Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: Thursday, 19 February 2009

SL1 – Public Use of the Records (Management and Fees) Rules ( Northern Ireland) 2009

19 February 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Barry McElduff (Chairperson)
Mr David McNarry (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Francie Brolly
The Lord Browne
Mr Raymond McCartney
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Pat Ramsey
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon

Witnesses:
Mr Alastair Hughes ) Public Records Office of Northern Ireland
Ms Cecelia McCormick )

The Chairperson (Mr McElduff):

I invite Alastair Hughes, head of PRONI’s divisional support services, and Cecilia McCormick, a senior colleague, to make their presentation.

Mr Alastair Hughes (Public Records Office of Northern Ireland):

Thank you very much. We are here to seek the Committee’s approval to proceed with the Public Use of Records (Management and Fees) Rules ( Northern Ireland) 2009. The Committee will recall that we first raised this issue on 4 September 2008 at Portaferry, when the Department sought approval to proceed with the consultation exercise. A summary of the outcome of that exercise has been included in the papers to give members an opportunity to note the results and the departmental responses to the issues raised.

The consultation period lasted for 12 weeks, from 10 September 2008 to 2 December 2008. Some 218 hard copies of the consultation document were issued to stakeholders from a wide and varied range of backgrounds, including section 75 organisations. More than 960 page-views of the e-consultation document were recorded on the PRONI website, and 30 hard copies were taken from the public reception area at our headquarters in Balmoral Avenue. We received 23 responses; 20 from organisations and three from individuals. Therefore, the response rate was approximately 2% of the total hits.

Overall, the respondents understood the need for the changes outlined in the proposed secondary legislation. The consultation did not reveal opposition to the proposed mixed-charging model. We sought to strike a balance between Government guidance on cost recovery and meeting the needs of customers from a wide range of backgrounds and social situations.

Some people did air concerns in relation to some recommendations, and those are documented in the paper. The Department considered the points raised and has prepared a response, which it will publish in due course. We did not revise the statutory rule.

After the consultation, we also took account of the one-year reduction in the rate of VAT to 15%: some of the charges were reduced accordingly and some were held.

A range of proposed fees and charges has been deliberately set at lower cost-recovery level than would be necessary if we were to try to recover all of our direct and indirect costs by passing them on to our customers.

For us, the key is to strike a balance between meeting the requirements of the managing public money directive and ensuring that our services at PRONI remain accessible to users, including those with limited means. The proposals and costings were approved by DFP.

The Chairperson:

PRONI is setting charges at lower cost-recovery level to encourage access to archives. How much money is PRONI potentially losing by not setting all charges at full cost recovery?

Mr Hughes:

We make reasonable cost recovery on a lot of the charges. If I were to estimate the figure, off the top of my head, it is probably between £5,000 and £10,000 — it is not a great deal of money. Many of our users are in an age bracket that means that they are carefully watching their funds, so the level of charges is of benefit to them.

I will explain some of the reasoning behind our charging policy. When we set the charges, we were not trying to cause problems for people in relation to the basic services that we were offering. Therefore, many of the costs have not increased in a material way — the changes are quite low.

We have opportunities to widen our market internationally, given that our website receives 1·2 million hits a year; 90% of which normally come from international users. We experience negligible losses as a result of the money we make from people who come to our premises to get a bit of photocopying done and do a little bit of research. There are now other opportunities for us to make funds — for example, by providing a value-for-money service in the international market. The aim of this process is to set the framework for other staff in the public services area to develop a range of products that will meet the needs of our users across the world as well as those of the people who visit us.

Mr K Robinson:

Thank you both for coming along this morning. You have mentioned the international market, and that is an issue that we have teased out in earlier Committee meetings. Given your new location at the Titanic Quarter, there will be cruise ships docking across the river from you. Obviously, those folk — particularly the American visitors — are paying quite high charges to sail into Belfast and are, no doubt, paying high charges for other on-board facilities. Is there an opportunity for you to make a higher-scale charge for out-of-state visitors? I realise that there is a sort of agreement across the European Union regarding access fees; however, is there an opportunity to be, shall we say, a bit more commercially inspired regarding out-of-state visitors, such as United States citizens?

Mr P Ramsey:

Is that an opportunity to get the Yankee dollar, Ken?

Mr K Robinson:

You said it, Pat — I did not like to put it as bluntly as that. There is an opportunity, which I feel has not been maximised up to now: perhaps this is an opportunity to expand on that a bit.

Mr Hughes:

When our staff are providing many of the day-to-day, shop-floor services — for example, a bit of photocopying or a bit of research — I cannot imagine them saying: “Excuse me, do I detect an American accent? Allow me to produce this series of charges for you.” [Laughter.]

I feel that, somehow, I would be back before the Committee were that to happen.

Mr K Robinson:

If you have been through US immigration you will know exactly how outsiders are treated when they arrive on that continent.

The Chairperson:

It is a bit of a revenge mission on Ken’s part. [Laughter.]

Mr P Ramsey:

Alastair, you are very welcome to this morning’s meeting. Some of the people who responded said that the level of fees should not impede access to services. Regarding the concessionary rates for certain groups, is there a concessionary rate for students? Are the charges for commercial users different to those for individuals and non-commercial users? What services can I access online for free, whether they are catalogues or indexes, compared with someone who comes into your front office?

Mr Shannon:

He is really an Ulster Scot, you know: he is thrifty. [Laughter.]

Mr Hughes:

In setting the fees and charges, I used the guidance contained in ‘Managing Public Money Northern Ireland’ that was released by DFP last year. Paragraph 6·2·5 states:

“Normally the same charge should apply to all users of a defined category of service.”

Therefore the fees do not vary for different customers. That means that we cannot offer 10% or 5% discounts to individuals. We have to be careful about that.

Ms Cecelia McCormick (Public Records Office of Northern Ireland):

Everything that we offer online is free, but this legislation will help us to go down the road that has been suggested. We have a larger customer base online, and we are looking for the opportunity to attract more people.

Last week, someone from the finance office in the National Archives of Scotland told me that they would take in £50,000 a year if they did not charge for online services, but that they are taking in £1 million because they are charging for them. That is the direction in which we want to go. Regardless of whether the charge is 50p or £1, the total will mount up if lots of people are using the website.

Mr P Ramsey:

Given the range of concessionary fees available, I am surprised that you do not offer one for students in particular.

Ms McCormick:

If students were working on a dissertation from which PRONI would benefit — and if they intended leaving a copy with us — we would look at the charges. Each case is looked at on its merits. We might forego photocopying charges, for instance, if PRONI were going to benefit from a dissertation, and if the student or university could make a strong case. We have discretion in the legislation to provide for that.

Mr Hughes:

Pat Ramsey also asked what was available for free. The website has a will calendars section, which received 16,500 visits and 30,000 page views — half of which were international visits — in 2007-08. The freeholders records, which are used by genealogists, received close on 600,000 visits and 1·7 million page views — almost 92% of which were from international visitors. During the same period, the Ulster Covenant section received about 580,000 visits and 1·5 million page views — of which approximately 91% were international visits. The figures have been building since the services were made available and came as a pleasant surprise.

Our electronic catalogue for Northern Ireland project (eCATNI) has tens of thousands of indexed lines of information. That is a valuable resource for people, and there is no intention to charge for that.

Mr P Ramsey:

Not yet, anyway.

Mr Hughes:

We have given our commitment not to charge for that: we do not want to go in that direction.

Mr Shannon:

I apologise for not being here for your presentation, but I have read the notes so, hopefully, I have some knowledge of what you said. Are your charges for photocopying and scanning comparable to commercial charges?

Mr Hughes:

We recover 20% of our reprographics costs: we charge 40p per page. The National Archives in London is on the same level and the National Archives of Scotland charges a minimum of £5 for pages up to A3 size, although we understand that its charges are under review. Our 40p charge is more inviting than the £5 one might be charged in Glasgow, so it is advantageous if one’s ancestors are from this part of the world.

Mr Shannon:

As prices always increase; on what do you base your annual increase? Is it based on the index or on something else?

Mr Hughes:

The charges have not been raised since 1996. It was not a good situation. Last year, we reviewed the charges based on the projections for 2009-2010 onwards, and we have heeded the inflation rates. Since conducting the exercise, we have entered an almost deflationary situation, which has caused some turmoil in the market. However, we were able to make some adjustments in that regard. VAT is due to return to 17·5% by the start of December. We have statutory fees that will absorb the increases that arise from that.

It will take my staff some time to complete the exercise to set the framework that will facilitate a move towards digitisation and charging for that service. Staff costs are far in excess of any money we will recoup from photocopying, which amounts to pennies. Therefore, we are following the governance, and we will have a methodology to introduce new products online. Inflationary increases will be the normal order of the day. However, I am unsure as to whether there is benefit in revising prices annually because it takes a long time to put the legislation through. Charges might not increase as regularly as, for instance, MOT charges, because they do not need to. We do not use that level of income.

Mr Shannon:

That is the point that I was trying to make. The inflation rate has not changed too much, and, therefore, it does not make sense to change prices every year.

Mr K Robinson:

What new products or resources will PRONI fund with the reinvested income? I have visited the records office and I cannot easily recall seeing brochures or catalogues for sale. If such things do exist, are they being promoted energetically? Does that provide an opportunity for future income generation?

Mr Hughes:

PRONI currently —

Mr K Robinson:

At the moment people can photocopy records and pay for that service. Can people purchase anything else in the office?

Mr Hughes:

A great deal of our staff resourcing goes towards meeting the statutory obligations of a national records office. In the past year and a half, we have reviewed many procedures, and our priority has to be maintaining statutory duties. The activities that you mention are more discretionary. We seek to balance what we can do on the discretionary front while ensuring that we do not leave ourselves open to criticism about meeting the statutory requirements.

Mr K Robinson:

Your current premises on Balmoral Avenue are limited physically. However, your new offices in the Titanic Quarter offer you the potential to do things that you have never been able to do before. That is one issue that could be followed up.

Mr Hughes:

Absolutely. Our head of reader services — who could not attend today — will be drawing up a range of plans in the next 12 to 24 months.

For example, the PRONI membership scheme, which is called Friends of PRONI, will be an opportunity to encourage people to visit the office and listen to lectures. That should be of interest to them, and they could pay a small annual charge for it. That sort of system will also provide us with further feedback. We were also quite encouraged by the feedback we received last week from the PRONI forum — one of our users groups — about this exercise. I will use my own words as opposed to theirs: they did not feel that it was a sheep-fleecing exercise; perhaps a slight shearing, but not a fleecing. We were pleased with their response.

Mr McCausland:

This question is not about today’s subject explicitly. PRONI has a wealth of resource, and, following on from what Ken said, is there potential, when producing items and generating income, to form partnerships with interest groups? I made the same point to representatives from the Linen Hall Library and National Museums Northern Ireland — there is potential to do things like that.

Ms McCormick:

Yes. Internally, we have been considering situations in which liaisons would benefit PRONI and other organisations.

Mr Hughes:

Derry City Council’s archivist, Bernadette Walsh, visited us to examine the potential for digitising Derry City Council archives and making them available, so that they would be held by PRONI and in the city. If that were done, we would have a master set.

We have also been in discussions with the Orange Order, which approached us about some of its records, covering, historically, approximately 200,000 members across all of Ireland. We may not be able to provide financial assistance, but we are open to providing expertise to assist people. We only have 89 members of staff.

Mr McCausland:

I was thinking more about the issue to which Ken referred — that an interest group could produce a booklet, or resource, that would be on sale in PRONI, and the group could sell it among its own members.

Mr Hughes:

I think that we should consider all options as they arise. No one is against the idea. I draw the Committee’s attention to something that I mentioned in September 2008 — unfortunately, our principal legislation from 1923 does not allow us to engage in licensed partnership agreements. We would love to be able to do that, but the departmental solicitor has advised that we cannot use the Internet to request the digitisation of records or go to any other suitable organisation, make a lot of money and get some back. We are not allowed to do that under 1923 legislation.

Also, fees and charges are not the vehicle to do that. We explored whether the Department has the statutory authority to be able to engage in licensed partnership agreements. Our understanding is that we do not appear to have that authority, which is a bit of a blow to the troops. We have to find other ways to work round that with a commercial focus.

Lord Browne:

Do you provide any service to help people with learning disabilities or those who have problems with language? Do you have any dedicated staff to help those people to access documents? How are you going about publicising the services that you provide to the public as a whole?

Ms McCormick:

All of the staff in the reading room — in the public-service area — are trained to deal with everybody who come in. If someone is a first-time user and does not know their way about, the staff will guide them through the process. If people with special needs contact us before their visit, we will make every effort to ensure that they get the service they require.

There have been situations in which people with a hearing impairment came in. We guided them through the process. A member of staff was allocated to assist them. Assistance is provided for people with visual impairment as well. Thus, we make accommodations if we are informed and if people need assistance. Of course, people can bring along their own help as well.

Mr P Ramsey:

When you talked about Derry City Council, you triggered a thought in my mind. The Honourable the Irish Society, in conjunction with the council, is considering a lot of the archival material on the Plantation of Ulster that relates to the city, and which is held in London. Are you helping to index that as well? As I understand it, huge volumes of material are held in London.

Mr Hughes:

I am not in a position to answer that question, but I can refer it to the director. I am not a curator; I am a bean counter, an accountant. The director has been in negotiations with Derry City Council.

Mr Shannon:

I think that you are more than a bean counter. [Laughter.]

The Chairperson:

I thank Alastair and Cecelia for coming along this morning and answering our questions.

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