Committee for Finance minutes of proceedings

Wednesday 8 September 2021

Dr Steve Aiken OBE MLA (Chairperson)
Mr Keith Buchanan MLA (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Jim Allister MLA
Mr Pat Catney MLA
Mr Matthew O’Toole MLA
Mr Jim Wells MLA        

Present by Video-conference:
Ms Jemma Dolan MLA
Mr Philip McGuigan MLA
Mr Maolíosa McHugh MLA


In Attendance:
Mr Peter McCallion (Assembly Clerk)
Ms Angela McParland (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Mr Stephen Magee (Clerical Supervisor)
Ms Heather Graham (Clerical Officer)
Mr Raymond McCaffrey (Research Officer) – item 6 only

The meeting commenced in open session at 2:00pm.

1.      Apologies

There were no apologies. 

Mr Pat Catney indicated he would be leaving the meeting early and would delegate authority to vote on his behalf to Mr Mathew O’Toole under Temporary Standing Order 115(6).

2.      Declaration of Interests

Mr Matthew O’Toole declared an interest as the Assembly Party Group Chairperson of the All Party Group on Press Freedom and Media Sustainability

There were no other declarations of interest.

3.      Chairperson’s Business

3.1    National Insurance Increase

The Chairperson advised Members of an anticipated House of Commons vote on changes to social care in England which are to be supported by a UK-wide increase in employees’ National Insurance contributions.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to write to the Minister of Finance seeking: clarity on the anticipated impact on the Northern Ireland block grant of the proposed National Insurance increase; confirmation that related budget increases will be unhypothecated; confirmation as to whether reported social care cost caps will apply in Northern Ireland; and clarity in respect of recent health-related budget allocations in England and the associated Barnett consequentials for Northern Ireland.

Agreed: The Committee also agreed to write to the Department seeking a list covering recent years of Barnett consequentials both hypothecated and non-hypothecated and a breakdown of how the unhypothecated spending was ultimately allocated.

Mr Jim Wells joined the meeting at 2:10pm

3.2 Spending Review

The Chairperson highlighted press reports that have indicated that the outcome of the Spending Review including a reported 5% cut for Westminster departments and an anticipated multi-year budget may be known by the end of October.  The Chairperson reminded the Committee that he had already written to the Minister seeking confirmation on the key timelines and that a related briefing from Research and Information Service (RaISe) has been scheduled for later in the autumn.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to write to the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council and ask it to produce a timely report on the Spending Review outcome and to share the findings at a public Committee meeting – which might inform a related Committee motion and plenary debate.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to give further consideration to a pre-brief from RaISe and/or other external bodies on the Spending Review, should its forward work programme allow.

3.3    Climate Change (No.2) Bill

The Chairperson reminded Members that the call for evidence for the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs-sponsored Climate Change (No.2) Bill is underway.  The Chairperson advised that the Bill sets out a carbon budgeting system and indicates that there will be associated significant capital investment costs for Northern Ireland departments, industry and the agriculture sector, and that staffing pressures will arise for the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS).

Agreed: The Committee agreed to write to the Department to ask it to set out what it expects the associated costs and staffing pressures might be and if this will be included in the Executive’s anticipated multi-year budget.

3.4    Ring-fenced DfE Underspend

The Chairperson reminded Members that, as part of the 2020-21 outturn (and June monitoring round) statement, the Minister had indicated that there was a ring-fenced DEL underspend of £401.9m which was linked to student loan impairment at the Department for the Economy (DfE). Officials had subsequently advised the Committee that the quantum of relevant underspend had been notified to the Department on 28 January 2021 and yet a different figure (£133m) had been reported in monthly outturn information considered by the Committee in April 2021.

Agreed: TheCommittee agreed to write to the Department and seek an explanation as to why its information to the Committee in respect of this substantial underspend was considerably inaccurate when information to the contrary was clearly available.

3.5 New Technology Strategy

The Chairperson advised the Committee that, in Written Answers AQW 21062/17-22, the Department has indicated that it is to develop a strategy to determine how best new technology, such as Artificial Intelligence and Robotic Process Automation, can support the NICS and the delivery of public services.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to write to the Department seeking further details on the scope of this policy and the timeline for its production.

3.6    Tax Varying Powers

The Chairperson advised the Committee of a recent presentation by Paul Johnson, in respect of key considerations relating to the devolution of tax varying powers to Northern Ireland.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to write to Paul Johnson and seek sight of his presentation on the devolution of tax-varying powers.

4.      Draft Minutes

Agreed: The Committee agreed the minutes of the meeting held on Wednesday 1 September 2021.

5.      Matters Arising

There were no matters arising.

6.      Research and Information Service (RaISe) Presentation: Defamation Bill

The Research Officer joined the meeting at 2.15pm.

-          Raymond McCaffrey, Research Officer, RaISe.

The Committee noted a research paper.

The Chairperson thanked the Research Officer for his presentation.

7.      Mr Mike Nesbitt MLA: Defamation Bill

The Sponsor of the Private Members Bill: Defamation Bill joined the meeting at 2.51pm.

-          Mr Mike Nesbitt MLA.

The Committee noted the report by Dr (now Professor) Andrew Scott ‘Reform of Defamation Law in Northern Ireland’.

Mr Pat Catney left the meeting at 3:19pm and delegated authority to vote on his behalf to Mr Matthew O’Toole under Temporary Standing Order 115(6).

The Chairperson thanked Mr Nesbitt for his briefing.

The Committee noted that in the event of the Bill moving to Committee Stage, Standing Orders were unlikely to be revised in time in order to allow the Sponsor’s participation as an “ex-officio” Member of the Finance Committee.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to write to the Minister in order to seek his views on the Defamation Bill.

Members expressed differing views on the Defamation Bill.

Agreed: The Committee agreed that the Chairperson could speak at the Second Stage debate on behalf of the Committee in order to acknowledge this and to recognise that the Committee had received an overview briefing of the Bill from its Sponsor.

8.      Correspondence

8.1    The Committee noted an index of incoming correspondence.

8.2    The Committee considered correspondence between the House of Lords Sub-Committee on the NI Protocol and Her Majesty’s Treasury (HMT) The Sub-Committee sought clarity on the impact on Northern Ireland businesses and an explanation of the engagement with the Executive in respect of EU regulation 2021/414 which pertains to electronic systems for the exchange and storage of import/export information. HMT indicated that the Trader Support Service is to advise Northern Ireland businesses accordingly and that changes may follow UK Government discussions with the EU on the Protocol.

The Chairperson advised Members of informal feedback from Northern Ireland businesses in respect of interfacing issues between EU and HMRC information systems.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to write to The Executive Office (TEO), copying in the Minister of Finance and chairpersons of statutory committees, seeking to ascertain the reason for the absence of commentary from departments on EU Regulation 2021/414; to ask TEO to set out the scrutiny process for any future EU regulations; and to suggest that relevant statutory committees be kept advised.

8.3    The Committee considered a copy of the Department’s report to the Equality Commission on the Department for Finance equality scheme and Section 75 duties in 2020-21.

Mr Allister and Mr Wells expressed reservations in respect of the continuing use of the Stonewall Index by the Department despite its discontinuation in other jurisdictions of the UK.

Mr O’Toole and Mr McHugh expressed their support for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ and other minorities in employment opportunities in the NICS.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to note the report pending the briefing on 3 November 2021 by NICS HR, to which the new Head of the NICS will also be invited.

8.4    The Committee considered correspondence from the Department seeking the Committee’s views as part of its review of its equality scheme.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to write to the Department asking it to forward the findings of its review, at which time the Committee will consider its response.

8.5    The Committee considered Departmental correspondence which included the Special Advisor Annual Report.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to write to the Department to seek an explanation as to why average salaries fell but salary costs increased from 2016-17 to 2020-21.

8.6    The Committee considered a response from the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) on the Department’s decision to not apply hard-charging for departments in respect of the office estate.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to write to the Minister and seek his views on his Department’s apparent decision to backtrack on previous commitments made to the NIAO.

8.7    The Committee noted the latest Investing Activity Report.

8.8    The Committee considered a Departmental response regarding the extent of partial retirement in the NICS.

Mr Wells declared an interest as the Chairperson of the Trustees of the Northern Ireland Assembly Members’ Pension Scheme.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to write again to the Department seeking an explanation of the number of staff in reshaped jobs (1,529) and the number of partial retirees (2,029).

8.9    The Committee considered restricted Ministerial correspondence providing an update on the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) disciplinary process.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to note the correspondence pending the closed session briefing with the interim Permanent Secretary on 29 September 2021.

8.10 The Committee considered the composite information request.

Agreed: The Committee agreed that the composite request was an accurate and complete record of the Committee’s outstanding information requests. 

9.      Forward Work Programme

The Committee considered a draft of its forward work programme.

The Committee noted that the Department has laid a Legislative Consent Motion (LCM) relating to the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill. The Committee noted that oral evidence sessions from the Department; Assembly Research and public sector unions are scheduled for 22 September 2021.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to publish the relevant LCM papers on the Committee’s webpage.

The Committee noted that responses to the call for evidence for the Committee Stage of the Financial Reporting (Departments and Public Bodies) Bill can be viewed by Members on Sharepoint.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to share the responses to the call for evidence for the Financial Reporting (Departments and Public Bodies) Bill with the Department and to publish them on the Committee’s webpage.

Agreed: The Committee agreed its forward work programme.

10.  Any Other Business

There was no other business.

11.  Date, Time and Place of the Next Meeting

The next meeting of the Committee for Finance will be at 2pm on Wednesday 15 September 2021 in the Senate and on Starleaf.

The meeting was adjourned at 4.16pm.

Dr Steve Aiken MLA
Chairperson, Committee for Finance
15 September 2021

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