DFI: Temporary Promotions

Oral Answers to Questions — Infrastructure – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 26th April 2021.

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Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance 2:45 pm, 26th April 2021

2. Mr Carroll asked the Minister for Infrastructure for her assessment of the use of temporary promotions within her Department. (AQO 1934/17-22)

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

Day-to-day staffing issues, such as temporary promotions, are the responsibility of management, not Ministers. However, I am aware that temporary promotions are routinely used across the Northern Ireland Civil Service Departments as cover for vacant posts, where there is a clear business need and no immediate alternative available. Temporary promotions are, as the name suggests, temporary arrangements that are intended to be in place only until a permanent appointment can be made.

At the end of February, my Department had 159 temporary promotions in place from a workforce of 2,973 staff. That represents 5% of the workforce and is below the Northern Ireland Civil Service average of 9%. Indeed, my Department has the lowest percentage of temporary promotions in place across the Northern Ireland Civil Service. The Department for Infrastructure departmental board regularly monitors the number of temporary promotions across the Department. My officials are also working with the Civil Service Human Resources to do what is required to fill all affordable vacancies as quickly as possible.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I thank the Minister for her answer. I note the figures that she gave, but, obviously, they are still too high, in the opinion of many people. Has the Minister or her Department carried out any research into the impact of the temporary promotion of staff in her Department, including the retention of workforce or the mental health and well-being of staff? Many will think that, if they are fit for a temporary promotion, why not a permanent one?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. As I said, they are matters that are dealt with by management, as opposed to the ministerial side. Of course, as Minister, I very much care for the health and well-being of my Department's staff. I am not aware of any research that has taken place, but that does not mean that it has not been done. I am happy to take the issue away, discuss it with my officials and provide the Member with an update.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for her answers. I understand that vacancies have affected the delivery of services, including in Roads. At a Committee meeting recently, you said that you recognised the importance of improving rural roads. A 2019 audit report called for the structural maintenance budget to be more fairly allocated across the rural road network. Will the Minister commit to greater coverage of the rural roads network in the structural maintenance budget, and will she cover those vacancies to deliver that programme?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. On the issue of vacancies, at the end of March 2021, the Department had 2,991 staff in post and 418 vacancies. It is important to point out that, of those vacancies, 86 were industrial posts and 332 were non-industrial, so they were administrative and part-time grades. We are working hard to ensure that we can fill affordable vacancies as quickly as possible. On the issue of structural maintenance, the Member will be aware that I set up a rural roads fund in the previous financial year and allocated £10 million to it.

I recognise the importance of trying to address regional imbalances across the North, but I also recognise the state of some of our rural roads and the impact that that has on local communities and businesses. Although I have yet to finalise my budget for the new financial year, I appreciate the importance of rural roads and the need for significant improvements to them.

I remain committed to a rural roads fund, but the consideration that I have now is the amount of money that I will allocate to it. My intention is that, certainly, there will not be any reduction in the rural roads fund in the new financial year.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party 3:00 pm, 26th April 2021

I thank the Minister for her answers. Whilst we all recognise that many civil servants have been working very hard throughout the pandemic, a recent court judgement gave a damning indictment of civil servants in her Department. I hasten to add that their time predated her tenure as Minister. Does she share my concerns about that, and what actions will be taken as a consequence?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for her question. The Court of Appeal finding that the Member referred to relates to a procurement competition that was run in 2015. The court found that there was a manifest error in the Department's approach to the awarding of multiple term-type contracts across Northern Ireland. I am advised that the procurement process for those contracts has been amended significantly since 2015. In 2018, the Roads centre of procurement expertise (COPE) was reaccredited through a rigorous external assessment examination. However, as the Member says, the ruling is a cause of concern; it certainly is for me. As the Minister now in post, I obviously want to understand what happened, how it happened and what steps have been taken to ensure that it can never occur again. That is why I met my permanent secretary after the ruling, and I am now considering the next steps.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

Thank you. No; I do not have a question.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I thank the Minister for her responses thus far. As she will be aware, she got a significantly increased capital budget for this financial year but the resource budget is largely standing still. Is she confident that she will be able to deliver on the capital budget with the allocations that have been made, particularly for the human resources in her Department. Cathal Boylan raised roads resurfacing, and I have a list the length of my arm of roads that need to be tackled in North Down. If you get the money, will you be able to spend it?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. He is right to make the point about the capital budget. We can do a lot with that budget in this financial year, but, of course, it requires an accompanying resource budget. The resource budget allocation is a real-time cut when you consider inflation. The truth is that it will be challenging, but I assure the Member that the matter is very much on my radar. I have been meeting my permanent secretary and senior officials in order to ensure that we have measures in place to allow us maximise our capacity and to deliver on schemes right across Northern Ireland, given the capital investment that we have at our disposal this financial year.