NICS Jobs: Young People

Oral Answers to Questions — Finance – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 8th June 2021.

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Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:00 pm, 8th June 2021

1. Mr McCrossan asked the Minister of Finance to outline his plans to create more jobs for young people in the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS). (AQO 2175/17-22)

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

My Department is committed to creating more jobs for young people in the Civil Service. To enable younger people and other under-represented groups to apply for posts, NICS HR in my Department has led high-volume open recruitment exercises, rather than internal promotion exercises that confined applications to existing civil servants in the grade below the vacancy, which were previously the norm. I recently launched a number of external recruitment campaigns, including one for more than 500 executive officer posts. These campaigns specifically targeted young people, using social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat and advertising on digital platforms such as Spotify and Dax and on radio stations known to appeal to younger markets.

Later this month, I will be launching a student placement scheme which will give over 100 students the opportunity to work across a range of areas in the Civil Service. As well as giving students an opportunity to develop their skills and experience, it will encourage them to consider the Civil Service as a potential career path in the future. In addition, work to expand the number of Civil Service apprenticeships is ongoing, with two apprentice recruitment exercises for procurement and civil engineering now live. Further Civil Service apprenticeships are under development. We are also developing a new management trainee scheme aimed at graduates.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his answer. People in my constituency of West Tyrone want to know about the Connect2 regional hub in Omagh. Can you confirm if it will be open in 2022? Can you guarantee that there will be high-value jobs for people in the area? Has any consideration been given to such a hub for the Strabane area?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

There is scheduled engagement, and, as the Member correctly identified, Omagh was directed as one of the 10 areas being looked at first. That was based on a number of factors, including an assessment of where people travel from to work in headquarters in Belfast. Those are all moving at different speeds. I suspect that Downpatrick will be the first one on board. After that, they will roll out. I will be very happy to get him the estimated time frame for Omagh.

Relating it to the first question, traditionally, people who live in border areas in constituencies such as mine or the Member's did not apply for such jobs as the prospect of driving five days a week into Belfast was off-putting. This gives people the opportunity to work for a number of days in a regional hub, and therefore makes the prospect of that type of career more attractive. They will be at whatever value people who get the jobs in the area —. What we are providing is the base to allow them to have a more flexible working approach. In time, that will change the make-up of the Civil Service, particularly for women, who would struggle with that amount of time travelling in and out, given that the burden of responsibility in the home often falls to them, unfortunately, but also for younger people and people from more peripheral areas who traditionally would not have been seen in the Civil Service.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

One thing that the previous permanent secretary of the Department of Finance said before she left was that there was a lack of a fast stream for bringing high-quality graduates into the Northern Ireland Civil Service to change it. In fact, I do not think that we have had a fast stream programme for nearly a decade. Is the Minister considering introducing a fast stream and, if not, why not?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

As the Member will know, there is an Audit Office report on capability and capacity in the Civil Service, and one of the suggested responses to that is the idea of a fast stream to make sure that you get the right people in the right place at the right time. There is clearly a need for our Civil Service to be much more agile, flexible and representative of the community that we all collectively represent and that it works for. I am open to any of those ideas. I know that it is something that the previous permanent secretary was keen on.

We are developing a reform process for the Civil Service acting on the back of a number of reports, including that Audit Office report. Those objectives are ones that we will want to have to the fore when we are developing new ideas and new ways of dealing with the Civil Service in the time ahead.

Photo of Nicola Brogan Nicola Brogan Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his answers. I welcome the information about the regional hub in Omagh. That will be very welcome to people in Omagh and across West Tyrone. Will the Minister outline what steps he is taking to ensure that there are job opportunities for those furthest from the labour market?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

The Civil Service, as an employer, is supporting the Job Start scheme that the Department for Communities recently launched. That is open to all employers and provides paid work placement opportunities lasting from six to nine months for young people aged 16 to 24 who are at risk of long-term unemployment. The NICS HR in my Department is supporting the Department for Communities as it pilots the scheme, with a specific focus on people aged 16 to 24 with disabilities, in preparation for rolling it out across the Civil Service in due course.

As well as offering opportunities across Departments to young people with disabilities, it is proposed to broaden the scheme to include other young people at risk of long-term unemployment, such as those leaving the care system. The expansion of a number of apprenticeship schemes in the Civil Service will also be important in supporting those furthest from the job market and will provide an entry route into the Civil Service. My Department is committed to expanding the number of apprenticeship schemes in the Civil Service in order to provide an alternative career entry route into the Civil Service to help to ensure that it is reflective of the society it serves.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

The Minister referred to the Northern Ireland Audit Office's report 'Capacity and Capability in the Northern Ireland Civil Service', which was recently considered by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). It highlights the fact that we have an older workforce in the Northern Ireland Civil Service. Is the Minister satisfied that all actions are being taken for succession planning and recruitment for those vacancies so that we have a Civil Service that has the right skills and capacity to go forward?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

The report highlighted a number of areas, and that could well be considered to be one of them. There is a retirement policy in the Civil Service that allows people to partially retire but to stay in work for potentially an open-ended number of years in that post. I have asked people to look at how that is being implemented. There are legal rights when people are availing themselves of early retirement. Whether that fits in with the work scheme in Departments is something that line managers and permanent secretaries need to look at again, and I have asked for some advice on that.

There is a big improvement exercise there. Let us not forget that the Civil Service has done remarkable work, particularly over the last year, across a whole range of Departments. However, a need has been identified, as you say, to get the right skills, balance and age profile into the Civil Service. That is a significant undertaking but is one that we are prepared and, indeed, keen to embrace. As the Department with overall responsibility for the Civil Service, we will want other Departments to come along that route with us.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

The Civil Service has been without a permanent head for almost a year, and now we have a proposition of a twin-headed approach. Does the Minister think that the absence of a head of the Civil Service has diminished the strategic direction of and leadership in the Civil Service, and will the twin-headed approach worsen or improve that?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I do not think so, to be quite honest. Regardless of what strategic direction and approach was being developed in the Executive or, indeed, across the Civil Service, we were all in response mode this year. The priority was responding to the pandemic getting support to people who needed it and to the health service. The priority was very much focused on the day-to-day needs over the last year or 15 months.

A twin-headed role is not being developed. The aim is to have someone to head up the Executive Office as a distinct Department so that the head of the Civil Service can have that more strategic approach across all Departments, all civil servants in the public sector and the arm's-length bodies. In many ways, it allows for that more strategic approach rather than for the day-to-day management of the Executive Office. That is being passed down to a newly created permanent secretary post.

My perspective on it is that it will be helpful for what he suggests is required. I will go back to the point in the debate this morning, and I am sure we will continue with it this afternoon, about getting into a strategic approach with a multi-annual Budget and Programme for Government outcome. That is the type of work I would want the head of the Civil Service to focus on rather than the day-to-day management of the Executive Office.