Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 18 October 2007

Libraries Bill

18 October 2007

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

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

 

The Chairperson (Mr McElduff):

The meeting is open to the public.

The earlier starting time was agreed because the Committee needed time to prepare before taking the Minister’s evidence on the Libraries Bill. The Minister, Edwin Poots, is due around 10.45 am. Hansard will be in attendance at that session and this one. We need to discuss a number of issues and to agree our position and the line of questioning that we wish to pursue with the Minister.

The first issue is start-up costs. Many of the witnesses were concerned that the start-up costs specified in the explanatory and financial memorandum are inadequate. The figure has been put at £670,000. In a consistent line of questioning, led sometimes by the Deputy Chairman, we have asked about start-up costs.

The Committee wrote to the five education and library boards and the two unions asking them to estimate those costs. Responses have been received from three of the boards and from UNISON. UNISON states that it is not in a position to estimate costs. The Western and South Eastern Education and Library Boards have provided a breakdown of the areas that need to be costed; however, without knowing the staffing structure of the library authority and other matters, they say that they cannot provide estimated figures. The Western Education and Library Board indicated that the cost of releasing one chief librarian under the104-week scheme would be at least £120,000. The North Eastern Education and Library Board has provided costings under separate headings — its estimated total for start-up costs is £1∙5 million. That is more than double the amount that the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) has set aside. The Southern Education and Library Board had no comments, but said that it agreed with those made by the western board. The boards all referred to the Deloitte report, which indicates start-up costs of £965,000 in respect of support services; these also need to be taken into account as part of the overall start-up bill.

Other evidence that the Department may have underestimated start-up costs comes from the bids made in the October monitoring round. The Department submitted a bid for £550,000 to cover corporate services. The Committee wrote to the Department on 1 October 2007 pointing that out and asking whether it acknowledged that its original estimate was inadequate and whether it intended to alter the explanatory and financial memorandum accordingly.

We also asked whether the Department has made any provision for start-up costs beyond 2007-08. The response, dated 16 October, advises that anticipated expenditure on start-up costs — comprising salaries for the chief executive designate and her team, temporary premises and consultancy — amount to £350,000 up to the end of March 2008. There is a lot of detail about what we have discussed so far.

The Department also advises that:
“Ahead of a firm decision on the operational date for the Library Authority, we cannot be sure whether £670k is an under- or over-estimate; it will depend on the length of the start-up period and hence the length of time salaries and rent need to be paid. The proportion of these costs which fall in 2008-09 will be considered within the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) allocations.”

The Department was asked to say whether it would consider amending the explanatory and financial memorandum in the light of the issue around start-up costs. It has not answered that question. It refers to paragraph 14 of the explanatory and financial memorandum, in which it is noted that the Department:
“was undertaking an exercise to establish the options for future provision of corporate services to the Library Authority and the associated costs, both running costs and start-up costs. Figures for these start-up costs were not specified in the EFM because it was not possible to make an estimate until this exercise had been completed.”

The Department advises us that:
“The October monitoring bid for £550,000 for corporate services is to enable us to move ahead on establishing corporate services in this financial year if required. Start-up costs for corporate service provision which fall in 2008-09 will be considered within the CSR.
You also raise two other possible areas of start-up funding: for establishing the identity of the Library Authority, and for a redundancy scheme. An exercise to develop certain identity measures for the Library Authority is being considered at present. The case for redundancies will be considered in the light of the organisational structure which the Chief Executive (designate) is working on with senior library staff. This consideration will include the extent to which a redundancy scheme offers value for money.”

The key question this morning — and I do not think that I will get a “yes” to it — is: are members content with the Department’s response? Members will have the opportunity to discuss these issues with Minister Edwin Poots this morning. Does anyone want to make an initial comment?

Mr McNarry:

From where I am sitting, the answer to your question is no. How deliberate or penetrable can we be with the Minister on this? We have asked the question — we know the answer. How big a point are we allowed to make? What the Department is telling us is a joke. It says that £350,000 has been set aside for something that is not in place yet, allowing this chief executive designate to recruit, to secure temporary premises and so on. Are we to believe that that is what start-up costs are about? Then it goes on to say that it does not know what the start-up costs will be. How clear do we have to be, as a Committee, in bringing our views to our colleagues in the Assembly on this matter?

Mr P Ramsey:

I will do my utmost to be brief in questioning the Minister. However, there are a series of questions about consistency that I have asked the boards and that I propose to put to the Minister as well, particularly in relation to the provision of services and a range of other areas, such as literacy, the early-years programme and support services.

Mr McCausland:

I wanted to ask a question about provision for the idea of a national library or reference library. In addition, are we convinced that a single library authority, as currently envisaged, is the best model and that it provides local input? We touched on that in our discussions on subregional structure, but perhaps we are not pushing it hard enough. We need answers because it is a process that we were not involved in.

Mr P Ramsey:

Those are good questions.

The Chairperson:

There is a series of other issues —

Mr McNarry:

If I am reading the material correctly, the draft Budget will be launched in the Assembly on 25 October. Hip hip hooray. Where do we sit on that, Chairman? As a Committee, what is our position regarding that Budget? I am not deeply appreciative of the UNISON letter, but it is to the point in that it says that the union does not have the information to be able to provide the Committee with estimated start-up costs. That sums up my view; I do not have the information to be able to tell myself.

However, the draft Budget will be published soon. What is the Committee’s job regarding that? Do we point out to the Department that as a result of the draft Budget, the departmental budget regarding start-up costs is up the shute?

Mr P Maskey:

The Committee will not get the chance to address those issues until 15 November 2007. The Minister said in his letter that he is happy to come back and discuss the detail of the draft budget proposals for DCAL on 15 November. It will already have gone through at that time. Therefore, by15 November, it will be a bit late.

The Chairperson:

Let us focus on the questions that we are going to ask the Minister regarding the Libraries Bill. David, I presume that you are going to go strong on the start-up costs?

Mr McNarry:

With the indulgence and help of the other members, I certainly want to take up the issue of start-up costs. I also want the legalities of this issue to be examined. Following the episode in the House on 16 October 2007 regarding legal issues, I want to be absolutely clear what the Committee’s position is.

Mr McCausland:

Regarding the start-up costs, the letter from the Minister states:
“The anticipated expenditure on this group of start-up costs up to the end of March 2007 is £350,000.”

Therefore, what the Minister is saying is that it depends on how fast people move. The assumption was that there was a start-up date of next year. The figure has now to be amended because the library authority has asked for extra money. Whether that extra money is actually needed depends on how quickly the authority can get up and running. How did the Department manage to get it so badly wrong?

The Chairperson:

That is a good question. It does seem badly wrong.

Mr McCausland:

Yes. I was watching the Committees at Westminster the other night on television. We are quite gentle; they are savage people.

The Chairperson:

There are honourable exceptions. Some people are tough enough here as well.

Mr McNarry:

We should pretend that they are the Northern Rock boys sitting facing us. That is the Committee that I was watching, and I thought that it was brilliant.

Mr McCausland:

It was like blood sport.

The Chairperson:

Good luck to both of you.

We will move on to detail the second general issue that we will be considering with the Minister this morning, which is the estimated savings that are specified in the explanatory and financial memorandum. The estimated savings are £0·6 million for 2009-10 and £1·2 million for 2010-11. Witnesses are concerned that the Department is overestimating the savings that can be made, and underestimating the start-up costs.

The Committee wrote to the Department asking for a breakdown of the savings. The Minister stated in his response that:
“No further breakdown of the estimated efficiency savings is available. The estimate was not based on specific costings; therefore, it will not commit the new Library Authority to particular decisions. Projected savings on administration and possible surplus premises will become clearer when the organisational design and staffing structure of the Library Authority is determined.”

The Committee’s letter of 8 October 2007 asked the Department to provide a detailed explanation of how the estimated savings for the library authority were calculated, with a breakdown of the £0·6 million for 2009-10 and the £1·2 million for 2010-11. The Department responded, stating that:

“Estimates of efficiencies were required in 2006 for the Reform Programme, which anticipated savings in administration from the RPA, and transferred to the planning exercise for the Comprehensive Spending Review. The estimate for efficiencies —£600k for 2009-10, rising to £1.2 million in 2010-2011 — was based on a set of assumptions, which were set out in earlier correspondence to you, related to merging 5 library services into one. It was recognised that it would take time to deliver on efficiencies, and none were taken for 2008-9, the expected first year of operation of the Authority.

The estimate was not based on specific costings and therefore does not commit the new Library Authority to particular decisions. The savings are separate from the additional monies which will be required by the Library Authority to cover the corporate services functions.

Projected savings on administration and from possible surplus premises will become clearer when the organisational design is determined.”
Members may wish to ask the Minister to remove from the explanatory and financial memorandum the claim that efficiency savings will be made, given that the figures are not based on any specific costings and that the Department will not commit the new library authority to particular decisions. Have members any comments on that?
Mr McCausland:
The Committee received that letter only this morning. It says that the figures were set out in earlier correspondence, but it does not give the date of that correspondence. How are we meant to know what it said?

Mr Shannon:

I would like to see those figures on the first- and second-year savings. I believe that they were £0·6 million and £1·2 million. Is that right?

The Chairperson:

That is correct. The estimated savings are £0·6 million for 2009-10 and £1·2 million for 2010-11.

If there are no other questions, members will want to focus on that second broad area, using their own initiative and instinct. Those broad areas and the suggested questions will all inform the Committee’s approach.

The third issue is schedule 2. After last week’s meeting, a copy of the NIPSA legal paper was passed to the Department for onward transmission to the departmental solicitor’s office. A response was requested from the departmental solicitor’s office for today’s meeting.

The Department has provided a response advising that it separately requested the legal paper from NIPSA and that it is seeking a meeting between its legal adviser and that of NIPSA to discuss differences of opinion. The Department states that politeness demands that it waits for a reply from NIPSA and that time must be factored in for any meeting to take place before the departmental solicitor’s oOffice official will be in apposition to respond.

Mr McNarry:

That is a time bomb, and the Department is playing pass the parcel with it. If I remember correctly, the Committee agreed — although I disagreed — that it would furnish departmental officials with the information that it had. I understood that there was urgency surrounding that, and I would have thought that the discussions that must take place between the two legal gentlemen were a done deal.

I do not want the Committee to get involved in a legal wrangle without knowing what it is doing. What advice is the Committee being given that would indicate whether or when it would be necessary to get its own legal advice to ascertain which of the two eminent lawyers is correct? The Department’s lawyer is saying that he is right; the other is not saying that he is wrong, but the issue is hanging in the air, and it is a game of pass the parcel. It is a time bomb, unless we get it right.

What I mean is that I see no sense in the Committee taking the risk to approve a Bill when it has evidence that the Bill may be sufficiently flawed that, as soon as it hits the streets, the Department will be taken to court. I am not prepared to do that. I am prepared to take certain risks, but that is a risk too far. I cannot, as a Committee member, pass a Bill knowing that there is already a legal challenge waiting outside the door.
At present, I am not satisfied that the situation has been dealt with.

The Chairperson:

The fourth, broad area for scrutiny is the number of board members. Last week, Ken Robinson proposed that there should be 20 members, which achieved consensus around this table. It is thought that 20 members is a reasonable number. However, the Bill specifies that there should be a minimum of seven and a maximum of 14 members. How does the Committee propose to deal with that?

Mr K Robinson:

Last week, we exercised the argument that given that the Committee wants to achieve geographical spread and range of interests, the practicalities of board meetings and the certainty that subcommittees will need to be set up in order to deal with issues such as finance. I still maintain that a membership of around 20 would allow for geographical spread, a range of interests and will allow the board to carry out its functions more effectively.

The Chairperson:

Have members any further views on membership of elected representatives? The Committee has agreed that the board should include elected representatives — whom we understand to be members of local government authorities, such as councillors — and union representatives. Members are asked to consider further how many of each should be on the board. Does the Committee recommend, for example, that they should make up a third of the board’s members?

Mr K Robinson:

The document suggests that elected representatives and trade union representatives should each make up one third. I am not sure that I totally agree with that.

The Chairperson:

Mr McCausland, perhaps you would agree that that should not be prescriptive.

Mr McCausland:

I would not want that to be prescriptive. If the board is to be locally accountable, local authority members should make up a substantial section. There are a range of other interests. Is there a suggestion that trade unions should make up a third?

Mr K Robinson:

Yes. That seems too high.

Mr McCausland:

That is far too high.

Mr Ramsey:

There has been discussion on whether the subregional mechanism will be made up of offices or a structure. That must be completely clarified. The Committee does not know whether there will be a board in each region.

The Chairperson:

That is another key area. I am not surprised that you have raised the issue of the subregional structure, Mr Ramsey, as you are bound to be concerned about the north-west.

Mr Shannon:

Obviously, the number of members who are councillors will depend on the size of the board. If there are 20 members, as the Committee would prefer, perhaps three or four elected representatives would be appropriate. If the Minister holds firms to his proposal of seven to 14 members, where does the Committee stand on that? Obviously, the board’s size will affect what the membership should be from councils.

The Chairperson:

It is useful to challenge every aspect of that.

Mr Brolly:

I can envisage difficulty in there being a clash between achieving the desired geographical spread and having a workable, viable number of members.

I do not know how a third of councillors could be selected and how it would be decided which areas would be represented and which would not. We should consider the use of some of the representative bodies of councillors, such as the National Association of Councillors (NAC) or Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA), on the board to represent councils and keep the numbers of board members down.

Mr McCausland:

I am not in favour of those organisations being represented. The NAC is a strange body at the best of times and its role is not quite the same as NILGA. Furthermore, there is a range of opinions across councils about the strengths or otherwise of NILGA.

Mr Shannon:

Not everyone has that opinion; some councillors may be happy with NAC.

Mr McCausland:

Yes, but its role is concerned with the rights of councillors. It is a trade union for councillors.

The Chairperson:

Mr Ferguson is a champion for councillors.

Mr Brolly:

A solution is needed in which councillors are represented, without having all the councillors there or having to choose which councillors are represented.

The Chairperson:

The general consensus is, without being prescriptive, to uphold the important principle of local accountability of and representation by elected representatives — councillors.

I refer members to the table in their pack, which gives details of the Committee’s position on the issues of concern that we wish to raise with the Minister. I expect Kieran McCarthy to zone in on clause 6(1), which refers to free core services and charging. Other members will, of course, want to talk about that issue, but Kieran has been pursuing it rigorously in successive weeks.

Mr Brolly:

Are we looking at the questions, or at the issues of concern on the Libraries Bill?

The Chairperson:

I have to go through a long introduction into the general themes that are being raised this morning.

The Department said that it would be prepared to consider amending clause 6(1) and it asked the Committee to come up with alternative wording. The suggested wording was proposed by the South Eastern Education and Library Board (SELB).

The Committee Clerk:

Nelson McCausland referred to a form of wording, which might be acceptable, that one of the witnesses proposed.

Mr McCausland:

Yes, a man from the professional body proposed it, but I cannot remember what the form of words was.

The Committee Clerk:

The wording that we have lifted came from the South Eastern Education and Library Board, but if there is another form of wording, we can use that.

Mr McCarthy:

The wording used by SELB is fairly strong:
“the Authority may not make any charges”.
That reflects the Committee’s view on the matter.

The Chairperson:

Do you think that the wording used by the South Eastern Education and Library Board is strong?

Mr McCarthy:

Yes, I think that it is. It covers all of our concerns.

Mr McCausland:

Can we compare it with the wording that the other individual, to whom I referred, came up with? The wording may be similar.

The Chairperson:

Do you want to do that now, or revisit that shortly?

Mr McCausland:

We can revisit that.

The Chairperson:

Obviously, we need to strengthen the wording.

The Chairperson:

I remind members, prior to the arrival of the Minister — which is scheduled to happen in the next five minutes — that you are required to declare any interests that are relevant to the Committee’s consideration of the Libraries Bill. Those will be recorded in the minute. Members should also note that they are required to declare an interest when asking a witness a question that might related directly to that interest. Again, I state that I am a member of the Western Education and Library Board.

Mr McCausland:

I am the Chairperson of a board of school governors. However, since we work under the aegis of the boards, I have to declare that.

The Chairperson:

I know. I will work my way around the table and ask members about their interests. David, do you have any interests?

Mr McCausland:

I am Chairperson of the BELB library committee and am a member of the board of governors of three schools.

Lord Browne:

I am on the board of governors of two schools.

Mr K Robinson:

Similarly, I am on the board of governors of two schools.

The Chairperson:

Pat, have you any interests to declare?

Mr P Ramsey:

I have no interests to declare.

The Chairperson:

Francie, do you have any interests to declare — apart from your genius?

Mr Brolly:

No one is interested in me.

Mr Shannon:

I am on a board of governors. I am not sure if it is necessary to declare that, but I must tell you about anything that I think might be relevant.

The Chairperson:

Shall we focus on Mr Shannon rather than the Minister?

Mr Shannon:

He is on the big money.

Mr D Bradley:

I am a governor of a primary school.

The Chairperson:

Members should also be advised that we will have welcome assistance from the Bill Office. Intervention is always welcome. We are ready to speak to the Minister if he is ready to speak to us. We can chill out for a minute.

Mr Shannon:

I have a young fellow with me who is on work experience. He is here to see how the Assembly and, in this case, the DCAL Committee works.

The Chairperson:

He is welcome.

Mr Shannon:

He is shadowing me for a week, and, so far, he has had a busy time.
He knows how hard I work. Ask him afterwards.

The Chairperson:

Nelson, the Committee staff are trying to locate the wording that you felt strengthened the point.

Mr Shannon:

Next Thursday is Budget day. This Committee is also scheduled to meet then. How will members juggle those commitments?

The Chairperson:

It will be difficult. I will take advice from the Committee Clerk about other Committee’s plans. Members of this Committee may have strong opinions about what should or should not happen on Thursday. I understand that the Programme for Government, the ISNI and the Budget are to be discussed in Committees next Thursday.

Mr McNarry:

It will only be the commencement of consultation on the Budget. There will be no vote or major debate about the Budget statement, which will be followed by a one hour discussion about what has been said.

The Chairperson:

David, do you think that the Committee could run alongside the plenary session?

Mr McNarry:

It might be a problem for management. The decision to hold the meeting will be a matter for the Committee members. If we attend the Committee meeting, we will have to rely on Hansard in order to find out what happened in the plenary sitting.

Mr P Ramsey:

Next Thursday will be the first time that Members will have a chance to discuss the Budget and the comprehensive spending review. It would be inappropriate to hold a Committee meeting at that time.

Mr McNarry:

I agree with that. Kieran McCarthy sits with me on the Business Committee, and it might benefit members of the Committee to check with their party Whips to find out which party members will participate in the Budget debate and to arrange for all parties to have a fair chance in the time allocated. That is the best way to approach the matter.

The Chairperson:

What is the Committee Clerk’s advice?

Mr McCausland:

The Budget statement is scheduled to take place between 10.30 am and 11.30 am —

A Member:

No, there are two —

Mr McNarry:

A debate on the Programme for Government will be tabled tomorrow.

The Chairperson:

Replies to the Budget statement take the form of questions rather than debate.

Mr Shannon:

Will there be an hour set aside for that?

The Committee Clerk:

There will be one hour set aside.

Mr Shannon:

David’s point is valid. Obviously, each party will have its pecking order for speakers. We could attend the Committee and other people could ask questions in the Chamber.

The Chairperson:

The Committee meeting will therefore run alongside the plenary session; although, members might get distracted for other reasons and have to go to the plenary session.

Mr McCarthy:

The Budget is important. Could the Committee meet on Tuesday? I know that that would put pressure on staff, but Tuesday seems to have been forgotten.

The Chairperson:

The Minister will be attending the Committee on Thursday of next week.

A Member:

Other Committees will also be meeting on Tuesday.

The Committee Clerk:

Next week, the Minister will be attending in order to discuss the Irish language.

Mr McCausland:

There is nothing to discuss about that.

Mr Shannon:

The discussion is over.

The Chairperson:

That will happen next week. Are there any other items on the agenda, or is that the only subject for the Minister to discuss?

Mr Shannon:

David is right about the speaking order in the Chamber following the Minister of Finance and Personnel’s statement about the Budget, and, given that the Minister will be coming, I suggest that we go ahead with the Committee meeting. In order to ensure that we have a quorum, members should indicate whether they will be able to attend.

The Chairperson:

Next week we will continue our ongoing discussions on the Libraries Bill. As scheduled, we will hold the Committee meeting next Thursday. Members must do their best to attend.

Mr Brolly:

Will that be at 10.30 am?

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