Review of Arm’s-length Bodies

Oral Answers to Questions — Finance – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 18th October 2021.

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Photo of Maolíosa McHugh Maolíosa McHugh Sinn Féin 2:45 pm, 18th October 2021

2. Mr McHugh asked the Minister of Finance for an update on the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) commitment of a review of arm's-length bodies (ALBs). (AQO 2594/17-22)

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

The NDNA commitments envisage that the number of ALBs will be rationalised and that there will be efficiency savings, a strengthening of democratic control and improved accountability. The Executive have agreed that the review should proceed. The Department of Finance has provided guidance to Departments, and it will be for individual Ministers to take forward a review of their ALBs, produce an action plan and report on progress to the Executive. I am determined to drive that work forward. I expect that all Departments will be in a position to bring their timetables for reviewing their ALBs to the Executive early in the new year. The Department will then produce an annual report. It will also bring forward a draft public bodies Bill to facilitate the subsequent change process and to help to drive progress.

Photo of Maolíosa McHugh Maolíosa McHugh Sinn Féin

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra. Will the Minister give an update on recruitment to the Civil Service, which has caused us great concern, given the numbers retiring, the age profile of staff and, in some areas, the lack of skill sets?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

As the Member will know from his time on the Finance Committee, that reform, which was primarily driven by the renewable heat incentive (RHI) report but was certainly necessary in any circumstances, is pressing ahead. There is a focus on recruitment and the methods used to fill vacancies in the Civil Service. There is more use of external recruitment or the transfer of existing staff. We are moving from the use of internal promotion boards to external recruitment, and that will be the default method to fill vacancies. That is one among a suite of policies, if you like, to try to bring the necessary skills into the Civil Service, to change the age profile of Civil Service staff, which is much too high, and to ensure that we have an influx from, as I say, all sectors, genders and regions in order to make sure that the Civil Service is balanced and represents the broad swathe of the population.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

Minister, have you set any targets for a reduction in the number of arm's-length bodies? Have you discussed with the independent fiscal council how we can reduce the overall administrative burden of our arm's-length bodies?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

As the Member knows, that commitment was part of the NDNA agreement, which brought the Executive back into being. That process has been long talked about over many years by many Executives. Most of the arm's-length bodies are a product of direct rule over those years, and there is a strong case for a reduction in their number. When the parties agreed 'New Decade, New Approach', they recognised that there was a need not only to review but to rationalise and reduce the number. Quite a number of them are surplus to requirements and could be brought back into Departments, merged or have their functions dealt with in another way. That would provide more transparency and democracy and give the House more influence over those bodies than is currently the case. I am keen for that to go ahead. We have engaged with the Departments on it. We have given them a template for conducting a review. We expect that to be with us early in the new year. We will push ahead with legislation to facilitate that. Each Department has a responsibility for its bodies, so I cannot set a target for everyone. I am firmly of the view that we have substantially more bodies than we need. They are a product not of devolved government but of direct rule government, and we need to address them.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

How will the Minister ensure that independent advocacy is retained for key sectors such as the arts and sport as part of that review?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

It will be for each Department to assess their arm's-length bodies' accountability, affordability and range of functions and how those relate to the Department. Each Department will obviously have a different set. I have no doubt that some of them perform good functions, but this question has to be asked: do those functions continue to be required in a devolved scenario where you have a functioning Assembly and Committees for each Department? Bear it in mind that many of those bodies were set up during, as I say, the period of direct rule in order to provide some veneer of local democratic input into decision-making by NIO Ministers. There is not only a cost attached to them but an accountability and responsibility deficit in their relationship with Departments and, through those Departments, to this institution. For those reasons, we need to take a long, hard look at each of them, as well as ensuring that the advocacy that you talk about continues, be that in a Department or through this institution.