Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: 24 June 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson) 
Mr Tom Elliott 
Mrs Dolores Kelly 
Mr Barry McElduff

Witnesses:

Mr Brendan McAllister ) 
Mrs Bertha McDougall ) Commission for Victims and Survivors 
Mr Michael Nesbitt )

The Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (Mr Kennedy):

We now move to a briefing from the Commission for Victims and Survivors. We are pleased to welcome three of the commissioners: Mr Michael Nesbitt, Mrs Bertha McDougall, and Mr Brendan McAllister. Good afternoon. Thank you for joining us.

As commissioners for victims and survivors, you are here to brief the Committee on the design plan for a forum for consultation and discussion with victims and survivors, a copy of which was forwarded to us yesterday. Members should have received it by email overnight. It is a pity that it was sent at such short notice. Nevertheless, we thank you for coming to brief us on the plan. You may make a short presentation before we move to questions from members.

Mr Michael Nesbitt (Commission for Victims and Survivors):

Thank you, Chairman. All three of us want to contribute some opening remarks, which we preface with apologies from Patricia McBride, who cannot be here. If it is acceptable, our opening remarks will cover a broader picture than the formation of the pilot forum.

We believe that the world of victims and survivors is still in a period of change, and preparation for change. I will refer to four initiatives in particular: the commission, which is established; the forum, which is on its way; the 10-year strategy, which has been the subject of a consultation exercise; and the service, the paper on which has not yet gone out for consultation. Any one of those initiatives has the potential to make a positive difference in the lives of victims and survivors; however, taken together, and with the backing of the budget, they represent an unprecedented opportunity to make a real, positive and long-term change.

We have become increasingly concerned about the disconnect among the timings of those initiatives. We are here, and the forum, with a fair wind, will be here by September. However, the strategy, which has been the subject of a consultation exercise, has not yet been adopted, and the paper on the service, which is the key delivery mechanism for the strategy, has not yet gone out for consultation. When we ask where that is, we are variously told that it is either with the Committee, the Ministers, the Departments or the special advisers. However, it is not where it should be, and that is out there, with the victims and survivors.

The Chairperson:

I confirm that the paper is no longer with us; we dealt with it efficiently and speedily. Rather than hold on to, we decided to allow it to be released and consulted on. There will be more detailed consultation on its provisional outcomes at a later stage. On behalf of the Committee, let me say clearly that that paper is not with us, and that we are not cause of the blockage.

Mr Nesbitt:

We accept that. The broader point is that we are coming up to the midway point of the three-year spending cycle, and we are nowhere near where we thought we would be. The first strategy paper that I have seen, which may not necessarily be the first strategy paper to be drawn up, envisaged the service being up and running in the past financial year. Some people think that it will be up and running at the start of the next financial year; others are clearly planning for another interim arrangement. That is our primary concern. Bertha will talk more about the service in a moment.

As for our own business, we have recently completed our corporate and business plans and have forwarded those to the Department. I believe that we will be in a position early next week to forward you copies of our three-year corporate plan for your perusal and comment. Key activities in the work plan for the next 12 months include living history, dealing with the past, advising on the set-up of the new service and, of course, the forum, which Brendan McAllister will now talk about.

Mr Brendan McAllister (Commission for Victims and Survivors):

Thank you very much for the opportunity to brief you today on all of our work, and especially on the forum. We propose to run the forum in pilot form from this September until next June. We intend that there be 33 people on the forum, 25 of whom will meet the definition of victims and survivors as laid down in the Victim and Survivors ( Northern Ireland) Order 2006, and eight of whom will be associate members of the forum, and whom we will recruit because of their additional expertise or experience.

We propose that the forum’s aim will be to facilitate consultation and discussion with victims and survivors of the Northern Ireland conflict; which is a definition that we lifted directly from the legislation. We also propose to achieve three objectives in its first year. First, to establish a forum that retains the confidence of its members. Secondly, to establish a forum that enjoys the confidence of victims and survivors generally, as well as the Government, public representatives and the public. Thirdly, to reach agreement among members, the victims and survivors constituency, the commission and the Government regarding the longer-term future of the forum after June 2010.

We are also proposing to road-test the forum. We have designed its structures and procedures, and we want to use its first year to address those aspects that do not work so well and improve on those that do, so that when we proceed to the forum on a longer-term basis, we will have improved its design. We also intend that the forum should move around Northern Ireland.

It will have monthly plenary sittings during its first year, which will normally take place in the afternoon and evening. In addition, we will be asking members to volunteer to serve on one of three committees, so that they will attend a sitting of the forum and a committee meeting each month. The committees include one for general purposes, which will run the forum and look after its business; another to monitor the development of the new victims’ and survivors’ service; and one to help the commission with its comprehensive needs assessment.

We envisage three terms: a winter term from September to Christmas; a spring term from January to Easter; and a summer term. We have laid down a fairly full programme for the first term, which should cover issues such as the definition of a victim/survivor; dealing with the past; the comprehensive needs assessment; the new victims’ and survivors’ service; our own plans as a commission, as part of which we are expected to involve the forum in consultation and we will want to review with them our three-year corporate plan to which Mr Nesbitt referred; and our work plan for 2010-11. We have a full programme of work for the forum in its first term. We envisage holding discussions with the members, who will then decide the detail of their programme of work for the rest of the year.

Mrs Bertha McDougall (Commission for Victims and Survivors):

Mr Nesbitt has referred to the service, and our concerns about the delay in setting it up, particularly in respect of funding. Alongside the service, the forum and the commission, there was an allocation of funding over a period of three years. If that funding is not used and allocated within the service, there must be contingency plans as to how it will be delivered to individuals and groups. That situation is creating a great deal of uncertainly in the sector. Groups do not know what is going to happen, and there is a strong feeling that there is a lack of will, because no progress has been made and it has been delayed for so long.

We are also concerned about the preparatory work that needs to be done. Our own experience indicates that unless preparatory work is done adequately when any system is set up, even during a transition phase, it will not operate properly, sufficiently and efficiently. Therefore, we are concerned to ensure that the preparation is undertaken. The service document refers to the criteria for the new service. That criteria needs to be worked through and drawn together. We need to know whether it is about governance issues or assessing individuals. A great deal of work needs to be undertaken in the incoming year prior to the service being set up. We want to see the paper in the system and in the sector as soon as possible.

The Chairperson:

Thank you for that overview of all aspects of your work.

Your appointment was made on the basis that you would be independent commissioners — you are independent of the Department — but there is still a relationship between yourselves and the Department. Nevertheless, you will seek to be independent in the work that you undertake, and you have sought to be so. That is why I am concerned about the ongoing delays, particularly with regard to the release of the consultation on the service proposal. If you are truly and genuinely independent, there seems to be no reason why that consultation should not be under way already, bearing in mind the work that you have carried out already.

What is the problem, or where is the problem? We have explained ourselves, but there seem to be unseen fingers pointing the blame at, or attempting to deflect the blame on to, this Committee. We are absolutely clear that we are not the reason for the blockage in the consultation. If you are as truly independent as you have been established to be, or that we have been lead to believe that you have been established to be, why is there the ongoing blockage?

Mrs McDougall:

We have written to the Ministers to ask why that has not happened. When we met them some time ago, we were aware of the process, and we were under the impression that once the Committee had viewed the paper, it would go to the Executive. We anticipated that the paper would be out in the sector, but it has not arrived.

Mr Nesbitt:

It is not ours to publish.

The Chairperson:

No; it is with the Department.

Mr Nesbitt:

As Bertha said, we recently wrote to the two junior Ministers because we are increasingly concerned about the delay.

The Chairperson:

OK. I have no doubt that members will want to pursue that. The other point that I wanted to make was about the forum. It will comprise 33 members, 25 of whom are — how exactly are they chosen? I noted that they will serve as individuals and not on behalf of representative groups. How will the “conclave of cardinals” be appointed?

Mr B McAllister:

You are quite right, Chairperson. It is, in a sense, a conclave approach. We conducted a number of workshops with a group of people whose names are listed in our report. In the past couple of days, we thought it would be good to send the report, even though it was late, because those of you who got a chance to look at it might have found it helpful. Our approach has been to convene a forum development group comprising people who are active across the victims’ and survivors’ sector, and to run a series of workshops, including, ultimately, a residential workshop in February, in which we put ideas to them and tested those ideas against their wisdom.

At that stage, we were intent on creating an open appointment process to the forum, whereby we would have an advertising and public awareness campaign to make the general public aware of the establishment of the forum and to invite applications. However, on reflection, we came to the view that it was a bit early to adopt that approach. We were concerned that, especially since we had heard about it in this Committee previously, there was a heightened awareness of the need to reach individuals who are victims and survivors, as opposed to the organised victims’ and survivors’ groups. We were concerned that there was not enough reach, and we wanted to involve the victims’ and survivors’ sector more in promoting the idea of there being a forum.

Therefore, we decided to move things along more quickly and enable the forum to be up and running so that it could contribute to the work of the commission on the matters that I outlined earlier. We adopted a direct selection approach, which is basically the four commissioners bearing in mind the definition of a victim, which, according to the 2006 Order, comprises five categories of people. We had to discern how to invite a group of 25 people who, in our view, represent the breadth of victims and survivors in Northern Ireland, as covered by the definition.

The Chairperson:

You effectively “lay hands” on the individuals, and anoint, or appoint, them. There is no application process.

Mr B McAllister:

That is correct.

The Chairperson:

The victims’ commissioners identify suitable people who they think would serve and make a contribution.

Mr B McAllister:

That is correct. I mentioned the work of the development group. In February, when we last met the group, we wanted to proceed to an open appointment process as the best way of demonstrating transparency and avoiding any impression of cronyism on the part of the commissioners. That remains our aspiration; we brought the development group back together a couple of weeks ago and explained our thinking, which was that we needed the help of the victims’ forum, in the pilot phase, to address all the issues that need to be thoroughly thought through before we could proceed to an open appointments process. We are asking the general purposes committee of the forum to take that on as a specific piece of work — how to widen the membership of the forum once it passes out of its pilot phase after next summer. The working group will report back next May so that the forum can give that work its full consideration.

The Chairperson:

OK. We then come to the eight members, who are described as “associate members”. Will they be full voting and participating members of the 33-member forum?

Mr B McAllister:

Our current proposal is that those associate members will not be voting members. They will take a full part in the deliberations of the forum, but the 25 core members, who are defined as victims and survivors, will be left to make the final decisions.

The Chairperson:

Who are the eight associate members, and where are they likely to come from? They are described as persons who have expertise or insight that is relevant to the interests of victims and survivors. What distinguishes those associate members from the initial 25 members?

Mr B McAllister:

The OFMDFM strategy envisages the forum as a place where victims, survivors and representatives of the statutory sector can meet. Therefore, we have departmental officials and other individuals with public-sector experience in mind for those positions. The Commission is currently addressing the matter, but as yet we have not produced a final list of names. For that reason, I refrain from naming the individuals that the Commission has in mind.

The Chairperson:

Perhaps it was an oversight on my behalf that I did not make the witnesses aware that today’s Committee proceedings are being recorded by Hansard. That is not normally a problem, and it has not been in the past. However, I ought to have indicated that previously.

Mrs D Kelly:

The commissioners are painting a very depressing picture. If I recall correctly, in accordance with OFMDFM strategy, the forum was to be in place by May 2008. We are now in June 2009 and nothing is in sight.

If I may be frank, I met with some victims’ groups recently, and they told me that they had no confidence in the commission, that it was a side issue and that they were going to pursue their own direction. It is my view that the commission is being unfairly treated, because of the failure of decision-making at departmental and OFMDFM level. However, that negative view of the commission is being articulated by victims of the conflict, and I want the commissioners to know that.

The commission must be strong. As independent advocates for victims and survivors, commissioners must challenge the Department and Ministers if they are not delivering or making decisions. It is not good enough for the commission to sit back and state publicly that nothing is happening, because they will be the fall guys and girls for the failure of the Commission for Victims and Survivors.

I have also heard what the commissioners have said in relation to the service and the fact that it is not theirs to consult or to be consulted on. Shaun Woodward has now indicated that he will be beginning the consultation process on the Eames/Bradley report over the next weeks or months, and one of the commission’s work strands is to deal with the past through that consultation. I simply do not know how it is going to do that, given that it is in a bit of bind, with some victims’ groups onboard, but with the vast majority of those who were victims of the Troubles not belonging to any organisation.

Yesterday, I met people who are part of a victims’ organisation, and the issue that they have is the uncertainty that surrounds the funding of that organisation. Those people receive support from that organisation in the form of art therapy. The organisation has two years of funding to carry out that work, but those who that group is helping do not know if it is going to be in existence in the future. There is no certainty of approach, and some of those therapeutic treatment methods take much longer: it is not like fixing a plaster of Paris around a broken joint. How is the commission going to address the area of funding, and how are the commissioners going to develop their roles as independent advocates for victims and survivors?

Mr Nesbitt:

You raised at least three points. The feedback that you have heard is not inconsistent with what we are hearing. Having been up and running for a year, we are not delivering as we wish to deliver, nor are we being seen to do so. We cannot, and of course we do not, wish to maintain such a situation. You seem to suspect that that might be out of our hands, and we cannot allow that to be even perceived to be the case.

We cannot publish the service paper, and, until it is published, we cannot consult on it. That is extremely frustrating. When we responded to the strategy paper last year, we said clearly that it would live or die by the service, which was a concept with no shape. We tried to give our initial thoughts on how we saw the shape of the service and our vision for it. We outlined what it would look like and what it would feel like.

Many months have passed since then, and groups are becoming increasingly anxious. A group leader told me last week that they had seen draft legislation. I assume that by that they meant a draft of the discussion paper, but it is even worse if people believe that that is draft legislation. People are saying that the legislation contains no real mention of groups, and they are asking whether their group has a future. Therefore, although I started by saying that there are four initiatives that together could create a whole new dynamic and a relatively fantastic future, the current position is potentially worse, because there is more fear and uncertainty and lack of knowledge. Brendan might want to speak about dealing with the past.

Mrs D Kelly:

Brendan, you referred to developing mechanisms for dealing with past. Can you expand on that?

Mr B McAllister:

Mrs Kelly, you also spoke about the timeline for the establishment of a forum. You are right to say that, after our foundation, our original aspiration was to bring about a forum in May 2008. However, we always knew that that would take as long as it took. The last time we appeared before the Committee, we projected a timeline that is similar to the one that is in place now. We think that we are on a new schedule and that we have taken due care. We have always been at pains not to set up a forum that, if it were not viable, would do more damage than good.

Mrs D Kelly:

I appreciate that the additional timeline to establish a forum by May 2008 came from OFMDFM’s original strategy, rather than from the Commission for Victims and Survivors. I understand the difference.

Mr B McAllister:

That is correct; thank you.

We have developed a strategy through which we hope to make a contribution to the growing discussion on how to deal with the past. We are aware that the Secretary of State appeared before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee this afternoon, and we have been briefed by his officials about the approach that they will take to the past over the next few months.

For our part, we intend to publish a preliminary position on the Eames/Bradley group’s report in September 2009. Between September and Christmas, we intend to conduct a series of discussions with critical constituencies in Northern Ireland to encourage deeper reflection about the proposals that are contained in that report as a way of assisting the formation of our definitive views on the document and on the past more widely. We hope that, by December 2009, we will be able to produce definitive advice to Government here and to the Secretary of State.

Mrs Long:

Thank you for your presentation. I agree with other members that you have painted a fairly depressing picture, but that is not new to us. Is your corporate plan for 2009-2012 with OFMDFM?

Mr Nesbitt:

Yes.

Mrs Long:

How long has it been with the Department for?

Mr Nesbitt:

OFMDFM has had it for less than a fortnight. We passed it to OFMDFM as a matter of courtesy; we understand that it does not have to be approved, as such.

Mrs Long:

I share Dolores’s concern that the issue might become one of making scapegoats of people for lack of progress at departmental level. Any inference that the Committee was part of the delay would be grossly unfair, given that we dispatched the item in one meeting, with agreement. We took the view that, although the proposal was not uncontroversial, it was up to us to look at the consultation in more detail, rather than at the consultation document.It was not the document’s going out for consultation that was controversial but its substance. That will be dealt with when we get the consultation results. That was dispatched very quickly.

Our conversation concluded that the victims’ service appeared from nowhere as a shapeless entity and went to consultation with, frankly, very little substance to it. I had major concerns about accountability and structures and the way that things would interconnect among the service, the commission, the forum and the Department. From your perspective, is it any clearer where the service sits in that network of relationships and accountability than it was previously? Has that issue been resolved?

Mr Nesbitt:

I am very clear, and I think that my colleagues would agree, about how we see the relationships. Imagine the work flow as a clock face with 12 o’clock, 3 o’clock, 6 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions. For example, if the commission were to sit at the 12 o’clock position, it would feed advice on spending priorities into the victim’s service, which would then communicate that to the individuals and groups at the 6 o’clock position. It would be our responsibility to get individuals who are representative of victims and survivors to the 9 o’clock position — the forum — and to work with them on the comprehensive needs assessment. That will be the evidence base that we, at the 12 o’clock position, will feed back into the service with the priorities.

It is within our legal remit to go to the service and say that we believe that it should do a, b or c. However, if we were to do that from the evidence base of a comprehensive needs assessment, that would be a much stronger way to approach them. The best and strongest approach is to use an evidence base that has been tested and approved by the Forum. That is how we see the flow. As to whether the Department accepts that, it is very aware of that flow; it has been in the public domain for many months, and the Department has never questioned it, but neither has it explicitly accepted it.

Mrs Long:

Clearly, there is an issue around the delay. I accept that when the programme set out to establish the forum, it was never going to meet the original target set by the Department, because that target was issued too late for that to be reasonable. I am aware that there was slippage before those figures even came into the public domain. How do you feel the current delay is impacting on your work?

As well as having to interface with the Department, the commission has independent strands of work. How is the delay impacting on your work with regard to meeting your timescales and in the way in which you connect with the constituency that you are there to represent? There is a concern that it is undermining your credibility with that constituency, as well as delaying the work that you are trying to do. I am interested to hear your perspectives on that.

Mrs McDougall:

Our concern is that, until fairly recently, there was an indication from the Department that the service would be up and running by next April. We repeatedly indicated that that was totally unrealistic and was not going to happen. Apart from that, we felt that there were aspects of the work that we needed to be informed about, because our role is to monitor that service. To monitor a service you need to know what it is based on.

Part of our work this year involves working with groups, and, as we work with them, we must prepare them. For example, we talked about looking at desirable criteria for the new service. If we ask people about that, no one has any answers. However, we can ask whether some of those desirable criteria should be about ensuring that appropriate governance is in place for groups, or whether there is any work or any capacity building that needs to be undertaken, and then we can find out the state of play with all of the groups. Some groups have greatly developed that work, but others have not. That work needs to be undertaken. It needs to be focused on, and part of it needs to be undertaken in the incoming year. We will be looking into that.

Mr B McAllister:

I will add to my own answer to Mrs Long’s question. To put it briefly, the inability to set up the new infrastructure is having an adverse impact on the commission. The lack of clarity about the service is of growing concern to us. The delays with the new infrastructure are having a debilitating effect on the sector because people do not really know what the Government are talking about. We are unable to enlighten them to any great degree at this stage, and we come to the Committee with a growing sense of frustration about that.

The Chairperson:

That could not be plainer.

Mr Elliott:

Thank you very much for the presentation and for your frankness about the situation. I sense deep frustration not only among you, but among the Committee members and the wider victims’ groups out there. Is the forum totally in your hands, or does OFMDFM have any remit for it?

Mr B McAllister:

The legislation gives a duty to the commission to establish the forum. Article 6(6) of the Victims and Survivors ( Northern Ireland) Order 2006 obligates us to make arrangements for a forum for consultation and discussion with victims and survivors. That is all that it says.

Mr Elliot:

OK; that is fine, thanks.

Brendan, I noted from your reply to the Chairperson that there will be no application process for members of the forum; the people who will sit on it will be hand-picked by the commission. That seems to be a fairly dangerous way in which to go forward. It is up to you entirely; I am only questioning it. However, I can envisage difficulties, which will expand as time goes on, if there is not some type of application process. I leave that point with you to think about.

Do you have any ideas about the victims’ service from your discussions with groups? I felt that one area of the service that would be extremely helpful would be its inclusion of those people who are not members of groups. That has not moved forward. What are the interim arrangements for groups?

Mrs McDougall:

At present, the groups continue to work under the scheme of core funding that goes through the Community Relations Council and the development scheme. This year, there are 46 groups in the core funding scheme, and the allocation of funding is £2·6 million. A further £1·5 million is available through development scheme grants.

It is a transition period, and we have many issues of concern that we want to look at in the coming year. Someone referred earlier to the document’s lack of substance. Having read it, I am not convinced that it will provide people with answers to many of their questions when it is issued.

If the service is to be responsible for the delivery of funding for groups and individuals, it needs to ensure that it operates in an equitable way — that everybody can access certain things at any one time. In other words, a service cannot be accessible to some groups only; it must be open to all. There is a lot of work to be done. I am not convinced that the work has been scoped in sufficient detail for a service that is supposed to be up and running within a period of one year to 18 months.

Mrs D Kelly:

Is there an appeal mechanism? I cannot recall.

Mrs McDougall:

Do you mean an appeal mechanism within the service?

Mrs D Kelly:

Yes.

Mrs McDougall:

I do not think that those aspects have been worked through yet. You have seen the service paper?

Mrs D Kelly:

Yes, I have.

Mrs McDougall:

Then you will be aware of the detail that is in it.

Mr Nesbitt:

There is nothing explicit on that.

It appears that certain aspects of the paper have leaked into the sector, if not fully into the public domain. One of the major concerns that is feeding back to me from individual groups, now that they are aware that the new service plans to commission services such as befriending and counselling, is that, if they do not offer the right services, then that disjoint means that they will be out. They will have no funding, because the service will not be providing funding; it will be commissioning services. That concern must be addressed as a matter of urgency, because it is now doing the rounds in the sector.

You asked about individuals, and the commission has been doing a lot of work recently with the Northern Ireland Memorial Fund; we put some proposals to its board on Monday. We must give that organisation its place and let it make a decision, but I proposed the broad concept of one particular programme to the members of the board, and I faced an hour of rigorous and informed questioning, which was good fun. They knew all of the pitfalls and risks. Now, having operated for 10 years offering set schemes, such as short breaks, an over-60s support scheme, and a back-to-school scheme, that organisation is considering taking a broader and more holistic individual assessment approach. The commission welcomes that in principle, and is working with that organisation. It seems to be very open to the concept of moving forward individual by individual.

Mr Elliott:

Obviously, various areas of the victims’ strategy are in troubled waters. That has been apparent for some time. Do you envisage it becoming so difficult for you, as commissioners, that there may have to be a nuclear option?

Mr Nesbitt:

Being?

The Chairperson:

You may have to sacrifice yourselves.

Mr Elliott:

Obviously, you have been very frank today, and we appreciate that. I clearly sense huge frustration. Will that frustration go a step further, and result in the issuing of a challenge to OFMDFM? Will you say that, if there is no progress, you must question the whole basis of rolling out the programme as it is?

Mrs McDougall:

Yes.

Mr Nesbitt:

We have been frustrated for one year. Individuals have been frustrated for 30 or 40 years. I am not giving up yet.

Mrs McDougall:

Absolutely not. Within the next year strong challenges must be made to OFMDFM. The situation is totally unsatisfactory. As I said earlier, we had meetings, and we anticipated that a document would go out to consultation, and that would allow people to commence some of the work of putting the service in place. That has not happened, and the situation cannot continue. I am not convinced at this stage that anything will be produced before the end of the summer. I cannot see that happening. We asked recently, but there is still no indication of when that service document will go out.

Mr B McAllister:

There is clearly systemic dysfunction among those who should serve the victims sector. A lot of that dysfunction involves aspects of the system that are not yet up and running. The commission is also a new aspect of the system. When people speak to me of their frustration about the commission’s progress, I find myself using the metaphor of a football team that is formed at the beginning of a match. The four-year term of the commission has four quarters. The first quarter of the first half, if you like, has left a number of people frustrated by waiting for goals. However, we remain energised and convinced that we can score those goals in the overall match, even though we have made a slow start.

As a new institution, the commission is still finding its place. The legislation that lays out the role of the commission is not very extensive. The commission is, right at the start, going through a transition in the overall services to victims and survivors. We are still establishing clarity about what happens when we think that aspects of the system are not responding. Where do we go then?

Mr Elliott:

I wait to see that cleverly crafted analysis being included in someone’s manifesto at the next election. [Laughter.]

Mrs Long:

I am waiting to see “systemic dysfunction” being included in one of the Committee’s letters to OFMDFM. [Laughter.] It is wider than just one sector.

The Chairperson:

I suspect that systemic dysfunction is alive and well in OFMDFM.

Mrs Long:

I agree.

Mr McElduff:

How often do the commissioners meet with OFMDFM Ministers, and when is the next such meeting scheduled to take place?

On a practical level, if a young constituent who is a victim of the conflict comes to an MLA and wants financial assistance to enter higher education, to where should he or she be directed?

Mr Nesbitt:

At present, we do not have regular scheduled meetings with the two junior Ministers, but we have met them on several occasions. My recent engagements with the junior Ministers have been to discuss specifics, such as the living history project. In the past few days, we wrote to them to express our general concerns and our specific concern about the new service, and we said that we were available to meet. We liaise with the special advisers and have more regular meetings with the Department.

Mrs McDougall:

Various individuals approach us. At present, there are no schemes within the memorial fund to address the provision of financial assistance in such a case. Increasingly, we have been writing in support of such people to the discretionary fund within that memorial fund. The discretionary fund is slightly different in that it is means tested. At the moment, that is almost the only source of such funding other than the education and library boards or the Department of Education. When someone comes to us for that reason, we also find out which agencies would normally provide funding for higher education, because dual funding of some kind may exist. Currently, however, there is no such specific funding scheme within the Northern Ireland memorial fund.

That is among the issues that the new service is expected to address, whereby an individual would be assessed holistically to address his or her needs, such as counselling, financial assistance or practical support. It is, therefore, urgent that the new service gets up and running.

The Chairperson:

What level of work does your engagement with each other as commissioners involve? Is it part-time work, or is it proving increasingly to be more than that? Mr Nesbitt, the position of chair is rotated: are you occupying that position at present?

Mr Nesbitt:

Over the four-year term, we each occupy the position for one year, and I am the current chair.

The Chairperson:

As far as your individual involvement as commissioners is concerned, what level of work does that mean for each of you?

Mr Nesbitt:

It is a full-time commitment. I do not calculate the hours, but my job could be classified as part time only if “part time” meant working 50 hours, and possibly many more, a week.

The Chairperson:

I noted the list of 25 names that have been tabled as prospective members of the forum.

Mrs McDougall:

They are not members of the forum; they were members of the forum development group with which we worked.

The Chairperson:

OK, as forum members are not yet anointed, there is no point in talking about them.

Mr Nesbitt:

No.

The Chairperson:

Is there any likelihood that any of those people will be asked to serve on the forum. Have those decisions been taken yet?

Mr B McAllister:

We always said that we might ask some members of the development group to serve on the pilot forum. However, rest assured that we are going to great lengths to ensure that, when people see the membership of the pilot forum, they will feel that it is representative of the sector. Having said that, none of the individuals will represent anyone other than themselves; we do not want people to feel encumbered by any representational role. When the membership of the forum is published, and we hope to publish it before too long, we hope that people will be satisfied that no one is missing.

The Chairperson:

I noted that the list includes individuals, members from victims’ groups, representatives of statutory agencies and at least one person from a Department. Could you, in that case, envisage a civil servant participating meaningfully and fully in the forum?

Mr B McAllister:

That would be our hope. Obviously, we have not yet finished our discussions, and that would involve a couple of Departments agreeing with us.

The Chairperson:

You would not, however, exclude civil servants at this point?

Mr B McAllister:

No.

The Chairperson:

You would not exclude them on the basis that they might be professional civil servants acting on behalf or in the interest of Departments?

Mr B McAllister:

We hope to include a number of civil servants among the associate members.

The Chairperson:

Is your main point that they would not come as civil servants?

Mr B McAllister:

We would have to discuss those finer points with their Departments.

The Chairperson:

They would, however, come as individuals and not as civil servants?

Mr B McAllister:

Yes, that is right. However, their Departments might take a different view on that. We do not want to make presumptions.

The Chairperson:

However, do you understand the point that I am making about the potential conflict or difficulty that might arise as a result of that?

Mr B McAllister:

Yes.

The Chairperson:

Yes, OK.

Mrs D Kelly:

I was trying to tease out a similar point. If people are listed as members of a health and social care trust or the Department for Social Development, and it is supposed a victims’ forum, albeit many of the places on it will be for statutory agencies, it would have to be very clear who individuals would be representing. In addition, will there be financial remuneration for forum members, and, if so, does that not further complicate the hand-picking of forum members?

The Chairperson:

Expenses.

Mr B McAllister:

That is a complication, and an example of the sort of technical detail on which we have to spend quite a lot of time. At this stage, however, our proposal is that people would be remunerated for loss of income through their attendance at the forum, if that applies to them.

The Chairperson:

Would they also receive general expenses for mileage and travel, etc?

Mrs McDougall:

They would receive general expenses, and cover for carers, if necessary.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much for your presentation and for the frankness of the exchanges. We found them most useful and insightful, and the Committee looks forward to an ongoing engagement. Hopefully, today’s exchanges will persuade, or, perhaps, convince, the Department to move with greater haste. It would be the wish of the Committee to see early progress on all those matters. Thank you very much indeed.

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