Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: Thursday, 10 January 2008

Libraries Bill

10 January 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Barry McElduff (Chairperson)
Mr David McNarry (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley
Mr Francie Brolly
Lord Browne
Mr Kieran McCarthy
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Pat Ramsey
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon

Witnesses:

Ms Irene Armstrong ) Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure
Ms Julie Mapstone
Mr Noel Kelly ) Departmental Solicitor’s Office

Schedule 1 (The Northern Ireland Library Authority)

Schedule 2 (Transfer Schemes)

The Chairperson (Mr McElduff):

The Committee has received correspondence from the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure in response to its proposals on board membership of the new library authority, contained in paragraph 2 of schedule 1, and also the request for confirmation that the Minister is content with the legal advice that he received about schedule 2, which deals with staff transfers.

Mr K Robinson:

It is worth commenting that the Committee was clear about its reasons for wanting the board membership based in that way. The Minister has now accepted that fact, and I am glad that he has responded to the positive views of the Committee, albeit that that was not the case in the early days. We always felt that we were dragging against an unseen weight, and another unseen weight was felt in our earlier discussions.

As the last member to join the Committee, I thought that I was in the dark, because I was always playing catch-up. It is obvious from having listened to members on the far side of the table that we are all playing catch-up on those issues. The Committee dug its heels in on that matter, and it has achieved what it wanted. It is pleasant that the Minister now agrees with us. I hope that that is a good sign that the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, the Minister and the Committee can work cohesively.

The Chairperson:

We are making some inroads.

Mr McCausland:

The Committee raised the issue of diversity. The Minister’s letter states:

“Such a statement is not normally included except where the business of the body in question is specifically equality related, or highly politically sensitive.”

Therefore, diversity applies to bodies such as the Northern Ireland Equality Commission and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. Is this not simply a question of good practice? The Minister uses the words “is not normally included except”. In many respects, we are in a new realm. There are not many newly constituted bodies; the bodies that come to mind immediately are the Equality Commission, the Human Rights Commission and the Northern Ireland Policing Board. I do not know the precise terminology that describes the Equality Commission or the Human Rights Commission, but it is good practice for a body to reflect Northern Ireland society. It does not work in the case of the Human Rights Commission or the Equality Commission, because those organisations do not reflect Northern Ireland society. However, the principle of diversity of membership is a good principle, particularly in the case of a cultural body such as the library authority, which should reflect the cultural diversity of Northern Ireland. Why use the words “not normally included” when there are not many examples? Should we not simply be establishing good practice?

Mr Shannon:

I concur with Ken’s comments. The Committee clearly intimated to the Minister and the Department its wish that the board of the library authority be constituted in a certain way and that the balance should lie in favour of elected representatives rather than independent members. The Minister has taken the Committee’s view on board and has responded accordingly. The Committee should take some credit for its negotiations with the Minister. He realised that the Committee had provided the best solution, with which he agreed.

Mr K Robinson:

Unfortunately, Chairperson, if we were to make a positive decision, it would exclude us from membership of the Luddite society.

The Chairperson:

Do you have any unresolved concerns, Nelson?

Mr McCausland:

I still think that it is a missed opportunity. The Committee has prevailed on the matter of board membership, but diversity is a good principle.

The Chairperson:

You might have another opportunity to present that argument to senior officials from the Department, who will join us shortly.

We will go back to Ken’s point. The Minister has agreed that a majority of the members of the board of the library authority should be elected representatives of district councils. He has also agreed that the board should comprise 19 members and that the requirement of a majority of places for elected representatives will be stated in the legislation. As you say, Ken, the Minister has listened.

Mr K Robinson:

It is a major step forward.

The Chairperson:

The Department will have to amend paragraph 2(1)(b) of schedule 1.

Let us move on to paragraph 2(1)(a) of schedule 1. The Committee had agreed to ask the Minister to amend this provision so that the chair of the board of the library authority will always be an elected local government representative. In his letter, however, the Minister has expressed his wish to leave open the issue of the recruitment of the chair of the board. The letter states:

“It will of course be open to District Councillors to apply for the post of Chair”.

That is not necessarily the same thing, but it is par for the course here.

Is the Committee satisfied with the Minister’s response? If not, the Committee would have to put down its own amendment. Is it fair to say that the Committee is broadly content?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:

Paragraph 2 deals with membership. I advise members that the Committee had agreed to ask the Minister to amend the paragraph to state that the library authority shall be representative of the community. That is Nelson’s point. It mirrors the words used in section 73(4) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 concerning the make-up of the Equality Commission.

In the Minister’s letter, he mentions the issues of equality and diversity. We might tease out those issues further with the departmental officials. The Department has said that any amendments to the Bill will not be included until the Committee produces its final report in February. That includes amendments to which the Minister has agreed.

The Principal Clerk of Bills:

It would be more in line with good practice for the Committee to receive the wording of amendments before it signs off its report. There are a couple of reasons for that. It would avoid the possibility — the likelihood, even — of problems in dealing with amendments when the Bill reaches Consideration Stage, which will follow some time after the Committee’s report has been completed.

If the Committee has not seen those amendments in advance and satisfied itself that the amendments are exactly as it had anticipated, problems arise about additional issues that must be dealt with in detail, after the Committee has concluded its detailed examination. In other words, it is much more difficult to deal with the detail in the Assembly Chamber than it is to deal with detail at Committee Stage.

I strongly recommend, to the Department and the Committee, that the Committee should request the drafted amendments before it signs off its report. That means that when the Committee has signed off its report, it is agreeing the Bill in its finalised form. That is in line with good practice, as it has been developed for other Committees. I recommend that the Committee should seek to have the amendments brought to it and have them agreed before it completes its report.

The Chairperson:

Are members content with that arrangement?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:

Schedule 2 deals with transfer schemes. The Committee’s letter to the Minister of 10 December 2007 sought his assurance that he was satisfied with the legal advice that he had received about schedule 2. In the Minister’s letter, he confirms that he is content with the legal advice that he has received. Are Members content to proceed with the line-by-line reading of paragraph 2 of schedule 1 and paragraphs 1 and 4 of schedule 2, now that we have the Minister’s assurance?

Mr McNarry:

I am happy to proceed with the line-by-line reading, but not necessarily on the basis of the Minister’s assurance. Although I am not challenging the Minister’s assurance, further information on the legal side is still to be provided. Will the Committee hear more about that today?

The Chairperson:

You are entitled to ask that question, and you will be given the opportunity to do so.

Mr McNarry:

How will I get that opportunity?

The Chairperson:

You will get the opportunity when senior departmental officials join the meeting.

Mr McNarry:

Are you suggesting to me, or are you telling me — with all due respect to the senior departmental officials — that the Committee is going to undertake a line-by-line reading in their presence and that members will ask them for their opinion? That would make those officials, in effect, members of the Committee.

The Chairperson:

No, it would not. However, you are entitled to seek information en route. That is the plan.

Mr McNarry:

I find that to be very strange.

The Principal Clerk of Bills:

That is the normal process. In other words, the Committee is examining each paragraph. If the Committee is content, it agrees the paragraph.

Mr McNarry:

The Committee has examined lots of paragraphs without the presence of departmental officials. Why are they here today?

The Chairperson:

Departmental officials were present at Committee meetings on previous occasions.

Mr McNarry:

I do not recall having seen them sitting in a meeting of the Committee.

The Chairperson:

Your recollection may not tally with that of others.

Mr McNarry:

You mean that they were sitting at the table — formally — in the meeting, with their name tags as the Committee undertook a line-by-line reading of the Bill?

The Chairperson:

I will ask the Committee Clerk about that matter.

The Committee Clerk:

On previous occasions, departmental officials and representatives from the Departmental Solicitor’s Office were present at Committee meetings. The last meeting at which the Committee discussed the Libraries Bill was held in Belfast Central Library. Mr McNarry was unable to attend that meeting. Departmental officials appeared as witnesses at that meeting to assist on any issues that the Committee raised.

Mr McNarry:

I fully understand and accept that. However, at a previous Committee meeting at which I was present, when a line-by-line reading was undertaken — not when the Committee met at Central Library — I do not recall any officials sitting in on that meeting. Am I correct in saying that?

The Committee Clerk:

We can consult the minutes.

The Chairperson:

We can check that fact from the minutes.

Mr McNarry:

Is there a sudden lapse of memory about these things? Were they here or were they not here?

The Chairperson:

For the sake of accuracy, David, we will check the minutes of the previous meetings at which we analysed the Bill to find out whether senior officials were in attendance, and in what capacity those officials were in attendance.

Mr McNarry:

I am not having a senior moment, and I do not want to think that I am. It is too early in the year for that.

The Chairperson:

At this point in the meeting, I invite Mr Noel Kelly from the Departmental Solicitor’s Office and senior officials from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Julie Mapstone and Irene Armstrong, to join us. Thank you for coming this morning. Before I move to the line-by-line reading of paragraph 2 of schedule 1 and paragraphs 1 and 4 of schedule 2, I will tidy up the issues that remain from schedule 1.

Paragraph 2 of schedule 1 relates to membership. I am seeking an assurance from the departmental officials that the Minister has taken legal advice on the diversity issue.

Mr McCausland:

I have a point on the diversity and representativeness of the board of the library authority. The Minister’s letter states that he:

“will be in a position to ensure the balance we seek.”

If one were seeking balance, would it not make sense to have it in the wording of the legislation?

Ms Julie Mapstone (Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure):

The Department has not sought legal advice on the diversity issue. We followed the pattern of other bodies sponsored by DCAL, such as the Arts Council and Sport Northern Ireland, which are not obliged to comply with equality legislation.

Mr McCausland:

Those bodies were set up umpteen years ago, and we have moved on since then. Is it not the case that the more recently established bodies such as the Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission are subject to diversity legislation? Cultural bodies should reflect the cultural diversity of Northern Ireland.

The Chairperson:

Julie, can you park that issue? Dominic Bradley and David McNarry will ask their questions, and then you can give a composite answer.

Mr D Bradley:

The Minister states that an attempt to have a diverse board might conflict with section 75 groups. I would have thought that that attempt might also fit in well with section 75, depending on how diversity was defined.

Mr McNarry:

I recall Mr Noel Kelly attending a Committee meeting on a previous occasion regarding legalities and concerns that the Committee had over representations that it had from trade unions. We left that issue with Mr Kelly in the hope that he would have discussions with the trade unions’ legal representative.

Mr Noel Kelly (Departmental Solicitor’s Office):

That is correct. You will recall that that session was held at Central Library on 6 December 2007. At that stage, the Department had not received a reply from the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance ( NIPSA ), and no meeting had been facilitated. Furthermore, no copy of the final opinion from NIPSA’s senior counsel, Frank O’Donoghue QC, was furnished. Things have moved on slightly, in that NIPSA wrote to the Department on 10 December 2007. John Corey, NIPSA’s general secretary, states:

“First, we were not aware until I spoke with Julie Mapstone last month that the Department was not being advised by counsel.”

You will recall that NIPSA said that its senior counsel would not discuss the matter with me because I was not a senior counsel. Mr Corey states that he was not aware that the Department was not being advised by counsel — and of course I accept what he says — but I am not sure what difference it makes. The letter continues:

“Second, to avoid unnecessary complications Senior Counsel has advised that Noel Kelly contacts directly NIPSA’s Solicitor Mr Viv Harty.”

Mr Harty’s address and phone number are supplied. I tried to phone, but I got no response. Therefore, on 20 December 2007, I delivered a letter by hand to Viv Harty’s office; it summarised the issue and stated that the matter arose:

“because of a helpful intervention by Mr McNarry MLA in the Assembly Committee who suggested that I should meet with Mr O’Donoghue QC to discuss the differences in opinion which are apparent in the matter. For some reason that I do not understand, that meeting has not proved possible.”

The letter went on to say that I had tried to phone Viv Harty but had been unable to reach him. It stated:

“If you feel it would be helpful, I am willing to meet to discuss this matter further with either you or with Mr O’Donoghue on Friday 21 st (pm), Thursday 27 th (all day) or Friday 28 th (all day) December or a date in January to be agreed.”

I have received no response.

Mr McNarry:

Thank you, Mr Kelly. I appreciate the efforts that you have made to seek a solution to that matter. I am wrestling with two issues. First, there is the question of whether to move on to line-by-line scrutiny of the schedule on the basis of the Minister’s assurances. I am slightly concerned, being mindful of the potential for legal challenge, that the Minister has made a decision unsightedof any legal challenge that may arise, because there have been no real discussions.

The Committee has treated NIPSA very fairly. Members listened to its case. The Committee attempted to facilitate a resolution, or at least contact between Mr Noel Kelly and its representatives. I wonder whether members share my view that we should tell NIPSA that we have heard about Mr Kelly’s efforts to contact its officials and ask where that leaves the Committee. We should ask NIPSA whether it intends to withdraw its previous concerns or whether it thinks that the Committee is at least entitled to an explanation about where it stands on the issue of potential legal challenges.

I am sure that all members agree that our concern is that we do not want to agree a Bill in the knowledge that there is every prospect of its being challenged in court 24 hours later. It would be very disingenuous of us to do that in the light of what Mr Kelly has reported to us.

Mr N Kelly:

If I might interject; it is unlikely that there will be a challenge to the Bill in the time frame that you suggest. NIPSA is suggesting that, at some future date, if there were a dispute about the transfer of a member of staff that ends up in an industrial tribunal, possibly two years down the line, a tribunal chairperson will take a different interpretation of the legislation to that which the Department, the draftsman and I take.

It is easy to suggest such a possible situation. It is always possible to say that the legislation could be challenged. That is how lawyers make a living — thank God. You can never rule out a challenge. However, that is where it sits. I am content, if the transfer is stated in the legislation to be a relevant transfer for the purposes of the 2006 regulations, that carries with it all the protections that flow from the transfer being a relevant transfer. At the meeting in Central Library, I practically put the entire Committee to sleep by going through the mechanics and background of the legislation.

NIPSA’s objection is that it suggests that, at some point — perhaps two years down the line — the legislation might be challenged if there is a dispute about a transfer. The legislation may be challenged, but my opinion is that it is good.

Mr McNarry:

I am grateful to Mr Kelly. I can see why the Minister has said what he said in his letter, and I am prepared to accept that. I still ask that the Committee writes to NIPSA on the basis of what it has heard today and asks for explanations.

The Chairperson:

Do members agree that the Committee writes to NIPSA?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:

Do members agree to paragraph 2(1)(a) of schedule 1, subject to amendment?

The Principal Clerk of Bills:

Have we agreed that the Committee should see the amendments? The Committee may want to find out whether the Department is happy to provide amendments, in which case you could agree the paragraph as amended, rather than subject to an unseen amendment.

The Chairperson:

OK.

Ms Mapstone:

That is fine. We received further advice on the matter this morning, and the Department is happy to come back to the Committee with those paragraphs amended as agreed.

The Principal Clerk of Bills:

In those circumstances, it is probably better to leave schedule 1 so that it can be agreed exactly as it will appear in the Bill, rather than at a time when we do not know the precise wording of the amendment.

The Chairperson:

Therefore, we will park schedule 1 in its entirety.

Paragraphs 1 to 3 of schedule 2 relate to the creation and apportionment of property, rights and liabilities, etc. Do Julie or Irene wish to comment on paragraph 1?

Ms Mapstone:

No.

The Chairperson:

Are members content with paragraphs 1 to 3 of schedule 2?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:

Paragraph 4 deals with employment contracts. Are members happy with paragraph 4(1)?

The Principal Clerk of Bills:

The only issue with paragraph 4 concerns Mr McNarry’s request that a letter be sent to the trade union. Unfortunately, Mr McNarry has left the room; however, do members wish to wait and consider the trade-union response before agreeing paragraph 4, or are they content to anticipate the likely response and proceed?

Mr D Bradley:

There is little point in writing to the trade unions unless we await their reply.

The Chairperson:

Should we revisit paragraph 4 in its entirety?

Mr D Bradley:

Yes, after we have received NIPSA’s response.

The Chairperson:

In light of the request to NIPSA, we will park paragraph 4 of schedule 2.

Members will have a final opportunity to engage in a clause-by-clause scrutiny of the Bill on 24 January 2008, and we hope that the departmental officials will attend on that day.

Can the departmental officials give us an assurance that the required amendments will be brought before the Committee in time for consideration at our 17 January 2008 meeting?

Ms Mapstone:

We will certainly endeavour to do that, although that will depend on the legislative draftsman who compiles the amendments. However, if requested, I am sure that he will manage to do so by that time. There are not too many amendments, and he should, therefore, be able to meet that deadline.

The Chairperson:

Members should refer to the outline plan for the Committee Stage of the Libraries Bill, which restates that 24 January 2008 will be the last opportunity to carry out a clause-by-clause reading.

Schedule 1 referred for further consideration.

Schedule 2 referred for further consideration.

The Chairperson:

Members should refer to the Minister’s response to the Committee’s request for information about DCAL’s bid for £980,000 in the December monitoring round in order to fund redundancy payments that may arise as a result of the establishment of the new library authority. The Minister is currently unable to give details of the number of people who might be involved or of the cost, but he has undertaken to inform the Committee as soon as that information becomes available. Are members content with the Minister’s response?

Mr K Robinson:

On a point of clarification: is the £600,000 tranche of redundancy payments to be met from moneys that are currently in the libraries budget? Everywhere we have gone in the past couple of months, librarians and people associated with libraries have told us about how tough things are. Could that £600,000 have been spent on books, materials and library improvements, or was it salted away specifically to meet redundancy payments?

Mr Shannon:

Does that mean that things are going to get tougher?

Mr P Ramsey:

I support Ken’s comments. In my constituency, the Western Education and Library Board has expressed ongoing concerns about the viability of maintaining a unique library service such as the current one. According to the board, literacy and numeracy services will be significantly reduced. We must have more information. Given those and future reductions, will the boards be able to deliver a good and efficient service to the wider public?

The Chairperson:

Members will be able to see the letter requesting —

Mr K Robinson:

The Minister’s letter states:

“A first tranche of redundancies is being met from approximately £600,000 monies available from the libraries budget in this year.”

That concerns me. Was that £600,000 set aside to buy extra books and materials throughout the current financial year? Is it now being pulled out of the pot to be held for redundancies that may not have been foreseen earlier?

The second sum mentioned in the Minister’s letter is £980,000, which is additional money. I am not as concerned about that as I am about the £600,000 being scooped out of the existing libraries budget that might have been used in other ways.

Mr McCausland:

The Minister’s letter states that the Department asked for information on:

“potential voluntary redundancies in this financial year”.

Do we know whether those will actually be realised? This is the month of January. If it is not known whether someone is leaving the service now, there is only another 10 weeks to find out. We should find out how much of that will actually be realised.

The Chairperson:

We have a series of questions for the Minister and the Department, and we will take action accordingly.

Mr P Ramsey:

Will the Committee also write to the boards to seek an explanation of some points: for example, will there be a reduction of revenue because of redundancies? Ken has asked whether there will be reductions in the purchasing of materials and in the introduction of new programmes.

Mr McCausland:

If we are also writing to the boards, can we ask them — we could also get this information from the Department — what reduction there will be in the libraries budget of each board in percentage terms for the next financial year.

Mr P Ramsey:

The situation has changed since the boards made their presentation to the Committee, so we must find that out.

The Chairperson:

We will take that action.

Mr Brolly:

Is it worth considering whether the £600,000 is money that has been set aside for redundancies that the boards anticipate and of which they are already aware? The other sum of £980,000 may be for use in the event of redundancies that have not been anticipated. I do not know. As Ken says, we need to clarify that.

Ms Mapstone:

May I comment? The £600,000 is not new money: that is quite correct. It did not become available to the libraries budget until September. The reason for that is that it was part of a line of expenditure in the draft Budget that referred to a unitary charge element, which was put into the budget some time ago as an anticipation of public-private partnership or private finance initiative projects that would require a unitary charge payment every year. What is in the line is in excess of what libraries need to pay in unitary charges; however, the Department is not allowed, without Department of Finance and Personnel permission, to reallocate it.

Mr K Robinson:

So you are not dipping into the pot.

Ms Mapstone:

We are not. We received permission to reallocate that sum in September; therefore, although it was already there, it was not widely available to the boards. We are not, therefore, taking money from the boards. In September, we went out to the boards. We told them that we had this money available, asked how they wished to spend it and set out the criteria. Overwhelmingly, the boards requested that the money be spent on redundancy payments. The Department is complying with the boards’ views of where the money is needed. They chose redundancies so overwhelmingly that we put in the additional bid.

Mr Brolly:

That is helpful.

Mr McCausland:

While Julie is here, we can ask another question. Can we have an explanation, in simple, understandable form, of how the assessment of relative needs exercise (ARNE) actually works? Sometimes those issues are so complicated.

Ms Mapstone:

We can supply that. I cannot give it to you now, because I may not get the details right; but we can provide you with that.

Mr McCausland:

That would be useful. There has been a 30% reduction in the funding of the Belfast Education and Library Board over the past four to five years. I have never understood why that should have happened; one accepts that that is how the system works. I am interested to know why it has had that effect on funding. The population has not dropped by 30%.

Ms Mapstone:

I recall that financing per head for the Belfast Education and Library Board was significantly in excess of other areas and that there was a need for a readjustment.

Mr McCausland:

I am keen to know why the reduction was so substantial.

Ms Mapstone:

We can provide the details.

The Chairperson:

Members are clear on the questions that the Committee will put to the boards. I thank Noel, Julie and Irene for coming along this morning to assist us.

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