Summary of Responses and Evidence to the Committee’s Consultation on the Dissolution of the Department for Employment and Learning and the Transfer of its Functions
Committee: Employment and Learning
Date: Wednesday, 09 May 2012
Reference: NIA 51/11-15
Mandate Report Number: Mandate 2011/15 First Report
Together with the Minutes of Proceedings of the Committee relating to the Report, Minutes of Evidence, and Written Submissions
The Committee for Employment and Learning is a Statutory Departmental Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly established in accordance with paragraphs 8 and 9 of the Belfast Agreement, Section 29 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and under Standing Orders 48 of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Committee has a scrutiny, policy development and consultation role with respect to the Department for Employment and Learning and has a role in the initiation of legislation.
The Committee has power to:
- Consider and advise on Departmental budgets and annual plans in the context of the overall budget allocation;
- Approve relevant secondary legislation and take the Committee stage of relevant primary legislation;
- Call for persons and papers;
- Initiate inquiries and make reports; and
- Consider and advise on matters brought to the Committee by the Minister for Employment and Learning.
The Committee has eleven members, including a Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson, with a quorum of five. The membership of the Committee during the current mandate has been as follows:
1. Througout its existence, the Committee for Employment and Learning has worked closely with the Department in undertaking its statutory responsibility to consider and advise on matters of policy and legislation. The Committee has become familiar not only with the issues that have arisen, but also with the organisations which are intrinsically linked to the resolution of these issues.
2. It was highly appropriate, therefore, that the Committee should offer all stakeholders, including Departmental staff, an opportunity to express their views on the dissolution and transfer of functions of the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL). A summary of this stakeholder evidence has been summarised and the key themes identified.
3. The majority of respondents to the Committee consultation expressed the opininon that all or some of the current functions of DEL should be transferred to the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment; a significant number of respondents also identified aspects of DEL which could be effectively aligned with the Department of Education (DE).
4. The functions which were most often perceived as being appropriate to move to the Department of Education were Higher Education (HE) and Further Education (FE). Both Stranmillis University College and St Mary's University College expressed the view that they thought that they would benefit from being an integral part of the Department of Education. Similarly, some stakeholders were of the opinion that DE could offer a continuum of lifelong learning, encompassing both adults and young people, if HE and FE were transferred from DEL back to the Department of Education.
5. Both Queen's University, Belfast, (QUB) and the University of Ulster (UU) agreed that the Teacher Education function could be properly administered by DE, in the same way that the Department for Health and Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) commissions and funds the training of doctors and nurses, without the entire HE sector moving to DE.
6. The Colleges of Further Education believed that their primary function was to support the economy through the provision of skills and training, and the more appropriate focus for FE would be towards employment rather than education. Colleges NI, together with a number of other stakeholders, expressed the opinion that FE had previously been the "Cinderella" service of education and were apprehensive that this situation may be repeated if Further Education reverted to DE.
7. The unions were divided in their views: the Ulster Teachers' Union (UTU) and the University and College Union supported the transfer of HE and FE to the Department of Education, whereas the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA) expressed reservations about this.
8. Representatives of business and industry strongly supported the transfer of DEL functions relating to skills and employment to the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Industry (DETI). The Northern Ireland Schools and Colleges Careers Association (NISCA) also thought that the Careers Services would be better placed with DETI to be more closely associated with information on the labour market.
9. A number of community and voluntary organisations, which engage in vocational training with both young people and adults, opted for DEL functions to be transferred to DETI. This would maintain the focus, which they said they had worked hard to establish, on job opportunities and the social economy. The Northern Ireland Asociation for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NIACRO) dissented from this view, however, and expressed reservations that DETI was not primarily focussed on people who have been socially excluded and marginalised.
10. One option that had not been specifically suggested by the Committee in its consultation was the creation of a new Department for the Economy. This was favoured by a number of stakeholders; some respondents also felt that DEL should not be subsumed into DETI, but rather merged to create a new entity. The notion of a new start, exemplified by a new name, was proposed as a way of ensuring that the Programme for Government focus on the economy would be delivered by a department which integrated skills and training, as well as job creation and employment relations.
11. The transfer of the Job Centre functions to the Department for Social Development was discussed by a number of stakeholders. With the exception of the Law Centre NI, this option was not seen as beneficial to job seekers and the association with benefits was perceived as off-putting to people who wish to access the employment service. Organisations working with the disabled were particularly emphatic that the Disability Employment Service should not be moved to DSD.
12. The Law Centre NI justified its stance that consideration should be given to transferring the job seeking function to DSD by referring to the impact of Welfare Reform legislation and the need for a seamless administration of universal credit. The Law Centre also cited the corresponding department in Great Britain, the Department for Work and Pensions, which covers both the jobs and benefits function.
13. Some representatives of the Higher and Further Education institutions believed that FE and HE should be transferred to the same department – preferably an economic department – as they are intrinsically linked. Colleges NI argued that, although FE Colleges provide only 20% of the higher education in Northern Ireland, this is vital to deliver a meaningful range of qualifications.
14. Concerns were expressed by a number of stakeholders regarding the importance of the continuity of the existing provision and the relationships which have been built up with DEL officials. This was particularly evident in evidence given by representatives from the community and voluntary sector, with the work of the Disability Employment Service being especially valued, but the Law Centre NI and the Labour Relations Agency (LRA) also was concerned that the specialism, expertise, knowledge and relationships within DEL should not be lost when the Department was dissolved. Invest NI also paid tribute to the personal leadership from DEL officials which had contributed to the success of the organisation.
15. Some stakeholders thought that, regardless of the department to which DEL's functions were transferred, it was of paramount importance that there was joined-up thinking and working between departments to address issues such as young people not in employment, education or training (so-called NEETs). Concerns were also raised regarding the linkages between the demand and supply of skills. Invest NI believed that an opportunity for a mismatch may occur if policy for delivering skills lay with one department and the responsibility for delivering it lay with another, and this also had budgetary implications.
16. Mencap also suggested that equality screening should be carried out to assess the impact of any transfer of functions on the Section 75 groups, especially on disabled people, so that the existing support for employment opportunities and career guidance would not be removed.
17. The results of consultation carried out with Department for Employment and Learning staff mirrored the views of key stakeholders to a large extent. The overwhelming majority of staff, including the senior management team, believe that their job function would be best aligned with the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. The effectiveness of combining skills policy with the responsibility for delivery within a single department was echoed by both staff and management.
18. Job Centre staff almost unanimously believed that their role – of getting people into work – was more closely aligned with DETI than DSD. The Careers Service saw a different role within two departments, whereby all-age guidance fitted better with DETI and advice for young people within DE. Staff within the Office of Industrial Tribunals and the Fair Employment Tribunals supported a move of their job function to the Department for Justice.
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