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Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: 04 March 2009

COMMITTEE FOR FINANCE AND PERSONNEL

OFFICIAL REPORT

(Hansard)

BARROSO TASKFORCE REPORT

4 MARCH 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Mitchel McLaughlin (Chairperson) 
Mr Simon Hamilton (Deputy Chairperson) 
Dr Stephen Farry 
Mr Fra McCann 
Mr David McNarry 
Mr Adrian McQuillan 
Mr Declan O’Loan 
Mr Paisley Jnr 
Mr Peter Weir

Witnesses:

Mr Bill Pauley ) Department of Finance and Personnel 
Mr Robin Ramsey )

The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr McLaughlin):

We move to the Department of Finance and Personnel’s responsibilities in the Executive’s response to the Barroso Taskforce report. The Committee considered correspondence from the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister on 4 February relating to the Executive’s response to the Barroso Taskforce Report. The Committee agreed to respond to the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and its briefing from departmental officials on the Department’s responsibilities for implementing the Executive’s response. The original briefing from the Department had to be postponed, and a factual response was agreed for issue to the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister explaining that the Committee had arranged to take oral evidence from the Department, but that did not prove possible in the time allowed. At that time, the Committee agreed to send the Hansard report of the Department’s evidence to the Committee when the oral briefing was rearranged, and that is what we are doing today.

I welcome Mr Bill Pauley, and I am sorry for the circumstances that prevented us from meeting previously. I also welcome Mr Robin Ramsey. I invite Mr Pauley to make his opening remarks.

Mr Bill Pauley (Department of Finance and Personnel):

Thank you, Mr Chairman, for your remarks. Robin Ramsey is from our European Division. Mr Ramsey has worked on co-ordinating DFP’s input to the taskforce work almost since Mr Barroso’s visit in May 2007. He also co-ordinates what we call transnational EU programmes, for which we have a specific target in the taskforce report. Perhaps he will intervene in some of the comments on the detail involved.

The Department has been working with the Commission on the taskforce since President Barroso’s visit. We were working on it before the Commission’s taskforce report in April 2008, and we have been working on it since then to take forward some of the actions within that report.

The Commission’s taskforce report is fundamentally economic in the way in which it seeks to help Northern Ireland. However, it can, of course, cover the full range of responsibilities of the Commission. If one were to read again the statement that Barroso made when he came in May 2007, one would see that the substantial economic focus and helping us to improve our global competitive position was a key priority. It is also a long-term process. President Barroso said — and it has been much quoted by others — that this is marathon and not a sprint as regards the Northern Ireland Executive’s, and our wider civil society’s, relationship, and deepening that relationship, with Europe.

Our current action plan covers a fairly short-term period up to the end of the Executive’s current planning period. That was a deliberate decision, rather than deciding what we would do over the next number of years in a long-term process, which is fundamentally to get the processes and the arrangements for the taskforce institutionalised in Europe, as well as here, taking into account the fact that European elections are coming up during the summer. It also represents the ending of the current commission and, for example, the political leadership of Directorate-General for Regional Policy by Danuta Hübner as the specific commissioner whom Barroso has asked to lead the work in the taskforce and with whom much of our engagement has been with. There is a need to institutionalise arrangements and delivery structures in order to take into account that the commissioner could change.

We have not attempted to show everything that the European division is doing with structural fund programmes in Northern Ireland. It is not my team’s business plan, and it is not a repeat of everything involved with the European programmes. It is an attempt to outline what we would do to enhance and deepen our normal relationship in those structural fund programmes. As the Committee will be aware, the 2007 date, when Barroso announced the task force, in a sense, coincides with the start of the 2007-2013 funding period, and all money available has been agreed for that period. The extra work that we can do is limited. Therefore, we have tried to focus on extra work over and above what the European division would normally have done.

My final point relates to the policy areas that we outlined in our submission. EU issues are an excepted matter under the devolution arrangement, and we are responsible for work on the practical delivery of programmes daily. However, as a devolved region, we provide input to the development of a member state’s policy on matters such as the EU budget, the common agricultural policy (CAP), the whole cohesion policy and its cost to the UK. They reserve the right to consider the interests of all member states when making decisions on such issues.

Therefore, our actions might also need to ensure a better and deeper relationship with London — which has the lead role — on some issues and might result in a greater influence in Brussels. We have provided the Committee with the updated progress against our actions of the task force action plan, which supplements the material that you received from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Moreover, we have provided two or three paragraphs on each of the key policy areas, each of which are enormous, such as the EU budget or territorial cohesion and all the issues therein. Those are large policy areas, and we are happy to expand on those matters. I am happy to take your questions.

Mr Weir:

Thank you for your presentation and the supporting data. Given the Committee’s composition today, you may be spared some questions on the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. That may be a relief to you.

Mr Hamilton:

It is a relief to all of us.

Mr Weir:

To what extent is your division autonomous, and to what extent are you tied in with UK-wide policy and programmes on the delivery of that issue? I know that you mentioned that matter, but you could, perhaps, expand.

Mr Pauley:

Through a formal process, we are invited to offer our views on the priorities of major EU policies, such as the budget for Europe over a seven-year period. Indeed, our Ministers contributed to that debate. Although enormous sums are involved, the EU budget is, in another way, very simple and comprises 40% for CAP and rural development, 40% for structural funds and cohesion policy, and 20% for other competitive programmes. It is a simple structure.

Such matters have potential implications for the UK, which is a net contributor member state. The UK Government is happy to listen to, and take on board, Northern Ireland’s opinion, and when our opinion differs, they attempt to reflect it in their position. Ultimately, however, the UK Government takes decisions that reflect the national, rather than Northern Ireland’s, position.

For example, although we might believe that future funding from EU structural funds should be targeted at regions, the UK Government says that it should be aimed at member states and that GDP per head should be the determining factor. That means that new member states — as we continue, perhaps erroneously, to describe them — would get money, and most of the old ones would not. If the EU were to adopt our position, the UK Government’s contribution to the EU budget would increase significantly, so they would have to base such decisions on the national perspective.

Mr Weir:

Although we have input in overall UK policy, presumably we have a fair level of autonomy on Northern Ireland-specific matters, such as the Barroso Taskforce report, and we are able to work effectively, and more-or-less directly, with the EU?

Mr Pauley:

When the overall budget is struck, there are numerous European schemes to which one can apply competitively for funding. However, it is important that the Department of Finance and Personnel ensures that it is familiar with the schemes that are available and that it understands how those schemes work, in order to help people here to apply for them and to assist the EU in taking account of some of the difficulties that people here have when applying, due to programme structures and their eligibility criteria. Furthermore, the Department must attempt to influence the development of future programmes.

Mr Weir:

You appear to have a fairly direct relationship with the EU. What role, if any, does the office that the Executive set up several years ago in Brussels have? Do you work through that office? I get the impression that DFP has a pretty direct relationship with, in particular, the Regional Policy Commissioner — there does not appear to be a middle man.

Mr Pauley:

In the ministerial code, EU matters are simply described as being the responsibility of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. DFP has input in policy in the areas that I mentioned. However, before submitting our responses on behalf of the Executive, they must be agreed by the Executive.

Any meetings that we had about the Barroso Taskforce included an OFMDFM representative from here or from the staff based in Brussels. Furthermore, one of the functions of the Brussels-based OFMDFM staff is to closely follow, and give us feedback on, debates and discussions in the European Parliament, Committees and other EU institutions. As a result, we maintain a day-to-day relationship whereby they feed information back to us. I cannot think of the last time that I went to Brussels and did not meet with the head of the office.

For matters relating to structural fund programmes, we are assigned particular desk officers, whom we frequently meet separately both here and there. However, if a policy might be affected, or if other than detailed operational changes have to be made, we usually work in conjunction with the office.

The Chairperson:

Have you considered whether we need to beef up the operation in the Brussels office for developing the action plan? Is it a component of our management approach and the development of working relationships?

Mr Pauley:

We discussed the need to make better use of both of our offices. The Commission has an office in Belfast; we have one in Brussels. Each of us must use those offices better and have them more actively involved.

The Chairperson:

Is that a discrete element? I did not see it when I read through your submission.

Mr Pauley:

It is not a discrete element. However, you have read that we are responsible for sending of more staff to Brussels generally. It is not yet clear whether, in view of all the wider constraints, more staff will be assigned to the Brussels office for a particular function. Direct running costs and wider management issues must be taken account of. However, other parts of our Administration, such as Invest NI, are likely to attach someone to the office in the near future. Other Departments are considering whether that is relevant. We are considering whether it might help DFP’s role to have someone there.

A member of my team has been seconded to Commissioner Hübner’s office for the last five months. She was to have returned on Monday, but we have extended that secondment to allow her to work in the office of the Directorate-General for Regional Policy for the next five months.

The Chairperson:

I imagine that that is a very strategic location.

Mr Pauley:

Both are enormously valuable for our understanding of how that directorate-general takes decisions, whether political, at the commissioner level, or at the top of the house at the official level. It is valuable to have someone there who knows and understands that, and who meets influential people on a daily basis. We no longer have to telephone someone whom we have never met before. The question arises as to whether we should remit someone who is already in the office — a member of OFMDFM staff — to perform those tasks or whether we attach someone from DFP through the office in Brussels.

Mr Hamilton:

One of the aims of the taskforce was to attract funding. We are all familiar with the existing funding programmes: Peace, INTERREG and so on. However, there are others that Northern Ireland can avail of, but the capacity is not there, or complete understanding of the mechanisms is lacking. From your paper, I see some of them: the curiously named JESSICA and JEREMIE.

I imagine that somewhere in the clouds — or in some building in Brussels — there is someone or some group that conjures up those weird and wonderful names. The title of that group is, perhaps, “ACRONYM”, and no doubt it will make sense in some language. Nothing in Brussels surprises me.

The Chairperson:

As long as the bananas are straight.

Mr Weir:

We are running in a Europhile contest.

Mr Hamilton:

I was surprised to hear about that election coming up.

Those two programmes are looking at sustainable investment in city areas and micro- and medium-sized enterprises. Can you tell us exactly what sort of initiatives or projects those schemes might fund? You mentioned that some Departments are looking at them: which Departments are those, and what projects do they think might avail of this support?

Mr Pauley:

Let us set aside the names. JESSICA and JEREMIE are both essentially revolving loan funds, as opposed to grant-giving mechanisms.

JEREMIE is targeted at providing venture capital. It is a venture capital loan fund for small firms. Northern Ireland, through Invest Northern Ireland and some of our banks — through the private sector — already have venture capital funds that loan funds. JEREMIE is different, because structural funds money is put into it. There is also the possibility that the European Investment Bank will put money into it, thereby increasing the size of the loan fund and, it is hoped, making it more attractive to the private sector, because it would have a substantial critical mass to offer loans on whatever basis it determined its strategy would be for small and medium-sized firms within that.

In conjunction with the European Investment Bank, Invest Northern Ireland has carried out a study to see whether there is a need for additional loan finance of that nature in Northern Ireland. Departmental officials have sat on a steering committee for it, as well. A report has been produced, and Invest Northern Ireland is considering whether, in line with the range of things that it offers to businesses, JEREMIE loan finance of that nature should be an additional feature of its portfolio.

An interesting feature of structural funds relates to how we would manage funds. When one makes a payment into the fund, the technical rules would allow the individual to claim the total amount back from Europe immediately. That would contribute towards one’s annual expenditure targets, thereby reducing them by a big chunk — despite the fact that money had not gone any further to another company.

To those of us who manage programmes as a business, that is interesting in that it removes targets and takes the pressure off, but it does not add any value to whether the customers of the fund are getting better or cheaper loans, or loans that are more appropriate to them. We are looking at that to see whether there is a demand for loan funds and venture capital funds from the companies that provide them in Northern Ireland, and where such funds might find a place in what Invest Northern Ireland offers companies.

The European Investment Bank study concluded that there is a place for such a fund, and they felt that it would help offer that in the future. However, there is a possibility that that will mean that some of the current assistance programmes that offer direct grants rather than loans could be adjusted. In a sense, that would be a fundamental policy shift from grant finance to loan finance. Or, it would mean that you had a small JEREMIE fund, if you are not going to change that. There are some important policy decisions.

The JESSICA fund is exactly the same type of structure. It is a loan fund for urban-development type issues as opposed to one for SME development. It has a different name, but the same principles apply and operate. The EIB, the structural fund programme and the private sector are encouraged and invited to put money in; a fund manager is appointed to determine the strategy of the fund; and the hope is that the repayments to the fund mean that it can last for ever by having the amounts of loans repaid to it available for future systems.

Mr Hamilton:

That is interesting, particularly the venture capital aspect of JEREMIE. Yesterday, I was at a meeting at which innovation was discussed. The perceived lack of venture capital in Northern Ireland — including that relating to the MATRIX report that was published recently — was touched on regularly. It is hard to know whether now is the right time for building up something, although the argument was made yesterday that now is exactly the right time to encourage such investment.

The Chairperson:

It has to be done.

Another criticism that has been made of our past involvement in the EU is that by the time policies get to the local level of implementation, they neither bear any local stamp nor take into account our particular circumstances. Sometimes, we have not even had the opportunity to influence those policies in any way, which was one of the taskforce’s objectives. Will you give the Committee an idea how, in the context of the report, DFP is helping other Departments to get involved at an earlier stage of EU policy development? Whether any policies ultimately bear our imprint is a different matter, but at least we would be having our say at an early stage and possibly influencing policy formulation.

Mr Pauley:

All of the policies that I listed are cross-cutting policies for all Departments. Historically, the structural funds policy went through most of the Departments, but most of the policy now goes through DETI and DEL.

As for the Lisbon agenda policies, once a year, usually during the build-up to the spring European Council, a significant report is published on the guidelines from Europe on what the priorities for investment should be. Consideration is then given to how some of the EU policies might be adapted, changed, or used in conjunction with national policies to improve implementation or achieve better value for money.

We share that information with all relevant Departments. There is a paper, for example, on issues that concern the group working on and developing our regional economic strategy. Thus, the thinking in Europe is brought to those who are considering what our local and wider policies should be. We feed the information from Europe to the leaders of the groups that were created for that purpose.

On more important matters, such as the regional economic strategy, EU thinking on those policy areas is conveyed to the relevant group, of which we are members. We developed the programmes based on the structural funds policy through a full process of consultation. During that process, the Departments bid for, or we allocate, funding. That is done in exactly the same way as the CSR budget rounds, except that we carry out the process every seven years at the same time as setting the priorities for the cohesion policy.

We liaise with three separate interdepartmental groups on cohesion policy, territorial cohesion, and the Lisbon agenda. Some people are members than more than one group. We feed through the main policies to the various Departments to keep them up to date with developments.

Those groups are also kept up to date with the position taken by the Executive, and are, therefore, able to advise Ministers that what is being proposed is based on our input and reflects our views. However, it also works the other way in that we disseminate any policy information from Europe through those groups.

Dr Farry:

Welcome, gentlemen. I have two questions arising from the early part of your report. First, in the second paragraph on cohesion policy, you state:
“UK Regional Policy is now stated as seeking to enable all regions to reach their full potential with no catching up element.”

Will you explain what is meant by that?

Mr Pauley:

European regional policy’s stated overall objective is to promote economic and social cohesion and to enable lagging regions to catch up. Over recent years, the presentation of regional policy in the UK has shifted slightly, and it is now described much more in terms of enabling all regions to fulfil their full potential, and there are always references to lagging behind and catching up. Perhaps it is recognised that the objective might never be achieved, but Government policies should help all regions to fulfil their full potential.

Dr Farry:

Does the Government adopt a very much laissez-faire approach?

Mr Pauley:

We have always responded by stating that EU regional policy should help all regions to achieve their full potential, but that it should also be targeted in a way that ensures that regions with lower living standards than others are enabled to close that gap.

I believe that the focus has moved a little bit away from closing the gap and towards helping every area achieve its full potential.

Dr Farry:

That is helpful, and it probably points to a much wider debate about stated UK regional policy and how, or whether, it affects Northern Ireland. That debate has been aired through the various Varney reports, and it is probably not your direct responsibility.

Bearing in mind the debate about moneys going from London to Brussels, then back here, and whether it is better for London to distribute that money, is it in Northern Ireland’s best interest to seek cohesion support from the European Union or from the UK?

Mr Pauley:

The numbers are tricky, which I will explain, but in my judgement it is probably about the same. At present, our competitive funding involves two programmes that, over the seven-year period, give us almost €0·5 billion — what we will get from cohesion funding over the seven years. We also have the cross-border Peace and other programmes that would not figure in this debate anyway.

The UK position, which failed this time round but will be proposed for the next round of funding, is that wealthy member states finance their own regional policy. Less wealthy member states would receive structural funds from Europe. As part of the UK, Northern Ireland would receive no competitive funding; hence, it would lose that €0·5 billion.

The difference in the amount that the UK would have to pay to Europe as a net contributor depends on several factors, including whether the UK keeps its rebate. Big numbers are involved in those issues. However, the difference between the two mechanisms for the 2007-2013 negotiations in 2004 was estimated at around €4 billion per annum in extra costs to the Treasury.

That leaves €4 billion that is not available for national spending. If that money had been spent nationally rather than been paid to Europe, under the Barnett formula, it could work out that Northern Ireland would get close to €80 million a year, plus or minus a couple of million.

Dr Farry:

Will the potential expansion of the European Union mean a shift in the final balance of that calculation either for or, possibly more likely, against us?

Mr Pauley:

UK contributions to Europe have risen recently, partly as a result of the budget review that set the budget for 2007-2013, particularly in relation to how the UK rebate works, and what elements of the EU budget are part of that.

To the degree that its contributions rise, the UK has less money to spend, and the numbers are getting very big, particularly with enlargement. That is why the UK’s position is that the most needy member states in terms of their GDP should receive the funding, and others should be left to finance their own areas.

Dr Farry:

With respect to the Lisbon agenda, you said that your division of the Department had an input in the regional economic strategy. In plugging into the Lisbon agenda, are we disadvantaged in any way by not having a full-blown regional economic strategy? The Department is currently doing rather less than it might be: it is producing only an update of the Programme of Government, rather than the full-blown document that was originally envisaged. Does the European Union have expectations as to what we should have as regards internal documentation?

Mr Pauley:

I think that the policies of our Executive are very closely aligned with the Lisbon agenda. The top priority of the Executive and the Programme for Government is growing a dynamic, innovative economy. The Lisbon objective is for a knowledge-based, dynamic economy for Europe. The words differ slightly, but together they add up to much the same thing. The priority areas of the Lisbon agenda and on which people will focus tend to be innovation — another of our top priorities — and skills. At the top level, policies are closely aligned with the priorities of our own Programme for Government. We must focus on the detail of the schemes and the needs of local people applying to them.

Dr Farry:

I have one more question on a matter that was not referred to in the report, and you may not be able to comment on it directly today. Some targets in the Programme for Government relate to the convergence of Northern Ireland GVA with the national average. Potentially, that could be expanded to comparison with the European Union figures, which I think are called NUTS. I do not wish to disparage the process, but Simon will delight in that acronym and try to think of what it stands for. These are potentially comparative figures for both other European Union states and regions within those states. Is it feasible for the Executive to use those as benchmarks to measure the development of our economy?

Mr Pauley:

That is entirely possible. That data is available on a comparative basis across Europe. NISRA produced them; and it provides our data to Eurostat. It is readily available at present.

Dr Farry:

So there are no practical problems for the Executive doing that, if they so wished?

Mr Pauley:

No. It is a question of how many people one wishes to compare oneself with. It can be done at the NUTS 1 level and the NUTS 2 level. Comparison at the NUTS 3 level gets a little ropey. There are five NUTS regions in Northern Ireland, and the way we collect our data at NUTS 3 level would make international comparison difficult.

Dr Farry:

So we should aim at making comparison at the NUTS 2 level. That is very helpful. Thank you very much.

The Chairperson:

You refer in the second panel to the regional economic strategy. I presume that you are aware of the current situation, so that you can make input to the integrated guidelines of the European Council? What is the current position with regard to the development of the regional economic strategy? Why will it take until October 2009?

Mr Pauley:

I suppose that the world has turned a little. In November and December last year, the Commission produced a range of proposals about how it felt member states and regions might take initiatives to respond to the downturn, including several that related specifically to the structure of programmes and flexibilities that it might allow within that. We are looking at what opportunities those proposals might offer to our structural fund programmes, and whether they offer the Executive any potential opportunities to bring forward expenditure, including the introduction of new areas of eligibility or other options like that.

That is also predicated on levels of what Governments are expected to spend in particular areas. The new Commission material asks, as the UK has done, for fiscal expansion of such issues. That context has changed quite fundamentally. Although the Commission states that the Lisbon priorities are retained and remain relevant, it calls for temporary and targeted initiatives to help in the current short-term downturn.

The European Commission imposes on member states its views as to what their level of debt should be as a proportion of their national income; if that level is exceeded, it will write to those member states to tell them that they are into problem areas. The Commission has chosen, in its terms, to take a liberal view of that during the current downturn. That context has changed fundamentally at European level, and many of the rules have been relaxed. That context at a local and national level has also changed quite considerably.

The Chairperson:

I know what the variables are, but is this a milestone target as part of our action plan for integrating with the European guidelines, or is October 2009 a movable feast, given all of the variables that you have just described.

Mr Pauley:

I think that there is a need for some direction at a strategic level. One of the things that the European programmes have shown is that some of them were too tightly defined, with narrow targets. There must be direction at a strategic level, and a determination of what those priorities should be, given the European context.

The Chairperson:

The paper refers to the reporting structure to be established to provide updates on the action plan. Can you explain what the reporting structure will be, and how it will be monitored and reviewed to ensure that key stages and milestones are actually met?

Mr Pauley:

My division of the Department will monitor the activities of DFP. Essentially, my division takes the lead on all of those key stages, except for the exchange of staff with Europe, with is dealt with mostly by the Department’s central personnel group in regard to financing and the role of those staff. The progress of those matters would be measured as part of my business plan, and the information would be provided to OFMDFM as it is requested, usually aligned to key stages. The report is aligned to the CSR periods and the planning periods, so that there will not be a separate collection of data at the end points. We will report on the targets on that basis, within the normal structures.

The Chairperson:

Do those reporting mechanisms include regular updates for this Committee?

Mr Pauley:

My understanding is that OFMDFM intends to fully update its Committee on the progress of the taskforce, and the junior Ministers will have the first oversight of that. My expectation is that the update will be sent to the OFMDFM Committee, which will then consult with this Committee.

The Chairperson:

That is probably how it will work; they will have the first call.

Mr Pauley:

Another arrangement would be that of other Departments, which take the views of their Committees prior to submitting a monitoring round submission. If there was an area of significant interest or progress in our work in the taskforce, we would advise our Minister of that, as well as the Committee, in normal consideration of arrangements with the Committee.

We will come to the Committee on some of the individual items separately. I have said that the Department is reviewing structural fund programmes in order to establish whether they remain relevant in the downturn in light of Commission flexibilities. I envisage updating the Committee on small changes that the Department is likely to propose to those. The Committee may seek a discussion, but in the coming months we will be updating members on the debate around plans that affect the delivery of the cohesion policy. “Considerably” is too strong a word. Effectively, it is what we are going to do in 2009 and 2010.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

I apologise for missing your presentation, but I am interested in the point that you made about staffing. Am I correct in saying that the Department has a person in Commissioner Danuta Hübner’s cabinet?

Mr Pauley:

We did up until Friday, when the five-month placement ended.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

Will the Department get another placement after that?

Mr Pauley:

That person has taken a week off this week, and then she is moving to the office of Dirk Ahner, the Director-General of the Commission’s Regional Policy DG.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

Is that DG 1?

Mr Pauley:

No, DG Regio; she has moved from the Commissioner’s office to — in our terms — the permanent secretary’s for the next five months. In accepting that, the Department has written using a form of words that expresses our hope that our placements would continue in other strategic posts in the DG for the medium term and longer. We have not secured a formal commitment to an indefinite relationship, but we believe that the Commission is willing.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

Will the person who has just moved present a report on her five months in Hübner’s cabinet? Was it more of a learning experience for that person? One of the aims of the exercise was to engage European policy-makers to make them aware of Northern Ireland and to affect policy from the inside. Will that person report on how that has been achieved, or was the placement mainly a development opportunity for them?

Mr Pauley:

No, it was a wider experience. The person in question came from my team and, as such, I had certain responsibilities that lingered as a manager in ensuring that they had objectives. I got monthly reports from her on what she had done and what she planned to do.

However, the Department made the wider taskforce fully aware that although she was seconded from DFP she was to be liaised with and used in whatever way might help. She liaised with other Departments and did some other work on setting up meetings and facilitating and offering advice, in conjunction with her office.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

I am interested in the outcome of that because it is completely unheard of for a region of Europe to get a placement post in Hübner’s cabinet — something that Northern Ireland got. It was a big opportunity and I want to know what the outcomes were in order that we can point to what was achieved as a result of having a person in such a post.

Mr Pauley:

I believe that we can do that. I have monthly activity reports that, combined with the post-holder’s reflections, can be converted from a record of activities to the more important strategic benefits that accrued.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

I do not want you to take this the wrong way, but my biggest difficulty is that Northern Ireland has had immense opportunities in Europe about which it does not blow its own trumpet. That is largely because there is a lack of interest in what happens there. The attitude is that it is “over there” and does not affect us. Yet, Europe is extremely important from the very early stages of formulating policy. It may be time to rectify the failure to properly herald the importance of some of our activities.

On the other issue of staffing; our own staffing in the main office — the Northern Ireland office there that I think is called the bureau, the Northern Ireland Bureau, is that right?

Mr Pauley:

The Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels.

The Chairperson:

The Committee has previously discussed those topics.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

I will stop there.

Mr Pauley:

I believe that there are six members of staff.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

That is an increase of one; there were five staff before Barroso.

Mr Pauley:

A staff officer was appointed; I sat on the panel.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

That is an area in which there should be an attempt to drive policy. You will only do that if you have more effective staffing.

Mr Pauley:

That may be right. If we were to compare our office with other offices of other devolved areas, you would see a difference in the number of people involved and in the way that they work.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

There could be a difference of dozens. As you know, there is one particular person in that office, and if she had to take time off work because of sickness, we would have no input into agriculture-related issues. For about 12 years, she has been fantastic. If she were off sick, we would have serious problems in representing Northern Ireland’s interests in agriculture. I imagine that there is a similar story to be told with other members. I do not know whether a message can go back, but the issue of staffing in Europe needs to be looked at.

Mr Pauley:

The staffing, funding and financing of the office is a matter for OFMDFM. There is an issue to be looked at around how others use the office; when we use or send people to the office; or when we do both.

The Chairperson:

Prior to Ian asking his question, I touched on that issue. I wanted to know whether the report on the action plan included additional bolstering of our operation in the European office. Ian has added value to the point that I was making.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

Thank you.

Mr Pauley:

I would not disagree with any of those points. Prior to the Barroso Taskforce, people with European experience and who knew people there would contract the administration. I used to say that “without exception” people contacted the office, but it was primarily staff from OFMDFM, DFP — through our team — and DARD, through its obvious interests. The policy areas are bigger and more expansive than that.

Change relating to European policies happens slowly and over the long term; there can be 12 or 14 months between them. There needs to be a consistency of people looking at it and following it and trying to keep up to date with it. The most recent development in a policy might have happened some time ago, and one needs to be aware of when the next development will happen, because one needs to involve oneself in the preparation of the development rather than the happening. They affect every policy area that we have. There are 27 directorates-general, which makes our 11 Departments —

Mr Paisley Jnr:

We have one civil servant in there who has the potential to influence things. We have a person in the most senior directorate-general. We should be ahead of the game and be able to use that person to our advantage.

Mr Pauley:

There would be merit in looking at how other areas use their offices and how policy-leaders at home remit somebody in an office to undertake functions for them. The staff of UKREP take policy direction from London; they attend meetings; and they write reports for those people.

The standing rule is that they do so within 24 hours so that developments are reported to those making policy decisions. The situation would probably never arise whereby our office would decide on our position. However, they report back, and important mechanisms are in place to allow staff to attend events, hear what is happening, present our Administration’s view and then come back with responses to allow action to be taken.

I get invited to all sorts of events in Brussels. I could attend an event nearly every day of every week. However, I do not, and cannot, go — probably should not go — to all those events. Not every event to which I am invited is worthwhile. However, there could be more of a presence in Brussels, and I do not believe that our unit is alone in that respect.

The Chairperson:

There will always be a value-for-money argument for having additional personnel or posts in Europe. In the context of today’s discussion, there is probably a heightened requirement to examine that as part of any interface with the Barroso Taskforce. In a highly structured way, you have demonstrated how we can interface and avail ourselves of the various opportunities that exist. It all comes back to the issue of who we have in position to help us to identify, implement and lobby as required so that we can take full advantage of the opportunities open to us.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

We would expect someone posted to the Directorate-General for Regional Policy to give us an early warning call to say, “I have seen a piece of work” or, “Such and such has come into the office, and, ultimately, that could have an effect on us, so we need to get our people on to it.” That is the sort of opportunity that we have now, and we should not let it pass us by.

The Chairperson:

We are rehearsing the arguments now, and I hope that you will reflect on our comments. The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, or its Committee, may also wish to consider at some stage whether we have sufficient resources to take advantage of the opportunities that currently exist.

Mr Pauley:

It is an interesting time as regards those key policies in Europe. After the budget is agreed for the 2007-2013 period, there is a slight lag before the debate begins on the hard decisions for the 2014-2020 period. However, we are getting closer to the time when the decision on the 2014-2020 budget will be taken — the target date will be 2011, but it might be 2012. However, there will be two years of debate about what the priorities should be, and so on. It is now 2009, and the next event will be nine months away. The time periods will become narrower as those policy decisions approach. The meetings will become more frequent. When we were negotiating our programmes, I was in Brussels once every three or four weeks, whereas now I am there every three months. The meetings never happen evenly like that, but our requirement to travel to Brussels certainly heightens during the budget negotiations.

The Chairperson:

Bill, we will leave it at that. The Committee is concerned that it might retrospectively regret the fact that we did not deploy more resources at a time when we had the ear of the European Council. Members are concerned that we might not take full advantage of our current opportunity, which did not previously exist and may not be exist in the next budget round. That message has been delivered.

Thank you, Mr Pauley. It was good to see you again. It was nice to meet you, Mr Ramsey.

I remind the Committee that it agreed that the Hansard report of this session will be forwarded to the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister for information.

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