Minutes of Proceedings
Date: 27 June 2013
Venue: Room 29, Parliament Buildings
The Chairperson declared the meeting open to the public at 10.25am
Apologies were as indicated above.
2. Draft Minutes of the meeting held 20 June 2013
Agreed: The minutes of the meeting held on 20 June 2013 were agreed.
3. Chairperson's Business
The Chairperson noted that the Pavement Cafés Bill is now at Committee Stage and that the Committee would issue a call for evidence over the next few days. Members were content to issue letter to key stakeholders and place a note in the newspapers and that the closing date for the call for evidence should be 13 September.
The Chairperson reminded Members that the new tablet computers were available for collection.
The Chairperson informed Members that the SSA will hold an event about maximising benefits in the Parliament Buildings on 3 July and noted that this could be a very helpful event for Members to attend.
The Chairperson informed the Committee that the Minister intends to make a statement in the Chamber on Monday 1 July regarding voluntary and community sector concordat.
4. Matters Arising
4.1 The Chairperson reminded the Committee that following today's meeting there a visit has been scheduled to the Work Capability Assessment Centre at Royston House in Belfast. He noted that Members had been provided with a response letter from the Department on a Committee query regarding the timeline to resolve the issue around access to the centre. The Committee noted that the Department stated that it was unable to provide a definitive timeline for when the issue of access at Royston House would be resolved.
4.2 The Chairperson noted that each Member of the Committee had received a copy of the Government Response to the Report of the House of Commons, Work and Pensions Select Committee, into part 1 of the draft Pensions Bill. He advised that this was for Members' information in advance of the introduction of the Pensions Bill to NI.
4.3 The Chairperson noted that, at its meeting on 20 June, the Committee agreed to submit its response to the Department's consultation into the Discretionary Support Scheme. He drew Members' attention to a draft response. The Committee agreed that they would take some time to consider this and discuss again at the end of this week's meeting.
4.4 The Chairperson noted that, at its meeting on 20 June, the Committee agreed to schedule a briefing from the Department on the Internal Market: Free Movement of Persons, to inform a Committee response to a call for evidence from DWP. However, given the very limited time available in which to schedule a briefing, the Committee agreed to instead write to NICEM, the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission to get their views and use this written evidence to inform the Committee response.
5. NIHE Special Accountability Measures – Departmental Briefing
The following officials joined the meeting at 10.32am.
• Ms Susan McCarty, Housing Director's Office, DSD
• Mr Michael Sands, Deputy Director of Housing, DSD
• Mr Jim Wilkinson, Director of Housing, DSD
The officials briefed the Committee on the NIHE special accountability measures.
The Committee asked how many reviews and investigations were currently underway
into the Housing Executive. It also questioned whether the officials felt that the Department's oversight role had been sufficiently robust.
In relation to its oversight role officials noted that the department held monthly accountability meetings with NIHE, rather than quarterly, to ensure that assurances were adequately monitored. They confirmed that there is currently an internal audit review, a Housing Executive review of planned maintenance and that a PEDU business improvement review of contract management is to commence in November.
The Committee expressed concern that at previous briefings there was some discussion whether maintenance pricing structures were sustainable and questioned whether this contributed to the current problem with planned maintenance contracts. The officials noted that the problem was multi-faceted and acknowledged that the onus is on the Department and the Housing Executive to investigate and address the issues.
The Committee asked for some clarification of the relationship between the Department and the Housing Executive and how the figure of £18m announced by the Minister with regards to the overspend on contracts was reached. The officials clarified the Housing Executive's position as a NDPB and that the Department's role is to set standards, monitor and hold the NIHE responsible for its actions. They noted that the figure of £18m was provided by the Housing Executive following analysis of a number of contracts and the cost of the work provided.
The Committee asked officials to clarify the make-up of the Housing Executive internal audit committee. The officials confirmed that the committee consisted of the board of the Housing Executive, an observer from DSD and an observer from the audit office.
Members of the Committee asked for details on the total cost of investigations to date into the Housing Executive and the officials agreed to provide this information to the Committee.
The officials left the meeting at 11.36am.
6. Business Plan – Departmental Briefing
The following officials joined the meeting at 11.37am.
• Ms Heather Cousins, Deputy Secretary, Resources, Housing and Social Security Group, DSD
• Mr Will Haire, Permanent Secretary, DSD
• Mr Tony McKibben, DSD
• Mr Tommy O'Reilly, Chief Executive, SSA
The officials briefed the Committee on the Department's Business Plan, noting that social housing reform is a particularly significant issue and emphasizing the importance of establishing all the facts around the Housing Executive's overspend on maintenance contracts.
The Committee also expressed its concern that, in recent monitoring rounds, the Housing Executive handed back money from the Social Housing Development Programme and that it risked falling short of its statutory obligation to meet housing need.
Officials noted that the Department had engaged with the Housing Executive to express concern about the surrender of money from the Social Housing Development Programme
and that they had also met with DOE and NIFHA over the issue of social housing to ensure spend on social housing is maximized..
The Committee highlighted the issue of the shift of resources in the volunteering strategy noting that some stakeholders still felt that there had been a lack of meaningful engagement with the Department on the revised way forward.
The officials noted that the Voluntary and Community Unit had responsibility for the strategy and engaging with organisations to deliver on it, including the infrastructure required to do so. The Department was confident that the sector would be able to do this despite concerns expressed by some stakeholders.
Members expressed concern that a number of constituents had received information leaflets regarding the introduction of new measures under Welfare Reform and that this had caused some concern. The officials stated that the leaflet drop on welfare reform had been delayed at the request of the Committee but that a limited number of leaflets, due to logistical difficulties, had been released.
Committee Members asked about the potential job losses in the Housing Executive and SSA associated with welfare reform. The officials responded that restructuring and staff movements would be necessary but that no job losses were anticipated as a result of Welfare Reform within the next three years.
Michael Copeland MLA left the meeting at 12.02pm.
The Committee expressed concern that change needed to be managed well and that there was the potential for scaremongering and misunderstanding. The officials confirmed that the Committee would be kept well informed regarding the management of local government, Welfare Reform and housing issues.
Officials agreed to brief the Committee after the summer recess on how operational issues would be managed during a significant period of change in relation to welfare and social housing reform.
Judith Cochrane MLA left the meeting at 12.08pm.
Members of the Committee asked for an update on development at the Fort George site in Derry/Londonderry. The officials noted that from 1 April, the Department had operational responsibility for this project and that a project board had been established which included a representative from ILEX.
The officials left the meeting at 12.19pm.
7. SL1 The Social Fund Winter Fuel Payment (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2013
The Committee expressed a desire to reflect on the SL1 and defer the matter until the meeting on Thursday 4 July. Members requested a briefing on the matter.
8. SL1 The Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2013
The Committee agreed that they were content for this Rule to be made.
9. SL1 The Child Support and Claims and Payments (Miscellaneous Amendments and Change to the Minimum Amount of Liability) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2013
The Committee agreed that they were content for this Rule to be made.
10. Pensions Bill – Departmental Briefing
The following officials joined the meeting at 12.22pm.
• Mr Seamus Cassidy, Social Security Policy & Legislation Division
• Mr Gerry McCann, Social Security Policy & Legislation Division
• Ms Anne McCleary, Director, Social Security Policy & Legislation Division
The officials briefed the Committee on the Pensions Bill, which received second reading in Westminster on 17 June 2013, is currently in Committee Stage in the House of Commons. This stage is expected to be completed by the start of the Westminster summer recess.
They informed the Committee that the Bill would reform aspects of state and private pensions and bereavement benefits.
Members expressed some concern that, regardless of the changes, the basic UK state pension remained very low compared to other European countries.
The Committee asked what the potential increase of National Insurance Contributions (NICs) in the public sector as a result of the Bill might mean in practical terms here. The officials agreed to provide what figures they could to clarify this.
The officials left the meeting at 12.39pm.
The Committee agreed action on the other correspondence according to the correspondence memo.
12. Forward Work Programme
The Committee was content with the proposed Forward Work Programme.
13. Any Other Business
The Committee agreed to consider comments on discretionary support and to submit a response following its meeting on 4 July.
14. Date, time and place of next meeting
The next meeting will take place at 10.00am on Thursday 4 July 2013 in Room 29, Parliament Buildings.
The Chairperson adjourned the meeting at 12.42pm.