Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 08 November 2007

Libraries Bill

Thursday 8 November 2007

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

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr McNarry):
I advise members that this session will be reported by Hansard. The Bill Clerk is also in attendance; once again, he is very welcome.

The Committee put a range of questions and suggestions to the Minister following his evidence session and the Committee’s subsequent discussions. His response on costs has been received, and responses on the other issues are due by 14 November. The outstanding issues are set out in the members’ packs. Members should bear in mind that responses are due by 14 November and that we will continue to chase them up.

The Committee asked the Minister to provide more concrete figures on start-up costs for the proposed library authority: originally, those costs were estimated at £670,000. However, because the start date has been deferred until 1 April 2009, start-up costs will now be — would you believe it? — as follows: £350,000 until the end of March 2008, and £825,000 for 2008-09. That is a total of £1·175 million. Furthermore, start-up costs for the provision of corporate services, which the Minister dealt with separately, are estimated to be £1 million. That money will be spent during 2008-09. Therefore, even allowing for an estimate — and we should use the word “estimate” — we now have a total start-up cost figure of £2·175 million.

Members will recall that the Committee asked the Minister if he would be prepared to amend the start-up costs that are stated in the explanatory and financial memorandum. The Minister has explained that when the Bill is enacted, the accompanying explanatory and financial memorandum will not include a section on financial implications, and that the costs provided in the memorandum have been included primarily to assist us and our MLA colleagues when scrutinising the Bill.

However, we now have it in writing from the Minister that the anticipated start-up costs are significantly higher — the word “significantly” being a bit of an understatement — than he originally estimated. The Minister’s letter will be included in the Committee’s report and will form part of the public record. The Committee has, therefore, effectively persuaded the Department to accept that it originally underestimated the start-up costs for the new library authority. Well done, Committee. I think we have made our point. At times, it might have been like pulling teeth, but fair play to the Minister; he has realised the facts.

Mr P Ramsey:
I take the point that it has been difficult to obtain the figures, but I still do not believe that they represent the true costs involved. The Committee Clerk tabled several questions to the Minister on branding, redundancies and other matters, and it is clear that the figures will be revised continuously. The Minister confirmed that Deloitte will be coming on board to examine those costs. The figures before us today may be more representative than those produced by the education and library boards, but they are still low. I believe that costs will be much higher due to branding, redundancies, establishing a new headquarters and, perhaps, a subregional office. As you have said, Mr Deputy Chairperson, all we can do is wait until 14 November for a response.

The Deputy Chairperson:
Are members content to note the Minister’s response, perhaps including Pat Ramsey’s caveat that we note it with caution?

Mr K Robinson:
I suggest that we note the Minister’s comments but continue to monitor the situation.

The Deputy Chairperson:
The Committee has a proposal from Ken and Pat to note and continue to monitor the Minister’s comments. Is the Committee content?

Members indicated assent.

The Deputy Chairperson:
The Minister said that the case for redundancies will be considered in light of the fact that, in conjunction with senior library staff, the chief executive designate is working on the organisational structure. Is the Committee content to note the Minister’s response?

Mr Shannon:
Will the Committee receive early information on the details of redundancies? I would like to think that we would not find out from someone else, which happens all the time.

The Deputy Chairperson:
That is an excellent point. Previously, the Committee indicated that it was probing — and would continue to probe — for information, and, as the situation unfolds, I am sure that the unions will have something to say on those matters. Do members agree that the Committee should write to the Minister to inform him that it is content with his response but wishes to be continuously informed?

Mr Shannon:
The Committee wants to be kept informed. It is frustrating to get third-hand information from unions or from those who are directly affected by decisions. The Committee must be kept up to speed with what is happening. The Deputy Chairperson’s previous comments are correct. It is due to the Committee’s efforts that it now has a more representative figure for start-up costs. The Committee has a responsibility in these matters and deserves to be kept informed.

The Deputy Chairperson:
Does the Committee agree to pursue the information as proposed by Jim Shannon and seconded by Pat Ramsey?

Members indicated assent.

The Deputy Chairperson:
The Minister has also provided a synopsis of the Deloitte report on corporate services for the proposed library authority.

Mr K Robinson:
The synopsis includes a phrase that the Committee Clerk should note for future reference. It states that the efficient solution should provide the appropriate level of functioning without being “administration rich”. That is a lovely phrase; it should be put to greater use.

The Deputy Chairperson:
We must take note of that and use it in future.

Mr K Robinson:
It would go down well in a party manifesto. [Laughter.]

Mr P Ramsey:
We are administration poor: we are fighting for Hansard to cover our meetings.

Mr McCausland:
The Deloitte report proposes options for finance systems. Option 5B is:

“the Library Authority extending (or sharing) systems currently used by other DCAL NDPBs, with in-house provision of transaction services in relation to finance, procurement and payroll.”

How many non-departmental public bodies are there? Is there currently any sharing of systems? Is it the intention that they will all share one system? If, in the end, that were to happen, how would it be implemented, and would bodies such as OSNI or the museums be included? Can we ask for a better picture because the synopsis is not clear on those points?

The Deputy Chairperson:
Do members agree that we need that information, and do we support Mr McCausland’s request write to ascertain it?

Members indicated assent.

The Deputy Chairperson:
Members should consider the Department’s conclusion, which is marvellously written — we should get hold of some of the scriptwriters — and we may wish to come back to it at a later date. I believe that it covers some of the points on service sharing that Nelson McCausland referred to:

“the exercise has helped identify the difficulties finding suitable sharing partners in the time needed for setting up such arrangements. In particular, maintaining shared arrangements with education beyond the end of the Education and Library Board is not the automatic solution it might appear”.

That does not appear to be a conclusion to me: it seems to say that that is a problem for the future, and that it will be up to someone else to sort it out. Should we draw the Minister’s attention to the conclusion and ask him to explain it — or can somebody explain it now?

Mr McCausland:
The conclusion states that:

“the exercise has helped identify the difficulties of finding suitable sharing partners”.

Was it not also said that the sharing partners would be the other NDPBs?

The Deputy Chairperson:
That sentence jumped out at me because it was under the heading “Conclusion”: it does not look like one.

Mr McCausland:
It is more like confusion than conclusion.

The Deputy Chairperson:
Yes; confusion rather than conclusion. Is the Committee content to write to the Minister to ask for clarification?

Mr Shannon:
Would it qualify for a “gobbledegook of the year” award?

The Deputy Chairperson:
As Chairperson, I am prohibited from using such words. However, thank you very much for allowing me to say that I welcome your use of the word gobbledegook. [Laughter.]

Is the Committee content to write to the Minister to ask for clarification?

Members indicated assent.

The Deputy Chairperson:
I refer Members to the Minister’s response dated 1 November to the Committee’s proposed rewording of clause 6 — I apologise that members are only reading it now. The Minister has explained that not all borrowing and information access is free of charge. Consequently, the Committee’s proposed wording would not reflect current practice. He also points out that the Committee’s wording is not sufficiently specific in legal terms. The Minister states that he will consider any further form of words suggested by the Committee. Do Members wish to pursue the rewording of clause 6? If so — and without putting words in the mouths of members — would the Committee be minded to ask the Bill Office to provide further guidance and to clarify the Minister’s point that the Committee’s wording is not sufficiently specific in legal terms?

Mr McCausland:
Having only just seen the response, that would make sense.

The Deputy Chairperson:
Is the Committee content?

Members indicated assent.

The Deputy Chairperson:
That is another job for the Bill Clerk.

Regarding discussions between DCAL and the Department of Education about the education and skills authority, the Minister’s response, dated 29 October, states that both Departments are meeting regularly to ensure that there will be a common approach on staff transfers so that there will be equal treatment of all staff. Are Members content to note the Minister’s response?

Mr K Robinson:
I have a general comment, which is not specifically about the Minister’s response. The education and library boards have built up an experienced body of staff over the years who are not necessarily qualified to the same level as more recent recruits. I am concerned that their experience, which in some cases has held the boards together during difficult days, will be sidetracked in the new terms and conditions introduced under the new regime, meaning that the dedication, loyalty and expertise of those staff will not be fully recognised. There is unease among some members of staff.

The Deputy Chairperson:
Do you want the Committee to flag that up?

Mr K Robinson:
I would welcome the Committee drawing attention to that because there is unease and uncertainty; those members of staff have served through very difficult times. I will not go any further as Hansard is reporting the meeting.

The Deputy Chairperson:
We have heard Ken Robinson’s view — are Members in favour of raising the issue?

Members indicated assent.

Mr McCausland:
At what point was recruitment undertaken for the post of chief executive designate?

The Deputy Chairperson:
My recollection is that the Assembly was just back in business. The Minister asked the Committee Chairman and me to visit him. I mentioned appointments with the Minister at that point — to be fair to him, he was only in post. When I asked him about the chief executive designate, he said that he did not know that the post had been advertised. He was corrected by his officials, who said that the post had been advertised. Therefore, we could look back to that point. The post was advertised, but not by him.

Mr McCausland:
That is the point. We are being told that if the legislation proceeds, the new library authority will not come into being until a later date. Therefore, there will be a longer period during which the chief executive designate — and others — will be paid. That will be happening because of a decision taken by a Minister and civil servants under direct rule and before the Committee had an opportunity to consider the legislation. The costs attached to that decision have now increased, and it would be helpful if the Committee could have a timeline indicating at what point, under direct rule, recruitment for the post of chief executive was started. The recruitment process would have taken quite a while.

The Deputy Chairperson:
We should bear in mind that the recruitment of the chief executive designate was on a secondment basis, which probably made it easier to fast-track the process. We have continually questioned the Minister about that. Should we enter into that process, or do members want to leave it until they see the outcome?

Mr McCausland:
Yes. I just want to see the timeline for the whole process.

The Deputy Chairperson:
I can anticipate the issue that you are going to raise. Perhaps, the Committee should wait until it has received the information first.

The Committee Clerk:
The Department may say that it cannot produce documents or give evidence pertaining to an earlier mandate.

The Deputy Chairperson:
That may be the case. However, we are dealing with a situation in which the chief executive designate was seconded rather than appointed. The Committee has met her successor who is chief executive designate of the South Eastern Education and Library Board. The answer can be obtained by discovering when he entered into the secondment process and what advertisement he responded to, because the post had to be advertised.

Mr McCausland:
I attended a meeting in Scotland last week at which there was talk about the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The Scottish official who is in charge of freedom of information requests there stated that gaining access to documentation from previous administrations is not an issue. If a person asks for information, they can get it under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The official also made the point that because a document has the word “draft” written on it does not preclude it from being accessed under the Freedom of Information Act 2000; something which is sometimes used as an excuse for not releasing information.

The Bill Clerk:
The use of the word “draft” would only apply if the refusal to provide information were on the basis that the document would be published. If it were not going to be published, then there would be no defence for not disclosing it on the basis that it is in draft format.

The Deputy Chairperson:
We can progress the matter on the basis that it is a genuine request. Why should the Committee not be given the information? A refusal to provide the information will serve to increase our suspicions on the matter, and that should not be done.

The Minister responded on 29 October about the schools’ library service. That response has only just arrived, which is why members are just receiving it now. The delay has been due to others collating the information.

The Minister states that the chief librarians are working on how the schools’ library service and the new library authority might best work together. That is very good news. The two Departments will then have to consider any new arrangements before an appropriate service level agreement can be drawn up.

The Minister states that it is not yet clear whether other service level agreements will be required between the library authority and the education and skills authority. I do not want to put words in members’ mouths, but if it does become clear that other agreements will be required, we would like to know about them. Are members content to note the Minister’s response?

Members indicated assent.

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