Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: Tuesday, 04 September 2007

Libraries Bill
4 September 2007

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Barry McElduff (Chairperson)
Mr David McNarry (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley
Lord Browne
Mr Kieran McCarthy
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Paul Maskey
Mr Pat Ramsey
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon

Witnesses:
Mr Edwin Poots (The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure)
Mr Colin Jack (Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure)
Miss Irene Knox (proposed Northern Ireland Library Authority)

The Chairperson (Mr McElduff):
I welcome the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Mr Edwin Poots, to the meeting. He is accompanied by senior officials.

The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr Poots):
They are Mr Colin Jack and Miss Irene Knox, who is the new chief executive designate of the proposed Northern Ireland library authority.

The Chairperson:
Thank you, Minister. I shall hand over to you straight away so that you can make your presentation on the Libraries Bill. Afterwards, the Committee will ask questions.

Mr Poots:
I was enjoying the Committee’s scones, when I was rudely interrupted.

The Chairperson:
I hope that you have not carried any of them into the room in your pocket because eating during the Committee meeting is not permitted.

Mr Poots:
We had only half a scone each. However, half a scone is better than none.

It is good to be here. I trust that Committee members had a good break during the summer and that everyone is ready for hard work. There is plenty of work to be done, both by the Department and the Committee. I thank the Committee for my invitation to discuss the timing of the introduction of the library authority.

At the outset, I want to introduce Irene Knox officially. Most members will already know Miss Knox from her previous role as chief executive of the South Eastern Education and Library Board. She has now taken up her post as chief executive designate of the library authority. The circumstances of that appointment have been explained to the Assembly. She took up her post in August 2007 and is on secondment from the South Eastern Education and Library Board, pending the final decision on the legislation. Her task is to lead and take forward the setting-up of the new body. She is happy to talk to the Committee about her key priorities for the next few months. With the Committee’s agreement, I will invite her to do so later in the meeting.

At their meeting on 7 June, the Executive agreed that the Libraries Bill should be brought before the Assembly. The Libraries Bill sets out the argument for a single library service for the whole of Northern Ireland that will be managed and delivered by a regional body — the library authority. The matter is now for the Assembly to consider, and I am looking forward to working with the Committee to ensure that the issues are considered fully and that appropriate legislation is produced to establish a library service of which we can be proud.

The creation of a single library authority reflects the review of public administration’s (RPA) objective of streamlining the management and delivery of public services. It also reflects the desire to build on the developments that have been made towards joint working at regional level by the five existing library services during the past few years. That work has proved valuable, and I appreciate the way in which the library services of the education and library boards have worked together.

The Library Service’s provisions are universal and open to all. They are free at the point of use, and have no entry or eligibility requirements to deter users. They are, therefore, valuable in combating social exclusion and promoting equality of opportunity through meeting a range of needs among individuals and communities.

Even though the Library Service’s core services of book lending and reference have not substantially changed, a new core service has been added in recent years — internet access. Furthermore, the way in which libraries operate has changed. There is an additional emphasis on proactive engagement with, and on behalf of, specific social groups, often in partnership with others. It is important to have a structure for the delivery of libraries that will reflect their range of roles and broad customer base and which exploits their potential to contribute to equality of opportunity.

A single library service for Northern Ireland — delivered by one body, linked to other relevant providers and properly positioned to reflect local needs — offers an exciting way forward. Libraries have, inevitably, been the minor partners in education and library boards and the proposed change offers the opportunity to bring a new strategic focus to the delivery of library services that will benefit the public.

Chairperson, I know that you have asked me to talk chiefly about the Committee’s concerns on the timing of the introduction of the Libraries Bill, and I am happy to listen to your views and answer questions. However, before we do that, the chief executive designate will say a few words — with the Committee’s permission.

Miss Irene Knox ( Northern Ireland Library Authority):
I thank the Chairperson, the Committee, and the Minister for giving me the opportunity to attend this morning’s meeting. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to the Committee about the work that I will be undertaking over the next few months, and I will be happy to return to the Committee at any stage. I am aware that the Committee will be involved in the consideration of the Bill over the next while, and I am content to talk to you at any time about the progress that I am making.

Subject to the Assembly’s agreement on the Libraries Bill, the aim is for the Northern Ireland library authority to function as a separate legal entity from 1 April 2008. To achieve that end, there is a significant amount of preparatory work to be done.

My first priority relates to the staff of the service. As Committee members will know, schedule 2 of the Libraries Bill makes provision for the transfer of staff from the existing education and library boards to the Northern Ireland library authority under the terms of the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 (TUPE) at the time of commencement of the new authority. At that stage it will be necessary to have a comprehensive framework in place to support the human resource needs of the new organisation and to manage issues such as human resource policies and procedures, payroll, staff recruitment, training, terms and conditions, etc, as well as to establish consultation and negotiating machinery with the trade unions.

The new authority will also require an effective organisational structure to facilitate the delivery of the key priorities for the Library Service as contained in ‘Delivering Tomorrow’s Libraries’. That structure must take account of the regional nature of the new organisation as well as the importance of local delivery and local engagement through, for example, the anticipated community planning process. I envisage the library authority having a strong subregional structure that will facilitate involvement and participation at local level.

While people have a right to expect a seamless and equitable service throughout Northern Ireland in relation to core provision, the Library Service must also be responsive to the needs of local communities and tailor its services to meet those needs. The organisational structures I propose to put in place must facilitate that process.

In developing the proposals for that organisational structure I should like to involve the existing chief librarians and their deputies so that the local needs that they are already aware of can be reflected adequately, and that they have ownership of the outcome. Once that structure has been agreed it will be necessary to recruit the senior team — again, I emphasise, on a secondment basis — to help to make that a reality. As I have said, I see that senior team as being few in number.

The quality of the Library Service, now and in the future, is heavily dependent on the professionalism of the staff who work in it. This is an unsettling time for them, and I am very conscious of the need to ensure that the change process is handled sensitively and that staff are consulted and have an opportunity to contribute to the way forward. I will be taking as many opportunities as possible to visit libraries to meet staff and, indeed, customers and to hear from them the vision that they have for the public library service in the future.

My second priority relates to the financial systems. As a separate legal entity, the Northern Ireland library authority will need to have effective and efficient systems and procedures that comply with accounting and governance obligations. I understand that the Committee has recently received a copy of a report prepared by Deloitte on options for the financial systems for the new authority. Over the next few months it will be necessary to procure, design, test and implement an appropriate financial system and to facilitate the migration of relevant data from the education and library boards.

Given the importance of the human resource, financial functions and the financial aspect of the work over the next few months, I am seeking to engage a human resources project manager and a finance project manager from the education and library boards, again on a secondment basis, to assist with that work.

There will, of course, be other work ongoing on, for example, other corporate services, business planning, administrative functions, and so on. As far as I am concerned, the critical issue is to ensure that the structures and systems are in place to build on the developments in joint working at education and library board level and thus improve the quality of provision for the future.

I should be pleased to come back to the Committee at any stage, Mr Chairman, to update you on progress, and also to hear the Committee’s views on the work that needs to be done.

Thank you.

The Chairperson:
Thank you. Are there any additional comments?

Mr Poots:
Not at this stage.

Mr McNarry:
I welcome you, Minister, and your staff.

I can see that a helter-skelter approach to this Bill has been adopted by your officials — you and I have discussed this before, Minister. The project was well under way before you actually took office. I define the Libraries Bill as a rush job, and I think that sufficient evidence of that will be brought to you today. Certainly, I am glad to see that it is going to be up to the Assembly to divert you, because you gave no indication in your opening remarks that you are deviating from proceeding with the Bill and the dates.

There is no specific date in the Bill for the library authority to take over from the education and library boards, and the boards themselves have been given a stay of execution. However, not only are you rushing this Bill, you have already rushed into appointing a chief executive designate to a body that does not exist. Today, I hear from her that she is now recruiting staff. She has said that she is seeking to engage both a human resources project manager and a finance project manager on a secondment basis. Engage them for what purpose, and to what organisation? We do not have a library authority. Minister, how is it proposed that the chief executive designate will fulfil her job description while the education and library boards continue to function and there is no library authority?

Does the chief executive designate have an employment contract? Have other designated appointments been made? Has a recruitment process been activated beyond what the chief executive designate has told us? What costs are being borne by your Department in preparation for the establishment of the library authority?

There is no date for establishment of the authority; that will be for the Assembly to decide. Should the Assembly decide that the date will be late in 2008 or perhaps, as is more likely, that it will be in 2009, will all this not have been premature? What will happen to the appointment of the chief executive designate and to other prospective appointments if the Assembly decides that it will not accept your rush job? The Assembly may conclude that a date in 2009 is preferable, and other colleagues will argue for such a date in line with RPA. In an era when the Finance Minister seems to be lecturing everyone on prudence — to steal a term from Gordon Brown — here you are, Minister, setting up a post for an organisation that does not exist. Staff have been appointed, and someone has been assigned to the most senior position — I do not know at what salary — in an organisation that does not exist, and the chief executive designate is now recruiting people to join her.

I do not fault the fact that preparation is a good thing, but premature preparation seems to be rather silly in this instance, and I am anxious to know the costs. If the library authority is not going to be established until 2009, what will those people do? What work will they do, who will they report to, and who will carry them? I do not think that the Assembly will respond positively to those costs if the authority is not going to be in place until 2009. I am interested to hear the Minister’s comments.

Mr Poots:
That is quite a range of questions, but I will try to cover them.

Mr McNarry:
I have another question, but I do not want to mix different issues.

Mr Poots:
The process started a long time ago. In fact, at that time, the Deputy Chairperson may have been involved in advising those who started the RPA process. Six years after the Assembly decided to have a review of public administration. When I was on the other side of the table, I thought it did not go far enough — it is now being implemented.

It is correct to say that I have been handed the issue of the single library authority and responsibility of delivering that part of RPA. I have no doubt that the single library authority will deliver greater efficiency savings than are currently being made. If the commitment were to efficiency savings alone, the library authority would have been kept with a single education authority, because that would have made for a more efficient body overall. However, it is much better to have a single library authority whose focus is exclusively on delivering quality library services to the public. Library services are not a small element in Northern Ireland; delivery costs are over £30 million. Those services should have their own silo, as opposed to being the poor relation in another Department. Therefore the basis for establishing a single library authority is good, and I encourage the Committee to hear the views of others on the issue.

I come before the Committee today, having obtained the Executive’s agreement to proceed with a single library authority. Although I am conscious that 10 or 11 Members of the Assembly are not represented in the Executive, I have the support of the four parties that are represented in the Executive to deliver a single library authority in Northern Ireland, and that is the basis on which the Department is proceeding. When the point of deciding on the intention to go down that route is reached, it is for the Department to work with, and consult with, the Assembly and the Committee to deliver the library authority. The Department can say that it will do something and set a date for doing it, but it cannot achieve it by magic. Preparation work must be done first.

Therefore, with the agreement of the Executive, the Department has begun the preparation work needed to create a single library authority, the focus of which will be on delivering quality library services across Northern Ireland. We want to do that in a managed way and in a way that ensures that there is a seamless separation. We want to ensure that staff interests are not jeopardised. For example, if we do not employ people with expertise in corporate services and human resources, staff might not be paid, and that would be a wholly unacceptable situation. I have no apology to make for the work that is ongoing to take forward a policy that was agreed by the Executive.

Mr McNarry:
Thank you, Minister. Is it not correct that the appointment of the chief executive designate was made before the Bill was brought before the Executive?

Mr Poots:
The appointment was not made, but the process was in place.

Mr McNarry:
The process was under way?

Mr Poots:
Yes.

Mr McNarry:
I will not go into the details, but you were not fully aware of the circumstances at the time, Minister. The process was well under way, and I am not hanging that on you. However, I am asking you to consider that it was possibly foolish to continue with a process in which nothing has been put into place.

All you have is agreement from the Executive to take a particular route. However, that route ends at the Assembly and, given information that you will know as well as the Committee does, proceeding with the Bill with the intention of having arrangements in place in 2007-08 is unlikely to succeed.

Minister, I am challenging you to address the question of whether you are squandering public money on salaries that are not yet of use. I do not take issue with the need for a single library authority; I have supported that, despite having certain reservations. I am not taking issue with the outcome, but with the manner in which the process has been rushed and the squandering of public money on salaries. Where will that stop? I am glad to hear that two more people are being considered for posts and that other staff are being considered. However, to whom will they work? I ask you to consider that in the light of what you and I know, Minister. I do not want you or anybody else to look foolish if the Assembly decides on a much later date for the setting up of the authority.

Mr Poots:
In the first instance, staff will work to the chief executive designate, who will be their line manager. The chief executive designate will report through the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure to the permanent secretary and, ultimately, to me.

As for dates, the Department inherited the date of 1 April 2008. We had to work to that date, because it was the date that the education authority —

Mr McNarry:
You did not have to work to that date. Other Ministers changed decisions in light of RPA; will you not do the same?

Mr Poots:
Members may have noticed that I phrased my answer in the past tense — the Department was working to that date, and had to do so because if the setting up of the education authority had failed to happen there would be no service for delivering the library authorities. We no longer have to work to the date of 1 April 2008, nor do we have to work to the date of 1 April 2009.

If the Committee agrees — and no doubt it will have further hearings on the matter — that a single library authority is the way forward, the Department and the Committee will work through the Bill to get that right. Ultimately, we do not need to be time bound. Nonetheless, the aspirational date of 1 April 2008 should not necessarily be removed: it is an aspiration; it is not set in stone. However, setting a date helps to generate momentum and drive for the Department to see things through to their conclusion. Having said that, meeting the deadline of 1 April 2008 was always going to be very challenging, and I am glad that we are no longer in the situation where we have to meet that date.

Nevertheless, we should not necessarily tie ourselves to the date on which the education and skills authority comes into being. The Department of Education has set an end date of 1 April 2009. However, the education and skills authority could be established before that date, although that is unlikely.

Once we have brought our work to a satisfactory conclusion, we can set the single library authority up. However, we should do so when we are satisfied that the date is right rather than wait for the education and skills authority to be established.

Mr McCarthy:
What are the benefits of creating the library authority by March 2008 rather than waiting another year? Would it not be more sensible to wait until a decision has been made about the future of the education and library boards before creating a single library authority?

Mr Poots:
The decision to establish a single education and skills authority has not changed; the timing has changed. We are still engaged in the same process, even though the timeline has moved.

We have commenced work on the issue, and we are no longer under pressure to have it finished by a particular date. Once the problems and their solutions have been identified and addressed, there is no reason for waiting until 1 April 2009 to establish the education and skills authority. I am not insisting on 1 April 2008, which is an aspirational date; however, neither should we tie ourselves to the establishment of the library authority on 1 April 2009. The handover from the five education and library boards to the single library authority should be as seamless as possible, and I want to work with the Committee on how best to achieve that. Neither the Department nor the Committee should get hung up on dates; let us focus on delivering quality library services in the best way possible while looking at the best solutions.

Mr P Ramsey:
You are very welcome, Minister. The single library authority was chosen as a good basis for creating professional partnership links with statutory, community, health, and education bodies. I agree that the single authority is the best way forward in library provision, but we must ensure that it brings benefits. You mentioned efficiency savings several times, Minister, but the change stems from a desire to improve rather than diminish services, and certainly not from a desire to make wide-ranging efficiency savings as part of the RPA.

To increase educational capacity in the community, lifelong learning and informal learning must be provided as part of the move. One in four adults in Northern Ireland has literacy and numeracy difficulties. What output will the new authority give to people and communities that face those difficulties?

Mr Poots:
It would be appropriate to ask Irene to indicate how she wishes to see progress be made in that area, and how she intends to achieve that.

Miss Knox:
I agree completely with Mr Ramsey that literacy levels, for example, are a major issue. People sometimes think of libraries as simply places from which to borrow a book. They play an important role in delivering a much wider agenda than that. I believe passionately that libraries have a critical role to play in the development of literacy levels among children and among adults. They have a huge role to play in community regeneration. There is a huge agenda for library services.

The benefit of the library authority will be that we can look regionally at how the library agenda is carried through. For example, partnerships can be developed at a strategic level, but services must be delivered locally. A strategic approach will be needed from the centre — the library authority — but local engagement with further education (FE) colleges, local councils and local community sectors will also be required in order to meet local needs. A single library authority will allow strategic partnerships to develop across Departments, the FE sector and the community sector. However, the single authority will also help to develop those policies at a local level.

Mr P Ramsey:
I have a few other questions. The Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA) and other sources have raised their concerns with me. Library staff recognise the crucial role that libraries provide in delivering social learning and development. However, they fear that the drive to create a single authority will mean a rationalisation of services, a reduction in staff, and a reduction in the static and mobile provisions of the current library service. Can we have a commitment and a guarantee that those services will continue?

Another concern is whether there will be rural proofing. We all know the damage that Planning Policy Statement 14 (PPS 14) caused. Its introduction brought about the closure of rural post offices and small rural schools. I hope that people in rural areas are treated equally by being given the same access to libraries as those in urban settings.

Equality legislation is also needed to guarantee services for the visually impaired and people with other disabilities. Those are the big concerns outside this Committee room. People want to see a single library authority, as long as it provides a better service, with more social inclusion and high levels of adult participation, which will give them greater confidence and prepare them for work. We want to have libraries across Northern Ireland that are centres of excellence and second to none. However, the proposed legislation does not provide that at present.

Mr Poots:
I had the opportunity to visit the library in Mr Ramsey’s city, and I was impressed by the numbers of young people who were using it. I was in the library in Coleraine, which offers computer and IT training services to the public. I have been to a range of libraries, and although I have been impressed by the services that are provided, those services are not consistent throughout. I think that the library authority will offer a more consistent service.

Inevitably, there will be a reduction in staff numbers at administration level. The purpose of the RPA was to reduce administration and introduce cost savings that could then be used for front-line services. I will not back off from reducing administration costs. My Department will fight its case with the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) to retain those savings, which can then be used to deliver better front-line services.

All staff transfers are protected by the provisions of The Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations (TUPE). I do not like the term “natural wastage”, but we will consider giving people who are approaching retirement age, or who wish to retire, the opportunity to do that, and we will not be recruiting new staff to replace them. That is how we will be seeking to reduce administration costs.

At an early point, those provisions should deliver savings of £600,000 and, at a later point, should deliver savings of £1·2 million. If we do not deliver those savings, the Department of Finance and Personnel will want to know why, because that was what was set out at the outset. We will work with the staff on all of that. In my view, the trade unions are quite pleased with the idea of a single library authority, provided that they have some guarantees that their staff will be treated fairly.

I can again indicate that the trade unions are wholly opposed to the library authority coming under the remit of local government — they can give the reasons for that themselves. I trust that that gives you some comfort about how the staffing issues will be addressed.

Mr P Ramsey:
Regarding equality issues and rural proofing, I accept the point about the Department of Finance and Personnel. However, we are not going to improve people’s education, and therefore their opportunities for work, by taking that level of money out of the service.

Regarding the location of the library authority, I hope that it is not just talk about having subregional forums or panels. I hope that they are going to be structured and that there is a place to ensure that people in the subregions have ownership of that single library authority.

Mr Poots:
I would love the headquarters to be modest and to house a modest number of staff. Some people talked previously about a chief executive with eight deputies. That will not be the case. There was some confusion with the education authorities. A maximum of three individuals will head the key and corporate services in the authority, and they will not have deputy chief executive status.

We all know that rural life has become more difficult in recent years. Planning has played a key role in that, and a lot of services have been removed from our towns and villages. Services such as filling stations, shops, restaurants and pubs, which are associated with local villages, have disappeared.

Ultimately, we, as the public sector, need to consider how best to deliver services in rural areas. I want a more joined-up approach with other service providers in those areas. I have said this before: whether it is the local authority that is providing the community centre or the libraries, or it is the GPs who are providing services, if we can get all those services under one roof, there will be a much more sustainable facility.

One of the issues that I will want to give direction on to a future chief executive of a single library authority is that we should consider how we can join public services in rural areas up so that they can be delivered at the lowest cost to the public sector but with the highest possible service to the public. That is something that I will be aspiring to do. Rural issues are very close to my heart, and I want to see the library services continuing to be delivered in those areas.

The mobile library — which is something that I should declare a personal interest in, as my father uses that service — provides a lifeline to many people who are housebound or who have mobility difficulties. That is certainly a service that I want to see continued and not reduced in any way.

Mr Shannon:
Minister, you are welcome to the Committee. It is good to see you here. It appears that the chief executive of the proposed library authority, whoever that may be, will have to do much more than an ordinary chief executive.

I want to reiterate Mr Ramsey’s question about rural proofing. I welcome the Minister’s response about the importance of the Library Service to the rural community, especially mobile libraries. I hope that that can be built on and encouraged rather than minimised in any way.

I have two questions for the Minister. The first relates to discussions with the education and library boards. What discussions have taken place between your Department and the education and library boards, and what has been the initial response from the boards? I know that board members will be attending a meeting of the Committee in a fortnight’s time, but I am curious to know about the Minister’s initial discussions with the boards.

Secondly, the Minister rightly indicated that moneys will be saved after the introduction of the new Libraries Bill; that is to be welcomed. However, would it not have been better value for money if that money had been used to keep the current Library Service in place before dismantling it?

Mr Poots:
I will ask Mr Jack to respond on the level of discussion that has taken place with the education and library boards. I have a caveat; I am not sure what the education boards or authorities would want to say when they appear before the Committee. However, it may be in their interests to retain libraries within the education authority, as it would constitute a larger empire than the two being separated. The Department and the Committee will focus on the delivery of quality library services to the public and on finding the best way to do that.

Mr Colin Jack (Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure):
There has been significant ongoing engagement with the education and library boards since the decision to opt for a single regional library authority was announced by direct rule Ministers in 2006. A meeting was held between the then Minister with responsibility for culture, arts and leisure, David Hanson, and the chairpersons of the boards. Since then, regular meetings have taken place between the permanent secretary and the chief executives of the boards, approximately every six months, and there have been more frequent meetings between the Department and the chief librarians and other significant officers in the boards, such as chief finance officers, who will be involved in the implementation.

The Department of Education has established structures for the new education and skills authority. As issues will arise that will be in common with the establishment of the library authority, the Department has engaged in those structures along with the education and library boards. The chief executive designate has already initiated a round of meetings with all the boards, and there will be meetings between the Minister and the boards later this week at chairman and chief executive level.

Mr Poots:
In answer to the second question, there will be set-up costs — identified at some £670,000 — which have been secured to deliver the single library authority. Ultimately, I go back to what I said at the start: we will move when we are ready to move, and that will happen in the most efficient and seamless way possible so that the transfer can take place from the education and library boards to a single library authority with the least impact on staff and services. That timescale should not be set by arbitrary dates — either an early or late date. It should focus on delivering the transfer in the most efficient way possible.

Mr Shannon:
I welcome the Minister’s response.

Mr P Maskey:
The work of the Committee is concerned with how best to professionalise the service provided by libraries in the best way possible. Some of the issues that I want to mention have already been touched on, but perhaps they could be discussed in a wee bit more depth. The changes will affect rural and urban areas, and areas of high deprivation. Is anything specific planned for those areas where people may find it difficult to buy books or to have the Internet installed in their homes?

The importance of working with chief librarians and their deputies was mentioned. I want to know how exactly that work will enable staff at lower grades to voice their opinions on the Libraries Bill. That is important, because from talking to library staff, it is clear that each knows how best to run their libraries. Therefore, we should not get stuck on talking to chief librarians and the most senior Library Service staff; we must work out how best to consult those who work in the libraries.

We will be talking to union representatives in the next few weeks, and we will obviously listen to the views of many of the stakeholders. It is good that we will have the chance to do that. However, I am sure that the Minister is aware that all the groups that will give evidence to the Committee will raise concerns. Therefore we must listen to and process those concerns.

I am glad to hear that the front-line services will not be hit. However, we must work out how to professionalise those services to ensure that more people use libraries and to ensure that we use libraries to help education provision generally.

Mr Poots:
Internet access has provided a lifeline to many in the immigrant community. Many such people who are working in Northern Ireland use the Internet extensively to retain contact with their friends and families. A new single library authority will operate under the principles of targeting social need, which covers all Departments. Working under those principles, my Department will consider what it can do.

Irene will explain how she intends to cut through senior management and talk to library staff about how best to deliver services.

Miss Knox:
The establishment of a new library authority represents a major change process for staff, among whom there is a great deal of concern about what is happening. As I said in my introductory remarks, I want to talk to staff. Library staff know what is required, and their managers should also be aware of those requirements. I have already visited each of the chief librarians, many of whom took me to some of their branch libraries to meet staff. I intend to spend more time getting out and meeting people to find out what they want.

It is also important that I set up consultation mechanisms with staff. In addition to doing that through the trade unions, the library authority will provide opportunities for non-union staff to communicate their views on what should happen in the future.

Mr Maskey mentioned professionalising the service and its staff. The new authority will be able to examine strategically the training needs of library staff and to work effectively with providers on how to ensure that staff receive the necessary training. That will differ greatly from the training that I received 20 years ago as a librarian; life has moved on, and libraries — and the needs of the people who use them — have changed. The new library authority must ensure that staff have the necessary skills to provide the required level of service.

Mr K Robinson:
I thank the Minister and his staff for coming this morning. I shall ask a simple question first: how much was bid for the new library authority for 2008-09? If that amount is greater than what the Department currently spends on the library service, by how much? That is the easy question — your starter for 10.

The Minister knows that a series of issues will arise. However, I want to discuss structures and mechanisms, which have been mentioned. The feeling of a cold, efficient and remote service is beginning to form in my mind. A library should be a warm and welcoming place for everyone, from the smallest customer who comes in at two or three years of age to the elderly lady or gentleman who tootles in for a book once a week or once a month.

I will cite an example of what happened under the former regime. A library was closed down despite being based in a community school on the fringes of a marginalised community. What impact had that on the community? Great opportunities to learn, to introduce children to the joys of reading, to get teenagers in the nearby youth club involved in research and all sorts of programmes, were lost.

Can you or Miss Knox assure me that the new system — efficient and cost effective as it may be — will deliver the warm, caring, helpful, developing service that those communities and individuals need?

Mr Poots:
Having sat with you on the former Committee of the Centre for years, Ken, I was concerned when you said that you would ask a simple question. I knew that that phrase was the preamble to an awkward question. I do not have figures for the Department’s bids for funding for the year 2008-09. I assure members that the Department bids for more funding than it currently receives. That is how we operate; we always ask for more.

Mr K Robinson:
I am surprised to hear that, Minister. I thought that your Department’s bid would be absolutely accurate and in keeping with the facts.

Mr Poots:
No. My Department bids for a little more than it would normally anticipate receiving.

I cannot tell the Committee that no libraries will ever be closed during my term of office. It would be wrong of me to do that. My Department’s desire is not to close libraries, but to provide a better service to the public. Closing libraries does not help the Department to provide a better service. In the past, certain libraries may have been not well used for particular reasons. In any future discussions on whether to close libraries, the arguments for closure would have to be strong to persuade the Department to take such action.

Ultimately, if certain libraries are in difficulty or are not attracting people, we need to look first at why that is happening and see whether the issues can be addressed so as to get more people through the doors of those libraries and ensure that those services are properly utilised. Closure should be the last option. That is the direction that my Department will take.

Mr K Robinson:
Minister, is Irene going to address my question on the warm, caring ethos of the modern and future library?

Mr Poots:
Absolutely.

Miss Knox:
Libraries are a valuable resource for the community. Young babies are brought in by their mothers and are introduced to books at an early stage in life; teenagers come in to do homework; members of immigrant populations come in to use the Internet; and elderly people’s use of libraries may form an important aspect of their contact with the public. Libraries play those roles in communities, and I intend to ensure that they continue to do that for the whole community.

Libraries must be welcoming, or people will not use them. No one forces anyone to enter a library. Use of libraries is not compulsory and there is no eligibility or entry requirement to be met. People enter libraries voluntarily, so they must be welcoming.

Mr K Robinson:
We all agree with you that libraries must be welcoming. The danger, however, is that the members of staff most likely to leave under the new regime are those with the most warm and welcoming attitude. The service will lose those experienced members of staff. Every organisation that modernises and becomes more efficient becomes more remote and less welcoming to its customers, in whatever business it operates. How will you address that potential loss of those staff members who form the core of the system? I do not mean those at the top of the organisation, but rather those whom you meet while walking through the library. If they are cold and remote in their attitude, customers will not want to be in the library and will want to leave.

Miss Knox:
The Library Service needs to retain front-line staff. Those who work at the front line in branch libraries are those who have an interest in helping the public, and we must retain them. As the Minister said, the central administration needs to be looked at.

Staff will always leave the service, through natural wastage, retirement, and so on. However, we must ensure sure that younger front-line staff joining the service understand the type of ethos that should exist in our libraries and that they have the skills to deliver the kind of warm, welcoming service about which the member spoke.

Mr K Robinson:
Is a training programme in place?

Miss Knox:
We do not have a training programme in place yet, but there will be one.

Mr K Robinson:
It worries me that the service will become more like commercial businesses, where customers are welcomed with the question: “What do you want?” The next step on from that is: “We do not have it.”

Mr Poots:
I encourage Committee members to visit some libraries. I have visited several libraries, and members will find that they are welcoming environments. They are not like the libraries that I remember as a 10- or 11-year-old child, where the atmosphere was quiet and people had to move around silently looking for books. Libraries have moved on, and our larger modern libraries are certainly more vibrant places nowadays. I encourage Committee members to get out there. Mention was made about talking to the staff who deliver front-line services, and it would be useful for the Committee to talk to such staff.

Mr K Robinson:
This morning, my wife was talking to a librarian in my house, so I am ahead of the Minister on that one.

Mr Poots:
The Committee will find that those people are keen to have a bigger focus on libraries and on the service that they provide.

Mr D Bradley:
Maidin mhaith, a Chathaoirligh. Good morning, Minister. Tá céad míle fáilte romhat go dtí an Coiste.

Minister, I wrote to you on 25 July 2007 about the consultancy exercise that is being carried out by Deloitte. I had several concerns about that matter, one of which was the unholy haste with which we were proceeding with the single libraries authority, without due knowledge of the costs involved. I was also concerned that the Committee was not properly informed about that particular consultancy and that, to some extent, we were working in the dark.

Minister, I thank you for your response, dated 8 August 2007, in which you state that before a decision was taken to create a free-standing library authority, an exercise had been undertaken to identify the hidden corporate costs of delivering the public library service. Paragraph 14 of the explanatory and financial memorandum to the Bill states that:

“An exercise to identify the cost of the support services is underway.”

Will you comment on the outcome of that exercise and tell us how it has informed the process?

Mr Poots:
As regards haste, I explained at the start of the meeting that from 19 July 2007, we were operating under a different scenario, which changed the situation considerably. We are happy to work within the new parameters, but we nonetheless seek to deliver as efficiently as possible.

We must remember what the Deloitte report is about. I will use an analogy: it is akin to someone deciding to open a shop, choosing the right location, and then bringing people in to see how it will be fitted out. The report is concerned with drilling down to the detail of how corporate services will be delivered.

The Chairperson:
The report also deals with financial systems, does it not?

Mr Poots:
It deals with financial systems and gets down to the detail. The big decision is made on the basis of the prevailing evidence; more detail is then needed when making the smaller decisions. The report identifies how we can best deliver financial services. The view now is that we should use the DCAL system to deliver financial services to the other non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs) in DCAL’s remit. I think that that was the recommendation from Deloitte, but I may stand to be corrected.

Mr Jack:
The Department has the Deloitte report and has shared it with the Committee. However, consideration of the report’s recommendations is still at an early stage, and the Department will need to work with the Minister and the chief executive designate to determine the best options. Deloitte has made certain recommendations, and we will need to consider those carefully.

Mr D Bradley:
Will the Minister assure the Committee that it will be kept informed when the Department is undertaking that work?

Earlier, the chief executive designate spoke earlier about the changing role of libraries. Obviously, we live in a changing society. However, many people’s view is that libraries play a passive role in education, lifelong learning, and in the communities in which they are set. Will the Minister and chief executive designate assure the Committee that, under the single library authority, libraries will play a more dynamic and vibrant role in education, in lifelong learning and in their host communities; and will they explain how that is to be achieved?

Mr Poots:
Earlier, I said that when we visited libraries we found that opportunities were being taken; for example, in IT training. In addition, some libraries were bringing people in for reading sessions while others were placing emphasis on young people who were involved in examinations. I have also said that one of the problems is that there is a degree of “ad hoc-ery” taking place.

My Department’s vision is for a flexible and responsive Library Service that provides a dynamic focal point in communities and assists people to fulfil their potential and having a single library authority and a chief executive can bring a focus to lifelong learning and to all of the areas to which Mr Bradley has referred. The Library Service, as it stands, is being delivered through five discrete streams with differing priorities.

Miss Knox:
I believe passionately that libraries should be a dynamic focal point for local communities. However, that cannot be the case unless they become active participants in the processes within the local community that determine the needs of that community and how services should be delivered. A lot of work has been done by the education and library boards over the past few years. However, we now have an opportunity to take that work a step further by taking a strategic approach across Northern Ireland and starting to build the partnerships that are required at strategic and local levels.

In many instances, I believe that libraries should lead the way in delivering a much broader social and educational agenda, and they should examine how they can play a very active role; whether it is in working with local further education colleges, schools, community groups or councils.

Lord Browne:
I should like to take Dominic’s question a little bit further. One of the main components in delivering a high-quality service is cost, and although the Committee is in possession of quite a lot of documentation from Deloitte, it is difficult to quantify costs when those for corporate services, in particular, have not been identified. I know that there are difficulties because Library Service corporate and support services are part of the general administration of the education and library boards. However, it is very difficult for the Committee to make informed decisions when it is not in possession of the figures for all of the costs.

We are in danger of proceeding at a very fast rate. I do not know when the Deloitte report on options for the provision of corporate services will be completed. Is there a date by which that report will be available?

We are proceeding rapidly along a particular track, and until decisions on RPA and on the future of the education and library boards are made, it will be difficult for the Committee to make informed decisions.

Mr Poots:
The Department is waiting for the report from Deloitte. As has been indicated, the costs of delivering corporate services for libraries has been hidden in the larger education and library services pot, and there has been no division as yet. At some point, the cost of providing corporate services will be determined through best assumptions, as opposed to being able to say definitively how much it costs the education and library boards to provide those services to the library sector.

The cost of delivering corporate services is significant, and I have no doubt that DCAL’s views on those costs will differ from those of the education and library boards and that there will be quite a debate as to what the costs really are. We will have to drill down to get general agreement on the costs and on how they can be rolled over to the new single library authority.

Mr McCausland:
In this morning’s presentation, the Minister spoke about a strong subregional structure. What will that mean in practice? Will it mean staff, buildings, or a committee at a subregional level? What powers would such a committee have?

Mr Poots:
Any subregional structure would have to be based on the number of council areas that are agreed through the RPA and on how DCAL will work with those councils on delivering library services in their areas. In many cases the issue will be about how public services can be delivered in a more joined-up fashion; for example, whether we should have GP surgeries, libraries and community centres under one roof, or have a mix-and-match of services, which would be provided in ways that are not currently available. If services cannot be delivered to the public in a more comprehensive fashion, we will have failed.

Community planning will be a key element of RPA and it will play a key role in delivering library services and those provided by local authorities.

Miss Knox:
As the Minister has said, the establishment of subregional structures will depend on the number of local councils there will be as a result of RPA. If the Library Service is to deliver co-ordinated and joined-up services, we must ensure that that is achieved coterminously with other local planning arrangements. The community planning process will be extremely important in delivering such a co-ordinated approach, and there will need to be structures in the regional library authority that will co-operate and work locally with bodies to ensure that such co-ordination is achieved.

That does not mean that large numbers of staff will be involved in co-ordination work. Such staff will be based in libraries, and we will need to use those libraries as the bases for going out into the local community, through a subregional structure, to ensure that we are co-operating with people locally.

Mr McCausland:
I accept that such staff may be based in library buildings — it makes good economic sense. However, I am not clear about what they will be doing and to whom they will they be answerable. How will local input take place? Will it only come about through community planning or will it take place with the local authority in some other way?

Miss Knox:
My thinking on these matters is still at an early stage as I have been in post for just two weeks. Through meetings with chief librarians and other members of staff, I am discussing how we can deliver local involvement and engagement; and as part of that process I will be talking to people in the community about how we can establish the subregional structure that I have spoken about. I cannot give the member a detailed answer yet, but I will be looking at the points he has raised immediately and I will be happy to come back to the Committee to speak about them in more detail when my thinking on the matter is clearer.

Mr Poots:
In our discussions with the Minister of the Environment we considered how best DCAL could work with local authorities to deliver library services in their areas if responsibility for libraries is not to go to councils. We also discussed the type of services that local authorities would wish to provide.

The Department has not done anything definitive in that area and is seeking to engage on how best to proceed. We would welcome feedback from the Committee to help us come to a decision.

Mr McCausland:
I raised the matter because it is not mentioned in the legislation. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw reference to it this morning as I am keen that there should be as much local input as possible, particularly through elected representatives at council level. Has the idea of a subregional structure emerged recently? Is it a new development?

Mr Poots:
It was something I discussed with Minister Foster, because if we go for a single library authority then we would not want such a body to be remote. Delivering library services at subregional level is important. However, I am not sure about the time frame or whether the Department had been working on it previously.

Mr Jack:
The Department was keeping a close eye on the discussions about community planning because we saw the process as one in which we would like the library authority to engage proactively. We had discussions about the type of legislation that would confer a duty on the authority to participate in the community planning process. The conclusion of those early discussions was that such provision would more properly be for inclusion in legislation that puts the community planning process in place rather than in legislation concerning libraries. The Department has had local engagement at the forefront of its thoughts from the outset.

The Chairperson:
We will move to a conclusion, as I am mindful that the Minister has been very generous with his time. I ask Kieran McCarthy and David McNarry for last comments.

Mr McCarthy:
I want to return to a response that the Minister gave to Pat Ramsey earlier. The question concerned possible cutbacks in staff, or redundancies. I was not happy with the response, because the Minister immediately mentioned senior staff. The age of ageism is past. Senior staff have made an enormous contribution to the Library Service and they should not be put under pressure when change takes place.

The Chairperson:
If David would make his point now, the Minister could give a composite answer.

Mr McNarry:
The start-up costs for the so-called small unit for 2007-08 have been estimated at £670,000: £380,000 for staff salaries; £200,000 for consultancy; £85,000 for premises, and £6,000 for support for board members, whatever that entails. It appears that, as the Minister has said, there is cover for the in-year monitoring bid. However, will new contingency cost factors create different figures? In light of the Deloitte consultancy exercise, it is expected that corporate services will require the figures to be revised upwards. What does the Minister now estimate the start-up costs to be? He might need to come back to the Committee with those figures. What impact would delaying a start-up to 2009-10, for example, have on those costs? How confident is the Minister that he can sustain his monitoring bid beyond 2007-08?

Mr Poots:
The estimated start-up costs are still £670,000. That is the Department’s bid, and it will seek to manage with that sum.

Mr McNarry:
Is the Minister saying that the costs will be the same in two years’ time?

Mr Poots:
No. The establishment of the library authority will incur certain costs. However, the start-up costs — the costs of putting in place the structures that are necessary to create the single library authority — are £670,000. The Department has estimated that initial savings from the delivery of those services will be around £600,000 and that they will rise to around £1∙2 million per annum. Costs may be incurred in order to reach the point at which such savings can be made.

The member asked what the costs would be if the Department were to delay the introduction of the library authority until 2009-10. The Department has no intention to delay until then; indeed, it has indicated that it will progress at the appropriate time. It has, therefore, not worked out the costs of such a delay. If the Department were to decide to hold back for a year, there would be additional costs.

Mr McNarry:
If you will permit me to do so, Chairman, and with all due respect to the Minister, I must point out that he has also been telling the Committee about appropriate times, and so on, with regard to the stadium. Can he not give us a date? It is difficult for the Committee to work towards an outcome when it does not know when that will occur.

Mr Poots:
The Department provided a date, which was 1 April 2008.

Mr McNarry:
The Minister said that the Department could move from that date.

Mr Poots:
Yes. The Committee’s desire this morning appears to be that the Department should not be bound by the date of 1 April 2008 and that it should consider delaying the matter until 1 April 2009. First, I am not sure that the Department could wait until 2009, given that the education and library boards may not wait until then. Secondly, if its work has been completed and the best solutions have been identified, why should the Department wait until 1 April 2009? Therefore the date of 1 April 2008 is aspirational.

On the other hand, why should the Department force itself to do something on 1 April 2008 if it is not ready to do so — just because that date has been set? Ultimately, the Department will move forward when the time is right. The momentum to deliver the new service on 1 April 2008 exists, and that momentum must be maintained.

Mr McNarry:
That momentum has come from the Minister and his Department since the start. They are rushing the matter.

Mr Poots:
That momentum existed before I came into office. The establishment of the single library authority was agreed by the Executive, and the appointment of the chief executive designate and the team will help keep that momentum going. I do not see any reason to stop the momentum if that is the desired outcome.

With regard to Mr McCarthy’s comments, the Department is not seeking any enforced redundancies. Staff will have an opportunity to take other positions and will also have the option to retire if that is what they wish to do. However, no one will be forced to do so. Ultimately, the Department is seeking to deliver savings in administration, and that will require fewer staff in the administration of library services rather than at the front line.

Mr McCarthy:
I am glad to hear that senior staff are not to be targeted.

The Chairperson:
By using the word “senior”, do you mean age, Kieran?

Mr McCarthy:
Yes.

Mr Shannon:
Speaking as a 63-year-old, I am relieved to hear it.

The Chairperson:
I thank the Minister, Colin and Irene for speaking to the Committee. I have no doubt that we will meet again.

Mr Poots:
Thank you.

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