Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 25 October 2007

Libraries Bill

25 October 2007

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Barry McElduff (Chairperson)
Mr Francie Brolly
Lord Browne
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Paul Maskey
Mr Pat Ramsey
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon

The Chairperson (Mr McElduff):
We will now begin the formal discussion of the Libraries Bill. The Bill Clerk is with us today, and he is always very helpful in these matters.

I refer members to the table of issues that they have identified as being of concern to them, and to a summary of the Minister’s responses, which we heard last week. The Committee must consider the Minister’s evidence and decide whether it is content with how he has responded to the Committee’s concerns. That is best done systematically, and I will deal with each issue in turn.

First is clause 2, “Duty of authority to provide library service”. The Committee’s position is that it wants the term “comprehensive and efficient” to be included in the clause. Last week, the Minister said that such terms add meaning to the Bill, and that he is happy to consider the inclusion of the terms. He said that he would get back to the Committee on the matter.

The Committee also asked the Minister how the efficiency of the library authority will be monitored and who will monitor it. The Minister said that the library authority will be monitored by the chief executive, who will report to the permanent secretary, who, in turn, will report to the Minister. The Minister will then report to the Committee. The Minister said that he was happy with those mechanisms and that there was no need for an outside body to carry out the monitoring. Ms Irene Knox also said that she would report to the Committee on standards and that any proposal for the updating of standards would be brought before the Committee. The Minister said that he was not in favour of including that matter in legislation as it would result in a loss of flexibility. Does the Committee agree that we need to write to the Minister asking him to report back in writing on his deliberations on the inclusion of the phrase “comprehensive and efficient”?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:
Are members content with the Minister’s response on how standards will be monitored? If not, we could write to the Minister asking him to consider making an amendment to require that the performance standards of the authority need to be improved by the Assembly. Are we agreed that we are happy with the response?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:
Last week, the Committee told the Minister that it was concerned that clause 2(2) does not provide adequate protection for reference material. We asked the Minister to consider expanding the clause to include reference to protecting material of regional and national importance. Nelson, you have consistently raised that point.

Ms Knox replied that the difficulty with including such a provision in legislation is that it is not always possible to identify such material unless someone points it out. Therefore, the authority could be placed in a difficult position should it miss a publication — in other words, it could be brought to court if it failed to collect a particular item. However, Ms Knox said that she would consider the inclusion of a general phrase in the legislation. The Department has indicated that we will have a response from the Minister by 16 November, in preparation for the clause-by-clause scrutiny on 22 November.

I now turn to clause 6, “Charges for certain library services”. The Committee is concerned that this clause does not guarantee free core library services. Last week, we asked the Minister whether he would amend clause 6(1) in line with the wording suggested by the Southern Education and Library Board. The Minister said that he would consider the wording and report back to the Committee. A response is due by 16 November.

We also asked the Minister for his view on the idea of introducing a standard set of charges to apply to all libraries in all areas. The Minister said that one of the reasons for having a single library authority is to ensure a consistent service across the board, and that he saw no benefit in having different charges in different regions. Are members content with the Minister’s response? Are members content that clause 6(2) should remain as drafted, as it seems that there is no intention to set different charges in different areas, even though the Bill, as currently drafted, makes provisions for different charges? Does anyone want to guide the Committee on how to deal with that matter? I hear no strong views, so I take it that the Committee is happy with the Minister’s response.

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:
The Committee also asked the Minister whether he was content that he had legislative cover to make different charges to people of different ages. The Minister said that he could not give that assurance and would need to ask the relevant people to look at that matter on his behalf. Again, we will receive more information by 16 November. Are members content to await the Minister’s response?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:
We now turn to paragraph 1 of schedule 2, which deals with membership of the authority. The Committee is proposing a substantive change to this schedule. The Committee favours a board of 20 members. Last week, the Minister said that he was open to the Committee’s views and that the issue was still up for discussion. However, he made the point that, sometimes, larger boards do not work as effectively as smaller boards because people do not pull their weight, and that smaller boards can be more focused. I take it that Members are still in favour of Ken’s proposal of 20 members. Therefore, we are seeking agreement to specify that figure, and we will write to the Minister asking him to amend the Bill accordingly.

Mr McCausland:
Is that with regard to making sure that the membership is reflective of Northern Ireland society?

The Chairperson:
The item that I am referring to is the number of board members. What you have referred to is a further point that you may want to major on. Is it our considered view that the board should consist of 20 members?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:
The Committee told the Minister that we favour elected representatives and union representatives being included on the board. The Minister said that he recognised that local government representatives bring a unique dimension to public bodies because of their interaction with the public. Again, that is still up for discussion.

Does the Committee want to suggest to the Minister how many board members should be local councillors? Do we want to ask the Minister to specify that, and that union representatives should be on the board, in the Bill? If we do, we are going to have to write to the Minister regarding that. Or, do we want to specify another form of wording about the board’s being representative of society and cultural diversity?

Mr McCausland:
I think that that more general approach covers all of those bases.

The Chairperson:
Are we agreed?

Mr McCausland:
We should emphasise that there should be local government involvement.

Mr P Ramsey:
And appropriate geographical balance.

Mr McCausland:
Yes, the term “reflective” will cover that.

The Chairperson:
Nelson, help us with a form of words.

Mr McCausland:
“That the membership of the body should be reflective of Northern Ireland society.”

The Chairperson:
Is that agreed by members?

Mr McCausland:
There is a form of words that is used by the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission. I do not know what it is, but we could consider that.

Mr Shannon:
Are we going to specify the number of elected representatives, or are we saying that we are not going to do that?

The Chairperson:
We are saying that the board should consist of 20 members. Do we want to be prescriptive, and say that one third, or less —

Mr Shannon:
I am simply making the point. I am not proposing that by any means. A certain group of councillors could perhaps achieve the required geographical spread. Other members may have a different opinion.

The Chairperson:
Other people have said that the Northern Ireland Local Government Association, for example, could provide the representation on the board and be the councillors’ voice, but that may not be the case.

Does anyone want to be prescriptive regarding how many of the 20 members should be local councillors?

Mr McCausland:
No. We do not have to do that at this point.

Regarding the point that Jim made, council representation would achieve a spread of people. However, there are dangers in that all the experts come from North Down. Therefore, it is good to get representativeness reflecting —

Mr Shannon:
There are experts in other parts of the country apart from North Down.

Mr McCausland:
Yes, but looking at the composition of the current boards, you would not think that.

The Chairperson:
Are there any experts in the Ards area, Jim?

Mr Shannon:
I can think of one or two. We have experts on lots of things.

The Chairperson:
OK. Do we want to be specific and request that the legislation state that people from all geographical areas should be included on the board, or is that covered?

Mr McCausland:
The term “reflective” covers geography, gender, cultural background, and so on.

The Chairperson:
OK. Is that agreed?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:
Schedule 1, paragraph 3 refers to tenure of office. Wallace explored this last week.

Lord Browne:
Yes. We were all agreed on that issue.

The Chairperson:
Therefore, the Committee is content with the Minister’s response.

The Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance’s (NIPSA) view is that the chairperson of the board of the new library authority should be able to serve only a maximum of two terms of office. The Department agreed with that view, but said that it should not necessarily be included in the legislation, being covered instead by the rules of operation of the board.

Mr McCausland:
Does the Department determine the rules of operation of the board?

The Chairperson:
Do we want to ask that question specifically?

Mr McCausland:
Yes. If it is the Department setting the rules, that is fine. However, if it is left to the board to set its own rules, it might decide —

The Chairperson:
I am beginning to learn that if the Committee wants something written into legislation, the Department can say that it is not needed and that it can be included the rules of operation or the explanatory and financial memorandum. Therefore, if we were being suspicious, it could be suggested that there are wee devices that the Department uses. However, we should not be suspicious.

Do we want it stipulated in the legislation that the chairperson of the board should hold office for a maximum of two terms, or are members content that it be included in the rules of operation? We will ask the question that Nelson proposed regarding who sets those rules.

Mr P Maskey:
Ask the question first.

The Chairperson:
OK. We can revisit that.

We have not received a response from the departmental solicitor’s office regarding NIPSA’s proposed amendments. Last week, the Minister said that it seemed sensible for the departmental solicitor’s office and NIPSA’s lawyer to find out whether they could agree a position. He said that he would report back to the Committee at the earliest opportunity.

With regard to the explanatory memorandum, the Committee had an issue with the start-up costs and estimated savings. Last week, we told the Minister that we believed that he was underestimating the start-up costs and overestimating the efficiency savings that could be made in the future. The Minister said that the predicted savings had already been agreed with the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP). If the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) were to move away from those figures, DFP approval would need to be sought. The Minister said that he is still aiming to make the efficiency savings, and therefore cannot amend the explanatory memorandum. Are members content with the Minister’s reasoning?

Mr P Ramsey:
That is probably one of the most contentious areas, and there is a level of uncertainty there. The fact that the Minister conceded the appointment of an outside body to examine the overall costs indicates that there is a problem. The Minister confirmed today that Deloitte and Touche has been appointed.

The Chairperson:
Should we press the Minister to amend the explanatory memorandum in relation to the savings?

Mr P Ramsey:
Every presentation that the Committee has heard, particularly from the boards, has indicated expected costs two or three times higher than what the Minister indicated. We need more clarification.

The Chairperson:
The Committee Clerk will explain the timing and the opportunity that remains to affect these amendments.

The Committee Clerk:
The Committee is not meeting next week; the next meeting is on 8 November and that will be followed by a meeting on 15 November. Therefore, only a few meetings are left before the Committee begins its clause-by-clause scrutiny of the Libraries Bill. Today is the last meeting in which Committee members will be able to come up with questions, to query the Department and put questions in writing to the Department in time for it to come up with answers. The Department is already providing answers on 16 November, so anything that is sent today would have to be tagged on to those.

The Chairperson:
The Committee will bear that in mind. Are we awaiting further information, or do we want to press the Minister to amend the explanatory memorandum in relation to the savings? Is there any conclusion on that?

Mr McCausland:
Have we had clarity on the point that was raised in the research paper: that, up to now, corporate costs have been met largely by the Department of Education (DE) and that, when the library authority is set up, those costs will be met by DCAL? The research paper states:

“DCAL explain that for ‘historical’ reasons corporate and support services for libraries…have been financed by the Department of Education (DE), an arrangement which will end once the single Authority is set up.”

Has there been clarification that less money will be given to the Department of Education and additional money given to DCAL to meet those corporate costs?

The Chairperson:
Is there a question there for the Department?

Mr McCausland:
How did that influence the Department’s estimation of the savings? DCAL might feel that it will make savings in corporate costs, but it was not paying for those anyway; the Department of Education was.

The Bill Clerk:
There will probably be a transfer of funds from that programme from the Department of Education to DCAL, as it is taking over that policy issue. The savings that have been quoted must be real savings, and the Department will have taken that into account.

Mr McCausland:
The difficulty was that the previous system was run through the boards, which were funded by DE, and the man in charge of the accountancy section was responsible for libraries, schools and youth services. How does one apportion those costs? Perhaps that was considered by the consultants.

The Chairperson:
Deloitte specified a figure of £965,000 for corporate services.

Mr McCausland:
Was that its estimate?

The Chairperson:
Yes, and I understand that the bid so far has been for £550,000. Presumably the Department will need to bid for that greater amount, should that estimate turn out to be accurate. Is there an action point, or are we just deliberating?

Mr McCausland:
We are deliberating.

The Chairperson:
The Minister said that the Department was still working on the start-up costs and that he was not yet in a position to say whether he would change the figures in the explanatory memorandum. The Minister said that he would inform the Committee when the Department had worked out more concrete figures. The Department is aiming to produce those figures by 16 November.

There is that point, again, about 16 November being the day after the Committee meeting. Does that matter, or would it be helpful if that were to be brought forward?

The Committee Clerk:
The Department was proposing to answer the Committee’s queries in December, so that date represents an agreement to bring its response forward.

The Chairperson:
That is fine.

I refer members to the correspondence from the Belfast Education and Library Board and NIPSA on start-up costs for the library authority. Neither organisation was able to provide concrete figures. Are members content to wait for the Minister to provide figures before considering the matter further?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:
The timing for the creation of the library authority is not in the Bill. Last week, the Minister told the Committee that he was setting 1 April 2009 as the start date for the library authority. Members had been concerned about the proposed start date of 1 April 2008, given that it was a year before the proposed establishment of the education and skills authority. Are members content with the start date of 1 April 2009?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:
The links with the schools library service and the Department of Education are not in the Bill. The Committee has written to the Minister to request information on what discussions his Department has had with the Department of Education on the synchronisation of the establishment of the library authority and the education and skills authority. We also asked him how the links between the public library service and the schools library service will be maintained and developed, what sort of service-level agreement will be made and what sort of issues will it cover. A response is due next week.

Another issue that is not in the Bill is the sub-regional structure. Last week, the Committee asked the Minister to provide it with the operational structure of the library authority. Ms Knox said that she was drafting the operational structure and that it would be ready towards the end of November. She offered to come to the Committee when she was ready to discuss it. Are members content to wait to see the operational structure before considering the issue further, or do they wish to ask Ms Knox to discuss it?

Mr P Maskey:
I have no problem with waiting for Ms Knox to come back. However, when she comes back, if the Committee decides that there should be changes to the structure, can it ask her to make them, and will she have time to do so?

The Committee Clerk:
We have drawn up a table in an attempt to help the Committee come to its final conclusions on the Bill before the end date of the extension. Therefore, we have a little bit of time.

Mr P Maskey:
Then we will just wait.

The Chairperson:
OK. The Committee has concluded its business for today. If there are additional comments, please feel free to make them now.

The Bill Clerk:
On the question of rules, clause 9 of the Bill refers to the Department’s powers of direction. The clause enables the Department to give general or specific directions to the authority on the exercise of its functions. It is likely that this clause relates to setting the rules of operation. Two terms are being used. In the legislation it is referred to as “powers of direction”, and I suspect that that relates to setting rules. However, the Committee will have to write to the Minister for clarification of that.

As the Department is due to respond on 16 November, but the Committee is to meet on 15 November, may I suggest that the Committee considers writing to the Department for the sake of two days, so that the material could be with you the day before you have to address the issues.

The Chairperson:
I take the Committee Clerk’s point that the response was originally going to be given in December and that 16 November is some sort of concession. That said, perhaps the Committee should write to the Department to ask for that increased flexibility. Thank you for that suggestion.

Mr P Ramsey:
Some of the questions that I asked the Minister and officials last week remain unanswered. Some of the questions were about legislation, but some related to operational matters, such as the total redundancy costs, the branding of the new service, the establishment of the new headquarters and whether there would be costs relating to sub-regional offices. All those questions were to enable members to be sure that we are going down the road that we want to go down. We know that significant savings will be made, but will the same service be provided?

I raise that point because there are occasions when the Minister or officials are unable to give the Committee answers. What is the follow-through mechanism for getting those answers? For example, I am not sure whether DCAL officials are present today. If they were, they could take those questions away and give the Committee an assurance that the questions that remained unanswered from weeks ago will be looked at. The Committee keeps coming back to the same questions. What is the point of asking questions if we are not given the appropriate answers?

The Chairperson:
So there are unanswered questions?

Mr P Ramsey:
I have consistently asked a range of questions, and they remain unanswered.

The Bill Clerk:
Normally, officials will scour Hansard and pick up anything that —

Mr P Ramsey:
Normally?

The Bill Clerk:
You may want to have that relayed back to ensure that officials do that.

Mr P Ramsey:
In light of the amount of effort that the Committee has put into the Bill, I would be happy enough, Mr Chairperson, if you were to send officials a letter requesting them to address the questions that have been asked and recorded in Hansard over recent weeks.

The Chairperson:
That is a very general request, and it would be leaving it to the officials’ interpretation as to what was asked and what was not asked. However, that is OK.

Mr P Ramsey:
The problem is that we are forced into asking questions of the Minister outside the DCAL setting, which should not be the case. However, we have to do that because we are not getting answers.

The Chairperson:
Pat, maybe you could refresh your memory and speak to the Committee Clerk about those issues later.

Mr P Ramsey:
I will give the Committee Clerk the information.

The Chairperson:
That is great; it is exactly what we need. Thank you very much, members.

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