Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: 11 February 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson) 
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson) 
Ms Martina Anderson 
Mr Tom Elliott 
Mrs Dolores Kelly 
Mr Ian McCrea 
Mr Barry McElduff 
Mr Stephen Moutray 
Mr Jim Shannon 
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

Ms Evelyn Cummins ) 
Dr Paul Geddis ) Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister
Mr John McMillen )

The Chairperson:

I welcome Evelyn Cummins, Paul Geddis and John McMillen from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, who will brief the Committee on the Executive’s response to the Barroso task force report. Good afternoon, you are very welcome. You may wish to make an opening presentation, and then make yourselves available to answer questions.

Mr John McMillen (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister):

Thank you. We will make just a couple of remarks; we do not need to take up too much of the Committee’s time. The Committee has already received a copy of the Executive’s response, so I will not go into the detail of that, but we will take questions on it. I will provide a flavour of how the work is progressing.

The Barroso task force report was launched in April 2008, and since then OFMDFM and Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) officials have been drawing together a response, which is now in the draft Executive plan. We have linked the action plan to the European strategy, ‘Taking our place in Europe’, in order to provide an implementation plan for that strategy — so we are building on that piece of work. In many ways, the plan is a proof of concept to establish our European priorities, and is an evolving toolkit that can be used to measure how we are meeting our strategic objectives in Europe.

Since the task force’s launch, Departments have been active in pursuing the policies and programmes of, and in engaging with key functionaries in, the Commission services during the development period for the draft action plan. The Executive’s draft action plan covers the period up to the end of the 2008-09 business year, and, for the first time, it sets out our European priorities. It is a rolling plan, which will be updated annually. It will be developed in the coming years, so further opportunities will be available for comment.

In parallel, we have established a monitoring and reporting framework, which is designed to mainstream European engagement into Departments’ normal business cycles. Thus, we shall begin mainstreaming European activities in April.

Finally, the plan has a single, strategic, overarching aim. The task force report is based on five key themes: to promote our interests in the European Union; to access EU funding; to raise our positive profile throughout Europe; to raise awareness and encourage participation in European matters by our own people; and to share our experience of building peace and of conflict resolution in a divided society with Europe and beyond.

I am now happy to take questions.

Mrs D Kelly:

Unfortunately, I must attend another meeting this afternoon, so I will be unable to stay for the entire meeting.

Thank you for your draft action plan, but I found it very disappointing. It was a long-awaited response to the Barroso task force’s report, but I wonder why there was such a lengthy delay in its publication. It was presented in April 2008, amid great fanfare over our engaging with Europe and our asking Europe to help the new devolved Administration in Northern Ireland to settle. It is disappointing that the Executive’s draft action plan’s publication has taken so long, and it does not tackle many of the report’s leads.

You have chosen to respond to the task force in a format that keeps with the existing strategy, rather than with anything that is a response to the task force’s recommendations. For example, the structure differs from the task force report, which considers each of the policy areas in which Europe is of relevance, such as agriculture and rural development or employment and social policy, and it makes recommendations and suggestions on each. However, the Executive’s response does not use the same format, which makes it very difficult to link the two documents.

In your response, you added two additional actions, which are to access EU funding and to share Northern Ireland’s experience of peace-building. Given the current global economic downturn, surely now is the time to maximise the goodwill that there is towards Northern Ireland in Europe and to maximise any economic and social opportunities that are available to us. I do not feel that you have grasped that in the draft action plan. Furthermore, there is no clear direction of any quick wins, and we really need quick wins in order to build confidence. Overall, I found the draft action plan to be very disappointing.

The Chairperson:

Do you wish to respond to any element of what Mrs Kelly said?

Mr McMillen:

I note your disappointment, and I take on board the point about how the two formats do not match. I am sure that the Committee will share its feelings as we proceed.

Much cross-departmental work was required in order to pull together the draft action plan, and that took some time. We also liaised with officials in Europe. Finally, a couple of political points required clearance by Ministers, and that also delayed the document’s publication.

Mr Shannon:

As a result of the Committee’s consideration of EU issues, we are having more contact with you now than we have had over the years. Nonetheless, it is nice to see you all here.

My question concerns departmental involvement in European issues. Have you had any direct contact with Departments? For example, has anyone been identified to make contact with you, or have you made any attempt to try to make contact with Departments? Do all Departments have a European unit that you can contact, or an official with responsibility for European issues? If not, would that be beneficial?

Mr McMillen:

A Barroso task force working group, which the junior Ministers chair, and on which sits a grade 3 official from every Department, has been set up to take forward our response to the report. Therefore, there is very senior representation on EU issues, and we use those officials as the leads for all departmental responses. They act as points of contact on European matters.

Departments that have been recipients of funding in the past tend to have European units. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development have such units, but not all Departments do.

Mr Shannon:

Would it be beneficial to have a contact in each Department?

Mr McMillen:

The contact is there, but it is fair to say that some Departments have a much more European-oriented slant to them than others. Part of the challenge in picking up the task force report is to convince others of the benefits of engagement with Europe. In many ways, it is a long-term engagement.

Mrs Kelly asked about quick wins, but it is sometimes about creating an association and a relationship with Europe and about finding out what is coming down the tracks so that the opportunities can be taken as they arise. Some Departments have not been as forthright as others in that regard.

Mr Shannon:

That reply indicates that there is not enough contact with Departments, or at least that there is not sufficient or ample contact. We hope to highlight where those deficiencies lie through our inquiry. That may be one such deficiency. There is a children’s champion in each Department, so should there be a European champion as well? I suggest that there should be. If we are to learn anything from our inquiry, it will be from what you tell us about how the system is not working correctly. If the system falls down owing to insufficient contact with Europe, the Committee needs to know that.

Ms Evelyn Cummins (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister):

I am based largely in Brussels, and I have perceived quite a lot of activity and engagement between the launch of the task force and the delivery last April of its report. Indeed, I have seen progress on several fronts that reflect the report’s recommendations.

Some of the main themes to consider that were recommended in the task force’s report include: general engagement; more staff secondments, more participation in competitive funding programmes, which reflects one of the points that Mr Shannon raised; and general improved engagement in the European policy process. Despite the fact that we do not yet have an agreed response, I can confidently report that progress has been made on those fronts, and we could give a number of examples. When the Committee sees the results, I think that the work that has been done on those themes will be well reflected. Therefore, although we do not have an agreed report, we have made a great deal of progress. That is a plus point to what has been initiated.

Visits to the European institutions by Ministers and officials, from Departments and public-sector agencies alike, have also increased significantly over the past year.

Mr Shannon:

Edwin Poots said in the previous evidence session that Europe is all about networking. In all the potential visits to which you referred, Evelyn, is it not important to have continuity of contact, with the same people doing the networking? The European Union appears to work by a system of networking, rather than by deciding what is right and what is wrong.

Ms Cummins:

That is inherent in what the task force recommended, and I hope that we will be explicit in our response that that building of working relationships is the way in which for us to exert more influence on European policy.

Mr Spratt:

Thank you for appearing before the Committee. Conflict resolution is one of the areas identified in the task force’s report. Indeed, it is unique to Northern Ireland. What plans are there to promote other unique areas of action, such as e-health solutions, R&D issues, which I raised with you before, and skills issues?

Ms Cummins:

As far as the R&D issues are concerned, there has been a considerable increase in bidding on the research and innovation side. Invest NI has decided to appoint an additional member of staff to work in Brussels, specifically to develop those R&D opportunities. Moreover, the director-general in the Research Directorate-General has offered to accommodate that secondee in the initial stages, in order to help us best compete for available funding.

Mr McMillen:

Representatives from the institutions here actively participated at European open days in Brussels, during which they shared their experiences, both on health issues and on academia. That provided them with a large showcase in which to do so. The theme was the sharing of experiences, skills and nuggets of information. It was not simply about conflict transformation but about sharing those skills.

Dr Paul Geddis (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister):

The team from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety that leads the European Centre for Connected Health gave a presentation to the Barroso task force working group, which is chaired by the junior Ministers, right at the outset of the process. That team was involved at a very early stage, and it has followed up on its initial work by meeting relevant parties in Brussels. It has met the Research Directorate-General to identify how it might better tap into, in particular, European funding streams. Much of that work is ongoing and is captured in the main body of the Executive’s draft action plan.

Mr Spratt:

We have heard from a number of groups and individuals interested in European issues. What plans are there to engage with stakeholders from outside the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, particularly after the action plan is completed?

Mr McMillen:

It is an ongoing piece of work. Ministers are conscious that they need to engage wider civil society and stakeholders — in particular, local government — on European issues. Belfast City Council is engaged prominently in Europe. Thus far, engagement has been done through the formal channels of the Committee. Ministers met MEPs yesterday to inform them on the draft action plan. Once the action plan has passed through the Executive, the intention is to roll it out to other stakeholder groups, and to get those groups on board as we develop the plan next year and beyond.

Mr Elliott:

Thank you for your information. My main question is: what is new? What is in the draft action plan that we would not otherwise be doing? I do not see anything in it that the Departments or the Executive should not already be doing.

Mr McMillen:

That is a fair point. However, we should ask whether we were doing what we should have been doing. Over the years, much of our work had become detached from Europe. Therefore, the task force injected pace into that and identified where the gaps were. The Barroso task force did that by conducting a stocktake of where similar regions were engaged and where gaps existed in that engagement. As everyone has suggested, since its publication, the task force report has stimulated people to examine other areas and has encouraged them to get much more. As Mr Shannon said, it is about networking, cultivating relationships and getting involved, and that is starting to evolve and happen.

Ms Cummins:

I agree. In announcing the initiative, the European Commission and, indeed, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister were mindful of the fact that the current financial-perspective period runs out in 2013 and that, over many years, Northern Ireland has benefited from a range of structural and Peace funding. Inevitably, that has already diminished and will continue to do so. The action plan will gear us up to compete for other already-available opportunities. I agree that those opportunities are already available, but we may not make as much use of them as we could because we have had access to other structural funding in recent years. The action plan is a means of getting us into a different way of working.

Mr Elliott:

Are we placing too much emphasis on that entire process? Are we almost classifying it is a renewal of our European perspective? Are we expecting too much from it?

Ms Cummins:

I am not sure whether that question is for us or for you to answer, Mr Elliott. The European Commission, in its analysis, has given an accurate assessment of Northern Ireland’s European participation. It has also pointed us in the direction of certain opportunities in areas in which we will be able to compete. It is a challenge, but I am not sure whether anyone is of the view that it is too much of a challenge for the appropriate organisations to rise to.

Mr Elliott:

Therefore, what is next? It has taken quite a while to get to this stage, and I want to see a programme of work from this point on.

Mr McMillen:

As you are aware, the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister, the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development were in Brussels yesterday, where they met with the UK Permanent Representation to Brussels (UKRep), the Irish Permanent Representation to Brussels and MEPs about taking forward the action plan. They picked up some information at that meeting, which they will bring back. Taking on board the Committee’s, and others’, comments, the expectation is that we will have a paper for the Executive to endorse some time in March. The First Minister and the deputy First Minister will return to Brussels in late March or early April, where they will present President Barroso with the initial response on the first year’s performance. We will then engage Departments to start rolling out the plan into 2009-2010. In late May or early June, the Ministers will, hopefully, return to Brussels with that plan and try to engage with the new European Commission, in order to retain continuity.

During that period, officials will go to Brussels to engage with their counterparts in the Commission to build up what will become a long-term relationship and to start to get an idea of what the programme is working for in Brussels. During the compilation of the task force report, European officials paid a very successful to Belfast. The intention is to repeat that in the autumn, in order to find out what their work plan is for future years, and we can provide the Committee with details of that work plan.

The Chairperson:

OFMDFM is the lead Department in this; however, it is a question of the carrot and the stick as to whether it can really ensure that the various Northern Ireland Departments involved will undertake the work and the contact, and roll out the programme of work in line with Europe. Are you satisfied that OFMDFM is satisfied that it has the necessary “stick” to ensure that that happens?

Mr McMillen:

We will monitor the performance of the Departments and ask them quarterly, as part of the normal budgetary monitoring cycle, to update their action plans and tell us what they have achieved. For the Ministers in OFMDFM, we shall produce a six-monthly report, which I assume they will take to the Executive, who can use it as a mechanism to check what progress is being made. Obviously, it is up to individual Ministers to decide how they react to that.

The Chairperson:

Therefore, you are marking the homework?

Mr McMillen:

We are informing Ministers of what the Departments are telling us about their progress.

The Chairperson:

They are marking the homework?

Ms Anderson:

Why are some of the recommendations that the task force made, such as the PROGRESS programme, not included in the draft action plan? Many of the five policy areas that the PROGRESS programme covers are central to OFMDFM policy, yet it has not been included. As the report states, the programme deals with:

“employment, social inclusion and protection, working conditions, gender equality and anti-discrimination.”

It is amazing that that has not been included in the draft action plan.

Dr Geddis:

That is a fair point. Consideration was given to including that programme, but the responsibility for including it came down to a decision between the policy leads in OFMDFM and in the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL), which was the lead Department on that. On the basis of advice that we received from the Department for Employment and Learning, that programme was not included in the draft action plan.

Ms Anderson:

However, not all those areas are located in DEL, particularly gender equality, anti-discrimination and social inclusion. Many strategic decisions made in those areas are under OFMDFM’s remit.

Dr Geddis:

Yes, I agree with that. However, a discussion took place between the OFMDFM policy leads and the DEL policy leads, and we acted on the advice that we received. Those issues lie within an area of policy for which the European division is not directly responsible, so we had to accept the advice that we were given.

We perform an overarching, co-ordinating function on the action plan. Our role is to secure content for inclusion from other Departments and from OFMDFM.

Ms Cummins:

I wish to add a general point about what was responded to and what has not featured to date in the draft action plan. When the European Commission was drafting the task force report, it did not expect Northern Ireland to respond to every single recommendation. It was expected that Northern Ireland would prioritise what would be in its best interests and what it felt that it had the capacity to do.

I am not saying that one particular measure is more important than another. As Paul said, the report was relayed to individual Departments for them to respond. It is possible that something that was not picked up and planned for in the first bite could be picked up as the programme advances.

Ms Anderson:

Has €743 million been dedicated to the PROGRESS programme? It begs the question about the impact that the task force has had on our approach to Europe if that has either not been picked up on or, regardless of the kind of engagement that has occurred, it has been decided that that is not an issue for inclusion in the action plan.

Dr Geddis:

That is fair comment. I think that this point was made earlier, but the only comment that I will add is that Europe is very much seen as an add-on in some policy areas. It is not seen as part of an integral whole. That is a cultural difference that exists in some of the Northern Ireland Departments.

Ms Anderson:

Has it exposed our disconnect from Europe and the need for there to be greater connectivity?

Dr Geddis:

Yes. From a European perspective, we try to encourage policy integration at local, regional, national and European levels, and also to ensure that that stretches horizontally. However, there is a disjoint that has historical connotations.

Mr McElduff:

To follow on from Dolores Kelly’s points, is it the case that the developing action plan will take the place of the existing strategy that is due to be reviewed?

Is the argument being made that greater investment should be being made in the Executive’s office in Brussels so that advantage can be taken of opportunities?

Ms Cummins:

The current strategy, titled ‘Taking Our Place in Europe’, was published during direct rule and was intended to cover the period 2006-2010. It was intended to provide a very high-level overview of European engagement and of how the various Northern Ireland players could contribute to, and benefit from, that.

In a sense, that is still a document from which we draw our objectives. However, the task force gives us a much more detailed, wide-ranging and more specific set of recommendations. That will become our strategy for European engagement in future years. We will carry forward the principles of the European strategy. In time, one will replace the other, but the announcement of the task force has given that process a considerable boost.

Mr McMillen:

The Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels is operated by a small team, which works very hard to represent Northern Ireland. However, as the Committee well knows, resources in the Department are very much restrained. Therefore, it is about how we deploy those resources. To try to address that, Ministers are prioritising international relations, both inside and outside Europe. It is not only down to OFMDFM — other Departments should consider whether they should invest in putting people in Brussels. There is already representation from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and from Invest Northern Ireland. That has proved to be very beneficial, and we have spare capacity for representation from other Departments if they thought about posting someone to Brussels.

Ms Cummins:

We are also working with our colleagues in the Department of Finance and Personnel to find different means of encouraging people to take up short-term and medium-term secondments to Europe. That also helps the wider process of European policy, which is a day-to-day part of Government business.

Mrs Long:

Thank you for your presentation. The action plan and response are still in draft form, but several actions mentioned are timelined to have already happened or to be happening. I seek reassurance that the actions that should have happened have happened or are happening, despite the fact that the action plan is still in draft format.

Mr McMillen:

I assure you that many of the actions that are timelined for completion in 2008-09 have been advanced by Departments. In January, I wrote to Departments to ask them for an update on the state of play as at December 2008 so that we could get a feel for the situation. I will ask for a final report at the end of the financial year.

As Evelyn said, there have been successes so far this year, and things have happened that would not have happened otherwise.

Mrs Long:

Further to Tom Elliott’s comments, on reading the draft action plan, one is tempted to think that it is old wine in new bottles — there is little that is new in it. Given that the action plan is almost replacing the previous strategy, would it not have been helpful to have included the baseline information that arose from the previous strategy and the review of activity around that? That would have provided us with a starting point from which we could have judged whether the response to the Barroso task force report had made any tangible difference, and people would have been able to see what additionality had been provided by the exercise.

Ms Cummins:

We are using the task force report, which has analysed participation, as the baseline on which to judge our progress and success.

The strategy, ‘Taking our Place in Europe’, was subjected to a prolonged and widespread consultation before it was published. That was before my time, so I will call on Dr Geddis to help me with any detail. I do not recollect there being a baseline assessment; rather, it was concerned with bringing together a range of consultees who may have had an interest in European affairs, and setting out a high-level strategy from that. The Barroso task force’s plan and assessment are more detailed.

Dr Geddis:

That is correct. The strategy was a high-level, overarching document that was designed to encourage regional engagement in Europe at regional and local government levels and in civil society. As it was published during direct rule, there was no action plan to support that strategy. However, that had always been the intention. The Barroso stocktake provided the baseline, and the Executive’s draft action plan that is before you provides the action plan that is effectively implementing, albeit belatedly, ‘Taking Our Place in Europe’.

Mr Moutray:

Are there any guarantees that people who take up secondments to Europe will be able to use the knowledge gained when they return to their posts?

Ms Cummins:

I do not have personal experience of that, because I have not come back yet. However, I have learnt from the experiences of others. As there are so few people from Northern Ireland working in Brussels at any given time, it is difficult to have a masterplan for that. In conjunction with the parent Department and colleagues in central personnel group (CPG) in the Department of Finance and Personnel, we try to ensure that best efforts are made to accommodate each individual’s preferences. When they return, we try to allocate individuals to posts in which they can use their skills and experience and ensure that the Department requires those particular skills and experience.

Currently, we have three short-term secondments, or, as they are known, stagiaires. One is seconded to the cabinet of Commissioner Danuta Hübner, who is the commissioner who is overseeing the taskforce; a young man from DEL is seconded to the Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities; and a young man from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) has been seconded to Eurostat in Luxembourg.

Those people will tend to return to their original Departments. They are working in areas that relate specifically to their parent Departments, and, therefore, the system works. I am not trying to present the process as easy and simple, because we have to think about, and work at, each case.

The Chairperson:

In an earlier evidence session on European issues, the Committee heard a suggestion that a transfer to Europe is unattractive to staff because it is inconvenient, both for travel and family reasons, and because of the stifling effect that a transfer could have on an individual’s career. For example, a person who accepts a transfer to Europe is considered to be in the wilderness and considered unable to evolve their career prospects properly. Is that an accepted fact? Is work under way to address that concern?

Ms Cummins:

The perception of being forgotten after a transfer to Europe is more keenly experienced by UK civil servants, who must compete to find a post when they return from Europe. We are small enough to remember people and to make efforts to accommodate them.

I am aware of very few examples in which a transfer to Europe has harmed a person’s career. In fact, it has been a good step to make. However, several programmes are under way, or are being prepared, to address that matter, one of which is Centre for Applied Learning’s newly activated European training programme. The programme has two stages to it, the first of which involves learning about European institutions, legal issues, and so on — all that one need to know about Europe. The second stage comprises a trip to visit and study the various institutions and to talk to employees there. The idea is to allow people to sample working in Europe.

As you said, people’s personal lives vary, and, for many reasons — including for family reasons — it is not always the right time to take a secondment. However, the programme allows people to gain information and, perhaps, plan for a transfer at some time in the future. Furthermore, there is a proposal to offer short-term secondments — on a study-type programme — to Brussels, and that is intended to have the same result.

The Chairperson:

Thank you for your attendance and for the information that you have provided to the Committee. The Committee will respond formally to OFMDFM, and I hope to submit that response after next week’s Committee meeting.

The Committee Clerk and her colleagues will draft a reply, based on the points that have been raised, for consideration at next week’s meeting. Thereafter, we will report to the Department. Are members content?

Members indicated assent.

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