
I am not sure whether it is an obligation on me, but I will nevertheless declare an interest, having been a commissioner in the Commission for Victims and Survivors for Northern Ireland, an arm's-length body of the former Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and now, of course, the Executive Office.
It was an interesting experience that gave me some insight into the relationship between an ALB and the Executive Office in Northern Ireland.
Principal Deputy Speaker — do you see how I hold an audience? — what about the clock?
I have some direct experience of the relationship between an ALB and a Department in Northern Ireland. I was hoping that the debate might focus on why we have ALBs. I know that Mr Logan touched on it, but we have to drill down a bit and say that surely the function of an ALB is to do something that government cannot easily do or to do something that government can do but do it more effectively or more efficiently. The latter can be quite challenging, because there is a strong umbilical cord between the ALB and the mother ship. It seems to me that the Executive like to keep their control. I remember that, for example, there were 36 policies that we had to adopt with regard to sole working, alcohol and drug abuse, expenses and so on. With a lot of them you can see the need for a consistent approach across ALBs, particularly when you have seconded civil servants working on your staff. However, it makes things very tight, and, when you try to use initiative, it can be difficult.
I will give you one little example. When the commission was established, we were in temporary government accommodation in the centre of Belfast with two seconded civil servants who were spending 10 hours a day photocopying. They had to photocopy every policy document three times because, suddenly, they had been presented with four commissioners rather than the one they had been expecting. The point was made to us that the photocopier was about to break down. Using my initiative and a bit of entrepreneurship, I thought, I contacted a man in the business community who rented photocopiers to the government, including one to the then First Minister in his home, I believe. Anyway, he lent us a photocopier without charge for six months, but, when it arrived, the civil servants said they would not touch it because we had not tendered it. They expected a tender for those who were prepared to give a machine for free. In the real world, I do not believe that that happens.
We talk about the independence of arm's-length bodies, but they are only independent in one sense. That was put to me by a civil servant who, I believe, was not perhaps the greatest fan of the Victims' Commission. He said to us one day that we had to realise that we were only independent in terms of the advice that we offered Ministers. With a little more relish than perhaps might have been deemed professional, he went to say that, while the Ministers were obliged to listen, they were not obliged to take our advice. If we are going to have a review, let it be a comprehensive review — an audit that includes looking at the unnecessary shackles that we place on arm's-length bodies.
I see that junior Minister Ross is here to respond to the debate. Earlier, perhaps unkindly, I referred to an archived document to do with the environmental British-Irish Council meeting that he had been at; I am afraid that I will do the same thing to him this evening. This document is a Budget review group report from September 2010 on a review of arm's-length bodies that was discussed as part of the Stormont House negotiations. At September 2012, it appears that there had been an agreement to
"abolish, integrate or merge 62 ALBs" while 40 others "should remain unchanged". We have tried to do our own little forensic trail this week to see whether the 62 were indeed abolished, integrated or merged, and it is difficult to get to the bottom of it. I do not know whether the Minister has the information to enlighten us. Several of them are still around, including the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools and the Livestock and Meat Commission. The Armagh Observatory and the Armagh Planetarium were to go, and the Arts Council and the Sports Council were to merge. NI Screen takes me back to my first point: with a global player like NI Screen, you cannot have set rules such as you have only £4·99 per head for lunch, not when you are going to Cannes, Hollywood or the Oscars to try to attract business.
I find myself in an unusual situation where I can accept absolutely the amendment and the motion. Reading the detail of both, if only they were together, we would have something structured that we could take forward.
There needs to be a review of the performance, range and number of arm's-length bodies. If that review identifies duplication of service, of course, there should be positive action to ensure efficiencies. As the amendment identifies, we have a range of arm's-length bodies that have and continue to deliver effective outcomes for this government and, importantly, for our citizens. Those bodies are as relevant now as they were in 2010 when the subject was last debated. We should give credit where credit is due and ensure that sustainable funding is provided to allow them to go forward, but, where there is a failure of service delivery, we need to take proactive action to reduce and remove any unnecessary expenditure.
In 2010, my colleague Stephen Farry confirmed that there absolutely was a role for arm's-length bodies between Departments and the community. Many arm's-length bodies deliver services and functions that are best served outside government, and that was recognised in 2012 by the former First Minister Peter Robinson. If a review finds that arm's-length bodies are no longer needed, the rationale for reaching that decision must be based on factual evidence that the service is no longer required and not just on saving money — I was glad to hear Mr Logan say that the intention of the motion was not just to save money — or bringing services back inside core Departments.
If rationalisation occurs, there may not be the savings that the original motion envisaged. Rationalisation should be considered only if services are no longer necessary or are being duplicated. Rationalisation can create the benefit of better service delivery and could enable effective mergers and improve the general process of good financial management. We have heard that for many years in the community and voluntary sector, have we not?
Having reviewed the guidance on reviews of public bodies provided by the Cabinet Office, as was mentioned by Mr Attwood, we should follow the first principles approach to whether each function is needed, is still being delivered, is carried out effectively by the organisation and contributes to the core business of the organisation, the sponsor Department and the government as a whole. It must have respect to devolved arrangements, and we must, of course, consider if the function is provided in order to meet reserved matters. As noted in that report, we must also consider the extent to which the public body's functions are delivered in an environment currently directly affected by EU regulations or processes, and how the body will deal with the impact of Brexit has to be part of the review.
What we could do here is take the best of the reform programme utilised by our colleagues in Westminster, where the reform effectively reduced the number of bodies and enabled mergers where duplication and overlap occurred. Some were asked to improve functions in order to meet challenging and changing needs, and others were simply retained. The Public Bodies Act 2011 ensured that a framework was enshrined, ensuring that a fair and transparent process was followed. That is key here. We need that consistent approach. We may need to streamline the number of arm's-length bodies, as long as it is a positive and proactive change, but that can only happen if there is a clear, open, consistent and impartial process.
This is a timely motion, given that we are well into the first year of the new Assembly term. Already, the restructured Departments appear to be responding well to the mergers that took place. Having been the Chairperson of the ARD Committee and having worked through the merger of the Environment and ARD Departments, I know that there was a clear argument for the combination of those Departments, given the many cross-cutting functions of each division of government. I recall that, in earlier discussions on the issue, the DUP was out in front in actively calling for and subsequently working towards a reduction in Departments. For much of that time, our party was a lone voice in pursuing this important matter.
The public rightly stated that Northern Ireland, for its size and population, was over-governed compared with other parts of the UK. We in the DUP listened intently to those concerns and took action. We have already overseen the reduction in Departments from 12 to nine and a reduction in local councils from 26 to 11. There are further targets to hit, namely a reduction in the number of MLAs by one in each constituency by 2021. That was all in a bid to rationalise our Government to better reflect our population size. It is therefore only right that we take that a stage further and look at the many arm's-length bodies that exist across our remaining departmental remits and seek, where possible, to reduce the number of such bodies.
There are, of course, arm's-length bodies that play a very important role, and no one is saying that every single body should be done away with. However, it is the right time to start looking at the role and functions of all arm's-length bodies to see where and how efficiencies can be made. In areas where the duplication of remits and services takes place, steps can surely be taken to ensure that that is not the case, and if that means that a particular body is no longer needed or can be subsumed into another existing body with no loss of service, surely a realistic assessment must be made of its future.
There are innumerous arm's-length bodies. I am aware that the Communities Department, for example, has 21, not including the Housing Executive, and that is only one Department.
I am grateful to the Member for giving way. I want to make the House aware of a visit that I made last year to Cairn Lodge Amateur Boxing Club in my constituency, to which public servants from the Sport NI organisation had committed to give funding. Two weeks later, they withdrew that funding simply because of an affiliation issue of boxing in Northern Ireland. That sort of arbitrary behaviour by public servants is simply not acceptable. Does the Member agree?
I thank the Member for his intervention, and he certainly makes a valid point.
Clearly, a review is the most appropriate method of determining the number, function, benefit and, crucially, the cost of operating each body. It is only through a review of all arm's-length bodies that we can be fully informed and then actively work towards making efficiencies. In an era of efficiencies and prudent expenditure, it is incumbent on the Assembly to initiate the process with arm's-length bodies. I certainly encourage Members to support the motion in order that the Executive can work towards the commencement of a review process. I support the motion.
Like my party colleague, I support the motion. I see what it suggests as the sensible thing to do to ensure efficiency, public accountability, good governance and, hopefully, value for money when it comes to arm's-length bodies. It was a Sinn Féin manifesto commitment to have a review of arm's-length bodies, and it is one that I wholeheartedly agree with. This subject, as has already been pointed out, and as is clear from the briefing pack, has been debated before in the Assembly Chamber, and there have been questions on it many times. The majority of the arguments that we have heard so far today and will continue to hear are similar to the arguments that were debated in the last debate, in 2010.
From my point of view, there was a time when it could have been argued that we needed the number of arm's-length bodies that have accumulated here in the North. That time was when there was no functioning Assembly, but direct rule has long gone, thankfully, and will not be coming back. The work of these institutions and the changes to local government have brought about enhanced democratic accountability, and, as a result, that surely means that we will need to reduce, reconfigure and adapt some of our arm's-length bodies. We need to bring about even more democratic accountability to those charged with decision-making, ie elected politicians. The motion quite rightly points out the recent reduction in Departments, so I think that this is a timely opportunity to look at and review arm's-length bodies again. I will not argue with the reality that we need arm's-length bodies to provide support to government. I certainly do not envisage a situation in which we do not have any groups or bodies that assist that work in certain circumstances.
As the amendment states, there will be instances when "technical and specialist capacity" outside of government is required. Let those instances be determined by a review that is based on our current and future circumstances, not on our past structures and needs. I have to say that the sentiment of the amendment baffled me, and I was even more baffled by the contribution of —
Does the Member think that it is bizarre to find a party with the word "democratic" in its name advocating rule by experts and technocrats, rather than rule by the elected representatives of the people?
Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I would not suppose to answer questions from other political parties.
As I was saying, I was baffled by the contribution of Mr Attwood. He said that arm's-length bodies need to be reviewed, yet there is no indication in the amendment that they need to be reviewed, and the only things that the amendment suggests need to be reviewed are finances and resources.
I certainly acknowledge the:
"contribution of current and past arm's-length bodies"
— that is contained in the amendment — and the honest work of individuals who sit on them. I do, though, have to question the rationale of calling for:
"a review of the financing of arm's-length bodies to establish proper resourcing", as is stated in the amendment, without any call for a review of the number, make-up and functions of those bodies in the first instance. Surely that is putting the cart before the horse. In all honesty, it is probably allowing two horses to pull the cart when only one is required. As Kellie Armstrong pointed out, if the amendment about resources had been added to the motion in the aftermath of a review instead of completely ignoring the need for review, it would have made more sense.
I am not sure that I can completely agree either with the sentiments in the amendment that the make-up of arm's-length bodies in all cases allows decision-making to be totally independent and:
"avoids decisions and funding being politicised".
As has been pointed out, given the nature of appointments and the number of current, silent or ex-political party members appointed to some public bodies, I doubt whether the public would agree with that assertion either. My colleague coming after me will touch more on the detail of that, as well as on other important questions of how the make-up of some of the bodies is reflective of society.
I want to address another point regarding Sinn Féin's position on defending equality and human rights. Our position on both issues is quite clear. Regardless of the position of other political parties in the Chamber, we can state that we will be standing four-square behind equality and human rights in any review process.
In conclusion, and without predicting the outcome of any review process of arm's-length bodies, I am mindful of the need to ensure accountability and for the public to get the best value. Thus, where savings can reasonably be made while still providing the best outcomes, that is something that we need to do.
I am determined to entice Eamonn McCann into the voting booth with me at least once, so I will start with a quotation from Tony Benn. He said that the questions that all powerful people should be asked are:
"what power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and, how can we get rid of you?"
We are dealing with a new reality in Northern Ireland. Over the past year and a half or so, the number of Departments has been reduced, and the number of Assembly Members will be reduced at the end of this Assembly term. The institutions that were established in 1998 have undergone radical change. We now have an Opposition. Nowhere should be immune from change and reform in public life and the public sphere in Northern Ireland.
It is sad to hear Mr Attwood become the conservative defender of the establishment in his contribution. The fact of the matter is that the motion calls for a fundamental review to ensure the best delivery for the people whom we are sent here to represent.
We know what created the situation of why there is so much power in the hands of quangos and arm's-length bodies. In the late 1960s and the 1970s, local government was accused of not being fit to be trusted with power, so that power was moved from local government into the hands of quangos.
Effectively, and in real terms, Northern Ireland was governed as a sort of colony where a Secretary of State acted like a proconsul, appointing people to arm's-length bodies that —
I am grateful to the Member for giving way. The Member will remember that, in July of last year — I served as a member of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure at the time — nine resignations took place from the Sport NI board for reasons that we still do not know. Those nine people, who had been selected from a pool of people skilled in the wide sporting field, were replaced by public and civil servants. Does the Member agree with me that we must never again allow a situation where a Minister can appoint nine public or civil servants to replace people who had the skills to bring to the table?
I absolutely agree. This is one of the issues that I have raised consistently in the Committee for the Executive Office. Arm's-length bodies and quangocracy or quangoland are not reflective of society in all sorts of ways. Mr Attwood raised the issue of gender, and I acknowledge that that is the case, but there are all sorts of other ways in which they are not reflective. They are not reflective of age, and they are certainly not reflective of class. In fact, I will go so far as to say that my constituency is probably the most over-represented constituency in terms of the population of quangoland of all the constituencies, with the possible exception of North Down. That is not right. If arm's-length bodies are charged with delivering services to the people of Northern Ireland, they should look like the society that they are supposed to serve.
Indeed, it is not right, but it has not been right for a very long time. What expectation is there that this promise to deal with the situation will be any more successful than the DUP's last promise to deal with it? Seven and a half years ago, in May 2009, Mr Robinson had a headline, "Robinson vows to axe 'quango waste'". He talked about a bonfire of quangos, and it came to nothing because they turned into a vehicle for patronage.
Can I just probe the Member a bit further? If he thinks that there should be a review, does he believe that the architecture in respect of criminal justice oversight, equality rights, and policing are areas where we need to tread with the utmost caution, or does he think that they are up for grabs as well?
I do not think that anywhere should be off limits, and I make no apology for saying that. We have seen, in some areas, arm's-length bodies, which are supposed to exist as a function of delivery of priorities, take upon themselves an entirely different character from that which they were established for. For example, we arrived at a situation some time ago where a significant proportion of the Arts Council's advertising budget, which was supposed to be used for advertising the events that it runs, was instead used to attack its sponsor Department because of budget cuts. That is not the correct and proper use of taxpayers' money by an arm's-length body. It cannot be right that money that comes from a sponsor Department should be deployed in that way. That is why I think —
Ba mhaith liom labhairt i bhfabhar an rúin agus in éadan an leasaithe. I rise to speak in favour of the motion and against the amendment. On the way in, I asked Mr Attwood whether he was moving the motion, and he said that he was moving the amendment. I was looking forward to his contribution because I wanted it clearly defined. It must be his great ingenuity. It is not for me to question the Speaker, but this is a good one as to how this got past the Business Committee. Members have been saying that they may support the amendment and that they may support the motion, but, if you read the motion and the amendment, you will see that it does not fit that way. If you read the first line of the motion and then the amendment, you will see that one completely overrides the other. I think that there was the opportunity in the motion to bring something forward. Fair play to him for his ingenuity.
My colleague Philip McGuigan asked the question. The amendment clearly calls for a review of the financing of arm's-length bodies, and there has been no objection to that whatsoever. Everybody would support a review. That is what I have been hearing from the Floor of the House.
We will hold Mr Stalford to what he said in response to Mr Allister. He said that he was here now. I thank the research team for the documentation. To be fair to Mr Allister, he has teased out some of the information on quangos right up to 31 March 2015. It is about the terms of reference of the review and how we go about it. I think that there is a good opportunity here.
We have to recognise good work. Some of my colleagues have already mentioned the groups that have been in to some of the Committees and the work that they do. We recognise the good work and the specialist knowledge that they have and everything else. Nobody is questioning that at this time. That is the point that we are all making here, and that is why I support the motion and that view.
I want to pick up a very good point that Mr Attwood, to be fair, brought up on the gender issue. The stats show that there is not enough female representation. I want to quote something for the record. I will read this out to the House because we want to get this right. If we are serious about reviews, I want to put this on record. Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act places public authorities under a duty to:
"have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity— (a)between persons of different religious belief, political opinion, racial group, age, marital status or sexual orientation; (b)between men and women generally; (c)between persons with a disability and persons without; and (d)between persons with dependants and persons without."
The amendment mentions that arm's-length bodies produce best policy outcomes. It should be about producing those outcomes through section 75, and that is why I wanted to read that in.
Another point is on the public appointments process. A report on diversity published by the Commissioner for Public Appointments in 2014 acknowledged that initiatives to date had had little impact on increasing diversity. The report contains a range of recommendations to government to improve diversity on public boards. I support that, and I support the gender issue. I support those minor groups —
I thank the Member for giving way. Given that Mr Stalford said explicitly on the record in Hansard that nothing was off limits in the review and that that, for him, included human rights, equality, policing and criminal justice oversight organisations, are you not concerned that, behind the motion and behind the words, there is a wolf in sheep's clothing in that they have ambitions that maybe you should be very concerned about?
I accept the Member's intervention. I will state this clearly on behalf of our party, Sinn Féin. We will look at the terms of reference, and we will look at what is going to be reviewed. I take it on board, and it is clearly noted. Your note is clearly noted in Hansard as well, Mr Attwood. I think that we have a good opportunity now. We made commitments to the review of public administration, which reduced the number of councils. We have now reduced the number of Departments. Surely, it is time now for us to take another look at these bodies, and let us see whether we can get it right. It is not about finances; it is about efficiencies and doing things right, and I think that there is an opportunity to do that.
In conclusion, I support the motion and agree that we must assess, evaluate and review the number and functions of arm's-length bodies. I look forward to the terms of reference of that review.
It has been an interesting debate thus far. I noted that Mr Atwood, when moving his amendment, did not speak to that amendment; he just criticised the motion. Maybe I will spend some time speaking to Mr Attwood's amendment in the absence of him attempting to do it. Mr Attwood's amendment is keen to recognise that the skills to make decisions lie with quangos as opposed to political bodies. As Mr Stalford pointed out, quangos came about largely as a result of direct rule. Those bodies were answerable to direct rule Ministers, but, in essence, they were able to do largely what they liked because the direct rule Ministers did not pay that much attention. Now that we have the Assembly, a bolstered local government system and an Executive, those are the people who should make the decisions on behalf of the people. If the people do not like the decisions, the people can change the individuals who make them. We need to be very clear that quangos are not fit for purpose in a modern, democratic society. Quangos should be very limited and very technical, and particular skill bases can be applied to them. In the era that we live in, we do not need 100 quangos for a population of 1·8 million. I am fascinated by the SDLP wanting to defend them.
According to the SDLP, quangos have "technical and specialist capacity". I am not sure how the SDLP arrives at that conclusion. I looked at many of the applications from individuals to join quangos. It seemed that a huge surplus of people who have just retired from the Civil Service apply for quangos, and they seem to get through with far greater regularity than people who had far greater skills. The retired civil servant seemed to get recommendations, whereas the people more skilled to carry out the job had fewer recommendations. Many of us believe that, in quangoland, there is a fair degree of "jobs for the boys". Of course, certain parties were associated with that, and that may have led to Mr Attwood's stout defence of quangoland. Historically, the SDLP has not done badly out of quangos. The SDLP would be better withdrawing its amendment and supporting the motion. Mr Attwood's amendment goes on to say that we need to put more resources into quangos.
Thank you. You mentioned that it is all about jobs for the boys, but is it not your party and Sinn Féin who have been making the appointments for the last 10 years?
Thank you for giving me the extra minute. I pointed out that, very often, people who are very well qualified to sit on quangos do not get through the process and retired civil servants do. That is where the jobs for the boys comes from. Ministers do not get an option to pick individuals who are extremely well qualified because they have already been screened out.
That is correct, but, very often, there are people who should have been deemed appointable but do not get through the system. If you know all the buzzwords and get a bit of help writing up your application, it is much easier to get through. I am not convinced that the skills and abilities that lie with quangos do not also lie elsewhere. I just do not think that that stacks up.
Mr Attwood and his team go on to say that we need to put more finance into arm's-length bodies to establish "proper resourcing". What exactly does that mean? It means that we take money from somewhere else in government and give it to the quangos. He had 10 minutes to speak on this, and I never heard him say once where he was going to take that money from. Where does the money exist? Where does the resource exist that you will feed to the quangolands and the people who are unaccountable and unelected? It is very interesting that that is a point Mr Attwood and his colleagues made.
The point is that, if you do not fund the arm's-length bodies to do their job properly in crucial areas of public policy like equality, rights, policing and the oversight of criminal justice, we know from our history and experience that that will not be a healthy situation.
I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate concerning the call for a review of each Department's arm's-length bodies with a view to reducing their number and maximising available revenue.
Arm's-length bodies are supposed to operate independently of politics, and that needs to be respected as we consider the potential for a review. It is ironic that the DUP has brought the motion to the Chamber, considering what can only be described as the fiasco in its dealings with the social investment fund that has been played out in the media in recent weeks. The lack of accountability, due diligence and transparency with the SIF is a cause for great concern, and I have worries that other bodies, set up as similar pet projects, are in similar positions due to political interference.
The proposal put forward in the motion is wholly unreasonable. At a time when public finances are stretched, it is important that this institution takes all reasonable steps to ensure that services are streamlined and there is no double-jobbing, if you like, where public bodies provide the same service. In those instances, we need to forensically examine arm's-length bodies and their roles following the reduction in the number of Departments. In saying that, I have great concern that, in going down the route of rationalisation, there may be a tendency to slash and burn to save costs. A review cannot simply be a cost-cutting exercise to tackle wastage in the system without giving proper consideration to the role arm's-length bodies play in Northern Ireland. We must also remember that, over recent years, many arm's-length bodies, such as the Northern Ireland Fire Service, have faced budget cuts and been greatly impeded in their ability to carry out their duties. Any cuts to services, such as the Fire Service, the Victims and Survivors Service or the Equality Commission, which perform important roles, have the potential to greatly impede the services the public receive and could risk job losses. I know that some Members on the Benches opposite may have issues with the Equality Commission and other bodies that provide those services, but that cannot be put before the public's right to access basic public services.
It is important, too, that, when such a review is undertaken of arm's-length bodies, we look at ways in which we can improve services and accountability in this institution. For example, we have seen the Executive move to reduce transparency in the budgeting and monitoring round process. Statutory Committees, which perform an important legislative and scrutiny role —
I thank everyone who contributed to the debate this evening, and I thank my colleagues for tabling the motion. I am happy to respond on behalf of the Executive.
It is worth noting at the start — a number of Members referred to this during the debate —that, as the motion acknowledges, on 9 May this year, which was the Monday after the Assembly election, we began a new Assembly mandate.
We did so on the basis of a more streamlined Administration, with a reduction in the number of Departments from 12 to nine. That example of doing business in a more streamlined and efficient way should be emblematic of how we intend to do business in this mandate. The reduction in Departments was a transformational change and represented the biggest shake-up of government since devolution in 1999.
A reduction in the number of Departments is not the only significant change that there has been in recent years, aimed at improving bureaucratic structures and modernising our government system. Legislation is now in place to reduce the number of MLAs per constituency. As a result, the next Assembly will be smaller and more cost-effective. We also advanced the voluntary exit scheme, which has provided an estimated annual pay bill saving of almost £90 million. Of course, it is not just at Assembly level that we have seen change. The same is true for our colleagues at local level. We now have a significantly more streamlined tier of local government, with 11 councils where previously there had been 26, and, of course, they have additional powers to help to provide greater community focus on public services and enable them to react more quickly and better to local need. Centrally and locally, our institutions have been maturing and improving. The Executive have shown that they are willing to embrace change across the board. In particular, given the financial climate, the Executive have sought to drive efficiency throughout the entire system.
I will point to a few examples of where the Executive have made significant savings. Areas such as rent, rates and service charges in the office estate, and energy consumption, have been reduced; collaborative procurement contracts have been let to ensure that economies of scale have been enjoyed across large areas of the public sector; and IT provision and telephony have been harmonised to achieve a better service at a lower cost. Of course, those do not take into account the savings that individual Departments have extracted from their own reform programmes in recent years.
Since the start of the mandate, the Executive have demonstrated that they are determined to build on these successes and are not afraid to make change where it is needed. We had a new approach on how we drafted the Programme for Government, and the use of an outcomes-based approach will focus on outcomes of societal well-being. More than ever, we need to look at how we can do things differently, use new ways of reaching people, consider alternative ways of delivering services to constituents and ensure that everything that we do delivers for the public and is cost-effective.
In that spirit, it is timely that the motion has been brought forward. Members have had the opportunity to debate and discuss the current number and function of arm's-length bodies and expressed an aspiration, where appropriate, to reduce their number. As Members said, there are almost 100 organisations made up of Executive, advisory, tribunal and non-departmental public bodies, and health and social care bodies. The public bodies cost in the region of £7·9 billion and represent in percentage spend 73·4% of the block spend. Those are figures for 2014-15.
The Executive Office is certainly content to review the current provision and will reflect on how best to take forward the intention of the motion if the Assembly endorses it this evening. That may lead to the abolition, amalgamation or retention of existing ALBs, or it could examine sharing services or expertise in order to avoid duplication. In government, we should be continuously seeking to improve and become more efficient, and ensure that bodies are delivering what they are meant to deliver. Indeed, from next year, all public bodies must be able to demonstrate their contribution to PFG outcomes. If they cannot, they have no justification for continuing with any other focus.
That is why, as we roll out the Programme for Government, the Executive will be monitoring progress against each and every indicator. We want to identify the things that are making a positive difference and do more of them, and we want to identify the things that are not contributing to societal well-being so that we can stop doing them. Ministers, central and local government and all our publicly funded bodies must look at the societal outcomes as their raison d-être. If the use of public money is not contributing to the delivery of these outcomes, we will be asking for better justification. Where none exists, we will bring that spending to an end. Of course, in that context, we must recognise our legal and statutory duties. Culling quangos is not an administrative blood sport. Any change needs to reflect a specific policy focus and deliver a key objective measure in terms of public well-being.
It is already a requirement in the management statement of all public bodies that they are subject to periodic review. The Executive will ensure that future reviews maintain the focus of delivering PFG commitments.
If I may, I will turn to comments made by Members during the debate. Mr Logan began by acknowledging that there is an important role for arm's-length bodies in the present conditions. He said that delivery was a critical function. Of course, we want our ALBs to be a critical friend of government, fulfilling, at times, a challenging function and, at other times, delivering on behalf of the Executive. He talked about monitoring performance against the PFG. As I said, we will be doing that moving forward. He also talked about value for money and reducing budgets. It is important to acknowledge that, whilst there will, of course, be savings if we rationalise the number of ALBs, they will be quite modest. They can certainly become more efficient and effective in what they are doing through shared services and expertise. That is why there is an onus on us to look at doing that.
Mr Attwood, proposing the amendment, talked about a battering ram being taken to ALBs. That is a little bit of a conspiracy theory, given the text of the motion. He talked specifically about the Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission. I will resist commenting on specific bodies, but getting rid of certain bodies or amalgamating them does not mean that their functions disappear. That is what is important. It is much the same as the realignment of Government in Northern Ireland: whilst we created fewer Government Departments, the functions simply transferred. So it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that some of the functions of existing bodies could be under a different umbrella or a different name, and it is important that we acknowledge that.
I thank the Minister for giving way and for beginning to share his thinking on these matters, but can I press him further? Do you accept that, when it comes to any review of criminal justice, equality, rights or policing ALBs and structures, you should proceed with great caution and tread warily, given the importance of that architecture and those functions to the new order of politics? Do you accept that those organisations deserve that sort of treatment in any review that you might bring forward?
I am happy to say that we should proceed with caution in anything that we do, but I must agree with my colleague that nothing can be off limits. Even bodies that fulfil an important function should not be off limits in terms of reforming or restructuring them. That is something that we need to look at during a review.
Mr McGuigan, in an intervention, pointed out that the SDLP amendment is only calling for a review of financing. Mr Attwood called for a more fundamental and radical review, but, as has been pointed out by a number of Members, the amendment is not particularly ambitious. He talked about the gender imbalance on bodies, which, again, is something that other Members have talked about.
Mr Lynch said that he supported the review. He said that it was important that we did this in the context of public finances and how we do business. He acknowledged that the last time we looked at the issue was about six years ago and that it is important, therefore, that we look at it again.
When Mr Nesbitt stood up, time stood still for a short period. He talked about the relationship between the Executive and ALBs. It is important that we examine that relationship; at times there will be tension, and sometimes that can be positive. He talked about his story about the photocopier, although that is not the duplication that other Members were talking about. He also talked about the Budget review group, which was well intentioned but, unfortunately, various Executive Ministers were a little bit protective over the arm's-length bodies that they had responsibility for, and we did not see the support for rationalisation at the time that we might now. We are in a different mandate and a different environment, and I think there is more opportunity to move forward on that basis. I also suggest to Mr Nesbitt that in the next few days both he and I will know much more about pollinator initiatives and the threat that exists, and we both may live to regret that.
Ms Armstrong said that she supported both the motion and the amendment. Hopefully she will support the motion. She questioned whether some functions are still needed; the whole purpose of a review is to find out. We are not talking about a bonfire of quangos; we are talking about a strategic review to identify what is still needed in the current context.
Mr McGuigan talked about the need for good governance and a Sinn Féin commitment to looking at a review. There is a DUP commitment as well, which augurs well for the Executive trying to make progress on the issue. He talked about things moving on, which is right, because we have evolved and adapted; we need to be an agile Government in how we look at things. That is in contrast, unfortunately, to the SDLP's view. It is so wedded to what was once described as the "ugly scaffolding" of the past that it is unable to be agile and adaptive to the environment, which does not serve anybody particularly well.
There is a list of things you never expect to hear, and Mr Stalford quoting Tony Benn is one of them, but that is how he began his contribution. He talked about the role of Government and the importance of Ministers taking decisions and being held to account by the Assembly. That is absolutely right. In devolution, we want to make sure that Ministers are able to take decisions and that they are held accountable for them instead of giving them to some bodies, which has perhaps been the aspiration of others.
He talked about quangoland and the make-up not necessarily being reflective of society. As I have acknowledged, other Members made that point, and it is something we need to look at.
Mr Boylan talked about the support for a review. He acknowledged the good work and expertise of some of the ALBs that are in operation at the moment. Again, those ALBs have nothing to fear: if they are doing a good job and are delivering and effective, of course, we will want to keep them. There are perhaps question marks over how effective or efficient some are, and it is right that we would have a closer look at those to see whether they are necessary. He also talked — this is a fundamental point, and I made it to Mr Attwood — about the legal and statutory duties on the Executive. Those are not going away; they will remain. It is how we deliver and live up to those duties that is important, and there are different ways in which we can do that from what is, perhaps, the case at the moment.
Mr Poots talked about how a number of the quangos were a hangover from direct rule. He talked about some of them needing to go away. There are differences in some of the ALBs that are in existence. Some have a very important role, but, of course, even in the ones that deliver in education or health and social care we have seen efficiencies in recent years and a reduction in the number of bodies around education and health. That shows that you can make progress and efficiencies.
The Member talked about the membership of the bodies and jobs for the boys. Maybe that was a reference to the gender make-up. I suggest it was not, but it is a theme that we heard across the Chamber. He talked about the SDLP amendment talking about more finance. It is just not based in the reality in which we are living. The context in which we have to make decisions and the context of public finances is very different from what it was 10 years ago. We have to accept that reality. Where is the money coming from? Maybe I will resist talking about selling airports that we do not own.
Mr McPhillips talked about the fiasco of the social investment fund. Perhaps some of his councillors and colleagues who turn up for the photographs at social investment fund events have not got that memo. Members need to be cognisant of that. He talked about his concern over slash and burn: nobody is talking about slash and burn. People are talking about reviewing the current set-up and seeing if there are better ways in which we can do things. That is the whole focus of the Executive and the Programme for Government. Nobody should shy away from trying to do things differently and improve how we operate.
We will review it and see whether there are efficiencies that can be made. The motion does not talk about slash and burn; it talks reasonably about having a review and, where possible, reducing the number. That is perfectly acceptable language. I do not think it should challenge or upset anybody in the Housel. It is something that the public would support as well.
I conclude by again thanking everyone who took part in the debate. I look forward to working with Members from across the House as the Executive bring forward the new Programme for Government. They are an Executive who are not afraid to make changes where they are needed. That has been illustrated this evening. One of the 14 outcomes that the Executive will pursue in the Programme for Government is high-quality public services. In part, that means having public services that deliver for our people. It also means eliminating waste and inefficiency wherever we find it. That means stopping doing the things that are not delivering. We will not shirk from that responsibility, and I look forward to the support of the Assembly as we bring forward the changes necessary to deliver for all of our constituents. As I have indicated, I am content to support the motion, and I am confident that progress can be made, not least because Mr Stalford is now in the Assembly.
I rise to speak in favour of the SDLP amendment. We felt the need to amend the motion as there seems to be a fixation on numbers by our friends in the DUP. There is some apparent struggle to meet costs, so the first proposal for them is to cut services and to cut valuable services that work well in most places for our communities. We have seen similar proposals for our schools and our jobs and benefits offices, and now, it seems, we see the same when it comes to arm's-length bodies: "We think that they are not working well, so let us cut the life out of them".
Arm's-length bodies can be good. They are an important part of our government landscape, and they allow for the depoliticising of decisions and funding around crucial parts of our public sector in which there can be no room for party politics. Not only do they take the politics out of decision-making, they allow for decision-making to be devolved down, often to experts in their field and to those who have a specialty in the work of the body and know most about the issues and initiatives. It enables decisions to be made by the people who know best and, often, by the people who will be impacted on by the decisions. It is a great example of devolving down bottom-up decision-making.
No. I think that all of us in the House would agree —
You cannot insult Peter again — that some decision-making being taken out of the hands of politicians and passed on to groups of citizens is not a bad idea, and it is one that has served us well in Northern Ireland.
Of course, the SDLP agree that examining the role and function of arm's-length bodies is acceptable and provides an opportunity to examine the work, review the resources and scrutinise outcomes. We agree that public bodies should be reviewed regularly.
Would the Member agree that all the rhetoric about streamlining and efficiency and cutting out the middleman rings a little hollow while the Government are paying an organisation like Charter hundreds of thousands of pounds
to manage a much more experienced delivery body?
I was pointing out the hypocrisy of talking about streamlining and efficiency while paying Charter hundreds of thousands of pounds to manage a much more experienced delivery body.
I thank the Member for her intervention.
As I was saying, it just shows the duplicity that there can sometimes be in the decision-making here.
We are not suggesting that there is a straightforward need to cut the numbers, nor are we saying that we should enter a process with a predetermined outcome. Having preferred outcomes in a consultation process is misleading, and it is a disservice to our arm's-length bodies and, indeed, to those who engage and work with them.
I do not accept the concept that, because we have reduced the number of Departments, it automatically follows that we need to reduce the number of arm's-length bodies. They sit below Executive level, below departmental level, and they often carry out work that would otherwise have to be completed by the Departments. To simply cut them would mean that their responsibilities would have to pass back to the Department, and then more civil servants would need to be employed to carry out the work that the bodies did with full ministerial and, thus, political interference. Whilst I accept that there can be rationalisation of the arm's-length bodies, I do not think that this is anything to do with the number of Departments.
Arm's-length bodies — quangos, as they are known — can be easy targets, filled by those jumping on the gravy train, sucking up large expenses and getting lots of free hospitality
but to simply think of them like that is totally disingenuous and does not bring proper balance to the debate. We agree with the concept that there needs to be a review, but we want the review to tell its own story and come up with its own suggestions and recommendations of how best to go forward. We should have a discussion about how to improve efficiencies, how to share resources and how to maximise the funding available while protecting the services that are provided by the arm's-length bodies. We want to see a robust examination of them but not with the decision made on the numbers before the process begins.
We want to support the work of our arm's-length bodies and commend the service of those who work hard on them. Many of them do so for just their travel expenses — not all, but many of them — and give their free time to provide that service. We want the public to get the best value —
We want the public to get the best value for money too and believe that our amendment, without a predetermination loaded into it, allows the best method for achieving that. I ask for the support of the House for our amendment.
I welcome the opportunity to wind on the motion this evening, particularly as it formed a vital part of my party's manifesto and is something that we have already done significant work on and are committed to progressing through this mandate and beyond.
Our commitment has delivered a reduction in the number of Departments and a reduction in the number of councils from 26 to 11. Going forward, we are dedicated to reducing the number of MLAs from the beginning of the 2021 mandate. We are a party of pragmatism and common sense, and we believe in getting good value for money for Northern Ireland and in looking at how we engage with arm's-length bodies. We are determined that we will achieve streamlined services and a more efficient way of working. For example, the amalgamation of the estate accommodation delivered savings through rent, rates and utility charges. There is also no doubt that we have achieved a great deal on rationalising services through the Civil Service voluntary exit scheme, but there is definitely more to do. It should be acknowledged that, while saving money is of paramount importance, this is a perfect opportunity —
I am happy to apologise to Mr McGrath, Principal Deputy Speaker.
I agree that it is right that we should have the review. Does the Member agree with me that, if people say that we should not go into a review with predetermined outcomes, they should not then stand up and say that certain areas should be off limits?
No, thank you.
As I said, we acknowledge that saving money is of importance, but this is also an opportunity to take advantage of technological advances and the public appetite for access to online services such as the registration of births, deaths, marriages or applying for rate relief. To carry on the process of streamlining, it is vital that we look at how we can improve on how we use arm's-length bodies. Whilst the key aim is focused on reducing capital spend, we should view this as a fortuitous time to revisit how we manage our government systems. We must do things better. We need to look at how we get best value for money and must work to provide efficiency as a strategic goal.
I will not dispute the valued wealth of experience and knowledge that we receive from arm's-length bodies, but it is right that we look at using those groups in a more holistic manner to achieve the potential savings. Through using one shared services model to provide human resources and IT, among other things, we could achieve a great deal of financial saving and efficiencies. Mechanisms such as IT Assist and HR Connect are already in place for our arm's-length bodies to use rather than setting up individual departments in each group. The savings are already evident in government. For example, IT Assist has made savings of over £29 million in the past three years.
I will move on to some of the comments made today. Phillip Logan proposed the motion and said that arm's-length bodies were necessary and the review was not intended to eradicate them. He referred to the debate in 2010 and said that we now have 103 public bodies, and that is after a reduction in the number through the creation of the Education Authority. He talked about the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission and said that, elsewhere in the UK, the two are combined. He also spoke of the need to have efficient and effective bodies. He said that it might be difficult to compare organisations and that it would be a challenging discussion. He praised the work of Invest NI and the Labour Relations Agency, among others, and said that praise should be given where it is due.
Mr Alex Attwood moved the amendment and enlightened us on his conspiracy theories. He agreed that there should be a review and was concerned about gender imbalance, especially in senior positions. He wanted us to be jealous in guarding some of the ALBs in particular.
Mr Seán Lynch supported the motion but not the amendment —
I am grateful to the Member for giving way. She has moved on from Mr Attwood, but I want to say, to be fair, that he said that he wanted a review of arm's-length bodies. Does she agree with me that, had his party's amendment stated that, it might be in a better place and have got support across the Chamber? Would she also join me in calling on the SDLP, even at this late stage, to withdraw its amendment and vote for a motion that, clearly, the SDLP is in absolute agreement with?
I am sure that Mr Allister feels very disappointed; he may have another go later.
No, we are not going to withdraw our amendment. Why should we? The Minister and DUP Members have made it crystal clear — they have put it up in lights tonight — what their ambition is for policing, justice, equality and rights oversight.
Thank you. I move back to Seán Lynch. He supported the motion and not the amendment and said that the review of ALBs should happen regardless. He spoke about the Criminal Justice Inspection (CJI) and the value of its contribution at the Justice Committee during his last term. He asked whether some bodies could be amalgamated to make efficiencies and savings, as that would demonstrate that we were serious about reducing costs. He also mentioned the under-representation of women and young people.
Mike Nesbitt spoke about why we have ALBs: they do the work that government does not do. He said that ALBs were only independent in one sense and that was in offering advice to Ministers, who are obliged only to listen to their advice, not to take it. He supported the motion, not the amendment.
Kellie Armstrong supported the motion and the amendment, and she spoke positively on both counts. She gave credit where credit was due and said that appropriate funding should be given. She also said that there should be rationalisation to do away with any duplication.
William Irwin said that the motion was timely. He spoke from his experience as a former Chair of a Committee and stated that we were oversized and over-governed. He said that a better reflection of our population size was needed and that ALBs played important roles. He mentioned in particular the Department for Communities, which has 21 ALBs, not including the Housing Executive. That is just one Department. He said that a review was the most appropriate method of working towards efficiencies.
Philip McGuigan also supported the motion; he said that it was sensible and a Sinn Féin commitment. He suggested that there was a time before devolution when all ALBs were appropriate but we now needed more democratic accountability. He said that ALBs were needed to support government. He was baffled by Mr Attwood's comment and likened it to putting the cart before the horse.
Mr Stalford said that we were dealing with a new reality after the number of Departments had reduced, with the number of Members to follow. He talked about the need for radical change and the changes that we have with an Opposition. He said that the call in the motion for the best delivery for the people we have been sent here to represent was appropriate. He spoke about how ALBs or quangos were set up in the past and said that quangoland was not reflective of society in age or class and noted that ALBs exercised enormous power and that it was right to review them at this time.
Cathal Boylan questioned the amendment's suitability to the motion. He said that everybody had spoken in support of a review and agreed with the issue raised on gender representation. He said that he would look carefully at the terms of reference of the review and said that it should be not just about finances but about efficiency and doing things right.
Mr Edwin Poots said that Mr Attwood did not speak to his own amendment and that he would do it for him. He said that the Government should make decisions and that quangos should be limited in the era that we live in. He spoke of a surplus of newly retired civil servants being appointed to quangos and suggested that the SDLP should withdraw its amendment and support the motion.
I feel that the comments from across the Floor today have been in broad agreement. We all want the best service and the best value for money delivered in a timely manner. I have no doubt that efficiencies can be achieved through a review of our arm's-length bodies, and I look forward to the benefits that can be delivered.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.
Main Question put and agreed to. Resolved:
That this Assembly notes the reduction in the number of government Departments and the associated efficiencies; and calls on the Executive to review the number and function of their arm’s-length bodies with a view to reducing their number, where possible, and maximising the available revenue.